THE CITY & THE CITY by China Mieville

Book Quote:

“The murderer ran left, into a smaller alley, where still I followed him. He was fast. He was faster than me now. He ran like a soldier. The distance between us grew. The stallholders and walkers in Besz stared at the killer; those in Ul Qoma stared at me. My quarry vaulted a bin that blocked his way, with greater ease than I knew I would manage. I knew where he was going. The Old Towns of Beszel and Ul Qoma are closely crosshatched: reach their edges, separations begin, alter and total areas. This was not, could not be, a chase. It was only two accelerations. We ran, he in his city, me close behind him, full of rage, in mine.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew (AUG 15, 2009)

Think of the now-passed-into-history segregated American South where Caucasians and African Americans, then called Negroes, lived in the same cities and towns but attended different churches and schools, sat in different areas in theaters, used different doors and water fountains, and often ignored one and other when walking down the same streets. Think once-enforced apartheid in South Africa. Or think of Berlin while the Wall separated it and Belfast’s volatile Protestant/Catholic duality.

The citizens of the city states Beszel and Ul Qoma in China Miéville’s The City & The City live in a somewhat similar situation: they co-exist on the same land, but they have separate facilities and they go to extremes to “unsee” the “foreign” co-residents of mutual geography somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps in the Baltic. Beszel and Ul Qoma could be fantasies for how Croats and Serbs might prefer to live if the topographical superimposition of two architecturally distinct cities were actually feasible.

Certainly Miéville devotes large chunks of his novel to attempting to persuade the reader to buy into this state of affairs under which the Besz and the Ul Qomans drive on the same streets but just “avoid” each other, where they speak distinct languages (Besz and Illitan), dress differently, and respectively tip their cultural hats to Slavic and Turkish influences.

From birth forward the citizens are indoctrinated to be politically correct, not merely in speech but in what they see and hear; in their entire sensory filtering system. They learn to identify only their own kind and winnow out and discard input from the other city, especially in the “crosshatched” areas where the two cities intersect most energetically.

Ul Qomanhas accepted some international assistance to modernize and expand its economy,while Beszel remains modest and underdeveloped.

The official and only legal means of transiting between the two cities is at Copula Hall, where, as with the famed Checkpoint Charlie in divided Berlin, each side has its own border guards and scrupulously regulates immigrants and visitors.

No resident of either city seems to know why there is such a strict separation between them and what precisely maintains the division. Is it predominantly the rigid conditioning (one might say, the brainwashing) of the citizens? Or is there something more, something preternatural, that holds the dual structure in place?

An ancient, common precursor civilization has tantalized some archeologists with a few bits of evidence, and there is a small group of unificationists who want to erase the longstanding separation. They are, of course, opposed by the “nats,” or nationalists, on both sides who desire to retain the status quo, fearing that a union would eliminate the cultural differences they cherish.

But all these groups are restricted in the extent to which they may act by a mysterious entity called “Breach.” First of all, Breach only takes jurisdiction if someone in one city has “breached” the other. In other words, if there is proof that someone in Beszel deliberately focused on someone or something located in Ul Qoma, he or she would be in “breach,” a crime that Breach would deal with by removing that offender, probably permanently, from the cities. The same, naturally, applies to Ul Qomans who might breach Beszel. The actual fate of those removed is kept secret from the cities’ populaces,increasing the aura of impenetrability surrounding Breach. The cities’citizens aren’t really sure what Breach is, but since Breach moves onto breach crime scenes with what seems nearly whirlwind speed and serves as judge, jury, and “executioner“ of sentence with unquestioned authority, the general impression among ordinary people is that Breach may be something supernatural that preserves and protects the cities…perhaps having emerged with the cities from the Precursor Era.

Reading the early parts of The City & The City, Breach’s nebulous, ominous,omnipotent feel reminded me a little of the smoke monster on television’s Lost. Tim Powers’ 2001 novel, Declare, a mind-bending genre crosser complete with a fearsome, superhuman “guardian angel,” also crossed my mind. All three “entities” emanate dark, enigmatic retributive powers that don’t lend themselves to readily logical explanations. As a Councillor on Beszel’s Oversight Committee notes, “ ‘Breach is an and I say it again alien power, and we hand over our sovereignty to it at our peril. We’ve simply washed our hands of any difficult situations and handed them to a — apologies if I offend, but — a shadow over which we have no control. Simply to make our lives easier.’ “

In terms of the exercise of police powers, Breach also summons thoughts of the old Soviet KGB and other totalitarian systems’ secret police. Or of the old South’s KKK. The residents of Besz and Ul Qoma must constantly be on guard that if they slip up, focus on something forbidden too long, or speak to the wrong person, Breach will descend on them without warning, arrest them, and whisk them awayforever.

But Breach, some Besz and Ul Qomans theorize, could be a manifestation of a legendary third city — between the other two –called Orciny. A Besz, Doctor Bowden, wrote abook entitled Between the City and the City during the psychedelic ’70s in which he laid down an “occult thesis” asserting the existence of Orciny. But later he did a Galileo and publicly recanted. Not surprisingly, some thought he protested too much when he denied Orciny. One such, apparently, was a young American archeology post-grad named Mahalia Geary, who traveled first to Beszel but them became a resident of Ul Qoma, to study the early history of the area and Precursor artifacts. She also got caught up in pursuing “the legend” of Orciny.

Which brings us to the opening of The City & The City. Besz Extreme Crime Squad Inspector Tyador Borlú gets called to the murder scene of “ [a] young woman, brown hair pulled into pigtails poking up like plants. She was almost naked, and it was sad to see her skin smooth that cold morning, unbroken by gooseflesh. She wore only laddered stockings, one high heel on.” I’ll leave you to figure out who this is, just as the inspector must, but he starts off with far fewer clues….

Borlú is the first person narrator throughout this novel. It falls to him to describe the twin cities so that the reader can picture their odd dichotomy and symbiosis. He (actually, Miéville, of course) doesn’t always pull it off. I suppose the author wants to reveal the cities’ fantastic existence gradually, but his reticence clouds the concept in places. However, ultimately one does understand, in principle but not in practice, how the cities co-exist.

Anyway, Borlú and his f-bombing female constable, Lizbyet Corwi, investigate the murder, leading them to some archeology students, “nats,” Mahalia Geary’s defiant parents, and onward. Borlú then crosses the border into Ul Qoma where he “partners” up with Senior Detective Qussim Dhatt who, judging by his foul language, is a virtual “twin” to Corwi. Borlú must adjust to reversing his customary focus: Ul Qoma is suddenly “in” and Beszel is “out.” He also needs to get used to being only a consultant in Ul Qoma; his own police powers are suspended there. The questions become: Will Borlú solve the woman’s murder? Will his sense of duty, justice, or moral outrage impede or enhance his chances of avoiding breach behavior while in alien Ul Qoma? Will he discover any bombshells about Orciny or Breach? And will his life be forever changed as a result of any of these?

The fact that Corwi and Dhatt are so similar deserves a little more discussion. Although I would have preferred another means of demonstrating mirror image between citizens of the two city states (because I prefer characters who show off a less limited vocabulary), their interchangeability underlines a symbolic aspect to this novel. Here are two cities held apart with iron determination, yet clearly their citizens are not so different. In this sense (among others), The City & The City serves as effective allegory. It can remind us that we often erect barriers between ourselves and others that are based on “superficial” differences such as dress and architecture.

Truly though, one of the nagging questions that repeatedly popped into my head was: with all the exertion required for citizens to tune out their “opposites,” wouldn’t it be better all around to unify the cities and eliminate that need to “unsee?” Wasn’t it a sad loss of half the potential? As Borlú observes at one point:

“How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besz maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realize that they live, grosstopically, nextdoor to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the sametime, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border?”

But then again, their system had apparently preserved the peace (aside from any Breach violence against breachers). Perhaps they needed that enforced barrier to prevent massive social disintegration or civil war?

That leads to the philosophical and political query of whether “freedom” or “safety” ought to take precedence in the value meters of human beings. Should people accept protection and accompanying constraints over personal choice and its inevitably higher risks?

The City & The City is an ambitious novel sparking in a plurality of genres: fantasy, noir, gritty procedural crime fiction, alternate/speculative history, action,and a dash of cyberpunk, to name a few. This unusual configuration produces mixed results; all the sparks don‘t necessarily burst into flame. In Mieville’s zeal to direct our attention to every scenic clue of the cities’ appearance, Borlú’s criminal investigation sometimes gets left in the dust. And perhaps most significantly, what begins as a seductive metaphysical conundrum shrinks into a rather more “mundane reveal” as the novel, having taken so much time on environmental description throughout the book, suddenly remembers the murder plot again and rushes to clear that deck. A fantasy that devolves into the humanist sphere of influence may ground the novel and impart a further lesson about our natures, but it deflates the imaginative scope as well. If that sounds elliptical, well, I don’t want to give away major plot secrets, do I?

One can argue a few other flaws in The City & The City. For example, some of the quotes in this review demonstrate awkward syntax on occasion. However, this doesn‘t happen enough to be an irritant, and, besides, it is symptomatic of the cities in which Borlú operates. One can also posit that although the novel is filled with an array of intriguing characters, a few, probably due to space considerations, seem less “alive” than they might.

However, this book delivers a unique world that draws the curiosity…complete with various enticing twists on modern city life, and numerous ways to interpret and analyze the “message” of the entwined but separate cities. Definitely recommended.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 141 readers
PUBLISHER: Del Rey (May 26, 2009)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on China Miéville
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of Perdido Street Station


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August 15, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Allegory/Fable, Hugo Award, Noir, Scifi

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