6 MAY 2000, Page 33

City of dreadful light

Michael Moorcock

PERDIDO STREET STATION by China Mieville Macmillan, £16.99, pp. 710 Imaginative fiction which refused to rationalise its flights of fantasy as dreams, visions or scientific speculation used to be called simply 'fantasy'. The description suited books as varied as Grant Allen's The British Barbarians, Wells's The Wonderful Visit, Garnett's Lady Into Far, Wooifs Orlando, White's Mistress Masham's Repose, Peake's Titus Groan, Richardson's Exploits of Engelbrecht, Carter's The Magic Toyshop, Amis's The Alteration, Harrison's In Viriconium, Ackroyd's Hawksmoor or Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

Today Tolkien-cloned 'Fantasy' has become a bookshop category like 'Myster- ies' or 'Romance'. We know it has some- thing to do with talking animals, elves, heroic quests or, if we're lucky, comical wizards but we have a problem distinguish- ing the individual, the literary, from the popular generic. We once emphatically described J. G. Ballard as speculative fiction rather than science fiction because we needed to distin- guish his work from a public perception, in spite of Kingsley Amis's puritan prescrip- tions, that SF was all spaceships, purple people eaters and pulp plot lines, an impression, of course, which television and movies have confirmed a millionfold since New Maps of Hell was published in 1960.

It's currently fashionable to call an unrationalised fantasy a parallel- or alter- nate-world story, terms borrowed from SF. Such stories began as ideas rather than backgrounds. The best known modern example is probably Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), which pro- posed a present in which the Allies lost the second world war. Saki did it best, for my taste, in When William Came (1914), writ- ten before his death in the trenches, about Germany winning the first world war and a British ruling class coming to terms with its conquerors. In the hands of desperate pro- fessional writers this device quickly becomes an easy way of tarting up some shabby old plots. The exotic lost land adventure, which began with Defoe, if not with Palmerin of England, suffers badly from actual exploration. Mapped, logged and claimed, the mysterious becomes merely untrue. She or Tarzan of the Apes can no longer exist in the Africa we now know. They can, however, plug on happily in a 'parallel' Africa, where the sun never set on the empire, some Ruritania, or even Dickensian London.

A more ambitious kind of fiction creat- ing a mysterious city or world, such as Gor- menghast, has considerable irony and is only a shade away from Faulkner's Yawk- napatawpha in intention and sensibility. This fiction tends to use its backgrounds as part of its narrative structure. The best is M. J. Harrison's Viriconium sequence, which indulges a Walpolean taste for the exotic and the antique. It's a romantic, knowing, post-modern version of the Goth- ic in which strange, ruined cities are not merely given soul, but achieve sentience, even senility. An often overlooked example is Brecht's Threepenny Novel, which offers a marvellously distorted Edwardian London. More recently there's Steve Beard's Digital Leatherette. Beard was published beside Melville, Steve Aylett and Tim Etchells in last year's Britpulp anthology edited by Tony White. All borrow elements from popular fiction, have their own invented worlds, with their own architecture, own history and own bizarre inhabitants. Aylett's absurdist thrillers (Slaughtermatic, The Inflatable Volunteer) mostly happen in the city of Beerlight, while Etchells's sar- donic fables are set in Endland, a world of infinite rundown housing estates, boozers and fast food restaurants.

Like Alan Moore's or Grant Morrison's popular graphic stories, this fiction shares a Shelleyan suspicion of church and state. While finishing China Mieville's impressive second novel, set in the baroque, brooding, gaslit industrial city of New Crobuzon, I realised that he had a lot in common with the 14th-century muralist who decorated our local Oxfordshire church with pictures of the poor and meek ascending to heaven while the authorities, including kings and bishops, went headfirst into the maws of demonic beasts.

Mieville's first novel, King Rat, published last year, was an extraordinarily vivid, tac- tile tale of underground London. Set in the here and now, with subtle hints of the supernatural, it showed the author's empa- thy for creatures you would normally hope to poison. Perdido Street Station, a massive and gorgeously detailed parallel-world fan- tasy, offers us a range of rather more exotic creatures, all of whom are wonderfully drawn and reveal a writer with a rare descriptive gift, an unusually observant eye for physical detail, for the sensuality and beauty of the ordinarily human as well as the thoroughly alien.

By chapter one Mieville has graphically convinced us of the mutual sexual passion of a plump human chemist and his sculptor beetle mistress. By chapter two we're feel- ing the pain of a proud hawkperson from the distant desert who has committed some abominable flock-crime and has had his wings sawn off in punishment. His yearn- ing, elegiac voice becomes one of the most successful narrative threads in the book. When Mieville avoids generic plotlines and stock characters and writes about individu- al alienation and love, about difficult rela- tionships and complex architecture, the book comes most thoroughly to life and takes on tremendous tensions.

Perdido Street Station (the name of the rail hub where vast numbers of lines meet) has a wonderfully emblematic setting in its vast, murky, steam-driven Victorian city, teeming with races and species of bewilder- ing variety, in which electricity doesn't exist, where magic works, where elementals are part of everyday life, where Hell is an actual place and corrupt politicians make deals with Satan. There are spectacularly gripping scenes with terrifying fabulous beasts which stop you from eating or sleep- ing while you read and give you nightmares when you stop. There's a monstrous threat, a noble victory. Yet Mieville's determina- tion to deliver value for money, a great page-turner, leads him to add genre bor- rowings which set up a misleading expectation of the kind of plot you're going to get and make individuals start behaving out of character, forcing the author into . rationalisations at odds with the creative, intellectual and imaginative substance of the book.

That aside, Mieville's catholic contempo- rary sensibility, delivering generous Victo- rian value and a well-placed moral point or two, makes Perdido Street Station utterly absorbing and you won't get a better deal, pound for pound, for your holiday reading.