The City & The City

The City & The City
China Miéville
312 pages
published in 2009

Right. China Miéville is one my favourite writers, one of the few (together with Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod) I'll always buy in hardcover. I love the way in which he fuses science fiction and horror and fantasy together into what he himself has called New Weird, essentially a new genre that emphasises the grotesque and baroque sides of its parent genres. What I also admire in Miéville is that he keeps his imagination firmly grounded in a keen appreciation of political and economical realities, no doubt helped by his background as a proper socialist. That combination made Miéville's creation of New Crobuzon one of the more fully realised cities in science fiction/fantasy. With Miéville there's always the feeling that his heroes do have to work for a living, that the daily struggle for existence is just as important, if not more as whatever existentialist crisis they're on the fringes of.

It's this sense of realism that links The City & The City with Miéville's earlier novels. Set on Earth in two fictional Eastern European cities with no fantastical or science fictional elements and written as a police procedural: The City & The City cannot be more different from its predecessors. Yet at the core of the novel are the same political and economical themes Miéville always write about. At its best the police procedural is a very political novel, just because policing itself is intensely political -- just think about the decisions being made about which crimes to prosecute and which not, which investigations to support and which to starve of resources. There's therefore a long tradition of writers using the police procedural as a vehicle for social criticsm and Miéville fits in well with this tradition. Of course Miéville being Miéville he does more than that but we'll get to that.

The plot driving The City & The City is a familiar one. Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad of Beszel, a drab and poorish Eastern European city state on the Americans' shit list, is called out to what looks like a routine murder investigation. A young woman is found naked and stabbed on the outskirts of the city, in a not very savoury neighbourhood. Borlú's first assumption is that she's a prostitute murdered by her john, but there turns out to be more to her than visible at first glance. It turns out she's Mahalia Geary, a foreign study on an archeaology dig in Beszel searching for the city's origins -- and also those of its sister city, Ul Qoma. Sharing the same history and existing next to each other, the two cities are in a complicated and tense political relationship, not quite hostile but certainly not friendly, especially as Ul Qoma is so much richer and western than Beszel. Obviously Borlú's investigations lead him to Ul Qoma as well, as he uncovers a conspiracy that goes much further than just one murdered student, into the heart of the relationship between Beszel and Ul Qoma. He'll have to decide whether knowning the truth behind her murder is worth the price he has to pay...

So far so predictable. What makes The City & The City different from something Ian Rankin could've written is the nature of the relationship between Beszel and Ul Qoma. This relationship is what makes the book, it's a remarkably simple but brilliant idea, but it is an idea that some people will trouble believing in. It's also something that knowing beforehand will make you approach the book differently than when you're going into it not knowing about it. I'm wary about spoilering it, which is one reason why this review is so late -- I read this book when it had just come out in 2009 but only now know what to say about it and how to say it. Most reviews just come out with it and perhaps I'm just a wimp and should mention it directly as well, but it doesn't sit well with me. I've always found it annoying when the gimmick of a story is revealed to me in a review and with The City & The City it had been impossible for me to not have it spoilered before I read it, something I don't want to do to others. So if you haven't read it yet, skip the rest of this review and just keep in mind that this is an excellent police procedural with a twist and come back after you've read it.

If you have read The City & The City, you know what I'm talking about in the physical relationship between Beszel and Ul Qoma. These are not just twin cities with a shared history existing close to each other, a fictional version of Buda and Pest, but two cities that exist through each other, occupying the same physical space, with the inhabitants of each city trained to only see those things, building and people that belong to their own city. Some areas are completely your own city ("total"), some areas belong entirely to the other city ("alter") and some overlap in crosshatches. In those crosshatches you need to subconsciously unsee the evidence of the other city existing alongside your own, to ignore people even if they share the same street with you if they're from the other city. And if you don't, you're in breach. Which can happen by accident, or deliberately, but either way if your offence is too big, Breach comes looking for you and takes you. Those whose breaches are too big disappear.

A simple idea, a brilliant idea, but one that you need to be able to believe in if you want to enjoy The City & The City. If you don't, you cannot enjoy this novel. And it is difficult to imagine how this would work out in real life. How do you see which things you're allowed to see and which you're not? How do you see the differences between the two and how do you vary your reactions to what you see or not see to make it clear that you are seeing what you should and not seeing what you should, with a largley mythical agency supposedly looking over you to make sure that you do not breach the rules? A lot of reviewers, like Michael Moorcock in The Guardian talk about this as 'a metaphor for modern life in which our habits of "unseeing" allow us to ignore that which does not directly affect our familiar lives' but I think this is too pedestrian. If this was just a metaphor, it wouldn't work.

What China Miéville has done is write a classic science fiction what if story, in the guise of a police procedural. Miéville didn't invent the idea of unseeing and how inhabitants of cities live parallel lives next to each other, intersecting daily but usually not registering them unless forced to. That's an old idea, a cliche really about the nature of living in the big city. What Miéville had done is much more interesting, by taking this methapor, this idea of how we live our urban lives and made it concrete. We see the homeless but chose not to remember seeing them, not to let their presence affect our lives at all, but we can chance this if we want to, we can see them if we need to. Whereas the inhabitants of Beszel and Ul Qoma cannot. They live in cities where that process of unseeing is enforced and automatic, yet people of course still see all the things they need to unsee, but are trained to do this on a much less conscious level. That's as pure a science fiction idea as you can have and Miéville uses his plot to explore the ramifications of such a situation, drawing some conclusions on what this would mean and what the possible consequences are. Like all good science fiction ideas it's not completely worked out, kept vague were needed and full of holes when you start to think about it too much, but that's part of the fun.

The City & The City is not a perfect novel, the plot being ultimately unsatisfactory and a bit pedestrian, but the central conciet of the setting makes up for this. If you can accept it that is. If you can't, it fails and all that remains is a reasonable police thriller.

Webpage created 10-06-2009, last updated 29-05-2011.