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Novel of the future that sheds light on the world today

BOOKS: China Miéville, Perdido Street Station. Random House, 2001, 710 pages, $18.

Review by BRIAN VAUGHAN | June 22, 2001 | Page 11

AT THEIR best, science fiction and fantasy describe alternate worlds that, by mixing the fantastic with the familiar, can allow us to better understand our own world.

China Miéville, a socialist from Britain, brings an understanding of class struggle to Perdido Street Station--as well as great imagination.

His latest novel comes from a genre called "steampunk"--which combines the exotic beings and magic of fantasy literature with the grim urban settings of "cyberpunk" science fiction.

New Crobuzon, the setting of Perdido Street Station, is a vast industrial city fouled with pollution.

The government, in the service of the rich, rules through a brutal militia, army and police force.

Convicted criminals and the desperately poor are "remade"--that is, parts of animals or machines are grafted onto their bodies.

Human bigotry against xenians--the intelligent nonhuman population of New Crobuzon--is encouraged and exploited by the bosses.

Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, the central character of the novel, is a scientist on the outskirts of respectable society--his friends are other scientists, artists and political radicals.

He faces ostracism because of his love for a nonhuman--Lin, a "khepri" sculptor.

During his researches, he comes across a strangely beautiful caterpillar--which later transforms into a monstrous "slake-moth" that attacks one of Isaac's friends and escapes.

Isaac learns that the slake-moths can overcome anyone and devour their dreams and thoughts.

The one that escaped from his lab was among five that were used in a government research project and then sold to a crime lord.

Soon, all five are loose.

Unable to trust the government, Isaac and his friends set out to stop the slake-moths.

They find allies--the Weaver, a giant spider who perceives all reality as a vast and beautiful web; and the Construct Council, a machine that has become self-aware.

This plot plays out against a background of oppression and resistance.

At one point, Isaac tells the story of a photographer who revealed the horrible effects of a weapon used in a war long ago, spurring protests that nearly brought down the regime.

Radical agitators call for unity between humans and xenians in a dockworkers' strike, and "remade" guerrillas fight for their liberation.

There are no easy solutions in New Cobruzon, but there is hope in struggle.

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