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
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!