I don’t know where I first heard of this book, but it was a few years ago. I looked in vain for it in used book stores and finally checked it out of the library. Halfway through I decided I wanted my own copy.
PSS fits in no obvious genre. It has elements of fantasy, of science fiction, of horror, and of steampunk. It is set in sprawling city called New Crobuzon, which is in a state of decay. We know this because Mieville doesn’t spare any opportunity to let us know how dirty and decrepit New Crobuzon is. Indeed, the city becomes a character in and of itself, its intricacies working as much as any of the other characters to further the story.
The city is populated by humans, khepri (beings with female bodies and the heads of insects — not heads like those of insects, heads that are insects), cactacae (cactus people), vodyanoi (amphibious froglike beings that can shape water), garuda (bird-people), remade (criminals that have been “reconstructed” in bizarre ways), automatons, and others. Our protagonist, Isaac, is a renegade scientist in a secret relationship with a khepri artist named Lin. When a de-winged garuda criminal named Yagharek comes to Isaac for help, it sets in motion a chain of events that will eventually threaten the entire city.
I enjoyed PSS more for parts of it than the whole. The setting was interesting. Elements that were introduced were interesting. There’s a lot of promise in the races and their interactions. The weird science and peeks at the world outside of New Crobuzon were intriguing. And yet, the whole was somewhat disappointing, largely because the pieces themselves were so interesting. There are a lot of elements that are dropped into the book in passing, but before much else is said about them, you’re hurried away in pursuit of the plot.
And the plot is, ultimately, what disappointed me the most. In Isaac’s flight research he inadvertently releases a threat upon the city, and at this point the book becomes about fighting the monsters. That idea, killing the monsters, just seemed very run-of-the-mill and pedestrian to me, coming from a book that seemed to aspire to more. Segments of the plot were like a particularly uninspired RPG adventure, and at one point we even get “adventurers” straight out of a gaming session. Mieville may be trying to sharpen a dull blade through self-mockery, but it doesn’t change the fact that the proceedings are pretty tired. To be fair though, I’m not sure what I would have preferred instead.
Without revealing any spoilers, there’s also a lot that happens towards the end that comes straight out of nowhere. There’s a deus ex machina character who saves the day, and a last-minute twist in the plot that both drops in out of the blue and causes a character to act in a completely unbelievable way.
I also have to admit a bias that was introduced about halfway through. When I went to the bookstore to pick up my own copy, the owner remarked that there were other books in the series. This immediately triggered a reaction in me. Part of the reason I don’t read a lot of SF and Fantasy is because there’s no such thing as a book in those genres, everything’s got to be a series. And that usually implies that you’re only ever getting a piece of the story. I don’t really feel that that is the case with PSS — the book is self-contained — but I can’t say that this revelation didn’t sour me a little.
However, I don’t regret having read the book. Ultimately I think I liked more about it than I didn’t like, but plot is such an important element for me that having one I found kind of dull affected the rest of it for me. If you find the plot more compelling, your experience may well be very different. And even so, the world itself is a really interesting place to visit.