This is the second novel by China Miéville I've read. And, er, I was rather disparaging about the other one. I haven't re-read that review, but I believe I compared Miéville to Nathan Barley, ranted at length and then disappeared in a puff of disgust, accompanied by the Wicked Witch of the West's exit music.
Why, then, did I read Perdido Street Station? Partly, I think, because a friend recommended it and assured me it wasn't awful. And partly because I actually want to like China Miéville. I didn't hate Kraken with glee. I hated it with immense disappointment.
Fortunately, Perdido Street Station is a hundred times better than Kraken. It has more heart, more warmth, more energy. I certainly don't think (unlike Miéville himself, apparently) that it bears any favourable comparison to the rich, languorous work of Mervyn Peake in all its shadowy beauty, but then I don't think anything does. Peake's prose seems effortless, as if Gormenghast and its inhabitants simply spilled themselves slowly on to the page like dark, bittersweet treacle, but there are many moments in Perdido Street Station where Miéville's words are contrived and self-conscious. While I could certainly lose myself for long periods in this engaging, original fantasy, I was regularly brought back down to earth by the overwhelming sensation that Miéville was jumping up and down in front of me shouting "Look at me! Look at my imagination! Look at my writing! LOOK!"
Broadly speaking, Perdido Street Station tells the story of maverick scientist Isaac, his artist lover Lin, who has a scarab beetle instead of a head, and Isaac's attempts to restore the power of flight to Yagharek, a sort of bird-man from a far-off desert whose wings have been sawn off as punishment for some terrible, unspecified crime. During the course of his experiments on various flying creatures, Isaac acquires through nefarious means a strange caterpillar. With the hatching of the caterpillar comes the unleashing of a terrible, almost apocalyptic threat to New Crobuzon, the huge, corrupt, festering city-state in which the story is set, teeming with human, 'xenian' - and as it turns out, artificial - life.
I found, however, that I wasn't immensely bothered about the novel's plot. Indeed, I enjoyed it more when nothing much was happening. I derived far more pleasure from the long digressions into the steampunk squalor of New Crobuzon and its bizarre inhabitants than I did from the action-packed climax. It was, oddly, the action-adventure towards the end of the novel that I found drawn-out and tiresome, not the rambling scene-building and vivid, intricate descriptions and vignettes that mostly make up the first three or four hundred pages. The real star of this baroque fantasy show is neither plot nor character, but New Crobuzon itself. For all its foulness, its filth, its brutality and betrayals, its uniquely capitalist horrors, I wanted New Crobuzon itself, above all, to survive. I could have gone on reading about New Crobuzon, and its strange, diverse inhabitants from cactus-people to amphibious dockers to the horrific artificially 'Remade' underclass, forever. The glorious names of the suburbs and side-streets and stations, too, all help to build the vivid sense of place.
Unfortunately, the characters just aren't that appealing. Isaac, who likes to bandy around words like 'moolah' and 'capice', is an irritating mockney, and the scenes in which he and Lin meet with their bohemian friends just made me think of a bunch of pretentious Hoxtonites. Maybe this was deliberate on Miéville's part, but it certainly didn't make me empathise with the characters in any way, and it was here that I saw strong echoes of the self-conscious hipster posing of Kraken. It's possible that the author wants us to dislike the characters so that there is an element of surprise in learning that these are the people who will be forced to save the city from destruction, so that they can be shown to grow and change, but for me, this wasn't a strategy that succeeded. There are a hundred wonderful things about Perdido Street Station, but I think Miéville is best when he's at his most meanderingly descriptive and conceptual, rather than trying to deliver action-adventure or character-driven storylines.