To start out with, I’m going to be discussing end-plot details, so if you haven’t yet read Perdido Street Station, I recommend that you do so before reading further.
I’m not traditionally a sci-fi reader, outside of my comics which are, by and large, sci fi in a lot of way. However, the thing that has always appealed to me about the genre, and this applies to comics as well, is the way that the non-human and the utterly alien can become just as much human as we are, if not more. This is where Perdido Street Stations shines the most. Beyond Mieville’s prose, and ignoring sections of the book that could be completely excised without losing anything, I’m left with the feeling of reality that the characters are invested with. You’re left identifying with these creatures and these beings who have no external similarity to you, and that is its greatest strength.
The story itself is a look at the way that we handle crises and consequences to our actions in both the macro, and the micro. How do we face up to our responsibilities and the penalties that we incur for our actions? Here, we’re given two characters: Isaac and Yagharek. Isaac is a scientist that specializes in the abstract and the theoretical, tinkering away in his shop when Yagharek, a bird man from a far away nation enters. Yagharek’s people are nomads, and desert dwellers who rely chiefly on their wings for every facet of their lives. Yagharek, however, has had his removed for crimes that Isaac cannot understand, due to cultural differences. The Garuda are highly individualistic while also being a communal people. To that end, they see every member of the tribe to be a complete whole, and their choices to be the most important possession that they have. All crimes are, therefor, derived from the preciousness of choice. Yagharek describes his crime as, “Choice theft in the second degree.” It’s this cultural difference that keeps Isaac from really understanding what this stranger had done that was so grievous that his wings were cruelly cut away from himself.
Yagharek comes to Isaac for one purpose: to restore his wings, or at least give him the ability to fly again.
Isaac is invigorated by this request and sets to work immediately. He locks himself away in his shop and he studies every form of flight that he can with species from all around the world. One species catches his special attention, though: a caterpillar that seems to feed on dreams. When this caterpillar then weaves itself into a cocoon, the creature that hatches from it creates a crisis that the community hadn’t seen for years.
This is where the two characters stand: Isaac knows that he has a responsibility, and cannot let the creature that he’s brought into the world wreak havoc. He’s at fault and he has to do something about it. Yagharek has a responsibility too, he has to remain flightless for what he’s done. He knows that he has done something horrible, but he’s trying to skirt around his punishment anyway. Isaac, not knowing any better, doesn’t judge Yagharek for what he’s trying to do. The two are then bound together. Isaac cannot ignore his responsibilities and devote himself to the flight issue, and Yagharek cannot move on without his wings.
And so the plot goes. The beast is killed, but the heroes are unsung, made into public pariahs and are less in number than at the beginning. Knowing that it’s best for all of them to leave, they prepare to enter into self-exile. However, before they do, Isaac receives a visitor, who says that she knows Yagharek. A fellow garuda, she implores Isaac to leave Yagharek without his wings. Isaac demands to know what Yagharek did that deserved such a horrific punishment and here it finally comes to light: the noble warrior who never flinched in the face of certain death, who had risked everything for those that had become friends, is a rapist.
Isaac, knowing that he cannot continue with the work as he has, takes with him the two friends that he has left, and leaves without Yagharek. Responsibility. Personal crisis. How do we handle our consequences, no matter how dire they are? Do we take responsibility for our actions or do we push them aside and adopt a more protective identity, something that will shield your true self from the rest of the world? Who are we, when we’re alone, when there’s no one in the world to watch you? Do we live with integrity, or do we just talk big and shirk the duties that we owe to one another?