I read The Scar several years before tackling Perdido Street Station, and although I enjoyed it immensely, I always felt I was missing something essential about the series by starting with the second volume. Not that it’s necessary to read the books in order, but clearly it helps. When I finally got around to the first volume in the trilogy, I realized almost immediately upon beginning it why I should’ve read them in order: because, no matter how far they get away from it geographically, the heart of these books has always been the port city of New Crobuzon, a kind of magically-poisoned Victorian London. In Perdido Street Station this great city is front and center, and it’s an unrivaled destination in the history of fantastic literary metropolises.
In New Crobuzon life is hell even before the monsters which serve as the central antagonists arrive there. Unlike with most fantasy series, magic (or thaumaturgy as it’s called here) is not something awe-inducing and esoteric but rather just another natural resource to be exploited by the greedy and powerful, and it’s uses (and misuses) lead to new complex and horrific social problems. Magic is often used hand-in-hand with the crude Industrial Age technology of New Crobuzon, creating weird physical/metaphysical amalgamations. For example, a part of the continent was once devastated by a kind of thaumaturgic atomic bomb, leaving the land mutated in unthinkable ways that leak into other planes of existence. And that’s just a minor background detail to this story, which deals with a plague of giant multidimensional moths accidentally set loose in the city that feed on the thoughts and dreams of sentient beings. Okay, plague is a bit of an exaggeration: there are only five of them, but that’s enough to bring the city to its knees. Trust me, these things are very bad news.
The central character of Perdido Street Station is Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an aging, overweight scientist. Isaac is approached early on by a garuda, a birdlike humanoid whose wings have been severed from his back by his tribe as a punishment for the vague crime of ‘choice-theft’, which turns out to be much worse than it sounds, incidentally. Every character of consequence in the story is broken or misshaped somehow, or will be by story’s end, and this keys into one of the book’s major themes: metastasis, upheaval, that point at which someone or something is in a state of in-betweenness or incompleteness. All of the major species of Bas-Lag are viewed through this filter of transitionality, including humans (khepri–the beetle-headed species Isaac’s girlfriend Lin belongs to–see humans as half-khepri, half-ape). Then there are the Remades, people who have been magically augmented with animal or machine parts or the parts of other sentient species. The psychivorous slake-moths and the Weavers, the latter a race of gigantic, intelligent but insane spiders, reside in multiple levels of reality and are constantly moving in and out of them. And, of course, New Crobuzon is a city consistently caught up in crisis.
Isaac’s life’s work is even about channeling something called crisis energy, which places Perdido Street Station in the realm of metafiction similar to the way The NeverEnding Story does, though not quite as overtly. For crisis energy is really the power of impossibility, the life juice of fantasy fiction itself, and by figuring out a way to tap into it (as he eventually does), Isaac is consciously engaging in the task of reinvigorating the very genre to which he is relegated.
Meanwhile, an artificial intelligence has spontaneously manifested in a scrapyard in the city, a gangster who has become the ultimate Remade haunts New Crobuzon’s underworld, and the monstrous slake-moths terrorize the entire city’s dreams. None of these horrors would be half as effective, though, if not for New Crobuzon’s devious and incompetent government officials, reminding us that even in the realms of fantasy the corruption, apathy and cruelty of government is inescapable, and that’s what grounds Miéville’s work and keeps it from becoming too alien. Despite their exoticness, the characters still deal with real-world problems on top of the strange and magical ones that arise.
The book was originally released in 2000–a transitional year, I might add–and it was nothing short of groundbreaking. While the sheer number of ideas stuffed into the book threaten to push it into overkill territory, somehow Miéville manages to make all of it work as a sort of salmagundi of the fantastic. And like all great works of urban fantasy, Perdido Street Station takes the reader on a grand tour of its city, including the titular station itself, but the setting rarely becomes obtrusive. And when it does, the cleverness behind it renders all such breaches forgivable. In fact, even at those points when the book doesn’t manage to make suspension of disbelief effortless (and there are a few of them), the cognitive estrangement that arises can be treated as a guideline of what is possible within the fantasy genre. In that sense it should be regarded as required reading by anyone who wishes to write fantasy fiction, especially dark fantasy. But really anyone who is interested in the literature of the fantastic must read this novel. I promise you won’t regret it.
And just for the hell of it, here’s my take on the slake-moths. This is actually my second version of the moths, as the first had some deviations from the way the creatures were described in the book. I liked this one better in the end. It’s a bird’s-eye view of the moth with the smoke-laden skies of the city provided as a vague backdrop. The wings of the moths are described as multidimensional and ever-changing, and the moths use them as a tool to mesmerize their victims. This was all rendered in Photoshop.