Perdido Street Station by China Mieville (Shane's book 4, 2009)

I don't usually read fantasy novels but I came across several references to this one - most recently here - that made it sound worthy of investigation. This novel is held in high esteem by a great many people but I found it disappointing. I should point out that this post contains spoilers of much of the first half of the book. First, the plot. Isaac is a scientist in the city-state of New Crobuzon. He is hired for a project that requires him to research flight and, as part of the project, acquires a strange caterpillar. Unknown to Isaac, the caterpillar will grow into a slake-moth - a creature that hypnotises its prey and then feeds on its consciousness, leaving behind a living but mentally vacant being.

[amtap book:isbn=0330392891]

New Crobuzon's corrupt government had been experimenting with using slake-moths as a weapon but found them too dangerous and sold them to a drug dealer who is using them to produce a drug known as 'dreamshit'. When Isaac's caterpillar transforms into a slake-moth, it finds and frees its brothers and together they terrorise the city. The government, the drug dealer and Isaac each set out to find the slake-moths and stop them.

Mieville writes well but that's not enough to solve the book's numerous problems. Firstly it's far too long. Anyone who follows this site will know that I have no problem with long books. I actually wanted Infinite Jest to be longer, for example. But Perdido Street Station, at almost 900 pages, is at least 250 pages too long. Mieville spends far too much time describing regions of New Crobuzon, its races and various other bizarre and grotesque things he's created. There's no doubt that he has a great imagination but most of this serves neither plot or character and seems self-indulgent.

Secondly, the book has a fairly clumsy structure. Almost nothing happens for the first 100 pages, then Mieville spends 300 pages or so setting up the plot before closing with what is basically a 400-page chase scene. There's little to engage during this final section and I found myself increasingly impatient with it. That said, the 50-page coda takes the story in an interesting direction, albeit one that has little connection with what has gone before.

The final flaw, and the most serious in my opinion, is the extent to which the story is driven by coincidence, most of which is unnecessary. While Isaac is drawn into the story by his ownership of the caterpillar, his girlfriend, an artist, is hired to make a sculpture by the drug dealer who owns the slake-moths. Meanwhile, their friend Derkhan, a journalist, inadvertently stumbles across the government scientist who was looking after the moths. At one point it seems as though everyone Isaac knows may have some connection to the slake-moths. It all seems a little implausible. Perhaps everybody in the city is connected to the moths? Perhaps this story could have started anywhere.

Some of these problems may be less bothersome for fans of the genre. A skim through the fantasy section of any bookstore, for example, will show that huge books are pretty much the norm. It seems that you can't be taken seriously by fantasy fans if your novel has fewer than 600 pages. Maybe reading descriptions strange worlds and alien races is an end in itself. Who knows? Regardless, this book was not for me.