Perdido Street Station

by China Miéville

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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.
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley


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