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.