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Perdido Street Station
Reviewed by Michael Moorcock, ©

Format: Book
By:   China Mieville
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   2000
Review Date:  

Romantic Disciplines

Imaginative fiction which refused to rationalise its flights of fancy as dreams, visions or scientific speculation used to be called simply 'fantasy'. The description suited books as varied as Grant Allen's The British Barbarians, Well's The Wonderful Visit, Garnett's Lady Into Fox, Woolf's Orlando, White's Mistress Masham's Repose, Peake's Titus Groan, Richardson's Exploits of Engelbrecht, Carter's The Magic Toyshop, Amis's The Alteration, Harrison's In Viriconium, Ackroyd's Hawksmoor or Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

Today Tolkien-cloned Fantasy has become a bookshop category like Mysteries or Romance. We know it has something to do with talking animals, elves, heroic quests or, if we're lucky, comical wizards but we have a problem distinguishing the individual, the literary, from the popular generic.

We once emphatically described J.G.Ballard as speculative fiction rather than science fiction because we needed to distinguish his work from a public perception, in spite of Kingsley Amis's puritan prescriptions, that sf was all spaceships, purple people eaters and pulp plot lines. An impression, of course, which TV and movies have confirmed a millionfold since New Maps of Hell was published in 1960.

It's fashionable to call an unrationalised fantasy a parallel- or alternate-world story, terms borrowed from sf. Such stories began as ideas rather than backgrounds. The best known modern example is probably Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), which proposed a present in which the Allies lost the second world war. Saki did it best, for my taste, in When William Came (1914), written before his death in the trenches, about Germany winning the first world war and a British ruling class coming to terms with its conquerors. In the hands of desperate professional writers this device quickly becomes an easy way of tarting up some shabby old plots. The exotic lost land adventure, which began with Defoe, if not with Palmerin of England, suffers badly from actual exploration. Mapped, logged and claimed, the mysterious becomes merely untrue. She or Tarzan of the Apes can no longer exist in the Africa we now know. They can, however, plug on happily in a 'parallel' Africa, where the sun never set on the Empire, some Ruritania, or even Dickensian London.

A more ambitious kind of fiction creating a mysterious city or world, such as Gormenghast, has considerable irony and is only a shade away from Faulkner's Yawknapatawpha in intention and sensibility. This fiction tends to use its backgrounds as part of its narrative structure. The best is M.J.Harrison's Viriconium sequence, which indulges a Walpolean taste for the exotic and the antique. It's a romantic, knowing, post-modern version of the Gothic in which strange, ruined cities are not merely given soul, but achieve sentience, even senility. An often overlooked example is Brecht's Threepenny Novel, which offers a marvellously distorted Edwardian London. More recently there's Steve Beard's Digital Leatherette. Beard was published beside Mieville, Steve Aylett and Tim Etchells in last year's Britpulp anthology edited by Tony White. All borrow elements from popular fiction, have their own invented worlds, with their own architecture, own history and own bizarre inhabitants. Aylett's absurdist thrillers (Slaughtermatic, The Inflatable Volunteer) mostly happen in the city of Beerlight, while Etchells's sardonic fables are set in Endland, a world of infinite rundown housing estates, boozers and fast food restaurants.

Like Alan Moore's or Grant Morrison's popular graphic stories, this fiction shares a Shelleyan suspicion of church and state. While finishing China Mieville's impressive second novel, set in the baroque, brooding, gaslit industrial city of New Crobuzon, it became clear that he had a lot in common with the 14th century muralist who decorated our local Oxfordshire church with pictures of the poor and meek ascending to heaven while the authorities, including kings and bishops, went headfirst into the maws of demonic beasts.

Mieville's first novel, King Rat, published last year, was an extraordinarily vivid, tactile tale of underground London. Set in the here and now, with subtle hints of the supernatural, it showed the author's genuine empathy for creatures you would normally hope to poison. Perdido Street Station, a massive and gorgeously detailed parallel-world fantasy, offers us a range of rather more exotic creatures, all of whom are wonderfully drawn and reveal a writer with a rare descriptive gift, an unusually observant eye for physical detail, for the sensuality and beauty of the ordinarily human as well as the thoroughly alien.

By Chapter One Mieville's graphically convinced us of the mutual sexual passion of a plump human chemist and his sculptor beetle mistress. By Chapter Two we're feeling the pain of a proud hawkperson from the distant desert who has committed some abominable flock-crime and has had his wings sawn off in punishment. His yearning elegaic voice becomes one of the most successful narrative threads in the book. When Mieville avoids generic plotlines and stock characters and writes about individual alienation and love, about difficult relationships and complex architecture, the book comes most thoroughly to life and takes on tremendous tensions.

Perdido Street Station (the name of the rail hub where vast numbers of lines meet) has a wonderfully emblematic setting in its vast, murky, steam-driven Victorian city, teeming with races and species of bewildering variety, in which electricity doesn't exist, where magic works, elementals are part of everyday life, where Hell is an actual place and corrupt politicians make deals with Satan. There are spectacularly gripping scenes with genuinely terrifying fabulous beasts which stop you from eating or sleeping while you read and give you nightmares when you stop. There's a monstrous threat. A noble victory. Yet Mieville's determination to deliver value for money, a great page-turner, leads him to add genre borrowings which set up a misleading expectation of the kind of plot you're going to get and make individuals start behaving out of character, forcing the author into rationalisations at odds with the creative, intellectual and imaginative substance of the book.

That aside, Mieville's catholic contemporary sensibility, delivering generous Victorian value and a well-placed moral point or two, makes Perdido Street Station utterly absorbing and you won't get a better deal, pound for pound, for your holiday reading!

This review originally ran in The Spectator. It is reprinted with the permission of the author. London born Michael Moorcock is one of the most prominent, prolific and popular writers in the Western world. As the editor of New Worlds, Moorcock was a primary motivation behind the 1960's "New Wave" literary movement. His prodigious output includes rock songs, comics, screenplays, essays, and over seventy novels. Perhaps best known for his interlocking heroic fantasy series, Moorcock's recurring characters include Elric, Corum, Dorian Hawkmoon, Jerry Cornelius, the Eternal Champion and others. A multiple winner of the British Fantasy Award, Michael has won the Guardian Fiction Award (The Condition Of Muzak), the World Fantasy Award (Gloriana), the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (Gloriana), Nebula Award (Behold The Man) and was a finalist for the Whitbread Prize (Mother London). He currently lives with his wife Linda in Lost Pines, TX.

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