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the city and the cityThis is the first novel by China Miéville that I've read, and I was certainly impressed. I read it because it's the book of honor at this year's Potlatch. The basic conceit is that two vaguely Middle European cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, exist as separate cities in the same geographical space. Inhabitants of one city "unsee" the inhabitants and buildings of the other in order to maintain a fiction of separateness. A mysterious organization called Breach enforces the separation and the unseeing. The plot of the story involves the murder of a woman whose body is found in Besźel but who appears to have been killed in Ul Qoma. Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in Besźel, is ultimately required to work with his counterpart in Ul Qoma, as they begin to wonder if the legends are true about an invisible third city named Orciny existing in the interstices between the other two.

While the murder mystery is treated with full seriousness and given all the requisite genre trappings, to a large extent it also functions as an excuse to investigate the nature of the dual city, and Miéville has here created an endlessly fascinating sociological and political conundrum. It works like a piece of extrapolated science fiction even as it feels like something more Ruritanian. It's a what-if that could be located in the here and now. When you throw the crime story on top of that, you get a cross-genre work of the sort that used to be called slipstream and now sometimes gets classified under the category of interstitial arts. What is particularly clever about the book is that it's precisely about the virtual borders that cross-genre works live to straddle. The dual city occupying a single space becomes the perfect metaphor for the type of fiction Miéville has created here.

My only complaint about the novel is that the final reveal of the murderer is a monologue by Borlú that wasn't very interesting, at least dramatically. This is a problem for a lot of convoluted mysteries, where the explanation is less interesting than the mystery itself, and fortunately Miéville doesn't end on the reveal but gives us a coda about Borlú that's much more satisfying. The real raison d'être is the dual city, and the book does full justice to it. Each city is individual and eccentric, full of odd characters and odd details that leave a powerful feeling of lived-in polyglot history. Perhaps even more impressive is the way that Miéville grounds these cities in contemporary details and pop references, so it feels like part of our world of cellphones, internet, and globalization. It enhances the sense of estrangement by giving it a familiar 21st century context. This is not Cold War Berlin, or a segregated city in Jim Crow America, or even modern day Jerusalem, but it's a beautifully conceived imaginary city/city that makes us think about those historical cities and many other divided social spaces as well. I found it utterly captivating and alive.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
surliminal
Jan. 31st, 2014 11:08 pm (UTC)
I adored that book ( and now you have all the other Mievilles to read!) and yes I agree the only disappointment is the denouement- for me though that also included being disappointed that the guardians of Breach who start off so incredibly mythical eventually a really nothing more than vaguely clever cops. The set up justifies almost anything though. (It occurs to me ow odd is it that no one seems t be trying to film it. perhaps Mieille, a noted Marxist simply reuses to engage with Hollywood?)
randy_byers
Jan. 31st, 2014 11:40 pm (UTC)
I actually really liked how by the end of the book Breach had been reduced to something completely unmythical and mundane. And I totally was wondering who should film this thing. Somebody middle-European, I suppose, or perhaps a Japanese director like Mamoru Oshii.
surliminal
Feb. 1st, 2014 12:14 am (UTC)
I think Danny Boyle or Paul McGuigan would be good actually (or someone Russian yes..)
bovil
Feb. 1st, 2014 12:15 am (UTC)
Of course it's unmythical. Mieville isn't a fantasy writer, he's a hard SF writer who specializes in social sciences SF. I expect The City & The City was inspired by many people's ability to "not see" homeless people in big cities.
surliminal
Feb. 2nd, 2014 03:44 am (UTC)
Um i think thats a bit reductionist of Mieville - Railsea? And in fact thereis no current scientifiv explanation of the very set up of the City and the City - and the book is written in a highly magical realist style.
randy_byers
Feb. 2nd, 2014 05:57 pm (UTC)
It's cross-genre, I tell you. It's all these things and more.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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