Perdido Street Station by China Mieville (2000): China Mieville's second novel takes us to the strange world of Bas-Lag and the strange, sprawling city of New Crobuzon. One could see Mieville as having gone back to the time before the genre divisions established by the commercial demands of publishing were in force, back to the early 20th century, when science fiction and science fantasy and dark fantasy were non-existent distinctions.
New Crobuzon, vast and London-like and filled with humans and a wide variety of other sentient species, is one of those places where both magic and science work. It's a crowded, vibrant place that combines elements of Dickensian London and steampunk. It's also a partial dystopia thanks to its ruthless ruling class. There's freedom in New Crobuzon right up until the point one makes trouble for the government. The secret police are everywhere, quashing unionization and making deals with organized crime.
Mieville has a density of imagination that crams Perdido Street Station with memorable characters, species, and events. The plot is pure entertainment, the outlines familiar: a plucky group of misfits must battle a terrible enemy. Mieville's attention to detail makes that familiar plot hum, though, and his wild imaginings make it sing. His socialist concerns also make for some scenes unusual to fantasy and science fiction -- celebrations of the working class, a protagonist who's an overweight intellectual, and a fascinating off-beat coda that both defies and rewards expectations.
Is there a tradition Mieville works within? To some extent, yes. A world of both science fiction and fantasy is the world of the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, among many others. Mieville's dense, often eclectic diction in concert with this mashed-up world of science and magic and the grotesque recalls the works of Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, Tim Powers, Michael Shea, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock.
But this is all Mieville's world, in the same way that The Lord of the Rings is both high fantasy and its own Tolkien genre, all its own. That's how it works with great writers: they're a genre of one. The characters are compelling, flawed, and occasionally heart-breaking. There are asides and references that suggest the vastness of the world Mieville has imagined. There are terrifically exciting sections, including a climax that goes on for about a hundred pages without losing either momentum or invention. There's sorrow as keen as anything, genre or otherwise. There's an awesome super-Spider and a terrified ambassador from Hell.
And there's a pack of truly terrible, superbly imagined monsters, set upon New Crobuzon in a manner which recalls so, so many real-world governmental perversities involving drugs, guns, organized crime, and a corrupt political system. This is neither a world with a Chosen One nor a rightful king. And the heavy lifting, with all its costs, will be done by beings excluded from the heights of society. Some of them may even otherwise be terrible, terrible people.
There are flaws, of course, piffling for the most part. My one larger complaint involves Mieville's need to keep throwing in new species and new sub-plots, a need which results in a bit of clutter in the middle section. A relatively lengthy bit pitting one truly odd species against the monsters of the novel is the apotheosis of this problem -- it advances the plot not one whit, and seems to be there because Mieville really, really wanted to introduce this cool, malevolent species and then pit it against the far more malevolent monsters.
In all, this is a great novel, regardless of genre. There's a keenness to it, even an anger at The Way Things Are Here, that nonetheless never becomes didactic, never detracts from the singularity of Mieville's fully realized, vibrant, awful Secondary World. Highly recommended.