the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

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China Miéville is one of the brainiest authors writing today. With a background in sociolinguistics, Miéville describes his latest book, Embassytown, as being about “language and subspace and lots of classic science fictional stuff.”

“For me,” he continues, “the book is not so much about actually existing linguistics necessarily so much as it is to do with a certain kind of more abstract . . . philosophy of language of symbols, and of semiotics, and indeed some of this crosses over into theological debates.”

But no need to worry about symbols and semiotics just yet because before there was Embassytown, there was Perdido Street Station.

Published in 2000, Perdido Street Station earned China a place within the science fiction writing community. He was nominated for the both the Nebula and Hugo Award, respectably losing out to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (because really, who can compete with that?). He is a two-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award: first for Perdido Street in 2001 and then again in 2010 for his novel The City & The City.

The first of his novels set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag, specifically the large city-state of New Crobuzon, Perdido Street Station is an experiment in alternate world cosmopolitanism. It’s a place where humans, mythical birds, and half-bugs mingle.

The story opens with the rogue scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin waking up next to his khepri girlfriend, Lin, an artist who fled her provincial upbringing for city life. Those familiar with Egyptian mythology will know that the name Khepri comes from the god who had a scarab body for a face. In Miéville’s story, the female khepri have human bodies, tinted a shade of red, and, like their namesake, a scarab for a head. Unable to communicate vocally with humans, they’ve created a form of sign language using their “head legs”.

The multi-species community brings to mind the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s with its tenuous interactions and irrational prejudices. The various races live amongst each other on different socioeconomic levels and interracial dating is taboo; if Isaac wants to retain his laboratory privileges provided to him by the university, he must keep his relationship with Lin a secret.

While the relationship between Lin and Isaac provides an interesting lens through which to view life in Bas-Lag, it’s the arrival of Yagharek, a garuda, the mythical bird mentioned above, that provides the catalyst. Yagharek comes to Isaac looking for help. As punishment for a transgression against his people, his wings had been sawed off, leaving him deformed and flightless. He asks Isaac to make him a new set—not just for show but for function as well.

While researching flying animals and insects, Isaac obtains a caterpillar on the black market. He allows it to grow, feeds it the only thing it will eat—a powerful drug flooding the streets of New Crobuzon—and takes no heed as the mysterious bug spins its cocoon. What hatches is a slake-moth, a deadly insect that exists multi-dimensionally and has no known predator.

Breaking free from its inadequate cage, the moth rescues four of its brethren from high-security captivity. Institutionalized corruption and unlikely alliances surface as the various organizations with varied interests in the moths go on the hunt.

Perdido Street Station’s strength is its rich detail. Powerful descriptions of the city and those of the often grotesque creatures living within its borders, envelope the reader in a world existing outside of anything previously imagined. It’s not a quick read, nor is it easy, but that is Miéville’s niche: the savored read. China Miéville’s sophisticated writing style puts him at the forefront of science fiction today and has given Perdido Street Station an enduring place within the canon.

::[Links]::
Buy Perdido Street Station, or find one at your local store, at IndieBound
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (audio)
Geek’s Guide Interview transcribed at Lightspeed Magazine (text)
Guardian Interview: The Books that Made Me (audio)
Book Lust with Nancy Pearl (video)
3:AM Magazine Interview (text)
Excerpt of Perdido Street Station at NPR
Profile in The New York Times (for 2010 release of Kraken)

::[Other books by China Miéville]::
King Rat (2000)
“Obviously music was a big influence on King Rat. It was written during the high point of Drum n’ Bass. That was what I was listening to at that point. King Rat is above all a London novel but coming close behind it is also a music novel. The other two novels haven’t been quite like that. I write to music but music doesn’t saturate the book in the same way. To that extent King Rat was relatively anomalous. When a new music comes along that moves me in the same way that drum n’ bass did then I’m sure it’ll find it’s way into the writing.” [via 3:AM Magazine interview]

“Something is stirring in London’s dark, stamping out its territory in brickdust and blood. Something has murdered Saul Garamond’s father, and left Saul to pay for the crime.” [via IndieBound]

The Scar (2002)
The second novel set in the Bas-Lag world, is a maritime story set off the coast of where New Crobuzon is and it’s basically a pirate story. It’s about a big floating pirate city made of ships lashed together. People get caught by pirates and it goes from there. Again, it comes from my childhood reading and the trick with modern pulp and with anything good is to be respectful and true to the roots and to do something in that tradition and do it as well as you can. I don’t like post-modern nudges and winks. I’m not big on irony. So it’s not like I’m ironically winking at a fantasy tradition of pirates. This is a pirate book. Hopefully it’s also an interesting creative novel and one you can read on other levels but it is also a pirate book.” [via 3:AM Magazine interview]

“Aboard a vast seafaring vessel, a band of prisoners and slaves, their bodies remade into grotesque biological oddities, is being transported to the fledgling colony of New Crobuzon. But the journey is not theirs alone. They are joined by a handful of travelers, each with a reason for fleeing the city. Among them is Bellis Coldwine, a renowned linguist whose services as an interpreter grant her passage—and escape from horrific punishment. For she is linked to Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, the brilliant renegade scientist who has unwittingly unleashed a nightmare upon New Crobuzon.” [via IndieBound]

Iron Council (2005)
“It is a time of wars and revolutions, conflict and intrigue. New Crobuzon is being ripped apart from without and within. War with the shadowy city-state of Tesh and rioting on the streets at home are pushing the teeming city to the brink. A mysterious masked figure spurs strange rebellion, while treachery and violence incubate in unexpected places.

In desperation, a small group of renegades escapes from the city and crosses strange and alien continents in the search for a lost hope.” [IndieBound]

Un Dun Lun (2007)
“[W]ith “Un Lun Dun” — a sooty, street-smart hybrid of “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Phantom Tollbooth” — Miéville’s talents have been brought into focus under the restrictions of the form. “Un Lun Dun” is not only sleek of line and endlessly (but not needlessly) inventive, it also offers a nimble, undidactic antidote to all the dubious clichés of the genre. Sick of seemingly insignificant characters who discover they have a secret identity and a momentous destiny? Tired of stories that hinge on cryptic prophecies and the retrieval of magical talismans? Miéville dares to insist that nerve, heart and determination is all a hero(ine) really needs.” [via Salon]

The City & The City (2009)
“The City and the City is very different. It takes place in our familiar world, a post-Soviet locale which draws on string theory for its ideas and conventional experience for its story. Apart from one exceptional detail, this book could be a clever mystery story told from the point of view of a Balkan policeman struggling to cope with the problems of a society burdened by traditions and attitudes from its recent authoritarian past. Featureless concrete, rattling trams and antiquated office equipment invoke Greene’s The Third Man and Vienna’s zones of occupation. You can almost hear a zither twanging somewhere in an echoing sewer.” [via Michael Moorcock review]

Kraken (2010)
“Kraken’s whirlpool of a plot zeros in on Billy Harrow, a young scientist at London’s Natural History Museum who recently embalmed the institution’s latest acquisition, a giant squid. When the squid vanishes, Billy gets sucked into a teeming, paranormal London underworld—reminiscent in some ways of Miéville’s bestselling young-adult novel,Un Lun Dun—that’s crisscrossed by magic constables; foppish Nazis; a pair of monstrous, father-and-child assassins; animal mediums on strike; an origamist who uses math to fold solid matter; and a cult of squid-worshippers whose apocalypse is on the fast track now that their deity is missing. Due to his contact with the creature, the cult considers Billy a prophet, and before long, he’s caught in a larger battle involving clashing eschatologies, reality written in squid ink, and even the personified sea itself.” [via the A.V. Club]

Embassytown (2011)
“Embassytown is a riveting trip through a monster-haunted subspace called the immer, and down into a tiny human ghetto called Embassytown on a planet called Areika, whose alien inhabitants cannot understand any language but their own. . . . If you are fascinated by stories of genuinely alien cultures, you need to read Embassytown (it comes out in May). And if you’re a fan of China Miéville, author of The City & The City andKraken, you’re in for a treat: This is his first pure science fiction novel.” [via i09]

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Written by Gabrielle

December 1, 2011 at 6:10 am

7 Responses

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  1. Perdido Street Station was my first Mieville, and although I struggled through it the first time, I went on to read as many Mieville’s as I could get my hands on. So far, Embassytown and The Scar are my favorites!

    Redhead

    December 1, 2011 at 7:41 am

    • I felt the same way. It was a tough one to get through but worth it and now I’m curious about his other books. I bought The Scar halfway through Perdido and have heard great things about Embassytown. He’s a great writer … can’t wait to see how he progresses.

      Gabrielle

      December 1, 2011 at 8:50 am

  2. PSS is only a challenge in its first chapters: the opening with Yagharek in quite a depressed funk is a lousy way to start a book that is funny and clever.

    joelfinkle

    December 2, 2011 at 11:41 am

  3. The City & The City was brilliant…

    Kraken, once I got past something that was explained to me by watching a video interview, was laugh out loud funny in places – I liked it a lot, too…

    ashley

    December 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    • The City & The City sounds really interesting.

      Gabrielle

      December 2, 2011 at 9:10 pm

  4. PSS is the first book I read by CM,,and the last. Trendy sounding titles do not make a good book and the praise this article gives the author is unconvincing.

    Gerald

    December 9, 2011 at 1:22 am

    • the reason why the praise might sound unconvincing is because while i think china is an incredible writer, i found a few flaws with this book–namely that it was about 100 pages too long. he himself mentions in an interview that this book is undisciplined. i think he’s an imaginative thinker and am willing to check out his other work. sometimes it takes a few tries for an author to get into a groove. i’m glad you think my reception is lukewarm, it would have been disingenuous of me to give it a total rave. personally, i feel he’s someone worth keeping an eye on and wanted to give him, and this book, some attention.

      Gabrielle

      December 9, 2011 at 6:41 am


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