Greetings, and welcome to the first installment of a (hopefully actually serial) series of book summaries/reviews I’m calling Avery’s Athenaeum. Here’s how it works:
- Synopsis: this section is for everyone, containing only minor spoilers and should serve as a suitable enough pitch to anyone who may be interested in reading the book.
The following sections are for people who have already read the book, or people like me who don’t particularly care about spoilers and/or like to know what happens before reading something.
- Summary: this section will contain major plot spoilers and serves as a more complete run-through of the books contents, though I reserve the right to over-generalize– this is mainly just so anyone who wants to can read my thoughts, even if they don’t want to read the book
- Speculation: this section will contain my thoughts and feelings about the book and an overall star rating out of 5
All I knew about China Miéville before going into this book was that he was British, hot, ripped, and an anti-capitalist activist. Easily swayed by handsome radicals as I am, I was pretty much immediately sold on the idea of reading his work. At a friend’s suggestion, the “weird” speculative fiction novel Perdido Street Station is where I decided to start.
Miéville drags you right into the world of Bas-Lag, specifically the city-state of New Crobuzon, crassly and with no holds barred. Right off the bat you get a gritty, disgusting, and visceral scene of a wretched city: factories billowing smoke, pestilence lingering on the fetid air, and rivers bubbling with tar (that’s literally the name of the river: the Tar). A handy map is provided at the start, which I found myself referencing frequently due to the many geographic references in the book. One thing became clear at first glance: New Crobuzon was inspired by London. Having read that Miéville grew up there, I was unsurprised. I was immediately intrigued by the symbolism: such a once great city, having been reduced over centuries to a slop-heap.
A slop-heap, however, that is alive with activity.
You are quickly introduced to the many fascinating characters and neighborhoods of New Crobuzon. It is established right off the bat that our protagonist is Isaac, a rebel scientist, and we are introduced rather scandalously to his pseudo-girlfriend, Lin, who is a “khepri.” There are numerous foreign sentient species in this universe, known as “xenians,” and the khepri are but one of the many non-human races among them. As expected, there is as much racism between the xenians and the humans as there is among humans themselves.
The khepri are a sexually dimorphic species of insect… sort of. They are so sexually dimorphic in fact, that while the males are simply scarabs, the females have human bodies, with scarabs… for heads. That’s right, human female bodies with entirely independent functioning bugs where their heads should be. I’m not talking about a woman with a bug’s head, no. I’m talking with a woman with an entire bug for a head. Really, she would argue she’s a bug with a woman’s body “attached.” She and Isaac, a human, are a rather unconventional couple, so they keep things on the down low.
This is in part because New Crobuzon is run by a militant parliament and is heavy with political unrest. Strikes and protests are building among the xenians. Ghettos are scattered throughout the city. And above all, the militia does not hesitate to lean into the biological and technological advances the city has made despite its obvious general decline: those who are convicted of a crime are “Remade,” or turned into something beyond human. If you’re lucky, you can keep most of yourself. If you’re not, you’ll forget where you end and the machine begins.
We meet Yagharek, a “garuda” or bird-man, who has come to New Crobuzon with the intent to reclaim his ability to fly, which, with his wings, had been stripped from him in some kind of punishment from his culture. Isaac agrees to help him, swayed in part by gold, and in part by the idea of tinkering with some new crazy science.
Lin, meanwhile, is an artist, who picks up a rather lucrative gig creating a life size spit-gland sculpture (oh yeah, khepri have a lot of fun biology) of a local powerful underground figure… who it seems is rather physically abnormal himself.
Along the way, during his research on flight, Isaac puts out a call through his criminal acquaintance Lemuel for “flying things, or things that might someday fly.” He ends up in possession of a strange caterpillar that won’t eat… until it does. Until it gets a taste of a hallucinogenic drug called “dreamshit.”
Now, up until this point, I have not said much more than can be gleaned from the book’s synopsis and the first few chapters. If this has piqued your interest, and you would like to read the book spoiler free, turn back now.
Isaac’s caterpillar grows and metamorphoses, bursting out of its cocoon and immediately harvesting the sentience of his poor roommate, an innocent bystander. This, instead of killing him, leaves him a vacuous shell of a man with no functional consciousness. He drools lamely, unable to even keep from pissing and shitting himself, and it is revealed that there are actually four other stronger “slake moths” around, that it tracks down via psychic energy and frees.
The rest of the book revolves around dealing with the unexpected problem of five dream-eating moths terrorizing the city. More and more non-deaths occur as the moths feed on the populous. The questionable militia that runs the city begins mobilizing, as does the powerful mutant patron of Lin, Motley, who it turns out was harboring the moths. Unfortunately, as soon as word got out that Isaac is the reason the moths are free, Motley, who sells their dreamshit (which it turns out they create to feed their young) assumes Isaac is a rival in his drug trade and kidnaps Lin, tearing the wings off her beetle head and presenting them in a letter to prove to Isaac he isn’t screwing around. He is told by Lemuel, his begrudging criminal ally and notably completely unreliable, that he knows Motley, and that based on his past experience and knowledge, she’s totally dead. Isaac believes him.
Isaac, Lemuel, Yagharek, and Lin and Isaac’s mutual friend Derkhan, set out to face the more pressing problem of, well… mind-eating giant moths. First they recruit some criminal allies and attempt to kill them where they nest, and although they do not manage it, they do manage to set fire to the moths’ first clutch of eggs.
In the process of figuring out how to get Yagharek airborne again, Isaac has created a functioning “crisis engine” with which he believes it possible. However, he also thinks it can be used to kill the moths. They manage to ally with the Weaver, a giant spider from beyond our plane who acts solely based on how pretty the “world web” looks, and the Construct Council, which is a giant conglomerate of trash and machines that organically achieved sentience. Using the fact that neither of these beings can truly feed the moths because they do not think/dream in the same way we do, Isaac is able to channel their energy through an unwilling human subject, using him as bait for the moths. Honestly, sci-fi technobabble is beyond me, but they eat it up. All but one moth are killed by the raw crisis energy of the experiment, while the militia shoots at them, and eventually a bullet kills the conduit human, before the final moth can feed.
The protagonists are taken by the Weaver to Motley’s home, where they find an alive but battered Lin, being forced to complete the sculpture before she would be allowed the release of death. The final moth shows up and attacks them, sucking out some, but not all, of Lin’s consciousness before Yagharek is able to pull her away. They manage to escape, all the moths being killed, but are in hiding from both the militia and Motley. Unfortunately, it becomes clear that Lin is not quite all there: not a vegetable, but not fully mentally intact either.
While in hiding, Isaac is ready to fulfill his promise to Yagharek––to fix up the worn crisis engine and make him fly––even though their ally, Derkhan, is ready to skip town. Isaac refuses to budge, feeling obligated to help the man who risked life for him so many times… until a visitor arrives, from the desert home of the Garuda. She asks Isaac not to undo the justice of her homeland, not to let Yagharek fly again. Isaac asks her what he did, because in Garuda culture all crime is considered “theft of choice.” She translates in human terms that Yagharek had raped her, but that she did not wish for him to moralize about it in his humans ways– that he committed the crime, that he has been punished for it, and that her wish was for that not to be undone.
But Isaac is unable to keep himself from moralizing. He can no longer think of Yagharek without thinking him a rapist. He tells Derkhan that the three of them have to leave, and they skip town without Yagharek. In the final chapter, Yagharek reads Isaac’s farewell note, goes up to the highest point in town and… does not kill himself. Instead, he plucks all his feathers out one by one, in an attempt to start over, not as a garuda, but as a man.
Overall, I fucking loved this book. I was so drawn into the grime of the world, the details of its underbelly. I loved the xenian races, many of which I did not have time to discuss in this piece, and the characters, of which there were so many great ones. Really, you have to read it for yourself to truly grasp it. Aside from Isaac and Lin, who I both found very endearing, I loved the Weaver, and its strange, absolutely inhuman ways. It’s so beyond any of our bullshit. It could care less. I also adored the villain, Motley, and would have liked to see more of him honestly.
That’s where some of my criticisms start to arise. From what I gathered when I briefly looked online at people’s thoughts on this book, people aren’t exactly thrilled with the treatment of Lin, as a female character. I think this is a valid criticism. As much as I love her, I do think that after the point at which she is kidnapped, she is effectively fridged. When Lemuel said with utmost certainty that she was dead, I knew immediately with utmost certainty that she was not, but the book proceeds as though she is. Not even for a second does Isaac doubt Lemuel, known to be an unreliable drug addict, or think that there might perhaps be SOME reason Motley would keep her alive: which, we learn, he does.
Now, this might not be the proposed solution people might have been expecting, but I would have liked to at the very least see the kidnapping. Show us Lin. Show us Motley. Their dynamic has been central from the start, and we’ve seen them together multiple times by this point. It’s been established how huge and terrifying and inhuman he is– show us her fear, knowing he’s officially turned on her, despite her being suspicious from the start. Show us how stupid she must feel for falling for it. Show us him taunting her, terrorizing her. Show us why we should care as much as Isaac that she’s being hurt. Show us a reason to care for her, not just for Isaac and how sad he must be about her. Lin being one of the best characters in the book makes it just a little bit sad to see how quickly she’s tossed away off-screen for 200 pages. Show us the kidnapping. Give us something!
Then, before I move on from Lin, I can’t ignore the ending. How she’s effectively revived only to be reduced to further misery, again, mainly to show us just how much Isaac is suffering. It is nice, at least, that they agree to care for her anyway, and are starting to respond to her new ways of communicating. As a neurodivergent person, it is always a bit of a slippery slope how cognitive decline can be represented in media, and it did rub me a little bit the wrong way to see how her cognitive issues ended up getting treated like this big tragedy. However, it does bring up a question I find important and very interesting: “I have brain damage, now. Do you still love me?”
There is no concrete answer, really. Not for Isaac and not for anybody. You can kind of only hope the answer is yes.
Honestly though, I initially was thinking that they were just going to have Isaac see she was alive and then have the moths feed on her completely in front of him. I honestly think that, like showing the kidnapping, would have been more emotionally effective. As it stands, his girl is still alive––he’s just mourning the part of her cognition she will never get back––despite the fact that she still exists. I mean, the question is meant to be “is it even worth it that she survived if this is what happened?” Leaving it this way makes it feel like Lin, now disabled, is not worth what she used to be… which is just a tad odd. To leave him with her living body, but absolutely zero trace of who she truly is… that feels scarier.
Issues of disability, both physical and cognitive, are near and dear to my heart, but I really can’t settle on a true opinion on this aspect of it. What do you think? Where truly is the line between severe cognitive degeneration and true brain death. Whose decision is it whose lives are considered worth living, and whose are considered tragic? At what point does someone stop being a sentient human with “special needs” and become just… a body? Whether he meant to ask them or not, these are questions Miéville asks with this book.
My other main issue is the bulk and the pacing. I have attention deficit disorder, and by the end of the book, I was starting to get impatient. I counted, and 20 pages of what should have been build-up to the climax was spent watching random people, many of which were not even named characters, set up wires throughout the city. It didn’t get me excited, so much as waste time diminishing any excitement I may have had. I mean, couldn’t this have been a two page montage? I understand getting wordy, so this is genuinely a personal preference, but I reckon I would have cut about 100 pages from this book. It tends to ramble on, often with a lack of concrete purpose, and while the descriptions of the city are definitely the bread and butter of the story, when you eat nothing but bread and butter for a week, you tend to get sick of it.
Frankly, if it were me, I would have titled the book “New Crobuzon.” Perdido Street Station, the location, is barely relevant, and I just don’t feel like it embodies the theming. The city. The world. Its energy and its inhabitants are the heart and soul of the story. I feel like at the end of the day that’s what this book was all about.
Now, the very end.
I saw some controversy over this as well. Some people called the ending depressing, while others said anyone who thought so didn’t get the point. I do have to agree with the latter camp. For me, I was starting to get a little unsure about the book as a whole until the big reveal: Yagharek is a rapist. I thought, fuck, this is perfect! Isaac immediately has this huge moral crisis and refuses to help him. He realizes that it doesn’t matter what the world thinks, what humans think, or what garuda think: it matters what he thinks, and he thinks Yagharek is a raping asshole. Is Isaac okay with murder for the sake of science? Sure. But rape? He draws the line.
I respect Miéville for sticking with this ending, because it shows us a true aspect of our world: criminals are hiding in plain sight, every day. The people you know and trust could have done something horrible in their life. Maybe even to other people you know. But you don’t know… and if you did, how would you handle it? I’ve always liked the “surprise! Someone you liked is a horrible person!” twist because it forces us to acknowledge what really, we all should know. Nobody’s a good person, and nobody’s a horrible person. We’re all just people who make choices, and it’s those choices that define us.
That is why choice-theft is the only crime for a garuda, after all.
Yagharek, at the end of the day, walks free. He is guilty, but the crime has been committed, and punishment has been doled out. He lost his wings. His identity. His only friends. Many would say that’s not enough, but I think it’s perfect. The symbolism of how he is unable to move on from his mistakes until he painstakingly plucks every feather from his body and is reborn “as a man”… I love it. He’s fucked up beyond repair, and yet, he keeps going. He has to.
Anyway, I could say so much about the stuff I liked about this book. I don’t have time for all of it. The concept of the “Remade” and being turned into something terrifying as a result of your crimes. The way it deals with different alien cultures and how that culture degrades over time spent with humans. I find myself particularly fond of this story, because it shares a lot of characteristics with one of my favorite shows, Durarara!!. It shares similar themes about the city, using fantastical creatures to showcase the chaos and beauty of it, and how the depths of a city are full of darkness and mystery. How not everything is as it seems–– some people around you are up to no good. How the city itself seems to breathe the life of everyone within it.
Although I was heavily considering knocking a star off near the end as I was questioning the choices made with Lin and the issues of the climactic pacing, the ending solidified it all enough for me that Perdido Street Station gets a solid 4/5 stars. At the end of the day, we are but products of the world we live inside of, and Bas-Lag is a world I would gladly return to.