The City & The City

The City & The City
The City & The City

The City & The City (2009) is the first book that I have read by China Miéville.  I admit that his Perdido Street Station (2000) has been on my want list for several years, but I have never been able to pick up the book on sale anywhere. I had no idea what to expect, except that it would be something very different.

The City & The City has been given many awards:

  • Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
  • Arthur C. Clarke Award
  • World Fantasy Award
  • tied for the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel
  • nominated for a Nebula Award and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel

The basic plot of the novel is a police procedural told in the voice of Inspector Tyador Borlú.  Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in the European city-state of Besźel, investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, a foreign student found dead with her face disfigured in a Besźel street. He soon learns that Geary had been involved in the political and cultural turmoil involving Besźel and its twin city of Ul Qoma. His investigations start in his home city of Besźel, lead him to Ul Qoma to assist the Ul Qoman police in their work, and eventually result in an examination of the legend of Orciny, a rumoured third city existing in the spaces between Besźel and Ul Qoma.

As far as the police procedural story, it’s pretty average fare. This is no Harry Bosch or Adam Dalgliesh masterpiece.  However, what should be emphasized is that it is much more than simply following a detective around.  Part of the reason that Miéville is telling us a police procedural story is because policemen have a unique and significant relationship and existence withing their city.  And, as many commentators on Miéville have said before…. Miéville is always telling us about the city.  Inspector Borlú is not a gritty, hard-boiled detective.  He’s not the typical “down-on-his-luck,” disobedient, old-enough-to-retire cop.  In fact, the story, while told from Borlú’s perspective, is not really about him at all. If anything, the character development of Borlú is somewhat downplayed in this novel.

It’s beyond my ability to explain the setting/location of the novel better than it has already been done. This is Martin Lewis‘ description:

Besźel permeates Ul Qoma and vice versa:  to us, to the outsider, they are, in fact, a single city.  Not so to their inhabitants.  The process of instinctively recognizing and ignoring the other city is so internalized by the citizenry that it acts as an almost physical barrier.  The city and the city are sometimes densely crosshatched, sometimes physically as well as psychically separated, but the other city is always there and always foreign.

And this is Thomas M. Wagner‘s description:

Besz and Ul Qoman citizens must be the most neurotic people alive. By law, they must choose to ignore — to “unsee” — those parts of each other’s cities that occasionally obtrude on their own. One can be “in” Besźel or Ul Qoma, but whichever of the two you inhabit, you must be wary of those “crosshatched” areas of the city where bits of the other city are more visible than otherwise. A person in Besźel can be walking the sidewalk right next to someone in Ul Qoma. They are side by side, but a whole city, and a whole reality away. Violations of this bizarre boundary are considered Breach, and harshly punished by a mysterious Orwellian law enforcement body who somehow exist independently and above both cities, who possess frighteningly omniscient surveillance powers and apparently limitless punitive ones.

I do not know how helpful either description is, but I think both are intriguing and probably are enough to make most readers curious about Miéville’s book. Most readers who have had their interest piqued by these ideas probably want to know what sort of genre this novel can be called. Miéville seems to designate it as “weird fiction.”  Some bookstores shelve it in the Science Fiction/Urban Fantasy section.  Others just consider it general fiction.  The efforts of pigeon-holing books so fiercely have caused readership to expect novels that are clearly in one genre or another – so that they can also expect what sort of story they will be reading.  Naturally, this can lead to readership being unsurprised by storylines and reading what is really the same story over and over again, except in a vaguely different book cover.  This novel is fiction. It is set in a city that is two cities at once.  The cities are not real, however, the commonly known earth is accepted:  there is America, Canada, France, Turkey, etc.  The cities are probably most like Ruritania. Little references are made to things like The Terminator, iPods, and Windows OS.

Miéville has a distinctive way of writing. I consider it to be similar to writing as how one thinks – sometimes in phrases, sometimes interrupting.  I do not mean to say that the writing is discordant, but it is somewhat jarring upon first meeting it.  Miéville is also a very smooth writer – the reader is brought along through the story without feeling shoved, jolted, bludgeoned, or otherwise abused.  I almost want to praise this novel for all the things that it is not. One of the things it does not have is extraneous, elongated purple-prose that burdens readers of “literary fiction.”    The novel also does not over-explain every detail.  Those readers who love the detailed minutiae of high-tech science fiction or finely examined legal systems might be disappointed.

I love the “setting” of the novel (or, perhaps, the concept of the dual-cities). Throughout the novel, as I read, I was constantly trying to imagine the cities.  Part of the uniqueness of each city is cultural; for example, colors, clothing styles, coffee-drinks, etc. We are not told what the specific details are, but that they are. Also, the way people drive, walk, and interact has subtle physical and psychological aspects that demarcate one citizen from another. I found this part really fascinating. Sometimes, I admit, the lack of details was a little frustrating. I understand having the courage to let the reader fill in the blanks, but a little help here and again would probably have made the story just solid enough. Of course, the novel won most of the big awards, so apparently, the lack of details did not hinder the book’s fame.

The book is divided into three main parts:  Besźel, Ul Qoma, and Breach.  The first section (Besźel) starts off a bit difficult because the reader has not quite gotten into the theme and setting. My advice is simply: keep reading!  The second part (Ul Qoma) is really the section where the action of the plot takes off. This is good stuff – solid writing, good story.  The third section (Breach) is my least favorite section. The first several chapters of this part are cumbersome and a little bit more challenging to get through. Obviously, “Breach” is supposed to be mysterious and shadowy, but sometimes I felt that Miéville let the story get away from him here or there.  Chapters 23-25 are a little bit less good than the rest of the book.

As far as the characters – they are not all that interesting or distinct. There isn’t a lot of character development. I am okay with that – most novels seem to focus only on character personalities and it was nice to read a novel that focuses on setting.  One thing about the main character that did seem a bit “too easy” was that Tyador Borlú does not seem to be an amazing detective, but he constantly manages to get people to do what he wants. Not in an exploitative or ambitious way, but rather that they all seem to just do what he says, capitulating without a whole lot of argument.

This book is quite good. It could have been magnificent and excellent. Instead it is quite good. Certainly, it will not appeal to all reader’s tastes, but those it does appeal to, will rank it highly.

4 stars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s