I know that China Miéville will soon be coming out with Kraken, so I’m a bit tardy with this review of The City & The City. But this earlier novel was recently nominated for a Nebula award. Plus, one of the great things about reviewing books for this blog (as opposed to the more official reviews I wrote for Perdido Street Station and The Scar in The Seattle Times) is that I get to write when I want. So there!
The City & The City may well have the strangest premise I’ve encountered. It’s about the divided cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma in an unidentified part of eastern Europe. Both cities occupy the same space, which doesn’t mean that they neighbor each other. They’re interwoven. One city can switch to the other from one block to the next. The only thing that keeps residents from walking in and out of each city is lifelong training, and discipline. The book is filled with concepts like unseeing, unhearing, and unsmelling, where residents of one city work to cement themselves in it and not perceive anything happening in the other. The only way to move officially between the cities is through Copula Hall, a transit center where one literally goes through the door one way only to come right back out the other way, but in a different city. It’s a deliciously absurd premise.
The plot is pure hard boiled. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad investigates the murder of an unidentified woman. The case takes him into seedy corners of both cities and into echelons of power. In the end though, the star of the book is captured in the title. The plot itself remains somewhat flimsy, perhaps even predictable. The real thrill in reading this book is getting to spend some time in Besźel and Ul Qoma.
In the hands of a less skilled writer, the premise would crumble. Miéville handles it deftly. He could have easily resorted to some magical explanation for how the cities occupy the same space, but he resists, and by keeping magic at bay, he makes the book far more intriguing. Initially I was skeptical. I thought these cities would never make sense, but as the pages turned and the details grew, it all became shockingly convincing.
It also reminded me so much of Berlin. I lived there for two years after the wall came down in the mid 90s, in the Eastern side of the city. While the wall was gone, the divisions it created were palpable. I had my Ossie (East German) and my Wessie (West German) friends, and nothing killed a party faster than when the two met. Hopefully things have changed since then, but social planning required judicious balancing to keep the two cultures, which occupied the same physical space, from clashing. Miéville expertly draws on this human tendency for the absurd, how we can make our lives hugely inconvenient for the sake of something arbitrary that has been deemed important.
In addition to its Nebula nod, The City & The City was nominated for a Hugo. It’s a thought provoking novel that like much of the author’s work rewards the reader even long after it’s finished. Though I am happy to see that Miéville is returning to fantasy with his next novel… sort of, one never really knows quite what to expect from him. He doesn’t follow the rules, which is one of the things that makes his work so refreshing.