Perdido Street Station: Weird, original and engrossing; a blend of Cronenberg and Dickens. China Mieville builds a city full of fascinating characters and baroque institutions: the steampunk slum of New Crobuzon, where cactus-men jostle with insect-headed khepri and where the militia stalk the skies on tramlines, capturing criminals and sentencing them to Remaking. In this dense little world we find Isaac van der Grimnebulin, rogue scientist, chartered by a nomadic bird-man (a garuda) to restore his mutilated wings; Lin, his khepri lover, an artist commissioned by a grotesque crime boss to sculpt a statue in his image; Derkhan Blueday, itinerant journalist, who writes for the underground tabloid Runagate Rampant. The sinister government project that unites these three threads will unleash a murderous terror on the city that no one knows how to stop.
Mieville does a lot of detailed, ingenious scene-setting in the first half of the novel, but then devolves into standard Fantasy Quest Problem Solving in the latter half. I suspected Mieville had some tabletop RPG roots, given how the latter half focuses on assembling a party and fighting monsters; Wikipedia confirms it. Not to say that the latter half of the novel is bad, mind you: it just doesn’t have the same grand, Neal Stephenson-esque scope. We get no more tantalizing glimpses of a rich world – vodyanoi stevedores on strike, the intricacies of the Mayor’s office, the institutional brutality of the militia, etc. It goes from being an urban epic to an urban picaresque.
Mieville’s politics are evident but not obvious: a sympathy for labor, a faith in the power of journalism and democracy to shake the foundations of power. Also, you have to go into the novel with the understanding that New Crobuzon itself is the protagonist, not any of the humans or xenians involved. The prolix descriptions Mieville devotes to each overcrowded, architecturally jarring neighborhood will convince you of that. I have little use for overly detailed descriptions of scenery, but I recognize this as a personal quirk.
It’s a tricky read, but I recommend it.
The Ophiuchi Hotline: My second time reading this. I remembered a few of the interesting scenes but not it’s overall scope: a distant future, where the human race has been kicked off the planet Earth by the fifth-dimensional inhabitants of Jupiter. They survive in underground cities thanks to technological advances beamed at them, in code, from the star 70 Ophiuchius. Not all of these advances are distributed freely, of course, and when our protagonist Lilo gets arrested for illegal genetic manipulations, she’s sentenced to death. Yet the mysterious political mastermind called Boss Tweed (really) offers her a way out, if he’ll come work for her …
A breezy little read. It shows the tentative beginnings of what we’d today call the transhumanist strain of sci-fi: the idea of humans changing themselves, through technology, into something no longer recognizable as human. Of course, Ophiuchi‘s far too short and hardly shocking enough to get published today. It would need at least three hundred more pages, more detailed descriptions of fantastic settings, and a few jaunts behind the doors of perception or to the other end of the galaxy.