While American fantasists are happy to stay, by and large, within the safety zones of tradition, over in England, all bets are off. Daring writers like Philip Pullman, Storm Constantine, and China Miéville are feverishly transforming fantasy, steering it towards darker terrain, without sacrificing — indeed, completely reframing — the genre's sense of wonder.
Miéville is a bold young writer destined to carve his own remarkable niche in the field. A photo on the back cover of this book shows him in almost an archetypal young rebel pose, complete with stylishly shaved head and multiple ear piercings. He looks like some Manchester postpunk rocker on his way to a Ph.D in economics. And if you're familiar with that seminal music scene, one can sense much of the same aesthetic in Perdido Street Station, Miéville's second novel and 2001's winner of both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and British Fantasy/August Derleth Award. It's a hybrid SF/horror/fantasy widescreen epic with soundtrack by Joy Division, not John Williams. And though, at over 700 pages, it's a bit sprawling, the book offers a phantasmagoric reading experience you shouldn't miss.
Miéville's hallucinatory tale is set in the sprawling city-state of New Crobuzon, a massive, thriving, yet decadent and crumbling metropolis populated by humans; a bizarre menagerie of other sentient species Miéville never makes clear are alien or not (a good decision on his part, I think); and Remades, hapless victims of the system, criminals and undesirables who have had their bodies gruesomely altered. Miéville goes to great pains to familiarize his readers with the city and its numerous boroughs and species, and the effort pays off. New Crobuzon springs fully visualized in readers' minds, as cinematically vivid and immersive as the settings for such visually sumptuous films as Brazil, City of Lost Children, and the ubiquitous Blade Runner. The city becomes as much as living, breathing character as any of the members of the book's polyglot cast. It is one of the most darkly dazzling worlds I've come across in years of reading. The possibilities for future stories set in New Crobuzon seem limitless.
Miéville's literary influences are apparent — a little Gibson and Sterling here, a little PKD and Kafka there. There are only shades of the Mervyn Peake Miéville acknowledges, manifesting in the story's occasional moments of melancholic nightmare. But on the whole, Miéville speaks very much with his own voice.
Isaac der Grimnebulin is a rogue scientist whose life seems a veritable act of rebellion. His research into "crisis theory," by which he hopes to invent a working perpetual motion machine, is derided by New Crobuzon's scientific establishment (Miéville's world, though, is one in which science and the arcane walk hand in hand). Isaac's romantic involvement with an artist of the insect-headed khepri race, while not scandalous enough to make him an outright pariah, is still socially risky.
One day Isaac is visited in his ramshackle dwellings by a garuda, an avian creature who, as punishment for some horrible crime in his homeland, has had his wings amputated. Yagharek (that's his name) has come to the city from afar and wants Isaac to restore his wings. Intrigued by the challenge, particularly how it seems to dovetail nicely with his crisis work, Isaac agrees, and has an agent put word out throughout the city for samples of flying creatures whose wings he can use as templates for builing a new pair for Yagharek. And this is where the trouble begins. Among his many samples, Isaac receives a pitiful little grub that doesn't seem to do much of anything and won't even eat... until it gets its mandibles around some narcotic called dreamshit. In no time it grows to mammoth size, pupates, and develops into a terrifying creature called a slake-moth, an apparently unkillable beast that lives on human thoughts and dreams, literally drinking its victims' minds dry.
Miéville sacrifices a bit of his story's originality here. The hunt for the slake-moths never strays as far as it should from the well-trodden ground of monster-story formulas, specifically the kind of thing we're all familiar with thanks to the Alien film franchise. The moths' apparent invincibility, Grimnebulin's fear that New Crobuzon's repressive militia might find the moths valuable, the way the moths feed on their victims' minds (which is highly reminiscent of what the Specters do to you in Pullman's The Subtle Knife).
Miéville retains control, however, where a less adventurous and risk-taking writer might have simply settled for the obvious. The moths themselves are tremendously fearsome and Miéville rewards us with some nerve-wracking scenes of action and horror. And his imaginative touches keep coming, such as an encounter with a sentient heap of trash and scrap metal worshiped as a god by the cities hoboes, that comes to Grimnebulin's aid. And I was quite impressed by the way Miéville had worked to tie together all of the book's multiple, and seemingly disparate, plot elements as the tale neared its breathless climax. The denouement is particularly powerful, adding a moral dimension to the book not often seen in escapist literature.
He may have a way to go before writing his masterpiece (one would hope so, considering his youth), but already, China Miéville has joined my short list of writers whose works I'd buy even in hardcover, if I had to buy my books. And that, my friends, is saying summat.