Yesterday I finished reading China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. I'm not sure how to even begin to describe it: there are so many overlapping genres and themes represented that to start by calling it science fiction or fantasy or social commentary and then adding appropriate modifiers and descriptors seems inadequate. It was certainly an enjoyable read -- one of those books that consumed my waking (and often sleeping) consciousness and that kept me happily distracted from many other activities, obligations and other stressors (as you may have noticed, my blogging has fallen off of late) -- and even as mere entertainment for its own sake, this book is well worth reading.
My own ambivalence about whether to call it fantasy or science fiction is reflected in the variety of awards and honors that the book has received (or for which it has been nominated). When talking to people about the book over the past few weeks I have most often described it as a science fiction novel set in a fantasy world. Yes, there are all manner of strange fantastical creatures coinhabiting the city of New Crobuzon in the world of Bas-Lag, and yes, there is magic (referred to as thaumaturgy) scattered fairly heavily throughout, but the protagonist, Isaac Grimnebulin, is a freelance scientist who seems to approach these magical aspects of his world (as any scientist should) as though they are merely phenomena that have yet to be adequately investigated. He is only really interested in thaumaturgy, however, to the extent that it can help him further his real work: demonstration and utilization of a theoretical virtually limitless source of energy.
Early in the novel Grimnebulin is contracted to help a formerly winged creature (whose wings were taken as punishment for an unspeakable crime) regain the power of flight. As he explores the various approaches to the problem, Grimnebulin collects a vast array of winged animals for study, some of which are far more dangerous than he initially realizes. In his frenzy for knowledge and successful completion of his project, he unwittingly unleashes a creature that threatens the existence of all sentient being in New Crobuzon. Most of the book follows Grimnebulin and his various companions and acquaintances as they seek to control this unholy terror, and the slimily disgusting and horrifically painful ordeals that they endure along the way are described so skillfully that as a reader I found myself cringing, crying and cowering along with them.
I could go on describing the story, but ultimately it wasn't the story itself that kept me reading -- it was the characters. They are drawn with incredible depth and their conflicts (both internal and external) are explored with elegant finesse. Grimnebulin, for example, is an overweight scientist who has abandoned the mainstream academic world in order to have more freedom to pursue his somewhat unorthodox ideas. He has been careful not to burn bridges however, and maintains frequent (if somewhat strained) relations with his former mentor and the University. As might be expected of a freelance scientist, he's constantly struggling for funding and New Crobuzon doesn't seem to offer much in the way of grants for independent investigators. So when a lucrative offer comes along he is forced to balance the practical demands of life against his driving intellectual passions. He also has another passion: his Khepri girlfriend, Lin. The Khepri are a species whose females have humanoid bodies with giant scarab bodies for for their heads (yes, I had a hard time with this at first too -- there's no hint of how such a race might have evolved -- but eventually Mieville's writing helped me overcome my doubts and just accept it) and interspecies relationships between humans and Khepri are taboo at best. Lin is an artist, however, and among her avant-garde circle of friends she is allowed to be a little more open about Grimnebulin than Grimnebulin can be about her with his academic crowd. This asymetry in the relationship leads, predictably, to tensions that are just a small sample of the interspecies (and inter-class) tensions that abound throughout the city.
So where are we now... we've got a science fiction story set in a fantasy world that is replete with magic, monsters and complex relationships... What else can we add to the mix? How about AI? Yes, artificial intelligence plays a big role in the story too, as some of the steampunk robots (or constructs, as they are called) develop viruses that usually result in system failure, but very rarely lead to self-awareness. The difference between artificial intelligence and the consciousness of living organisms becomes very important as the two classes of intelligent beings alternately collaborate with and antagonize one another in their efforts to control the devastation being visited upon New Crobuzon.
Tying the story together and serving as periodic interludes are the first-person, present-tense reflections of Grimnebulin's un-winged flight-hungry client who comes from a very different part of Bas-Lag and whose values and perspectives differ greatly from those of the rest of the characters. His story is both inspiring and tragic, and is only fully revealed at the conclusion of the book... a conclusion, I might add, that feels far more like that of a modern literary novel than that of an action filled SF or fantasy thriller. It's a conclusion which does not bring resolution of many many of the story strings and which will probably leave many readers feeling unsatisfied. I found it pleasantly credible, however, as in (at least my own experience of) real life, the endpoints of the various processes, projects and problems rarely coincide.
So give it a read... and let me know what you think. It's one of the stranger more unexpected books I've read in quite some time.