The City & The City by China Miéville
Well…no one could accuse China Miéville of doing the obvious. Miéville’s work typically engages with a big, strange idea, and The City & The City may be the weirdest yet. Although not perfect, I loved this book; in fact, it’s probably my favourite China Miéville novel since The Scar.
The City & The City takes place in the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, which are situated in an unnamed location in Eastern Europe, with a strong post-Soviet vibe pervading the place. The main conceit of the novel is that the two cities exist in the same geographic location, due to a mysterious split 2000 years before. Although large amounts of the cities do not cross over, with certain areas being only is Beszel or Ul Qoma, some areas are ‘crosshatched’, and exist in both cities. Crossing in these areas to the other city, or even acknowledging their existence, is the ultimate taboo, and citizens of both cities are trained to ‘unsee’ the other. To do otherwise is the invoke the wrath of ‘Breach’, a mysterious power which enforces the border between the two cities.
The concept of two cities occupying the same geographical space is one which a lot of readers will struggle to make sense of, and I advise you not to try. Yes, on the surface the idea may seem silly, but if you open your mind up a bit you’ll begin to see what Miéville is trying to do. Miéville is inconsistent as a world builder; the London of Kraken owed too much to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and the setting of Embassytown never quite came alive for me, but the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma stand alongside New Crobuzon of Perdido Street Station and Iron Council as one of Miéville’s finest creations. The metaphor of The City & The City is clear, but powerful; the way in which the citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma are trained to ‘unsee’ is a clear indictment of the way the homeless are ignored in society, as well as a commentary upon divided cities in general. The reader finds this enforced separation ridiculous, we wonder ‘can’t they see how much they have in common, how much they could achieve if they worked together’, but nationalist and jingoistic sentiment keeps them apart; I’ve felt the same confusion about the Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem. Beszel and Ul Qoma are both fascinating and entertaining settings in their own right, but also work as a symbol; there are few authors who can pull off both, but Miéville does with gusto.
The actual plot follows Inspector Tyador Borlú, a member of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad, and his investigation into the murder of Mahalia Geary, a foreign student with an interest in the two cities and the mysteries surrounding them. Borlú’s investigation brings him to the heart of the two cities, as he discovers secrets which threaten to shatter the delicate balance of power between Beszel and Ul Qoma.
As well as an excellent sci-fi novel, Miéville shows himself as an able writer of a good old murder mystery. He does a good job of weaving both types of narratives together, with the plot staying mostly interesting and coherent throughout. Things begin to derail slightly towards the end, with a somewhat rushed and messy conclusion taking away slightly from the whole, but it’s hard to deny that The City & The City is a strong science fiction and police procedural.
Miéville can be quite self indulgent with his prose, but he’s gotten better and reigning himself in as he’s gone on. Police procedurals tend not to be the most overwritten genre, and true to this tradition the prose is surprisingly plain given the bizarre concept. That’s not to say that the prose is poor, in fact it’s just right for this novel, with the plainer style actually reinforcing the madness of this setting rather than undermining it.
The characterisation is probably the weakest element of the novel; I’ve still yet to read a Miéville which could rival The Scar for the quality of the cast of characters, and it’s hard to get too invested in this bunch. Borlú isn’t the most dynamic or interesting of protagonists, although a decent supporting cast helps matters. I liked Corwi, a foul mouthed police woman, but she’s very much a toned down version of Collingswood from Kraken. Slightly more interesting was Dhatt, an ‘old school’ Ul Qoman cop, but overall it’s still the setting which is the star. There’s no stand out character in The City & The City; everything pales against the concept itself.
The City & The City is one of Miéville’s best works, and one which I think even non fans of sci-fi would enjoy. It manages to convey a genuine message whilst also being damn entertaining, which isn’t an easy feat. For all his flaws, Miéville is still one of the most interesting authors around, and one whose books I snap up at every opportunity I can get.