This book is slimy. From the very beginning, you’ll be confronted by a city that is covered in a layer of filth, and infested with characters trying to wrest control of it for themselves. But much like a Mary Poppins-styled chimney sweep, there’s a lot of personality underneath all the dust and social criticism. All in all, the city in Perdido Street Station is like something Charles Dickens would dream up on a drug trip.
The world of Bas Lag is a cross between steam-punk and fantasy land, like a dungeons and dragons game placed during the industrial revolution. Though much darker. Between the frog like “Vodyanoi” and the insectoid “Khepri,” one can find the disturbing “Remade” – people whose bodies have been forcefully altered in a variety of ways. Worker uprisings are forcefully quelled. Shadowy government figures control the city with an iron fist. Social criticism underlies most of the novel, and oftentimes I found myself pulling certain lines as I felt they related to the world we know now. Strange, since Bas Lag is basically a mid-19th century London of sorts.
The main plot of the novel is somewhat easy to predict if you are a fan of monster movies. One of the two main characters is Isaac, a scientist of eclectic knowledge, who strives to connect social sciences, physical sciences, and “thaumaturgical” (I.E. Magic) science into one grand unified theory. He pays for his research by being a scientific mercenary of sorts, building, theorizing, and writing whatever is needed for whoever has the coin. His lover, Lin, is the other main character, a Khepri artist. Khepri are essentially red-skinned women (for male khepri are mindless bugs) with scarab-like heads. This surprisingly reflects the tone of the novel from the very beginning. Their love is honest, hidden, and visceral – with a splash of “gross” for the audience.
In some senses, this is perhaps the hardest of Mieville’s novels. There is (consider these trigger warnings) violence, body-horror, sex (sometimes mixed with body-horror), and rape. I would not call any of it gratuitous, however. Each instance or reference to these things is brutally honest, but not without some sense of awareness. This is a world in which everything is exploitable. From literal dreams and thoughts, to magically malleable bodies. It is not a safe world, but it is an enthralling one.
Mieville creates a history for this world that goes back centuries. Much of this history isn’t even spelled out clearly, but even the passing remarks give the feeling of a very full world. For instance, the “Ribs” are mentioned a handful of times throughout the story. Massive bones, jutting out of the old city. Attempts to dig them out are referenced, as are their eerie nature, but never much more than that.The world is full of intriguing details like that which give the sense of so much more lying beneath the surface of this story.
Mieville has seamlessly ties his own philosophical and mind-bending twist to dozens of genres, and if you have a penchant for one of them it may be best to start there. The City And The City is an excellent detective story, and Railsea is (technically) a wonderful pirate-y novel. And both are much more easy to digest than Perdido. But Perdido Street Station may last longer in your memories.
You’ll come away from this book feeling a bit dirtied by the world created by Mieville – and that’s part of why I love it. Perdido Street Station is the first book of Mieville’s that I ever read, but in hindsight it may have been the hardest to begin with. The most degrading, in a way. My love of science fiction and fantasy kept me enthralled in the horrifying world of Bas Lag, and the filthy, fantastic, and awesome city of New Crobuzon.