The City and the City, China Miéville
The City and the City, China Miéville
Pan, 373pp, £7.99 pbk
Ever since the publication of Perdido Street Station ten years ago, China Miéville has been a darling of the UK genre literati. This is not entirely surprising – he’s intellectual yet commercial, a vocal Trotskyist but his books are not especially political, and a genre writer who cannot and will not be pigeon-holed. His novels have been nominated four times for the Arthur C Clarke and won it three times – he is, in fact, the first three-time winner of the award. His latest win was this year for The City and the City. It also won the BSFA Award, lost out the Nebula Award to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and is on the shortlist for the Hugo Award. So, before even reading the blurb, expectations are high for The City and the City. There is also a great deal of commentary about the book available on-line, and in magazines and newspapers. Which makes it a difficult book to review…
The central conceit of The City and the City is the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same space but are entirely separate. Residents of one city must “unsee”, must avoid any suggestion of interacting with, the residents of the other. They are legally, socially and metaphysically completely different countries – even though they share the same streets and occupy the same ground. It is, I have to admit, a stunningly original conceit. So much so I was afraid the book would suffer from Ringworld-Rama Syndrome, in which the central Big Dumb Object – or, in the case of The City and the City, Besźel and Ul Qoma – would overpower the actual story. Miéville, however, has managed to sidestep this by choosing to set a genre novel in his conjoined cities; but his chosen genre is crime.
Inspector Tyador Borlú is a detective in the Besźel Extreme Crime Squad. When the body of a murdered young woman is found on a patch of wasteground in the city, Borlú’s investigation soon reveals that the victim was an American archaeology student working in Ul Qoma. The question is, was she killed in Ul Qoma? And how was her body brought to Besźel? Because if the murderer simply stepped from one city “into” the other, then that would be “breach”. And breach is the single most heinous crime in Besźel and Ul Qoma. It is policed by a shadowy organisation, one step below boogeymen, called Breach. Borlú travels to Ul Qoma to interview the victim’s professors and fellow students, and learns that she was secretly researching Orciny, a mythical third city allegedly hidden in the interstices between Besźel and Ul Qoma. This may be tied in with her murder. The truth behind her death, however, proves both stranger and more prosaic.
Though the plot of The City and the City may present as crime, the book is definitely a science fiction novel. Its setting is so strange that it comes as no surprise to find the first few chapters contain quite blatant exposition as Borlú relates the situation and history of Besźel and Ul Qoma. It is one of science fiction’s burdens that it must lay out the world in which the story takes place. A crime novel, however, must present clues to motive and modus operandi, but Borlú’s explanations overpower his investigations. While if The City and the City had been a literary novel, if Miéville had been a writer of literary fiction, then both exposition and mystery would have been part of the story, and not merely enablers of the narrative – there would have been a reason for them, the story would have been addressed to someone and that someone would also be part of the story.
The book’s central idea, the Siamese-twinned cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, casts a long shadow. It is, on reflection, not an especially plausible conceit, requiring the reader to swallow far too much to really work. But Miéville makes it work. By using Borlú as the narrator, Miéville skates over the sheer impracticality of two cities sharing the same space. It is only towards the end of the novel as the plot begins to stitch both cities into the story as one, and Borlú with it, that the conceit begins to unravel.
It’s hard not to wonder what Miéville had in mind when designing his setting. The two cities are located in the Balkans, somewhere between Romania and Turkey. Besźel, as indicated by its name, has a Mittel-Europa culture; Ul Qoma is Arabic-like. Yet Besźel is the poor twin, a grim and lugubrious place, while Ul Qoma has undergone Kemalist reforms and is now booming. So this could be Palestine and Israel, but with a prosperous Arab state and a suffering Jewish one. Berlin could be another analogue, with the Wall being cultural and legal rather than an actual physical concrete barrier. But The City and the City feels more like a commentary on the Middle East than it does on East and West Germany.
The City and the City is one of the most original novels to appear in a number of years. It’s not perfect – the dialogue often feels forced and too many of the characters speak alike; the crime elements of the novel rely too much on leaps of inspiration by Borlú; the climax feels too Hollywood, and yet backs away from any real closure… But this is still a very good book. Recommended.
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