There’s no denying that expectations play a big role in how I see these books. Here we have a book by an author whose work I've liked, who has the sort of social science perspective that I love in my sf, and it’s one of the foundational works of the intriguing “New Weird” sub-genre. I really wanted to love this novel, and I’m pretty bummed that I didn’t.
It gets off to a great start. The main attraction here is the world-building, and the opening chapters are chock full of it. The setting is the city of New Crobuzon on the fantasy world of Bas-Lag. There’s magic, steampunk technology, and a variety of weird, hybrid sentient species, taken from different world myths. The khepri have insect heads like an Egyptian god, the vodyanoi are frog people from Russian folklore, the garuda have wings and bird heads and are inspired by Hindi stories, the cactacae are cactus people based on the venerable folk story Final Fantasy. There are also odd-looking people called Remade, deformed in imaginative ways by magic (er… “thaumaturgy”). The infrastructure of the city is wonderfully described – part of it is in the massive skeletal ribcage of a long-dead giant beast, it’s full of zepellins and trains, and there's a rich sense of the geography from the gritty streets to the high spire in the center. Mieville’s descriptions not only evoke a fully-formed urban aesthetic, but also a whole host of accompanying suggestions of class and race, which are missing from most nobility-obsessed high fantasy.
The protagonist is Isaac der Grimnebulin, a human scientist who’s dissatisfied with academic life. He lives in a bad part of town, and often visits an even worse part of town to hang out with his artist friends, including his khepri girlfriend Lin. Around the same time Lin and Isaac both get big commissions. Lin is to sculpt (out of khepri-mucous and berries) a statue of a horrifically self-Remade druglord named Mr. Motley. Isaac is to create a flying apparatus for a garuda who’s lost his wings, named Yagharek. Improbably, these plot lines come together when a super-drug producing Lovecraftian moth-thing escapes Isaac’s care and rampages throughout the city. Isaac must team up with Yagharek, sentient steampunk constructs, a demented giant spider called The Weaver, and others, to hunt down the moths.
Yes, it’s self-consciously weird. I like that about the novel, but I think there’s a fundamental schizophrenia here. Mieville wants to have crazy beasties, perpetual motion machines, magic, and steampunk, and he wants to tell a straightforward action tale. He’s not able to pull off both. Most of the book, including the entire second half, bogs down in endless fights, chases, and climbs, and Mieville seems committed to giving us a detailed play by play of every move. The hunt for the moth monsters comes to consume the book, pushing aside its weirdness and any deeper significance. Did Mieville really come up with all of these ingenious freaks just to have them team up for a super-battle?
Among the things that get lost in Mieville’s pursuit of Weird action is social commentary. As I said, there are rich suggestions of class and race as issues, and there’s a vague critique of the city’s authoritarian government, but Mieville never really develops these ideas. Mieville has a Ph.D. in International Relations (though I guess he was still finishing up when this came out), so I expected the novel to be about society on some level. It seems that Mieville is creating metaphors in New Crobuzon, but they’re not particularly well-developed or evocative. Again, action and self-conscious weirdness get in the way.
I can’t say I particularly cared about the characters either. Isaac is grumpy, consumed by work, and ambivalent about his feelings for Lin, which adds up to something that’s certainly not generic, but not particularly compelling either. Everyone else is pretty much a cipher, at least until the final chapter adds layers to Yagharek. Not being invested in the characters made those endless second-half action sequences even more interminable. Weird also gets in the way of the prose at times. Mieville shows flashes of his talent here, and the descriptions are far richer than your average sf, but he comes up with some off-putting metaphors (e.g. “his body wobbling like a bloated testicle”) and strange diction (“his body was thin…with a healthy emaciation”). I might applaud the originality of his language if I wasn’t so busy throwing up. Add in the aforementioned overwrought descriptions, and I wanted to yell at Mieville to put the thesaurus down and get on with it.
It was almost like I could see Mieville finding his voice as a writer throughout the novel. He immediately turns the fantasy genre on its head, but then he doesn’t do much with the new world he’s made. The ideas are there, but they need to be more developed in less space (I suspect I’m going to find many more books about a 1/3rd too long in this decade, as pagecounts continue to grow, more due to trends in publishing than to any actual artistic reason). I wanted this book to be so much more than it is, but I am still going to check out the other two Bas-Lag books.