In lieu of an actual review (short version: it was good but a little challenging and took at least 2 reads to “get it”), a couple of observations about China MiÃ©ville’s Perdido Street Station:
(1) On the appeal of steampunk: I remain convinced (and in large part because of this book) that the big appeal of “steampunk” as a genre has to do with the archetypal Inventor/Tinkerer. Here we get this in MiÃ©ville’s Isaac. In many ways he’s an unlikely protagonist: a little hefty1, nerdy, self-aggrandizing, cowardly, and a bit of a pervert2; but incredibly brilliant. He occupies a mental space with our real-world Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla and (perhaps more so?) Benjamin Franklin. Our modern (20th/21st century) concepts of science are so laden with litigation and patent applications and funding cuts and notions of proprietary information… It makes sense to cast Isaac as a radical; it’s as if he can see through the veil of the page into our own world, can see how science is encumbered by business and process, can see how disconnected the individual is from his work. There is no more Lone Tinkerer puttering about his basement workshop assembling the next great innovation. And something in our cultural consciousness years for that.
(2) On protagonists: Though I’ve (above) alluded to Isaac as the protagonist, MiÃ©ville’s Yagharek serves as our narrator and by extension of convention this grants him a kind of protagonist emeritus status3. But in Yagharek we’re given an interesting bridge between the novel and the reader. Yagharek is, in so many ways, the opposite experience of what I imagine a “typical” fantasy reader is after in his narrators: Yagharek is not heroic either; he is a rapist and a cripple and he is in many ways frustrated and impotent. Our vehicle into the story is hardly a vehicle for escape, hardly a means of escaping our own “real world” anxieties and limitations. What’s more, Yagharek’s ultimate fate (i.e., to desplumarate himself and “go as a man” into New Crobuzon) is a way of turning to the reader and saying: “Now get back to your life just as Yagharek has done.”
- The references to “his bulk” being a little bit mixed in that regard; but for the sake of argument, he could (in the parlance of our time) stand to lose a few pounds, for sure. [↩]
- Though let us not judge him here since his “perversion” is really just analogous to an interracial relationship (though that comparison is on par with calling the space shuttle an airplane). [↩]
- To be honest though, Yagharek is enough of a protagonist to not need the “emeritus”. [↩]