Prose & Conversation: 'Perdido Street Station' by China Mieville

It takes about an hour for Richard and I to discuss a book, and let me tell you, that hour flies by so fast I'm left wondering: what the hell happened? Did we really just talk about slake moths and the Weaver and interspecies sex with creatures that have bug parts for a head? Did we?

To find out if we did really discuss all that, read on for our thoughts on the China Mieville contemporary classic, Perdido Street Station.

Leah: So, we're back with our second installment of Prose and Conversation, and this month Richard and I plowed through a reading of the China Mieville classic, Perdido Street Station. I have to say, it was a new and different experience for me — more on that later — but I'll start with our initial gut reactions. Richard, I know you love the book. Care to share what you love most about it?

Richard: Man, where to start. I love the strange creatures, the entire world of New Crobuzon, and how unique the voice is. I've always called it steampunk, some don't, but it was a very original voice for me. I know it has a bit of a slow start, and a lot of language is hard to understand at times, as is the politics, science and math, but I fell in love with these characters, rooted for them, was hypnotized by them, and in the end, was so sad, so undone by everything. We'll have to talk about the ending, later. What did you love most about it? I do hope you enjoyed it, I know it's not an easy read.

It's probably one of my top ten books ever, and I know that's saying a lot. Re-reading it for the first time in 10 years, it still blows me away.

Leah: You know, it did take me a while, and I may have cursed you somewhere around the 100th page or so, but in the end I very much enjoyed it as well. I know I've been keeping you in suspense about my own reaction, but that's the true verdict. I enjoyed it. That said, I'm not sure it was my favorite read ever, but it was new and exciting to me for sure. But the world? New Crobuzon? It was so dark and bleak, sometimes I felt like the book actually affected my mood. Like I was darker and perhaps a bit bleaker while I was reading it.

It was so dark and bleak, sometimes I felt like the book actually affected my mood.

Has that ever happened to you with a story that you were reading?

Richard: Glad you got through it. It does take a while. I mean, how long until we got to the slake-moths, like 350 pages?

Leah: Less than that, but not by much, and they're the heart of the story!

Richard: But yes, I've had books do that to me, American Psycho was one for sure. Some of Jack Ketchum's books. I had to read something very light after The Girl Next Door. But Perdido I didn't find as dark. I thought it was a great journey, so much to witness, but the end was so sad.

Leah: Even now, if I close my eyes and picture New Crobuzon, I see blackness. The imagery was so dark and gritty, I can't think of a book that has been so....gosh, just black. Maybe it was the cover art that started me off with the darkness. I don’t know.

But yes! The journey! I came pretty near to tears at the end!

Richard: This whole novel is set in a bit of a dystopian society, where there are all of these strange breeds and manufactured creatures. But it's really all about Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, the scientist, his love interest Lin (who has the head of an insect but the body of a woman), and Yagharek, who is part bird, part man (he's a garuda). Also playing lesser roles were Derkhan Blueday (who is openly gay), and Mr. Motley, a crime lord. Those are the main people, I think. We'll get to the Weaver and the Construct Council in a second. Did you like these characters, find yourself rooting for them? I know with Yagharek it's tricky, as his wings have been clipped, he's been punished for a horrible crime—so he's not as innocent.

Leah: Oh man. I loved Lin so much. I was pulling for her and pulling for her. From the very beginning of the story, from the moment she leaves her flat for the first time, it's clear she's in trouble, but she's just so damn graceful, even for a bug-person-thing.

I can so picture this creature, slender and wearing flowing clothes, with this head that's so completely different from her body. Her backstory about living with her mother, who let the male-bug-grubs run all over the place, is so horrific, you can't help but want Lin to make something beautiful of her life. And with her art, she tries. I don't want to give any spoilers to those considering reading...but she's a tragic figure from the start, and I love her.

Richard: It's tricky because it's really Isaac's POV, but we also get the italics, the secondary perspective of Yag, in addition to Lin. She's an artist, I loved her whole process of eating and secreting and sculpting. Watching the science of Issac is fascinating, and Yagharek is so noble, and yet flawed and fallen. Even in the end I felt for him, when I really shouldn't have.

Leah: Honestly, I loved Isaac and Yag, too. Mieville is good at writing really, really good and really, really bad characters. This wasn't one of those books where you weren't sure who to root for. It's clear from the very start.

Richard: I definitely was rooting for Issac, and Lin is so sympathetic, but what do you do with Yagharek? I was in his corner up to the very end, and even then not sure how to take the ending.

Leah: Seriously. No spoilers, though. Bad Richard. Suffice to say, Yag is a bit on the gray side. He's so waffly. I wanted it to drive me crazy, but he was such a stranger in a super-strange land, it almost made sense to me.

I wanted him to step up and take a bigger role at first — he's so strong and fierce — but when he held back, it sort of made the story more interesting.

Richard: I mean, he's obviously a criminal, but the laws of his people are so eccentric, Isaac has a hard time understanding it all, and we do, too.

Leah: And you have to feel so badly for him. A bird without wings. What could be worse than removing the gift of flight from someone so used to it?

I felt his loss of freedom.

But like you said...the CRIME! It's awful.

Richard: Right. Exactly. Did you get a bit of Spock from him? That and the big eagle on the Muppets is how I saw him—Sam the Eagle. Ha.

Leah: Haha! Yes! The Eagle! That was pretty much it.

And I didn't get Spock...he's more logic-bound. Yag was more...reticent, don't you think?

Richard: I was actually upset when Yagharek shouted, "Because this is my SHAME!" Very moving.

Leah: Yes. Heartbreaking. I so want him to fly again.

Richard: Isaac sees the garuda as brutal creatures, the laws of the Cymek as so savage. But I think we need to have that POV to root for them.

Leah: It's funny. I never thought of the garuda as savage, even though I agree Isaac did. I thought of them as, actually, more evolved somehow. More....I'm missing the right word, but more *something* important...than the humans.

Because the human city was such a mess, and so uncivilized.

Leah: So...would you date a bug-lady? Richard: I'd like to think I'd be open to it.

Richard: Right. They were beyond our petty struggles, our hypocrisy, which is something Yag talks about towards the end, or the visitor does anyway.

Let's talk about all of the wonderful and weird creatures—the remade and the Weaver, the slake-moths. Is that when you really became invested? Just finishing this last night, I forgot how intense they all were, especially the Weaver and the moths. This was your first read, how did they appear to you? Was it intense, frightening, fascinating?

Leah: Well, the first thing that really got me was how Mieville writes about all of the creatures, including animals. The brutality in the things he described. The violence. The first time I realized I cared about the story was when he described a slaughterhouse....and the way the pigs were killed. I swear, I could smell the blood, I could hear them squeal, and it broke my heart.

And he did that with his fantastical creatures as well. When the caterpillar-creature in Isaac's lab is dying, I swear I wanted to die with it. It's so pitifully vivid; Mieville kept breaking my heart, over and over again.

Richard: Yeah, it's details. I was just looking at the first description of Motley, who strangely enough is a "motley" mix of remade parts, mostly different animals. I should explain that the remade were punished, typically, given horrible alterations involving animal and machine grafts. The Weaver is this giant spider that can jump through time and space. The slake-moths can hypnotize you with their wings, and then suck out your dreams, your soul, really.

Leah: The Weaver was sort of like Shelob from The Hobbit...only on steroids.

Actually, no. Shelob combined with Hannibal Lecter. That's how I saw the Weaver, and it gave me chills.

Richard: The first time I saw the Weaver, and his rambling poetic voice of nonsense and haiku and all, it scared the crap out of me. Very disturbing in the way children's rhymes and limericks can be frightening in a horror film.

Leah: Ha. So we're on the same page. Any time there's a child's voice in a horror flick, it's terrifying. And I imagined the Weaver with a child-like voice. Sort of like the children who sing in A Nightmare on Elm Street. One...two...Freddie's coming for you...

Richard: Right, Lecter. Good call there, hypnotic and so dangerous.

Leah: And that thing with the scissors? He likes to use scissors to decorate his World Web? Super-bizarre-creepy.

Richard: Yes! The whole weaving, the patterns, it's so strange. Take this little passage, which I thought was so revealing:

Old stories would tell how Weavers would kill each other over aesthetic disagreements, such as whether it was prettier to destroy an army of a thousand men or to leave it be, or whether a particular dandelion should or should not be plucked. For a Weaver, to think was to think aesthetically. To act—to Weave—was to bring about more pleasing patterns. They did not eat physical food: they seemed to subsist on the appreciation of beauty.

Such a strange mix there.

Leah: But I guess the Weaver is nothing compared to the soul-sucking slake moths.

I always tell my husband...if something ever happens to me, and I'm declared brain-dead, please let my body die. What happens to the slake-moth victims is absolutely my worst nightmare.

Richard: But the slake-moths, yeah. They were so horrible. I love it in a horror film when the beast seems like it can't be beat.

Leah: And they definitely seem like they can't. How can you defeat a creature you can't even look at?

Richard: I think with all of the complicated story plots, what it came down to for me was the epic battle in the last half of the book. I found that really intense.

Leah: And I'm still recovering from what happened to Lin. I think we both deserve a glass of wine.

Richard: I know. Is it even possible to talk about the ending without spoiling it? Yagahrek's whole speech, Lin, all of it.

Leah: I don't see a way. So do you want to talk about interspecies romance? Or shall we discuss whether or not we think this could ever be made into a movie? Because both those items are on my list!

Richard: Ha. Sure, both.

Leah: Oh, and science. All the science, too.

Richard: With all of the dinosaur porn out there (it's a thing, honest) why can't the weird interspecies lovemaking between man and insect work? I have to admit, it got a bit heated at times.

And we can probably leave out the science, nobody cares.

Leah: Ha! So true. Why talk science when there's sex?

Honestly, I'm with you. Isaac and Lin are so sweet together, so caring. She can't speak, but she can sign, so he learns sign to speak with her, and I loved that.

Richard: Did you find that coupling disgusting or just weird? Something must be seriously wrong with me that when they described the early lovemaking between Isaac and Lin, her soft feathery headlegs, all of it, it got intense. I'm not even sure if I understood at times. I'm like, wait, she's still a woman from the neck down, but this is what she likes?

Leah: Ha! Please. I'm way too liberal to be turned off by a few headlegs!

Richard: But that vulnerability, the willingness to understand each other, when they are very different, that was sweet. So you thought it worked then?

China mixes in all of these different threads—the tech, the creatures, the politics, the world, the love and hope, the relationships, the violence, the fantasy—something for everyone.

Leah: Ok, in all seriousness, the sex a little weird, but it's also surprisingly chaste. For "steamy" sex scenes, they were quite PG-13. Which I appreciated, because it didn't really require me to picture anything too out there.

Richard: True.

Leah: And with the human body, it almost made the head stuff seem a little....unimportant. If still a little unusual.

So...would you date a bug-lady?

Richard: I'd like to think I'd be open to it. I think that's what's fascinating. I'm picturing the way all of these creatures must look, Googling all of the characters and monsters to see if my vision matches what's out there, and I CAN imagine a time in the future when these things can happen. The relationship between Issac and Lin is a story we've heard before. They're not supposed to be together, he could lose his job. So just pick a race or ethnicity 50 years ago (or even today) and there is that bigotry. I found it all to be quite compelling, really.

Leah: Me, too, actually. But I'm the child of a Jewish mom and Catholic dad who, 40 years ago, ran away to get married so their parents couldn't force them to break up! So yes. I loved that part of the world, and the thought that they could have broken boundaries and changed things.

Richard: It's nice that China mixes in all of these different threads—the tech, the creatures, the politics, the world, the love and hope, the relationships, the violence, the fantasy—something for everyone. Did you worry that you might quit this book early on? Have you read many books like this one?

Leah: I don't know that I would have made it through the first 100 or so pages if I hadn't been reading it for our chat, but I'm glad I stuck with it. The beginning was so heavy on world-building, I got a little put-out. But in the end it was worth it.

Richard: Good. Yeah, there was enough that got my attention early on that I wanted to stick with it. But it really took off about halfway through with the introduction of the Weaver and the slake-moths. The second half just FLEW for me.

Leah: The second half had action, in addition to the world building. But like I said, worth it, just to read that ending!

Richard: For sure. Would you call this steampunk? Have you read any steampunk proper to compare it to?

Leah: I've read more girlie-steampunk, but not much. I think it counts, since all the tech is steam-based, and it's all dark with that Victorian feel. Yes, I'd call it steampunk.

Do you think it could be made into a movie?

Richard: I grew up on Bradbury and Heinlein, so I guess I'm okay with all of the world building. As for a movie? Sure. Yeah. It would be one hell of a great film, I think. So much here to keep your attention. I'd be SHOCKED if it hasn't been optioned yet. Bit of the Hobbit/LOTR mixed with The Matrix and maybe Pacific Rim? And Mad Max, maybe?

Leah: Ha, yes. It would need Peter Jackson to pull it off....and probably at least three movies!!

Richard: Yeah, I think it's got 3-4 sections, right?

Leah: Yep, all easily separated. The New Crobuzon Series!

Richard: Should we give our final thoughts and all? Verdict, rating, etc.?

Leah: Sure thing. I think it's about that time.

Richard: Ladies first?

Leah: I think this was one of the more interesting books I've read recently. I'll rank it, in detail and plot and chaos, up there with Hyperion by Dan Simmons, which was also dark and foreboding. I would NOT want to live in New Crobuzon, but if I had friends like Isaac and Lin and Dherkan, I think I'd be able to find my way through.

I'm actually really glad to have read it, to tell the truth, but I need to cleanse my palate with something light and cheery now.

Richard: Yeah. This is not an easy read. You have to take your time with it. It's 700 pages, but King does 1,000 pages all the time. The tech and language may turn some people off, but stick with it. It's such a unique book. It reminds me of the first time I read Weaveworld or The Stand or The Girl Next Door. It will change you forever. It is not your old school fantasy and science fiction. It's one of my favorite steampunk books ever, or dark F/SF, whatever you want to call it. It gets a 9/10 from me due to a slow start and some drags in the middle, but I absolutely loved it. It was so much fun to revisit this world. Next time, yes lighter, and maybe 200 pages.

Leah: I'm telling you, we need to do a novella.

Richard: Chapbook? Flyers? Leaflet?

Leah: YES! Let's do a Choose Your Own Adventure!

Richard: Dr. Seuss.

Leah: Perfect!

Richard: Well, I guess people will just have to stop by and see what we do next. Could be anything, at this point!

Leah: Exactly. Can't wait to see what we come up with next. Thanks so much for the chat, Richard! Until next time!

Richard: For sure. Thanks, Leah. Always fun.

Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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Anders Seneca Bang's picture
Anders Seneca Bang from Copenhagen, Denmark January 18, 2014 - 8:11am

Alright, long post coming. Also my first post here. Spoilers ahead if you haven't read the book.

I've read Perdido Street Station numerous times, and I really, really enjoy it and have made several of my friends read it. That said, I think there are several flaws you're not adressing here. I generally disagree with the notion that the start is slow, or as least so slow as to be detrimental - as you say it focuses on world- and character building, and I think it works very well. Anyway, my biggest problem with the novel is not the focus on tech, weird races or (somewhat) elaborate language. The biggest problem is that China crammed way too much stuff in there. I think the editor just let him run amok like a kid in a toystore, 'ooooh, what a cool and weird and quirky and arcane and esoteric idea, let's put that in there'. I mean, the world of Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon is 'strong' enough, unique enough, that it's both interesting and 'believable', for lack of a better word. But do we really need The Glasshouse also? Or the handlingers? Or the ambassador of Hell? We have a sprawling city with like 5+ unique races, with a unique form of government, with a unique focus on 'gritty realism' within the world (the people swear and fuck and are racist and perverts and poor etc etc and have everyday problems). Like the subplot with the handlingers: I can just imagine China going, 'ahh, cool, we have mind controlling hand-monsters with powers to fly and spit fire and-and-and-and let them fight with the moths and then the moths WIN because they are so POWERFUL, yay' - but we already know and believe in the power of the moths, so essentially we get a long, long sequence (the gathering of the handlingers and the fight with the moths) that doesn't add to neither the plot or the world building in any meaningful way. And that's just one example.

Another criticism I have is the relationship between Isaac and Lin. I agree it's cool, and I like how both of you seem to really have fallen for Lin, but with China's focus on realism and the everyday life in New Crobuzon, it seems weird that it's SO outrageous that a man and a khepri are together. I mean, it's not weird for all these guys to hang out or work together in the docks, in the streets, in the bar etc. It's like there is a schism between how China portrays the world as well integrated and believable, like, yes, the pretty casual relationship between the races is probably what would happen if somehow 5+ different sentinent races were to live and work and survive together, but it's unthinkable that these guys can go together and fuck.

Anyway. I've probably just over analyzed it, but that's because I'm usually not very good with fantasy, but I really enjoy Perdido Street Station for some reason. It's probably a solid 7/10 or even 8/10 for me, despite all my criticism (and I have a few more points, like the final battle, and a point or two with the world building, but they are a bit minor compared to the stuff I just went through, so I'm gonna leave it at that). 



leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. January 18, 2014 - 12:08pm

Hi Anders! Nice to meet you and thanks for leaving your opinions as well! :) We do this because we love talking about books with each other...and with the broader community, so it's awesome to hear your thoughts! 

I stand by what I said about the beginning, and I definitely see your points as well. It IS a little strange that it would be weird for Isaac and Lin to be together, but look at single-sex relationships here and now. Becoming more widely accepted, but some spaces...people really freak out. So I wonder if he wasn't sort of talking about that in his own, Mieville-ish way. Just a thought. 

This book was new to me, so I may be missing some of the nuances I'd get on a second or even third who knows, maybe we'll revisit it again in a few years or something! You just never know!

Anders Seneca Bang's picture
Anders Seneca Bang from Copenhagen, Denmark January 20, 2014 - 5:15am

Hi Leah. You too. Love discussions!

I get what you're saying about the parallel to homosexuality, but I still argue that inter-species (sexual) relationships shouldn't be *that* strange in the world Mieville has created. Besides, I'm from Denmark where we're pretty liberal and where gay couples are pretty common.

I'd like to hear your thoughts about my first point, about Mieville just throwing everything and the kitchen sink in there. I talked about the book with one of my friends yesterday, and he generally agreed with me.

All this talk about Mieville and Bas-Lag has made me want to read Iron Council, the third book in the universe, again, so I'm off to do that.