I said in my review of The City and the City that I'd be seeking out more of China Miéville's work, and I finally got around to doing so. I'd heard a lot about Perdido Street Station, so it seemed the obvious next step.
After I got a dozen or so chapters in and realized there were still some 40 chapters left, I nearly gave up on the book. This is because the novel's world and its characters are aggressively unpleasant. Miéville seems to be deliberately attempting to turn the reader away. He opens with a first-person description of his setting (the sprawling city-state of New Crobuzon on the planet Bas-Lag) from the perspective of someone who thinks of it as a filthy, awful hell - and it's hard to disagree! Miéville follows this up by switching over to third-person (the main perspective of the novel; only the short introductions to each major section are in first-person) and giving us a pretty disgusting introduction to our main character. We meet rogue scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin (I know) lying naked and fat in bed and picking bugs off himself. His girlfriend, Lin, is an artist who has a normal human body, but a head that is a giant beetle. She's a member of one of a number of alien species in the book, the khepri. She and Isaac eat a gross breakfast and have gross sex and Isaac reiterates his despicable desire to keep their relationship secret and just ugh.
But! I'm here to tell you, it does get better, though it takes quite a while. Part of the problem is that the story doesn't take on its shape and the plot doesn't start driving forward until quite a ways into the book. The perspective just wanders about and you meet various people and learn various odd details about New Crobuzon. Miéville's world is big and complicated, with steampunk technology and various schools of magic, or thaumaturgy, and he takes his time introducing you to its ins and outs. Some of the ideas he throws in (like the Torque) apparently just because he thinks they're cool, as they don't end up having anything to do with the story.
Eventually Isaac meets Yagharek who, besides being the first-person narrator from the beginning of the novel, is a wingless birdman from a race called the garuda. He wants his flight back, and commissions Isaac to give it to him. Isaac takes on the job, and eventually realizes he can tie it in with the subject he's most passionate about: crisis energy. It's Isaac's research into flight, and his not entirely legal requisition of various flying animals and insects as subjects for study, that finally kicks off the real action of the book. And it wasn't really until then - when the first Slake-Moth finally appeared - that I became really interested in the book. (And even then I didn't feel fully committed to finishing it until the scene where we meet the Ambassador of Hell. Because that scene is amazing.)
Miéville's thematic preoccupations are well stated by one of his own characters, the monstrous crime lord Mr. Motley. Motley, besides being a brutal drug dealer, is also an art lover, and commissions a sculpture from Lin. His interest, he tells her, is in nexus; the meeting points of opposites; borders and liminal spaces. He himself is such a thing: a hideous collection of eyes and mouths and appendages, as if a pile of creatures had been smashed together into one. And the great train station that sits at the center of New Crobuzon, and that gives the book its title, is another such thing: the meeting place of all the rail lines in the city, the way to all ways, the beating heart of everything. Many of our main characters also embody the meeting of opposites - living paradoxes. A flying man who cannot fly, banished by his own people. A beetle that is a woman, who rejects her own culture and people, who uses traditional art styles to create non-traditional works. Later we meet Constructed Intelligence, dead tools that somehow think and live - the undead, the living non-living. The Slake-Moths are the meeting of beauty and terror, of dream and waking, monsters that eat dreams and shit nightmares. And then there's crisis energy itself, sustained by paradox, by almost-not-being, by truths that are false.
Miéville had similar preoccupations in The City and the City, but here he delves into them in more detail. As it happens, I'm fascinated by the same themes, and Perdido Street Station is packed full of other interesting ideas and weird, fascinating creations. Miéville builds a big, bold, hideous world which, though ugly, ends up being pretty hard to look away from. It helps that the story he tells, once he finally gets around to telling it, is a thrilling one, and that his main characters grow and change and become more sympathetic as we get to know them better.
It looks like this is only the first book set on the planet of Bas-Lag, so I'll have to seek out the others eventually. I'm not done with Miéville yet.