Book Review: Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville

Here is the thing about China Mieville: every time I go to review one of his books, the only coherent word that comes to mind is, well, ‘mindfuck.’ I’m sorry, y’all, but it’s the best way to describe Perdido Street Station and pretty much everything else he writes, which is why I keep reading his work, because, well, it’s kind of amazing. It just leaves my brain feeling like it was melted and then poured back into my skull, and some of the bits may have rearranged themselves in the process. Contrary to what you might think from that rather graphic description, it’s the best kind of feeling.

So, Perdido Street Station is set in a tangled city filled with slums, high-flying train tracks, sewers, and a huge variety of races from cactus people to humans to people with scarabs for heads. A scientist unwittingly releases a scourge and has to spend the rest of the book trying to get it into control, accompanied by a motley crew of individuals with their own bizarre skills and pasts; artists and crime lords and outcasts and self-aware constructs swirl in and out of the narrative as the city is gripped in fear. It’s a dark, ominous book that manages to be terrifying, delicious, and awesome all at once.

Like Mieville’s other work, Perdido Street Station is filled with lush, rich, graphic language that describes the intimate details of people and scenes, lingering gracefully over the world of the book and creating a vivid and imaginative picture. Even if we only meet someone or see something for a moment, the text takes the time to introduce us properly, creating a deeper sense of connection with the world. The result is highly immersive; whenever I stop reading one of his books partway through (for petty activities like eating, sleeping, or working), I always feel like I am emerging from anesthesia or returning from a long trip away, and the same held true here.

Mieville is rightly praised for his work and tapped as being among the hot new generation of speculative fiction authors; his worldbuilding is impeccable but sprawling, creating huge, lush environments that could yield plenty more books if he felt like it. I found myself tantalised by the text, always wanting to know more, wanting to follow people through to their origins and track the culture of the world they lived in. I wanted to know about the origins of the dome the cactus people lived in, how the biological science of a world where bird-people existed would work, exactly. (Do they lay eggs?)

But he didn’t let the worldbuilding get in the way of his story, or his characters, whom he took the time for the most part to develop well (and mercilessly murder, as well—don’t get attached to anyone!). This is very much a plot-driven narrative, striking an elegant balance between creating a fascinating imaginative world and keeping the reader hooked on the story as it drives forward. I loved where he went with the twists and turns, the betrayal and self-motivated machinations of the characters.

One thing I do wish Perdido Street Station had included more of was, well, women. Most of the characters are men, and the women are a bit sketched in and incomplete, tragically. While one of the female leads has a strong, complex, interesting characterisation, what ultimately happens to her is troubling, and the other character seems to be defined primarily by the men around her, rather than in her own right. It’s a problem I’ve noted in Mieville’s work in general, where men tend to dominate the story and also tend to be the players who drive the action and come up with the innovations the characters need to prevail over the mutual challenges they face.

Speculative fiction has such a great and fascinating capacity for racial and gender diversity that I’m always disappointed when authors don’t take advantage of that flexibility and play with the genre more. Notably, of course, women of colour tend to write the most radical, fascinating, and transgressive speculative fiction, while white men tend to stick in a comfort zone because it’s what they know, and perhaps also the story they want to tell, even if that’s not entirely fair to their readers.

There are so many books about male heroes that it would just be nice to have some ladies represented, you know? Especially when a writer has the craft of Mieville—I want to read and love and recommend his books because they have so much going for them, but sometimes I struggle with them because of the lack of diverse representation. I definitely hold authors I like to a higher standard because, well, I like reading them, and I want to read more, and I want to see what they would do if they expanded their writing worlds and decided to take the plunge.

Luckily, Mieville shows no signs of stopping any time soon, which means there’s plenty of time to see a sea change. Fingers crossed!