The City & the City, by China Mieville (2010 Hugo Nominee)
Posted April 11, 2010on:
I read China Mieville’s The City and The City in three days. A good thing in many ways – after day one I couldn’t put the book down, but every time I dozed on the sofa I would wake up Beszel, which started to freak me out.
How to describe Mieville’s fictitious Beszel? As far east in Europe as you can get, perhaps Azerbaijan or Georgia. Old churches mixed with cold war architecture, mohawked punks listening to pirated western music sitting next to babushka’d grannies on the bus. And then there is the other city, Ul Qoma. The Ul Qomans might not have as good a relationship with America as Beszel, but Ul Qoma has nicer cars, a modern subway system, urban renewal, better restaurants, brighter colors, and is generally more contemporary. Two sister cities with formal borders and mulititudes of paperwork for people who wish to travel to the other city. This wouldn’t be so odd, except the two cities are crosshatched – a unique invention of Mieville. Your house might be in Beszel, but your front sidewalk is in Ul Qoma, along with the northern half of your child’s elementary school. And those three blocks of Ul Qoma down the road? That one building on the corner has a Beszel mailing address. Residents learn from childhood to “unsee” and “unhear” things happening in the other city, even if it’s happening right in front of their eyes. Tourists and visiting students sit through weeks of orientation to learn how to unsee and unhear.
Accidental breaches from one city to the other are forgiven. Perhaps you tripped and fell onto that patch of pavement that’s in the other city. Perhaps you’re a foreigner, or a young child. But if you have knowingly committed a breach, The Breach will take you, and you will be imprisoned in the breach. An ultimate boogey man hiding under the bed that is unique to Beszel and Ul Qoma – Breach is the crime, secret tribunal, and prison, depending on context. But if you live in Beszel or Ul Qoma, this is all second nature to you, and you have trouble understanding how a foreigner doesn’t understand.
Inspector Borlu knows all these laws, and follows them to the best his ability. Put on a run of the mill murder case, the Inspector and his assistant, Corwi, at first assume the dead woman is a prostitute, a victim of foul play. As they uncover more details, they learn that she is a foriegn student who was studying the Ul Qoma ruins. Specifically, she was studying not the ruins of the city and the city, but the ruins of what lived, of what may still be living between the cities. A heretical thought, as everyone knows there is only Beszel and Ul Qoma. Every square inch of land belongs to one city or the other, there is no area that is neither, or other. The dead student not only believed in a third city, she believed the third city and Breach are the same thing. If she had beliefs like that, and Breach took her, she deserved it.
To get to the bottom of the mystery, Borlu travels to Ul Qoma – across the political border (which is located in the center of the city) and back down the street he followed to get there, except now he has to “unsee” everything in his home country. At this point the plot becomes a classic case of two security agencies who don’t like each other, don’t want to work together or trust each other.
As Borlu gets closer to the truth, he learns more that he ever wanted about the city, the city, and what else may be there. Will the truth set him free, or will the truth trap him forever?
Mieville’s take on a murder mystery with a twist is nice, but it’s his treatment of this magical place that makes this book worth reading. Like many of his magic realism books, the descriptions of people and places make you feel like you are there, make you feel like you could get used to “unseeing” or “unhearing”. Perhaps you are already pretty good at unseeing and unhearing. Did you consciencely decide to unhear those dogs barking or the sound of that train going by? Did you unsee the homeless guy at the corner begging for change? Maybe Beszel and Ul Qoma aren’t as far away as you think.
Reading The City and The City put me in the mind of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. The two novels have absolutely nothing in common save this: they are the most normal thing each author has written. I doubt that Mieville set out to write something “normal”, and it’s not that The City and The City is normal (it’s quite strange, in fact), its that Mieville’s other fiction is so insanely bizarre, that in comparison this novel feels fairly vanilla.