Review: Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, You Had to Be There

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I fin­ished this book sev­er­al days ago but wait­ed to write the review. I wasn’t sure for a long time what I would say. I mean, I know I liked the sto­ry, the set up, the com­plex­i­ty, but there was also some­thing a lit­tle off putting but I wasn’t sure what that was. Then I broke down and looked at some of the oth­er reviews to see if any­one else had the same sense that I did. I was very pleased to note that I wasn’t the only one.

Like many of the oth­er peo­ple who reviewed this book, I will not get caught up in enu­mer­at­ing the plot points. It would sim­ply take too much time and it would nev­er real­ly con­vey the true sense of the book. It’s like the old say­ing, “You had to be there.”

Per­di­do Street Sta­tion is an enor­mous book in every way. Chi­na Mieville has writ­ten a book so lay­ered, and rich, and sen­su­al that I think that one of these days I may need to go back and reread it to get the full effect. The prose is love­ly and aged and yet not. The amal­ga­ma­tion of gen­res here, because I’m not sure I would call it steam­punk (but then again, I am not the expert), is well exe­cut­ed. A blend­ing of gen­res, in the way that Mieville has achieved, I imag­ine, is not some­thing eas­i­ly done, and I give him mad kudos for that. It works so well. PSS is fan­ta­sy and sci­ence fic­tion and dra­ma and romance and steam and some­thing unname­able all rolled into one. The effect is stun­ning.

Bas-Lag, the fic­tion­al world that Mieville cre­ates in PSS is so rich­ly and thor­ough­ly con­ceived that I will have clear pic­tures of the places and peo­ple who lived there for a long time to come. Mieville’s style of world build­ing is com­plete and con­crete with so much pres­ence you can almost smell the stink of it. New Crobu­zon, the city in which this sto­ry takes place is a dirty metrop­o­lis pop­u­lat­ed with many races (as in non-human) all with their own his­to­ries, cus­toms, affec­ta­tions, and phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Mieville does not pret­ty up any of the races either, by offer­ing ide­al­ized fan­tas­ti­cal elfin beings. He gives the read­er a view of each of his racial cre­ations, includ­ing humans, through the same bru­tal­ly hon­est eyes. No one is spared inspec­tion, no one is absolved of their own shame or glo­ry. And through the muck of each person’s weak­ness, beau­ty, and shame, Mieville has man­aged to weave an adven­ture, a mys­tery, bro­mance, romance, magical/science lore, and a quest.

I read every word of this book with a sense of writer­ly awe… and yet there was that off putting “thing”, for lack of a bet­ter word. But I do know the word, now, after giv­ing it a lot of thought.

VERBOSITY. Every read­er is as dif­fer­ent as every author, so I under­stand and appre­ci­ate Mieville’s style here. That said, I tend more towards crisp spare prose. I don’t need the author to guide me or con­vince me of how I should feel. I can make up my own mind. Just give me the bones, I’ll imag­ine the flesh on my own. In this tale, and con­sid­er­ing Mieville’s sto­ry telling style, I see the neces­si­ty to embell­ish and paint, so I can accept much of the wordi­ness. But not all. I would have pre­ferred to see this man­u­script pared down by at least 1/4.

There is also the ques­tion of the pro­fan­i­ty. Some peo­ple are okay with it. Some peo­ple even like it, think­ing it lends a real or raw qual­i­ty, I’d ven­ture to say. But me? I find it repel­lent. More than that, I find it not nec­es­sary. Even more than that, I find it shock­ing. Pro­fan­i­ty adds shock val­ue, caus­es the read­er to sit up, pay atten­tion, in my case cringe a lit­tle, rec­og­nize that some­thing big or deep or note­wor­thy is hap­pen­ing. In my esti­ma­tion pro­fan­i­ty is a device used to prop up weak prose. It is dis­tract­ing and lame. Mieville’s prose is absolute­ly breath­tak­ing, even in all of its ver­bose glo­ry, and total­ly DOES NOT require the mul­ti­ple help­ings of pro­fan­i­ty in order to keep a reader’s atten­tion. Not mine, in any case.

Mieville uses a lot of “big” words. I think I read in anoth­er review that it is almost as if he had a the­saurus on hand as he wrote this. That works for me. I like Mieville’s brave use of uncom­mon words. I don’t believe in dumb­ing down prose. I think its okay to ask the read­er to step up their game a lit­tle bit.

I vac­il­lat­ed about how many stars I want­ed to give PSS. For the craft­ing of unique, var­ied cul­tures and races, the inven­tive use and blend­ing of gen­res as well as lan­guage and style, and also for the cen­tral sto­ry I’d give PSS five stars any day of the week. But there is the mat­ter of the pro­fan­i­ty and ver­bosi­ty (edi­tor please!). All togeth­er I’m giv­ing PSS 3 stars.

I’d like­ly still read Mieville again. As a read­er I feel that Mieville did his job in ren­der­ing a com­pelling sto­ry. As a writer, I’ve learned tons from Mieville about writ­ing fear­less­ly and about giv­ing the imag­i­na­tion free­dom to crank out what it wills.

*****

Also post­ed on Goodreads.