This Steampunk meets New Weird meets Cyberpunk meets Fantasy novel has so many themes, that I'm not even going to try to give it full credit with some sort of synopsis. I'm rather just going to talk about various aspects of the book as I go along with my review.
The way I felt when I finished the novel, I wanted to give it 7 stars. For a few reasons, I'm having second thoughts.
Let me start off the bat with some aspects that niggled me.
Firstly, certain aspects of the world-building:
Mieville used a few mythological creatures and creatures/tropes from popular culture as a template for creatures that he made his own, which he gave his own unique twist to.
One of the things that bothered me a bit was how illogical the physiology of some of Mieville's sentient creatures are. The biggest culprit, for me, was the cactus people. I suspect that these creatures are a nod to videogaming culture, but I felt that their inclusion detracted from the credibility of the 'mechanics' of Mieville's world.
I could almost still live with the idea of having humanoids running around who look like cactus plants - it's actually pretty cool in a comic-book way, but really- cactus plants with human organs who reproduce the way humans do, with males and females, and the females even have breasts????? Oh, come onnn...... that detracts a lot from the credence one might still have tried to give the other sentient creatures, most of whom are plucked from the pages of mythology.
It might work as Bizarro, but this work isn't entirely Bizarro; and for the amount of trouble that Mieville put into his world-building, one would expect all the nuts and bolts to fit together better into creating a world that works according to believable rules, but sadly, that is one aspect in which I found the novel lacking.
Still.. the creatures are quite fun and pretty cool- Mieville might have taken them out of the pages of world culture, but he made them fun, and he made them his own, and as such they lend a particular imaginative allure to the world of Bas-lag.
First, there's the scarab-headed Kephri from ancient Egypt :
An Egyptian god who was patron of the sun, creation, life and resurrection. In Mieville's world, only the females are sentient, which I found quite a hilarious twist.
Then, the Vodyanoi from Eastern Europe:
These are mischievous water creatures in Eastern European folklore, (also called Rusalkas) . In Mieville's world, they need to remain wet, and have devised various techniques for keeping their skins moist while hob-knobbing with the land creatures.
Also, the half-bird, half human Garuda, one of which is a main character in PSS:
(I simply couldn't resist slipping this awesome artwork,
King of Garuda by Jessada-Art on deviantART into my review;- it reminded me so much of the idea that I formed of the Garudas in Mieville's world.)
According to Wikipedia: In Hindu religion, Garuda is a lesser Hindu divinity, usually the mount of the God Vishnu. Garuda is depicted as having the golden body of a strong man with a white face, red wings, and an eagle's beak and with a crown on his head.
Throughout the Mahabharata, Garuda is invoked as a symbol of impetuous violent force, of speed, and of martial prowess. Powerful warriors advancing rapidly on doomed foes are likened to Garuda swooping down on a serpent.
In Buddhist mythology, the Garuda are enormous predatory birds with intelligence and social organization.
Personally, I think Mieville could have tapped more out of the mythology surrounding these majestic creatures- for instance their antipathy with serpents, shape-changing abilities and so on. On the other hand, he attached such an interesting sociology to Garudas that I can completely forgive him for leaving out some features of the creatures from myth.
As already mentioned, to me most of the tropes worked quite well, because in spite of the nonsensical physiology of, for instance, the cactus people, and perhaps that of the Khepri, the pure imaginative fun and originality of the off-kilter physiques make the creatures memorable.
Besides the more obvious borrowings from mythology, there are aspects which feel like nods to common tropes in comic books, TV shows and video games, some of which are quite humorous.
For instance, there's a section where a cleaning machine becomes sentient because of a virus in its programming, the process of which, as Mieville describes it, was pretty hilarious. I laughed out loud! He had a pretty funny depiction as well of sentient computing machines self-organizing and wanting to take over the world, which was excellent satire on both the actual internet and on tropes of the oh-so prevalent pop theme of sentient robots wanting to take over the world.
What made the whole AI theme really interesting and uber fun, is that the book is set in a Steampunk background, so all the computing machines run on steam!! ..and they're that ancient 50's kind that still worked with punch cards. Very funny, and a really enjoyable romp.
Themes like this all add to the fun, but I think I prefer a subtle homogeneous canvas which comes across as an organic whole, rather than a jarring, comic book collage where the elements make up a mismatching pastiche, and sometimes this book feels a bit like the latter.
It's almost as if Mieville was trying to scrunch too many loose ideas into one world, as if he didn't use enough self-restraint.
Now to move on to some of the more political aspects of the work.
There is so much conflict here.. not just as reflected in the book, but in myself over the book and over Mieville. Mieville himself seems a complex creature, every bit as complex as his work.
Personally, I find the Anarchist Marxist view a bit naive. As far as I am concerned, people are just never going to be philanthropic and astutely mature enough not to need any kind of government to regulate the cogs and wheels of human society. So in my view, thinking that we can dispense with all forms of government and live happily ever after in some kind of anarchic hippie commune, just won't work. (Not unless everyone is put on drugs from an early age, anyway.)
Mieville, a Marxist, shows us a negative depiction of government. New Cruzobon is on the surface a democracy, but in reality a police state. The government is corrupt and makes use of secret police to control the populace. Ironically, rather similar to certain now-defunct Communist governments from the past.
But perhaps Mieville isn't quite as naive as one might think. People in power do, after all, tend to become corrupted by the sweet headiness of power, the narcotic lure of power. It's no secret that it requires a saint not to become corrupted by it.
...so I have to admit that the depiction of New Cruzobon government and its machinations to remain in power is not quite so far-fetched, and one needn't even be aware of Mieville's personal ideology to identify with his cynical depiction of a conservative type of government in which secret police play a sinister role, and which, although a supposedly democratic government with a parliament, seems to sit just-just on the edge of totalitarianism.
As for the rest of the novel; it is a melting pot of intertextuality, originality, and nods to -and riffing on tropes, but winding through it all, like rivulets that eventually meet up with their mother river, run plot threads that eventually meet up into one cataclysmic stream of events which touches the lives of the characters in the novel; nay, not just touches- heaves them up and carries them in a nightmarish torrent of events which changes them forever.
In spite of my criticisms, this is a great book.
The way in which Mieville spun a web across the lives of several characters and have them all irrevocably touched by and changed by fate, is pretty amazing; - it reminded me of the web George Eliot spun through her novel Middlemarch.
Also, like everybody else says in their reviews, the world he builds is rich and imaginative, if at times rather excessive in its detail.
Probably, the hardest aspect for me with this work was interpreting when the author is being serious and when he is putting tongue in cheek.
The last chapter of the book is serious. That much I can tell you. I cried. My heart ached. The ending of the book affected me so deeply that my insides ached for quite a while after finishing the book. So kudos to Mr Mieville for managing to do that.
It is one of the most intimately personal parts of the book, where Mieville bathes his characters in pathos. He writes with amazing self-control at the end. I personally would have preferred a revenge ending; but this literature climbs above that. It takes no sides, it just shows. It shows each of the human and non-human (yet so human) characters in their acute, frail humanity. And these characters have grown.
Isaac, the once callous and arrogant, now broken in his shattered world, has become softer, is seeing the world from a different angle. Yagharek finally comes to acceptance, and.. but wait, let me not spoil the plot.
Just read it. I will add a small warning though - you'll only see the plot threads drawn together at the end of the book, so don't get too impatient if you don't see the entire painting, the whole picture of the story before you're about 3 quarters through the book.
Mieville examines many ethical issues throughout the novel, for instance, among others: How much are we allowed to sacrifice in the name of science? How should punishment for heinous crimes be administered? Is it acceptable to sacrifice a few to save many? His answers regarding an ideal approach to these problems do not tend to be pat or preachy, and although the reader might not always agree with the choices of the characters regarding ethics and morality, at least Mieville is putting the issues on the table to be aired.
I do feel Mieville missed a few opportunities, for instance, with how callously Isaac treats creatures during his experiments. I feel that Mieville could have had a character comment on this for example, to highlight the issue, and Isaac could have replied with an argument from the scientist’s point of view. As it is, it simply serves to add to the dislike one already feels towards the character regarding his hypocrisy in the way he conducts his interracial relationship with a Kephri woman.
As a postscript, I'd like to tack on a reference to a short story, [b:The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas|92625|The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas|Ursula K. Le Guin|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1313785390s/92625.jpg|89324] by Ursula Le Guin, in which she introduces one of the moral conundrums that one bumps your head against when looking at things from a utilitarian point of view, namely: when does it become acceptable to sacrifice the one to save the many?
In the novel reviewed above, Mieville simply takes it as a given that it is quite acceptable from an ethical point of view for one person to be sacrificed for the many. I don't necessarily agree with this assumption. However, if you think carefully about it, it is an assumption that Christianity is steeped with; and in fact many religions (including the ancient meso-American religions) have strong themes of it being good and justifiable to sacrifice few for the benefit of many.
I'm not arguing with Mieville's stance on the matter, since it is not problem that lends itself to easy solutions. I would have appreciated a bit more soul-searching on Mieville's characters part regarding this question though, since it is a pertinent problem that is relevant to the citizens of the world today.
Bottom line is that although this novel has some flaws, I thought the positives outweighed the negatives enough for me to give it four-and-a-half stars, rounded up to five.
Highly recommended to anybody who would enjoy a rich tapestry of gritty fantasy and who likes fiction that explores moral issues and new ideas. Not for those who prefer their fiction prim, proper, staid and conforming to 19th-century standards of writing.