China Miéville may be the least predictable genre writer of them all. He defies almost every generalization you've heard about genre fiction. Do you think popular fiction is all plot and devoid of ideas? Miéville will surprise you with the philosophical implications and sociological angles constantly at play in his stories. Do you think genre authors dumb down their writing? Miéville will confound you with his rambling sentences and bulky paragraphs—denser typographical terrain than you will find in most works of literary fiction nowadays. Do you despise the simplistic good-versus-evil story lines of genre authors, so mind-numbingly predictable in their unfolding? Miéville does too, and will serve up more moral relativism in one book than you will encounter during an entire Spring Break week in Cancun.
In short, Miéville seems primed to break out of the ghetto of science fiction (the place in the bookstore where his works are usually housed) and find his destined spot next to Herman Melville in a more dignified section of Barnes & Noble. Except that Miéville seems so cussedly content staying in the ghetto. He brags about his ambition of writing in every genre category. In interviews, he takes every opportunity to talk about the monsters in his books. Yes, he could go the high- brow route, but one gets the sense that he prefers slumming with the purveyors of pulp.
I see that I am constantly turning to urban metaphors in describing this author. How fitting! Miéville has done for cityscapes what Mary Shelley did for dead bodies in Frankenstein—showed how the most disparate and horrifying elements are stitched together into a gruesome whole. One that somehow lives and breathes, against all odds. In book after book—works such as Perdido Street Station, The City & the City, Embassytown—Miéville combines the intellectual rigor of the urban planner with the aesthetics of a horror film director. If Jane Jacobs and Roger Corman had a love child, it would be China Miéville.
Perdido Street Station follows the exploits of renegade scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, who is a sort of modern- day Dr. Frankenstein. His research into various mundane matters—such as the nature of flight or alternative sources of energy—leads to a series of unintentional consequences for himself and his fellow city dwellers. The science in this novel is self-consciously primitive—our hero actually uses an abacus and slide rule, and in true steampunk fashion, most of the "high tech" devices in this book literally run on steam. But even with these meager tools as starting points, Isaac manages unwittingly to unleash a cataclysm of devastation when his experiments go awry.
Miéville’s dense prose—especially in early works such as Perdido Street Station—aspires to a Byzantine high style that has little in common with current day escapist lit. Not since the days of H.P. Lovecraft has a genre writer housed his frightening creatures in such grand ziggurats of modifiers and dependent clauses. At times I resist, and grumble that an editor should have trimmed here and there, but the cumulative effect justifies the elaborate means. Miéville’s alternative worlds eventually take on bulk through these avalanches of words, and he achieves a rare distinction among genre writers —indeed, among storytellers of any sort—in creating such rich textures that the surrounding cities and neighborhoods of his books become as vivid as the characters themselves.
It is no coincidence that most of his novels are named after locations. In the front of Perdido Street Station, where, in a Gabriel García Márquez book, you might find a family tree, Miéville has placed a detailed city map. Welcome to sci-fi as seen through the eyes of a flâneur.
But don’t jump to the conclusion that Miéville’s stories are filled with scenery and short on plot. The opposite is true. Not since Arthur C. Clarke has a sci-fi author been so skilled at layering new complications on top of old ones, at taking a clever plot and adding something unexpected to make it even more compelling. In Perdido Street Station, Dr. Grimnebulin doesn't just have an adversary—he eventually puts together an enemies list as long as Nixon’s during his second term. First and foremost, he and his friends are battling a swarm of despicable monsters…and this alone might be sufficient to justify a film adaptation and theme park tie-ins. Yet Miéville also forces them into open conflict with a totalitarian government, the university, the mob, a maniacal computer, even an assortment of renegade household appliances. Each of these storylines is fully fleshed out, and pulled neatly into the over-arching narrative.
There are many other strange ingredients in this menagerie. Our hero is dating a giant insect—but with the cutest set of mandibles you ever saw. When he visits the World Wide Web, it is a literal one created by a huge spider. An ambassador from the devil even makes a cameo appearance in these pages. Yet the strangest thing about all this strangeness is that it never seems campy or staged, as in so many contemporary works of speculative fiction. Seriously, friends, this is a serious novel…but don’t tell Mr. Miéville—who prides himself on his monsters—or his readers, who might be scared away if you told them this was a first-rate literary work. Let them find out for themselves.