Sci-fi meets compassion in 'Perdido Street Station'

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When first glancing at the cover of "Perdido Street Station," it's hard to decipher the author from the title. China Miéville? Isn't that some country we're supposed to be frightened of these days?

"Perdido Street Station"

by China Miéville
Del Rey, $18
But his peculiar name notwithstanding, award nominations have begun to pile up around this new author. Published a year ago in Britain, "Perdido Street Station" has been nominated for both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association Award.

Miéville's first novel, "King Rat," was short-listed for the International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. Comparisons to the likes of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and even Charles Dickens have been used to describe his work, although "Perdido Street Station" seems like a cross between the scaly horror of Clive Barker and the thorny wanderings of Iain Banks.

"Perdido Street Station" is set in the city-state of New Crobuzon, a place infested with organized crime and government corruption. It is populated by a host of characters, both human and "xenian."

There is Isaac, a science geek who works on the fringes of academia and struggles to harness "crisis energy." There is Lin, his clandestine "khepri" lover - part human and part insect - who is a sculptor, fashioning pieces out of a sticky luminous substance known as "khepri-spit" that she excretes from the back of her head. There is Yagharek, a garuda who was shunned by his people for a crime that he describes only as "choice-theft in the second degree."

They roam through gnarled buildings from one gritty neighborhood to even grittier parts of town.

Then there are the monsters - enough to fill a whole shelf of books. Much of the story focuses on the slake-moths, winged creatures that invade the dreams of the city and feed off of the minds of their victims. Other fantastic creatures are unveiled one after the other, each just when you start to think that nothing more could be squeezed into this 700-page tome.

But the principal character remains the sprawling city itself. New Crobuzon is steeped in the history of so many divergent cultures that Miéville has undoubtedly only scratched the surface of all he has imagined. A second novel set in New Crobuzon - with its radiant railway arms that stretch out in all directions, only to ultimately converge in the center, at the looming Perdido Street Station - is due out next year.

Ultimately, what is most memorable about "Perdido Street Station" is not the diversity of its imaginings but the manner in which it presents them, its sophisticated writing and adept characterization.

The only times that I became frustrated with this novel were when it wandered from the central characters. There were chunks where I read faster and faster, in part to find out what happened next, in part to follow the machinations of the city, but primarily with the hope that one more turn of the page would return the story to Isaac or Lin or Yagharek.

At times they spent too long in the shadows, hanging on the fringes of the story while some new and wondrous monster was given center stage, or the politics of the city were let loose, or some avenue of corruption explored.

Unlike much science fiction, "Perdido Street Station" is infused with a sense of compassion and humility.

Its characterization demonstrates that actions always have consequences, transforming it into the sort of novel that you can escape into, one that allows you to forget about being squeezed on a vinyl bus seat between two hulking commuters, one that that extends far beyond the edge of its pages, one that clunks with a sharp throaty sound when you whack the side of it.