China Mieville’s newest book actually came out a couple months ago, but I’ve been saving it for the long flight I’ve got to take next week. So in the meantime I’ll just do a little review of the book that turned me on to his writing in the first place: Perdido Street Station.
I’ll say right from the get-go that I don’t feel this is a steampunk story, though I’ve heard a few people call it that. Steampunk tends to cover a pretty wide range, so I get why people lump Perdido in there. But I think its only steampunk element is that it takes place in an extremely high-tech world that never got further than the steam engine. Instead of planes, you have dirigibles. Instead of robots, you have steam-powered “constructs” clanking past with coal-burning boilers inside. There’s plenty of clockwork and trains and “computers” that are programmed with levers and punch-cards, but that’s where the steampunk element ends. There isn’t much of a Victorian feel to anything, there’s an almost modern industrial grittiness to the world, and the aliens all over the place detract from any steampunk vibes.
I should say “aliens and magical creatures” since magic is very much present, but it’s always paired with a scientific element. Universities employ thaumaturgic professors, and the government has scientists who can summon demons with a “victimless sacrifice” machine; top-of-the line, the latest thing in aetherial amplifiers dontcha know.
The most disturbing element of thaumaturgy in these books has to be the Remade: criminals in New Crobuzon can always be tortured or killed or thrown into a cell for life, but there’s also a state-approved punishment system where they cut people apart and graft them to things. You can look down the street and see that some of the horse-and-carriages waiting in the taxi line are actually people who’ve been bonded, centaur-like, to wheeled constructs, or livestock, or other people. And it hurts, too.
The dark and gritty feel to the whole book is one of the reasons why I loved it, the other is all the off-hand details Mieville weaves into this world: soldiers who use khepri-clockwork “stingboxes” that make a taser look like a hand-buzzer; a vodyanoi bartender who makes magical watercraeft (like play-doh sculptures, except he just squashes water into shape); talking cactus-people who usually get jobs as bouncers and bodyguards; an underground religion that worships robot constructs who’ve gained sentience; I could go on forever. He’s always tossing in these otherworldly facts and images but in this casual way, because it’s all part of daily life in New Crobuzon.
The main plot of the book is that Isaac, a freelance back-alley scientist, accepts a commission to give a garuda back his wings. (The garuda had them sliced off as punishment for some unnamed crime, but Isaac isn’t too particular where his commissions are coming from.) In doing so, he accidentally unleashes a plague of creatures that has a good chance of destroying the entire city, and quite possibly the whole world if things get really out of hand. Along with that story, though, we get little sub-stories of betrayal, perverted romance, insane crimelords, sheer cowardice, and completely accidental heroism.
It’s most definitely not a happy story; Mieville is almost as good as George R.R. Martin for creating fascinating, likeable characters, and then killing them off without warning. Nobody is safe in these books. But it adds to the realism of an otherwise unreal setting.
I’m really looking forward to reading his new book Railsea, because if it’s even half as interesting as Perdidio Street Station, my five-hour plane ride’s not going to feel very long at all.