Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Mieville

Don't miss out on other works by China Mieville:
The City & The City (2009) Book Review
Available works by China Mieville


Set in the hallucinatory city of New Crobuzon, on what may or may not be Earth, Perdido Street Station is the first work in China Mieville’s New Crobuzon series (2000-2004). A multi-layered meditation on hybridity and fluidity, the novel straddles the genres of sf, fantasy and horror in equal measure. A seminal work in the New Weird literary genre, Perdido Street Station also helped establish the sf subgenre of Steampunk. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (2001) and the British Fantasy Award (2001). 

The story follows university professor, turned-rogue-scientist, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin. Isaac specialises in exotic materials and the story starts when outer-city, eagle-like entity Yagharek, a garuda, who as punishment for a crime that is impossible to communicate has had his wings clipped, seeks his help. Isaac has also come into possession of a caterpillar which grows into a human sized slake-moth, an inter-dimensional vampiric creature that feeds off people’s subconsciousness, leaving its victims comatose. When he decides to liberate the slake-moths’ few kin, held captive by underworld crime boss Motley (a hybrid monstrosity of multiple species) and who has been harvesting them for the popular recreational drug known as Dreamshit, he unintentionally triggers an avian-like plague that causes people to drift in and out of fantasies. Drawing in the attention of the city’s authorities, Isaac and his motley crew of friends are caught in a race to safe themselves and stop the slake-moths from destroying New Crobuzon.

The grimy, bustling and violent city of New Crobuzon, powered by steam and coal and with a flair of 19th Century Victorian London, provides the backdrop to Mieville’s story. It is a rich, wondrous world of sentient floor-mops, militia patrolling the streets, brothels promising to fulfil every chimeric fantasy, and half-exhumed bones of long extinct, unknown creatures. Humans maintain an uneasy coexistence with a wide range of non-human species, collectively referred to as ‘xenians’, such as the vodyanoy, amphibian creatures who rule in the city’s rivers, and the cactus-like cactacae who have found shelter in a large greenhouse. Isaac himself maintains an amorous relationship with insect-like Lin, an almost impossible match, which despite the fact that it is frowned upon, not least by Lin’s species (kephri), is filled with tender loving and a willingness on both parts to overcome the anatomical constrains to a fulfilling physical relationship. It is also a world where creatures exist in extra-dimensional planes, such as the Hellkins daemons who straddle the realms of the living and the dead, and the rare spider-like Weavers who can access locales from afar. Although Mieville makes references to folds in space, he rarely employ scientific terms to describe New Crobuzon’s reality where thaumaturgy (magic) is considered a science.

Most of the action takes place in the city’s liminal spaces: hidden alleyways, railway tracks, backstreets, subterranean tunnels, rubbish heap mazes, sewage system conduits, submerged streets, or houses with burrowed inner rooms that do not correspond to the buildings’ facade. Issac is assisted by the thief and border-crossing specialist Lemuel Pigeon to guide him through the city’s subversive topography. By the same token, Miéville's characters live in the margins of society, either by choice or from social pressure, their identities fluid, their allegiances subject to sudden shifts.

The in-betweenness of the setting is mirrored by the hybridity of the city’s inhabitants, recalling much feminist sf such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenisis Trilogy (1987-1989) and Gwyneth Jones’ The Aleutian Trilogy (1991-1997). Hybridity defines Isaac and Lin’s relationship. It instructs the city’s justice system where criminals are punished by biological or mechanical alteration, creating a whole underclass of Remades. And it informs the physics of inter-dimensional beings such as the Weavers or Hellkins. Isaac seeks the help of one of the largest hybrids in the city, The Construct Council, a self-aware technological mega-construct made up of cast off engines and machine parts from the rubbish heap it inhabits.