The best character in China Mieville’s second novel is the city of New Crobuzon itself – a sprawling, crazy and psychedelic metropolis that would have made Hunter S Thompson proud. The hub of this city is Perdido Street Station. From here the city spirals out into different boroughs, districts and oddities; there’s slums and high rises occupied by bird-men, sewers and abattoirs, a glass dome full of sentient cactus people and a dump which is home to HAL 9000 and his buddies. Oh, and there’s bugs. Christ, are there bugs. There’s a whole bug ghetto and the protagonist Isaac (a tubby and edgy scientist) is dating a woman with a scarab beetle for a head. Yes, you read that right. Add to this mix a giant spider that shimmers in and out of reality and likes cutting off people’s ears and some giant moths that suck your mind out and there’s a real bug-fest going on.
Isaac is approached by Yagharek, one of the bird-men (a garuda) who’s been maimed by his own kind and had his wings sawed off. He wants to be able to fly again and hopes Isaac can help him. Although Isaac is a scientist, the science studied in New Crobuzon is all kinds of fantastical: magic and demonology sit beside physics and chemistry here. The plot threads are disparate to start with; we move from Isaac and his research to his creepy-crawlie girlfriend Lin, who’s crafting a sculpture of a local crime lord with khepri spit (don’t ask) to the corrupt heads of state to an underground politically active newspaper. These strands all eventually combine into what’s essentially an overblown bug-hunt, as giant slake-moths terrorize the city each night (Isaac inadvertently hatched one and let it escape).
In a way this seemed a bit of a cop-out to me. Mieville spends so long world-building and creating his wide-ranging cast that once it all becomes focused on hunting moths Perdido Street Station falls into more familiar and lacklustre ways. And at nearly 900 pages this is a long book. If I wanted giant creatures attacking each other in a city I’d be watching Mothra vs Godzilla. Still, the ending re-awakened my interest. It’s pleasingly bitter-sweet and downbeat, raising a load of ethical issues and questions. Fans of urban fantasy, the new weird and speculative fiction will love Perdido Street Station. But be prepared for an acid trip of a plot and lots of creepy-crawlies.