The next nomination comes from Jared Shurin, one of the editors of the amazing genre blog Pornokitsch.
“I have no prejudices against taking art seriously, and don’t forget that I started this conversation. The key words to bear in mind when thinking how to answer my question are ‘themes’, ‘technique’ and ‘aesthetics’.”
This is how Motley, a crime lord and patron of the arts, instructs the avant-garde sculptor Lin at the start of Perdido Street Station. Lin, a rebellious Khepri (bug-person) artist, is attempting to win a commission that will see her in comfort for years. Motley, as the reader soon learns, is a man of demanding tastes.
Like the fictional station that gives the book its name, there are seemingly thousands of approaches to Perdido Street Station. Ultimately, that is the book’s primary reason for greatness—it has something for everyone, while still remaining uniquely itself.
For the sake of simplicity (relatively speaking), I’ll use Mr. Motley’s own method: themes, technique and aesthetics.
Perdido Street Station (2000), to paraphrase Walt Whitman, “contains multitudes”, but, at the outset, at least, it follows two protagonists: Isaac, a fringe scientist, and Lin, an outcast artist. The two are set on parallel quests, both seemingly impossible—Isaac to harness the power of flight, Lin to create a sculpture that captures the essence of a chimeric being.
The book is so fragmented and complex that it is perhaps best described by comparing it to the city it contains: “There was an infinity of holes in New Crobuzon. There were far more hiding places than there were people to hide” (823). Perdido Street Station contains an infinity of characters, of concepts, of places and ideas and textual nooks and crannies.
There are two lessons from this. First, no one reader (or reading) could ever find them all—speaking from experience, this is a book that reveals something new upon every reading. This is a test of greatness in and of itself.
And the second message, and arguably the major theme of Perdido Street Station, is how this horde of seemingly unrelated things all builds into a singular entity. Just as New Crobuzon is made out of its hundreds of discrete neighborhoods and thousands upon thousands of individuals, the book is similarly constructed. As Lin says of the city: “What chaos! Tells you nothing, contradicts itself, changes its story” (21). So too must Perdido Street Station be considered—the book is an attempt to encompass the entirety of a single story, from all its perspectives, angles, causes and effects.
The tension between unity and individuality recurs in all aspects of the book: individuals becoming a society, neighborhoods becoming a city, and points of view becoming a story. The characters struggle with this as well. Lovers weigh up their shared future against their own needs, the Mayor weighs his political ambitions against the city’s needs, and Isaac and Lin are forced to balance their own dreams against the havoc that they cause.
Like the best in genre fiction (and, more broadly, all fiction), there’s no absolute measure of success—no arbitrary triumph of Good over Evil. This isn’t to say that the reader can’t choose a side (we’re encouraged to cheer heartily for Isaac and Lin’s heroics), but, throughout, we learn that there’s no victory without having to consider the consequences.
If all the above sounds somewhat abstract and, er, academic, rest assured—it isn’t. Perdido Street Station is absolutely and recognizably a fantasy novel—with all the expectations and familiarity thereof.
Essentially, Isaac and Lin are trying to accomplish their missions, but, as difficult as their initial tasks seem, fulfilling them is somehow even harder. Isaac and Lin are the proverbial butterflies, and their work sets in motion a great chain of events that threatens to destroy the vast city in which they live. Nightmare creatures soon prowl the skies, revolution brews, and the many factions of New Crobuzon all creep forth with war in mind. Robots, demons, wizards, adventures, mobsters, revolutionaries, scholars, and creatures that simply can’t be catalogued… all battling to control the fate of the greatest city in Bas-Lag.
Miéville doesn’t shy away from the sticky questions—the characters have conversations about morality, judgment, and their great place in the universe—but everything is couched within the context of the adventure. We can sympathize with and participate in the debates because we’ve seen everything unfold. Perdido Street Station, like most fantasies, eventually builds to a series of critical moments, in which the heroes are tested not on their knowledge or strength, but on whether or not they do the right thing. Unlike other fantasies, however, Perdido also invites the reader to examine the very notion of rightness. Just as the characters are haunted by their decisions, so are we.
Also, brain-eating moths.
Here’s where things get really fun—if Perdido Street Station has one weakness in the discussion of “greatness”, it is that is inimitable. Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Conan—all have been cloned time and time again, and, in some cases, the imitations challenge the originals in terms of quality and entertainment. And certainly there have been attempts at Miévillian prose—arguably the entire “New Weird” is just that—but if time has proven one thing, it is that China Miéville is a sub-genre in and of himself.
Perdido Street Station encompasses all things (seeing a theme here?). The twisted streets and shadowed alleys of New Crobuzon hold all the dark magic, gritty mystery and romance (supernatural, interspecies romance!) of urban fantasy. The airships, trains, and Victorian neighborhoods are retrofuturism, and, like the best of steampunk, Perdido also tackles discussions of both class and imperialism. Epic fantasy rears its helmeted head: one of the best twists in the book comes when a traditional D&D adventuring party comes stomping through, magic weapons and all. A touch of humorous fantasy—a la Pratchett or Douglas Adams—can be found as well; if you read Perdido as a comedy it is easy to spot badger familiars, drunken fish-people, and a lengthy discussion with the Ambassador of Hell that’s laugh-out-loud funny.
Perdido even has science fictional elements—Isaac’s storyline is focused on the discovery of new technology and the repercussions that stem from his work. It is no wonder that among its many honors, Perdido Street Station also won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel of its year.
Like the city, like the story, like the very themes of the book—every one of these aesthetics can be appreciated on its own, but the true majesty of Perdido comes from seeing it as a whole: a book written in a precarious, stupefying, wondrous and staggering style that is uniquely its own.
“How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveller? It is too late to flee.”
There are great books—books that are, indeed, very good. Themes. Characters. Emotional impact. You find them several times a year, and perhaps more frequently than that. And there are great books—books that loom over the landscape, dominate it, define it. Perdido Street Station is one of the latter. It isn’t a Great Fantasy Novel, it is a Great Novel, full stop.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!