Friday, August 1, 2014

Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street StationPerdido Street Station by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit to being a bit inured to the "new weird". In fact, I'd say the new weird . . . is getting old. Strangeness for the sake of strangeness has lost a bit of its luster. I've read, and written, plenty of fiction in this vein. That's not to say that it's atrophied in my mind - I still appreciate the bizarre, but some of it has become so self-referential as to be an inadvertent pastiche of itself. The same can be said of the "steampunk" ouvre. I've argued before that the entirety of the steampunk movement is all a bunch of window-dressing with little punk about it. Maybe I'm getting curmudgeonly in my middle age.

But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy great writing. And this is what we have here, a clear case of fantastic writing . . . to a point. There is too much of a good thing. Unlike many people I know, I like to be forced to reach for the dictionary once in a while. In fact, while reading short stories, I tend to prefer those stories that cause me to reach for the dictionary frequently. But I do sometimes grow tired of the overuse of the same uncommon word again and again.

Years ago, I had put together a short story that I was awfully proud of. I asked Jeff VanderMeer, my co-editor on the Leviathan 3 anthology, if he would indulge me and take a pass through the story. It was very early on in my writing career, really one of the first short stories I had ever completed. Jeff was gracious and took a look at it.

I've never seen so much red ink on a page. He might as well have painted it with a broad red brush. Jeff had hacked and slain "my baby," . . . and I am grateful for that, to this day. He did an incredibly thorough job of pointing out the problems with this story, and I used it as a sort of reference text for many years, showing what *not* to do in a short story.

Needless to say, this story has never seen publication.

One thing that stuck out to me, and that I clearly remember (that paper is buried in my personal archives somewhere now), was Jeff's increasing frustration with my use of the word "myriad," which I used . . . well, a myriad of times (not really, but you get the point). Finally, after having marked the appearance of this word (and it's sometimes-improper usage), he wrote "You have got to stop using that word!" And he was right.

China Mieville has much the same problem in Perdido Street Station. Frankly, his fascination with the word "furtive" got in the way of the story. After the first few times, I found myself actually stopping reading whenever I ran into the word. It would cause me to pause and reread the sentence. It grew in my head, unwanted, till I felt it would explode out of my frontal lobe. I found myself hating that word, and several others like it that were misused or downright abused throughout the text. I swear, if I might just cry the next time I read that word.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I can move on . . . I think . . .

Perdido Street Station has as much weird as you'll ever need in a book. There are strange, alien creatures, sentient constructs programmed through the use of punch cards, and humans who have been forcibly reconstructed, or "remade" into bizarre agglomerations of human and animal body parts. The technology of the society is based on the harnessing of steam and thaumaturgic energies, and has a decidedly Victorian "feel" to it.

But as I have argued in the article linked above, there really is nothing "punk" about "steampunk" in it's most popular incarnations today. At least I had not seen much in the way of what *I* consider punk (you can beg to differ - in fact, that would be very "punk" of you) in the steampunk movement, outside of aesthetic considerations and trappings.

Until now.

Yes, Perdido Street Station is rife with the nihilistic attitudes that so many people associate with "being punk". But that's not punk to me, or at least that's not the sum total of punk. To me, punk is anarchic, transgressive, smart, witty, and has a strong bent for "making do" with what's at hand. It was a movement that started primarily among the poor before it was co-opted by society at large. It's not about pink mohawks or leather or sneering Billy Idol wannabes. It's about an attitude.

And this book has attitude.

Say what you will about the mildly convoluted plot, the gratuitous use of Deus ex Machina, the absolutely un-necessary introduction of such un-needed elements as the Handlingers, and multiple infodumps (some of which were, it must be admitted, cleverly-disguised and introduced). Yes, the novel has problems. But despite all that, I have to say that this is the most "punk" of the supposed "steampunk" novels, stories, video-games, and movies, that I've encountered.

The street-level political, nay, anarchical sentiment and actions that set the city of New Crobuzon into chaotic motion, are clearly "punk" in their nature. The transgressive relationship between Isaac and Lin is effective in causing the reader to question, almost from the beginning, the prejudices which exist in each of their own cultures, but which they have left behind. The DIY science by which Isaac discovers the secrets of "Crisis energy," smacks of hard science being done on the back cover of a punk zine. In total, this novel is the first that I've encountered that gives due respect to these truly "punk" notions and attitudes.

And though there are several ways to try to encapsulate what Perdido Street Station *is*, I'd argue that one of the more compelling interpretations of the book is that it is, more than anything else, a Baedeker of the city of New Crobuzon, or, possibly, a Baedeker of China Mieville's brain. In this book, the city itself is a character whose moods and whims affect the characters who live within it. Though they can affect the city in some limited ways, ultimately the city contains them, constrains them, and influences their actions. They can fight against the city, but there are always repercussions for doing so. The characters' environment does not fully form them, but it does inform them.

This is why I rate the book, with all it's warts and scars, as highly as I do. Mieville's imagination is a force to be reckoned with. His political convictions and intellectual strength seep through the work (particularly when he is channeling Hofstadter or making a sidelon homage to Foucault, by naming the mayor "Bentham"). But this cleverness seems perfectly natural, rather than a pretentious showing off. Perdido Street Station is not as pretentious as its more "literary" cousins, but it is witty, in a veiled sort of way. A truly . . . punk sort of way.

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  1. Good book. I haven't read any China Miéville since Kraken. Thanks for reviewing. Need to pick his stuff up again but there is sooo much good stuff out there.

  2. I agree with all of this. Throw zombies on your pyre of tired concepts as well. The steampunk observation is dead on. It takes more than buckles and gears to turn a pedestrian story into something interesting. Unless the pedestrian is steam-powered and tears a lot of people's heads off in its quest for identity.