China Mieville sure likes cities (Perdido Street Station and others)

Back when I was constructing my reading list for this project I rather callously threw Perdido Street Station by Chine Mieville onto the pile because I had already read it years ago and my feelings about the book are pretty easy to summarize. Might as well go for the low hanging fruit, right?

In the course of writing that review some thoughts occurred to me. Rambling, loosely connected thoughts that may or may not be connected in some way to Perdido Street Station and Mieville’s other books.

So, Perdido Street Station. I first picked it up in my last year of secondary school due to the gorgeous cover, knowing absolutely nothing about the book or its author. I used to do this a lot, until I bought Tad William’s The War of The Flowers and learned my lesson.

Perdido Street Station is ostensibly the story of an eccentric scientist living in the magical/steampunk/clockpunk/ inter-dimensional/progressive rock city-state of New Crobuzon. In the course of completing an innocuous experiment he unleashes five nearly-unkillable monsters that proceed to terrorize the populace and generally cause mayhem. Hilarity ensues.

Except the book isn’t actually about that, it’s about the gangsters controlling New Crobuzon’s drug trade. Actually wait, it’s really about metamorphosis and radical bodily alteration. No hang on, it’s really about the race of sentient cactus people* living in a giant greenhouse in the middle of the city.

Basically, Perdido Street Station is about New Crobuzon. Not any particular part of New Crobuzon. Just all of it in general. This is both a blessing and a curse.

Most creative types (or people who aspire to be creative types) have been coming up with stories since they were teenagers or even children. The process of growing up involves pruning away the terrible ones (ie most of them) as your tastes mature over time. But I think most people have That One Story, the one that never gets cut but instead grows and grows over time until its far too large to be contained within the pages of a single book. I get the feeling Perdido Street Station was Mieville’s One Story. He added to it and added to it over the years, exploring the setting he had created in more and more detail. Then it finally came time to turn it into a coherent narrative and, unable to decide which of his ideas should go into the book, he simply decided to include all of them.

The upshot of this is that there’s a lot to see, but it never turns into a truly compelling story because Mieville is too busy stopping the narrative to show off his city. That’s not necessarily a bad thing- New Crobuzon is basically five Ankh-Morporks turned inside out and shoved into a particle accelerator- but I get the distinct impression Mieville almost resented the fact that he had to tell a story, far preferring to just show off the sights and sounds of his city.

This is something of a recurring problem with Mieville’s books, exemplified by The City & The City. It takes place in a location so creative and unique I’m not going to spoil the surprise by describing it (in fact I’m not even sure if I could in a way that would make sense). You should go into this book with no idea what to expect.

That probably sounds like I’m endorsing the book. I sort of am. It was absolutely gripping for the first half, then the novelty of the setting wore off and the plot and characters had to carry the rest of the book. They failed to do so. I get the distinct impression Mieville came up with the setting first and then tacked a fairly rote police procedural/ political thriller onto it in order to turn it into a novel. This is such a strong trend in his work I think he’d almost be better off ditching narrative completely and writing his books as fictional histories or travelogues.

So that’s my basic impression of Mieville- a writer who sacrifices story in favour of world-building. That’s seems to be the impression many other people have of him as well. But when you think about it, is he really such an anomaly?

If you ask nearly anyone to list some of the fantasy genre’s problems, “padding” will be up there in the top three. Multiple factors can contribute to this, such as a book having too many characters or long drawn-out travel sequences, but I’d argue that an excess of world-building is an equally big problem. The only difference is that most authors aren’t sacrificing their stories to bizarre steampunk wonderlands, they’re forgoing narrative in favour of shoving the reader’s face in generic fantasyland #300,000,000. Look reader, this is the peaceful kingdom of Eur’op! Over here is the evil Thothian Empire! And if you’ll just look to your left you’ll see the Mines of Kir-Gamesh! By Jove, they are full of dwarves, how did you guess?

Even fantasy novels that eschew these cliches have a tendency to spend pages and pages building up a world that’s not particularly interesting, as demonstrated by the countless arid Middle Eastern analogues full of slaves and oppressed women that have been popping up like a xenophobic fungus recently.

I guess if I had to bring this post to some kind of point it would be that if you aren’t China Mieville, drop the exposition and get on with the bloody story.

 

* (I defy you to read that section and not imagine all of the cactus people looking like this)

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