This is an investigation of eight novels incorporating the fantastic, with a view to drawing some conclusions about the place of speculation in fiction.

Many years ago, I used to read a lot of SF and then I got bored with it and stopped. When I started browsing for it again on the shelves of new and second-hand bookshops (ah! remember when it was so easy to do that? real bookstores with real books!), there were a few names that were new to me, one being China Miéville. Strange name. I thought he was a woman at first. It turns out he is the offspring of Sixties hippies who thought “China” was cool. He also appears to be an ex-public-school Trotskyist (but I won’t hold that against him) (note to US readers: “public” here of course means “private”) who has actually stood for the UK Parliament, for the Socialist Alliance. And he has a PhD in international law.

Miéville, by his own account (see the opening exchanges of this interview), is an unashamed genre writer. Successful genre writers for a generation have been recognisable for their paperbacks being marketed in uniform designs with embossed metallic lettering. There was a period when Martin Amis was being given this treatment, which only goes to show that publishing promoters are sometimes clever enough to understand there are cool kudos to be had (and therefore profit to be made) from pretending not to be “literary”. Though it probably wouldn’t work for Henry James.

Some writers try to straddle the marketing divide in what I believe to be unsatisfactory ways. Iain Banks flips over into SF by the expedient of inserting a middle initial M into his name. Miéville, however, in a later passage in the interview I’ve referenced above, takes a more integrated view of his aesthetics (and in this is probably closer to, say, Doris Lessing, who clearly doesn’t care which niche she’s marketed into), averring that it would be “the Holy Grail” to “write the ripping yarn that is also sociologically serious and stylistically avant-garde”.

Does he pull this off in Perdido Street Station (2000)? Not quite, but this is a book of considerable originality whose mise-en-scène is disturbingly unforgettable.

There are a few reference markers. Miéville’s acknowledgements include thanks to the memory of Mervyn Peake. Followers of English fantasy typically divide into enthusiasts for Tolkien and for Peake. I guess the latter is seen as grittier, more avant-garde, more political, less nostalgic. Miéville’s invention of the city of New Crobuzon (and the world of Bas-Lag in which it is set) has obvious affinities with Peake’s Gormenghast. It is a dark, urban, Gothic, grotesque world; the place names, for instance, are recognisably English inventions, but baroque and grimly comic: Murkside, Griss Fell, Bonetown, Skulkford, Petty Coil, Kinken, and the rivers that trisect the city, the Tar and the Canker.

Having said that, I must point out there are some Tolkien-like features. Like The Lord of the Rings, the book begins with a map. Yes, you can follow the action through all the sites mentioned above and more via the impressively complex plan of New Crobuzon. I’m a sucker for that. Also, the monsters in the book – that is, the most terrifying of several different kinds of monster – the Slake Moths – are dark presences in the sky with the uncanny fascination of Tolkien’s Nazgul or Dark Riders. And, while, the book lacks any cosy remembered homeland like the Shire, it is populated, like The Lord of the Rings, by humans as well as humanoid hybrids and even stranger beings who unite in a campaign to defeat overwhelming evil. It is true that “good” doesn’t triumph in any facile way, but then that’s sort of true for Tolkien’s trilogy as well.

Those hybrids: there are cactacae (cactus-like humanoids, originally from a desert environment), vodyanoi (humanoids with amphibian characteristics), garudas (bird-like humanoids with the power of flight – the narrative is sparked by the plight of one of these, who has been deprived of his wings for an unspecified crime), and a myriad of sub-human but sentient creatures. The protagonist, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, whose scientific investigations at the behest of the stricken garuda trigger a chain of disastrous events, has a girlfriend called Lin who’s a Khepri: a being with a woman’s body and an insect’s carapace for a head (what my more politically incorrect student chums decades ago would have regarded as the utimate paper-bag job).

Whether this menagerie in the end better recalls Max Ernst or Star Trek, there is a contemporary, even political edge to all this which Miéville exploits cleverly. The most obvious fact here is that it’s the city itself that is the most palpable and powerful presence in the novel. You can almost smell it. The second most obvious fact is that this is a grotesque depiction of London. The map clearly has the shape and feel of London, with the river running through it roughly west to east, a Parliament building stuck right on that river, right in the middle, and a criss-cross of railway lines. Yes, this is an SF novel with railways, another fact that delights me. It recognisably intercuts with that sub-genre of SF known as steampunk, deploying as it does Victorian steam engines, mechanical/analogue computers that become sentient, and alternative science (techniques that appear magical allow the powers that be to punish transgressors by modifying their physiologies in radical and grotesque ways – yet powered, heavier than air flight seems to be unknown). Mervyn Peake was a pioneer here too.

The humans – recognisably white, middle-class folk – run this impossibly diverse, multicultural city, exploiting the other species (“xenians”), who tend to live in ghetto-like districts, often specialising in doing the dirty jobs. Lin, like many of her khepri kin, works as an artist, using the exudations of her own body as materials – I get the strong impression that her spiritual home is Hackney. In one memorable episode, the amphibian vodyanoi, who of course work as dockers, stage a strike which is brutally put down by the government. There are numerous tour-de-force set-pieces like this, but the problem is that they are poorly integrated into the narrative.

This is the main criticism of this otherwise impressive piece of writing. The rendering of this infernal world in all its detail, with its complex power-structures, is, one suspects, the author’s chief delight, and he luxuriates in his own prose, which is, I have to say, over-reliant on my least favourite literary trope, the simile: in the space of little more than a page, for example, we have “thin windows like arrow-slits”, “the militia’s hub, the Spike, that punctured the earth like a concrete thorn in the heart of the city”, a dirigible that “flapped and lolled and swelled like a dying fish”, “slate roofs hunching like shoulders in the cold, rotten walls”.

And beyond this inferno, he hints at even worse places: when the government are casting about for help in ridding the city of the deadly Slake Moths, they timidly summon the Ambassador from Hell, who, it turns out, is too scared of these monsters to offer assistance. This is a good joke, but once again it’s a set-piece not strictly relevant to the plot – which, once the major threat is established, turns into a bug-hunt, albeit one with unexpected twists. At the end, little has changed – a difference from The Lord of the Rings, actually.

Miéville has set further novels in the world of Bas-Lag. The danger with this, I fear, is that the shock of this fictional world is liable to diminish the more it is described. With important elements left to the reader’s imagination – is it an alien planet, a parallel world or a scenario of the far future? – it is scary precisely because, as in a nightmare, anything may be possible. As more is described, the possibilities are one by one closed off.

Also, as further novels are added to the series it becomes more and more just another fantasy franchise – and so, however much he may defend genre, it may be that Miéville’s wish for his writing to be considered more “seriously” has compelled him to set his current novel, The City and the City in a more realistic, contemporary fictional world – albeit one with a metaphysical dimension. So when I return to this author, this is the book I shall investigate next, to see whether he is closer to his “Holy Grail” of combining fantasy writing with serious literary groundbreaking.

Next episode – Christopher Priest: The Prestige