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 the genre created by such pioneering stalwarts as the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien (‘The Lord of the Rings’) and his Irish friend and contemporary, C.S. Lewis (the ‘Narnia’ series). Styled as the ‘New Weird’, a small generation of authors have deliberately set out to subvert 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 UK novelist China Miéville who has brought an edgier punk feel to his writing, one informed by left-wing politics and European-style liberalism. His most successful, and influential work so far, has been ‘Perdido Street Station’ published to critical acclaim in 2000.
Taking place in an initially typical fantasy setting, the far away and mysterious world of Bas-Lag, the dank and sultry city of New Crobuzon is at the centre of the book, as much ‘Steampunk’ as ‘New Weird’. It is as 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 a myriad of strange races and automata, with a nominally democratic but actually quite tyrannical 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. Around them all sorts of preternatural technologies, sorceries and politics interact and play, holding the whole rotting edifice together.
The plot is complex and multi-layered with a mysterious being 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. Even the most alien of characters, and there are many, are given a real sense of identity with 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 easy familiarity: we can feel the muggy oppressive heat of the city, the mixed smells of its many districts, the competing sounds of languages and voices, 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.