In addition to photography, web development and miscellaneous geekery, I’m a member of a bookgroup. We meet once a month to discuss books chosen originally from the 2003 BBC Big Read top 100 and now from our own selection process. So… I write a blog, I read books… why not combine the two? Here, therefore, is the first in an occasional series of book reviews. Expect spoilers.
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville is the first one to get the treatment and boy, is it a big one. It’s a sci-fi/fantasy/steampunk adventure set in the city of New Crobuzon in the fictional world of Bas-Lag. The one sentence summary? A maverick scientist unwittingly unleashes monsters on the city and teams up with a multidimensional spider and a sentient rubbish dump to defeat them.
OK, there’s a bit more to it than that – my copy is 867 pages long. Therein lies the first criticism. God, could it have done with an edit. Miéville has built his fictional world in detail and wants you to know about it. Long sections read like a social history of New Crobuzon combined with a travelogue – the kind of thing you might expect to find in the travel writing section of your local bookshop. That kind of world building is great for creating a coherent world in which to set your stories. Tolkein did the same with Lord of the Rings, but allowed the history and mythology of Middle Earth to come out gradually and not threaten to overwhelm the plot.
And so we come to the plot. It takes a while to get going, and for at least the first third of the book it’s not clear what direction the story will take before it morphs into a relatively straight forward monster hunt. Certain subplots, involving a strike and an underground paper, could have been left out without really affecting the story and give the impression it might go a very different way. Conversely, there’s something of a deus ex machina near the end when a character previously mentioned only in passing appears from nowhere to rescue the main party with little idea given as to his motivation.
Finally, it has one hell of a downer ending, but one which also raises some of the most interesting philosophical questions in the entire book. It really would be spoiling the plot to discuss it in detail, but it raises questions about crime and punishment, cultural relativism and the possibility of redemption. Heady stuff to end on, and it makes it a good book for a bookgroup to get their teeth into.
Although this review sounds negative, I did think it was worth reading. There is barely a story out there without plot holes, so it’s always easy to find things to criticise in any fiction of this type. Miéville has addressed the issue of the book’s length himself, saying in an interview “I became acutely conscious of structure… I also realized that my tendencies to overwriting (of which I’m very conscious) can be reined in… When Stephen King releases “special editions” of his books, they’re always about 50,000 words longer. If I ever release the definitive, special, improved Perdido Street Station, it’ll be shorter than the original.”
Bear that in mind, be prepared for a long read and overall I think it rewards the effort.in Books