The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy immortalized the sage advice to always carry a towel when traveling. Let's face it, towels are pretty darn useful. Towels keep us clean, dry and warm. However, should your next intrepid reading adventure require a walk down to the Perdido Street Station, let me humbly suggest that you ditch the towel and pack a dictionary instead.
Mr. Mieville possesses a fine vocabulary and he enjoys exploiting it, particularly when describing the cityscape of New Crobuzon. This dark, neo-Victorian metropolis exerts its foreboding influence upon "bituminous buildings," "desultory banyans" and "squat churches like troglodytic things." The buildings remain standing through sheer tenacity, their girders plastered with phlegm and mucus. Your towel won't keep you clean while you muck about with the city?s inhabitants.
But they sure are an interesting crew.
If there is a hero, it is Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a brilliant rebel scientist barely tolerated by the academy. Isaac leads a relatively charmed life; he has rejected a prime position as a professor in order to concentrate upon his own scientific interests, which barely allow him to get by financially. Isaac enjoys a clandestine romance with the free-spirited artist Lin, a khepri female with the body of a human woman and a head made up of an insect's mandible and carapace.
Human-animal hybrid races are a common fixture in New Crobuzon, generated partially through evolution and partially through the city's judiciary system. Convicted criminals have their bodies "remade" into more civic-minded creations, suggesting that the city's legal system is best avoided, even by the innocent.
The action begins when both Isaac and Lin receive unexpected commissions. Isaac's involves a plea for help: Yagharek, a half-man, half-bird Garuda, begs Isaac to help him regenerate his lost wings. Yagharek's dismembered body is the result of his tribe's judgment for a previous crime, one which Yagharek cryptically describes as choice theft.
Lin's commission is more sinister. She is approached by local crime boss, Mr. Motley. The egotistical criminal wants Lin to sculpt a statue to immortalize his shocking physical appearance. While common sense would lead her to say no, Lin's artistic aspirations compel her to agree.
The story becomes even more complicated as the two commissions intersect. Obsessed with learning about every flying creature in existence, Isaac purchases collections of birds and bugs. When he unknowingly buys an experimental slug being smuggled by Mr. Motley, the fateful junction places the entire city in jeopardy.
This novel is exactly why I try to avoid learning about the personal lives of authors. I shouldn't like it. I detest the author's advocacy of communist politics, his demonization of capitalism and his harsh criticisms of Tolkien. Mr. Mieville possesses the profound control of language and pedantic grasp of the English language that sadly characterizes the worst postmodern criticisms. Snippets of those advocacies can certainly be found within Perdido Street Station, if one is looking for it. I guess I can use my towel to wipe the ick off me after begrudgingly writing this positive review.
Philosophical conflicts aside, this is still an excellent novel. Don't expect to have fun reading it, however. The bittersweet love story between Isaac and Lin never approaches saccharine. This is not a world of happy endings but a world that wallows in a polluted legacy of mistakes and corruption.
Nominated for multiple awards, Mieville's Perdido Street Station is ambitious and provocative. This book is not to be read casually. The multiple plotlines can be cumbersome and the language is intricate. However, for the committed, it does not disappoint.
Just don't forget your dictionary.