I’ve decided to shift some reviews I wrote on another blog and have them up here as well. The first of those is of Miéville’s “The City & The City”, which I read last April. More to come.
(Minor warning on the potential for spoilers, but I think I’ve avoided any obvious ones).
China Miéville has always been an author with an ambiguous relationship to genre. He is often to be found in the Fantasy sections of the bookstore (where they still have bookstores), but this isn’t an exact fit. (His most famous ‘Fantasy’ novel – “Perdido St Station” – has a scientist as its protagonist.) He is also an author far more comfortable with urban environments than the bucolic pastoralism of more traditional Epic Fantasy (in the Tolkein tradition). The first question one may ask of “The City & The City” is then which genre it belongs to. It’s an answer I’m not sure I can give.
The title refers to Beszal and Ul Qoma, cities which, for reasons never fully explored or explained, share the same physical space. These two separate political, judicial and social entities overlap and intersect each other, the citizenry of each share physical spaces, streets, parks, weather, even traffic, but they are distinct. They have different laws, authorities, governments, bureaucracies, airports… To call a house physically next door but existentially in the other city would require international calling codes. To pass from one to the other requires a passport and visa. Through an ingrained psychological process of ‘unseeing’ they have learnt to disregard each other and the city they should not be in. This ‘unseeing’ is enforced by the mysterious power of ‘Breach’, but presents obvious difficulties for tourists and the foreign academics coming to study the unique archaeology of the area. In this element you might suggest that “The City & The City” is a Fantasy, but the label doesn’t really fit. Both Beszal and Ul Qoma are very definitely in our world, even if it is an alternative version. They are located somewhere in Eastern Europe, or perhaps the Balkans, and interact with neighbours as well as with Canada and the US. While the setting feels fantastical there’re no definite indications that the separation between Beszal and Ul Qoma is anything other than a human social construct. Some technologies exist which seem difficult to understand, but whether this is Science-Fiction or Futurism is again ambiguous.
Being a China Miéville novel there is inevitably a political aspect to the sociology of these cities. Both Beszal and Ul Qoma have Nationalists who are prepared to fight to keep their city separate from its spatial twin. Likewise there are Unificationists fermenting a rebellion that will see Besz and Ul Qoma made one. Economically, and in terms of foreign policy, the two cities are diverging and the influence of extra-national forces is felt by both populations. Readers of Political Thrillers will be familiar with the subplots of multi-national corporations and foreign ambassadors. Miéville is explicit in denying that this is a simple allegory of any existing or historical city (Borlú specifically states that this is not like Jerusalem or Berlin), nor is this an easy dichotomy of Capitalism/Communism or East/West. More than political allegory the division between the distinct citizens is a metaphor for almost any major city in the modern world, where our physical space is distinct from our social space, and where we may live next to the same person for decades without having a conversation, but have a close relationship with someone who lives suburbs away. In this way Miéville’s metaphor seems to be for the manner of modern urban socialisation, though he actively discourages any limited reading of meaning in the text.
At its heart though “The City & The City” is a detective story in a highly unusual setting. The narrative follows the investigation of Inspector Borlú of the Beszian Extreme Crime Squad. A body has been found dumped: a Jane Doe. Quickly Borlú’s investigation begins to hint at a larger conspiracy. Mysterious and anonymous tip-offs are phoned in, slim leads are followed, forensic tests are done on the body. In many ways the narrative has all the features of Crime Fiction, perhaps with a Noir element. Borlú runs in to the jurisdictional problems which are a familiar trope of this genre, but with significantly different challenges. His investigation uncovers more possible victims, and perhaps evidence that would call in the absolute powers of Breach. Borlú’s own understanding of his world, his city, Ul Qoma and the unique relationship they share is challenged, and the novel invites you to keep turning pages as the narrative twists and reverses and opens up to an extraordinary denouement.
Miéville channels the earlier Detective SciFi of Philip K Dick, the political fear of George Orwell, the hard-boiled detective of Raymond Chandler, and the Noir imagery of “The Third Man”. Although the publishers (and The Times) make a comparison to Kafka this is not absurdism. The concept of Beszal and Ul Qoma seem surreal, but it is really an exaggeration: a hyperbole of our border jurisdictions and the real examples we can find in places such as Stanstead, Coolangatta, or Baarle-Hertog.
Miéville is an obviously intelligent writer, and though his vocabulary here is far more accessible than in some of his other work, his ideas and imagination are evidence of this great intelligence. In lesser hands the conceit of this setting would be fragile, or slippery, of overwhelming. In “The City & The City” it is none of these things. Miéville handles the subject matter with confident assurance and never loses control of the beast he has created. The narrative itself is weaker and at times takes a second place to the setting, and the characters, while well drawn, are simplistic.
His greatest ability though is to present us with the utterly implausible and make us believe it. He brings us along with him as we tour the streets of the preposterous cities, and we go along without objection, accepting and enjoying the world as he gives it to us.