China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station
Over the last ten years there has been a conscious effort by some writers of Fantasy fiction to move away from the over-familiar and increasingly worn clichés of epic Fantasy created by genre greats like the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien (‘The Lord of the Rings’) or the Irish writer C.S. Lewis (the ‘Narnia’ series), and to venture into new forms of the field more suited to modern reality, with a contemporary urban feel to the most supernatural or imaginative of settings.
Nicknamed by some as the ‘New Weird’ wave a small generation of authors have emerged who have deliberately subverted the accepted conventions of Fantasy literature that some, particularly in the United States, still pursue. One of the leading examples of this new movement is the British writer China Miéville who has brought a darker, edgier punk feel to his writing informed by his left-wing politics and liberal beliefs. His most successful, and influential work so far, is ‘Perdido Street Station’ published to critical acclaim in 2000.
Set in an initially typical Fantasy setting, the far away and mysterious world of Bas-Lag, its urban background in the dank and sultry city of New Crobuzon gives it the evocative feel of the ‘Steampunk’ genre that has informed so much the ‘New Weird’ movement. The city itself is a much a character in the story as those who inhabit it, no mere backdrop but a sprawling ancient metropolis, a city-state undergoing the early stages of a semi-magical industrial revolution. It is inhabited by all sorts of strange races and minorities, creatures and automata, with a nominally democratic but actually tyrannical and harsh government whose laws are as cruel as some of those who break them. Throughout its rambling suburbs and decaying ghettos gangs and factions compete for power and influence, while around them all sorts of fantastic technologies, sorceries and politics interact and play, holding the whole rotting edifice together.
The plot is complex and multi-layered with a mysterious creature terrorizing New Crobuzon from the skies and rooftops above, sparking events that eventually lead to turmoil and violence in the streets below. However this is as much a tale of individuals and individual lives and emotions, the small and petty as well as of the great and grand, as it is of high and important events. Even the most alien of characters, and there are many, are given a real sense of identity with human emotions and motives that elicit genuine sympathy from the reader.
The writing is voluptuous and verbose as Miéville takes time to pay tribute to the city of his imagination in all its intricate and believable detail. We are a long way from Minas Tirith or Cair Paravel here. Everything is described with intimate familiarity: we can feel the muggy oppressive heat of the city, the intertwined smells and aromas of its many quarters, the competing sounds of the many languages and voices on its streets, and the feeling of eyes watching at all times for offence or transgression, while in the corners hidden things lurk or go about their own affairs.
New Crobuzon is one the great creations of literature, not just of Fantasy literature, and it is no surprise that China Miéville has returned to it several times since, albeit with mixed results. He remains a writer of incredible imagination and inventiveness, someone who thinks outside the genre boxes others so readily confine themselves too, and even when he does take up the stale clichés of the field it is with a new and imaginative hand.