The famous playwright Anton Chekov once wrote, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” After finishing China Miéville’s sci-fi, fantasy epic “Perdido Street Station” I can best describe it as a brilliantly lit and dressed stage littered with unfired rifles. It’s a shame, because the set-pieces that Miéville develops in his fantastic world of ‘Bas-Lag’, and its principal city of ‘New Crobuzon’, are varied, imaginative, and frequently inspired. Unfortunately, and ironically given the 700+ page length of the novel, ‘Perido Street Station’ is stuffed with too many unfulfilled plotlines, half-realized ideas, and under-developed characters to create a satisfying reading experience.
It’s an experience that only hurts because Miéville clearly isn’t lacking for talent or imagination. The story follows a cast of disparate characters through a whimsical and grotesque world where magic, steam-power, and traditional science mesh together in a beautifully organic, tumbling, monstrous city populated by humans, bug-people, frog-men and monsters. Our troop of protagonists inadvertently release several nigh-unstoppable monsters into the populace and then must attempt to undo their error while dodging the government, the military, the monsters themselves, and several shadowy organizations including a sentient robot-god and a drug cartel led by a frankenstein’s-monster-esque tyrant.
I’d love to give you further analysis of the protagonists, but I’m just as uninterested in them as Miéville was while writing them. This is where the novel falls apart: Miéville succeeds beautifully at nurturing bizarre concepts into engaging plot-hooks (just re-read the synopsis above and try NOT to get excited), and then expends no effort on further detail or character development to advance the hooks into an enjoyable story. The most fully realized characters are side characters that disappear from the novel for hundreds of pages at a time, and whose story arcs are terminated brutally with minimal resolution when the main arc is complete. Meanwhile, main protagonists who follow the majority of the plot’s primary action, such as Derkhan Blueday, receive no backstory and minimal motivation. I frequently forgot that Derkhan was a woman while reading, and did not realize she had a last name until I double-checked my spelling on Wikipedia.
Instead of falling in love with his characters, Miéville fell in love with his city of New Crobuzon and devotes pages and pages of prose to its shambling, polluted, ugly-beautiful bulk. This would be fine, even beneficial, except that there’s too much of it, and its placement destroys any overall flow of action the exciting monster-chase produces. For example, an absolutely nail-biting, action-filled fight in which our heroes strike a deadly blow to the monsters while escaping by the skin of their teeth is followed by ten pages of anonymous, nameless characters laying cable in the painstakingly described streets of New Crobuzon. These streets, and their characters, are never seen again.
This is a hard review to write because I want to recommend the book very badly. Its ideas are great, and there are a dozen exciting stories that could have been crafted out of the raw fabric Miéville has spun. Unfortunately, Miéville just can’t get out of his own way long enough to tell the story that needs to be told. Instead he squanders his gifts on describing a fascinating, but ultimately lifeless city instead of the engaging wonders