Despite being a bit too long, I enjoyed listening to Random House’s new audiobook recording of China Miéville‘s second novel, Perdido Street Station, read by John Lee. Perdido Street Station is Miéville’s first novel set in the steampunk world of Bas-Lag, a strange world populated by plenty of bizarre races and even more bizarre “Remades,” persons who have been forced (or in some instances have chosen) to restructure their biological makeup to perform (very) specific jobs. This sci-fi adventure story centers around protagonist Isaac Van der Grimnebulin, an overweight renegade scientist trying to perfect a new technology he calls “crisis energy.” Isaac is trying to help a Garuda named Yagherak who, as a form of punishment, has had his marvelous wings cut off. To this end, Isaac experiments with a strange caterpillar that feeds off of an hallucinogenic drug called “dreamshit.” Unfortunately, the caterpillar turns into a giant dream-feeding, brainsucking moth that, along with its relatives, terrorizes the city at night. Isaac tries to stop the moths and save his girlfriend, an artist with a bug’s head. Lots of picaresque adventuring ensues.
Miéville’s Bas-Lag world is finely detailed and richly imagined, and will no doubt appeal to anyone who digs H.P. Lovecraft or William Gibson. Miéville certainly has a handle on both of his many concepts (artificial intelligence, the nature of bodies, difference and (literal) alienation), and his story unfolds with the thrilling clip one expects from pulp fiction. Still, the book felt overwritten to me. Miéville never settles on just one adjective if two (or three) come to mind, and he’s in love with adverbs (oh the adverbs in this book! Is there a sentence without one?). And while exposition of a sort is certainly necessary in a novel about such a profoundly strange world, I think that Miéville would get a bigger payoff if he trusted his reader a bit more. Perdido Street Station feels rhetorically claustrophobic, as if Miéville is afraid to let his reader imagine even a little of Bas-Leg for him or herself. It’s a bit selfish, really. On the whole though, a great read (or listen, in this case), and it intrigued us enough to go straight into Miéville’s latest book, The City & The City (also newly released this summer from Random house, also read by John Lee).
The City & The City combines noir detective fiction with one of science fiction’s greatest gambits, namely, positing something utterly implausible, unimaginable, and then making it ordinary. In The City & The City, two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, occupy the exact same geographic space, yet their citizens are trained from birth to “unsee” and “unhear” all aspects of the other city. Inspector Tyador Borlu is drawn into the mysterious death of a beautiful young woman (is there an older trope? Edgar Allan Poe even wrote an essay on why and how you should use beautiful yong dead girls in your literature). His investigation leads him into crossing the border between the cities, an impossible border, of course, and yet the genius of the book here is that, through Borlu’s narration, the reader doesn’t experience this bordercrossing (and its attendant “unseeing”) as satirical or even ridiculous; rather, we witness the uncanny alienation of double consciousness. Miéville, a Marxist, is working in part from some of Althusser‘s ideas, and he’s not afraid to namedrop Foucault or Žižek. Thankfully, however, Miéville not only knows his theorists, he knows enough not to let theory get in the way of a Chandleresque murder mystery that explores themes of surveillance, alterity, and what it means to see someone seeing you seeing them seeing you (seeing them seeing you . . .). Great stuff.