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Perdido Street Station Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.
British author China Miéville’s novel Perdido Street Station (2000), written in the “weird fiction” and fantasy genres, is the first of a trilogy of novels set in the same fictional world. Weird fiction is a genre that brings elements of the supernaturally macabre – ghosts, dread of a terrifying “other,” unknown and extremely powerful forces at work – and combines them with magic, science fiction, and other speculative fictional tropes. In the case of Perdido Street Station, the setting includes otherworldly horror, magic, and alternate-future steampunk technology, all in service of a plot that follows a maverick’s scientist quest to defeat an infestation of accidentally unleashed supremely powerful monsters.
Most critics focus their praise on the novel’s intricately worked out and richly described setting. The novel takes place in the world of Bas-Lag, in a large city-state called New Crobuzon, which has attained Industrial Revolution-levels of technology, much of which is powered by magic (here called thaumaturgy). This city is an urban hellscape that is much larger than the cities in our world, and has been built between the banks of two rivers that are so polluted and otherwise befouled that their water is toxic. At the center of New Crobuzon is Perdido Street Station, built out of the ribcage of an enormous dead beast.
The city is peopled by an extraordinarily diverse variety of humans, mutants, and partially-human hybrid creatures, all of which just barely tolerate each others’ existence. It is never expressly spelled out where these human hybrids came from, but the mutants, called Remades, are all criminals whose sentence was to be gruesomely deformed as punishment. Power lies with the corrupt Mayor Bentham Rudgutter, whose vicious militia patrols the streets, and crime bosses like Mr. Motley, who control underworld gangs.
The protagonist is Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a renegade scientist, who has dedicated his life to researching “crisis theory” and has been roundly mocked by mainstream scientists. Isaac hopes to uncover the secrets of crisis energy, a force he believes will allow him to build a perpetual motion machine.
Isaac’s artist girlfriend, Lin, is a khepri, a human with a scarab beetle head. Their inter-species relationship must be kept secret because most New Crobuzonians would frown on it. Recently, Lin has received a commission from the terrifying mob boss, Mr. Motley, to sculpt his portrait.
Yagharek, a depressed garud – being with the body of a human, a bird’s head, and giant powerful wings (which in Yagharek’s case have been amputated as punishment for an unnamed crime) – approaches Isaac for help. Yagharek has traveled far to find someone who might be able to build him a wing prosthesis – money is no object. Happy to find a source of funding, Isaac agrees – and soon realizes that crisis energy might be the key for building new wings.
Isaac begins to collect as many samples of flying creatures as possible to study their wings for ideas. His source for the more unusual samples is Lemuel Pigeon, a black marketer, who brings him a large but mostly inert caterpillar stolen from a government lab. After trial and error, Isaac determines a food source for the caterpillar: a hallucinogenic drug. The caterpillar pupates, turning into a gigantic flying monster called a slake-moth. Slake-moths are enormously powerful and always hungry. They feed on thoughts and dreams, paralyzing their victims and then sucking their minds dry. The moth eats the mind of another scientist in Isaac’s lab and escapes.
The moth’s first stop is Mr. Motley’s estate, where the mob boss has been keeping four other slake-moths captive and harvesting their excretions for his drug operation. Isaac’s moth frees the others and they fly into the city. Furious, Mr. Motley learns about Lin’s connection to Isaac, and holds her hostage until Isaac returns the moths to him.
Meanwhile, Isaac, Lemuel, and Yagharek are on the trail of the slake-moths. Derkhan Blueday, an underground journalist, tells them that, shockingly, Mr. Motley bought his slake-moths from the government.
As the slake-moths hunt and terrorize the residents of New Corbuzon, the mayor’s militia, unable to cope with the moths, instead, tries to suppress knowledge about them from getting out. At the same time, several criminal gangs and rebel groups take the opportunity to try to overturn the mayor’s stranglehold on political power. The corrupt mayor tries to make a deal with demons and with the Weaver, a spider-like inter-dimensional being that is an incomprehensible dream-Id. The demons refuse to get involved, and the inscrutable Weaver decides to help Isaac’s team instead.
Isaac runs into the hyper-logical Construct Council, a sentient AI consisting of a series of interlocked cleaning robots originally designed to clean garbage dumps. Realizing that the Construct Council and the Weaver are thought-based opposites of each other, Isaac uses them in combination with his newly developed crisis engine to overload the slake-moths’ ability to sense prey. The trap almost succeeds, and four slake-moths end up dead.
One moth makes it out alive, however, and returns to Mr. Motley’s estate. There, Isaac finds a tortured Lin just before her mind is half-eaten by the slake-moth. Mr. Motley’s goons kill this last moth as Isaac escapes with a half-conscious Lin and Yagharek, who has selflessly dedicated his efforts to helping Isaac.
Back in the lab, as they realize that Lin will never recover, Yagharek reveals his crime to Isaac: the rape of another one of his species. Horrified, Isaac refuses to continue working on the garuda’s wings.
The novel ends with Yagharek making peace with his flightless status.
The novel was widely praised on publication, winning the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.