on 27 March 2012
Some reviews have portrayed this as a murder mystery set against the backdrop of two very unusually interlaced cities. I'd turn this around and say it's a mystery about the nature of the cities, set against the backdrop of a murder investigation.
I was initially frustrated that I couldn't quite grasp what was going on with the cities, then after a while I thought I understood, and then later came to have that understanding subverted. In the end I was just gobsmacked by the audacity of the whole thing. This reminded me a little of The Bridge by Iain Banks, in terms of there being a mystery in the book which is not explicitly pointed out.
This is a very good book, I really enjoyed it.
on 1 August 2011
Neither pure science fiction nor entirely naturalistic, China Miéville's The City and The City functions in a strange hinterland between genre spaces. Significantly influenced by hardboiled noir detective fiction (notably Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy) and taking cues from Kafka, the novel is strikingly difficult to pin-down; and although many reviewers have tried resorting to long compound chains of genre labels (`post-modern-sci-fi-detective-noir' etc.), this is probably more confusing than helpful. So I think it's best if we stick with Miéville's own self-disclosed moniker `Weird Fiction' [his capitals], which though concise and a tad self-satisfied, is nonetheless a pleasingly eloquent descriptive of what is a damn unusual book.
As the name suggests, The City and The City is a novel rampant with doubling: it's set in two fictional cities in Eastern Europe: Bes'el and Ul Qoma, which although being different administrative, legal and cultural entities, nonetheless share the same physical space, topographically speaking; so one street may be in Bes'el, whereas the street immediately adjacent might belong to Ul Qoma. The citizens of each city must ignore the existence of the other entirely (`unsee' it - strikingly Orwellian neologism?); if they don't, then they are said to have committed a crime called `Breach', and weird things happen to them. Principally the novel concerns a by-the-numbers `extreme crime' detective called Borlú, who's tasked with investigating the murder of a Bes'el woman by a citizen from Ul Qoma; all the while Borlú becomes more and more obsessed with pseudo-academic theories that a third city called `Orciny' exists - functioning entirely unseen between the other two.
Borlú narrates in the first-person past tense, and in essence he acts as the mouth-piece of the reader by expressing confusion at the book's bizarre goings-on on the reader's behalf. Large chunks of the narrative can be baffling, and the book only really comes-together at its shocking dénouement. Compounding this tonal confusion is China Miéville's very slow reveal of made up, idiosyncratic terminology, which has to be gradually decoded by the reader as no gloss or moments of explication are provided - but rather than being frustrating, this refusal to elucidate contributes to a sense of immersion and authenticity that's so often lacking in other, less delicate sci-fi where heavy-handed exposition is problematic.
The cast is drawn competently, though occasionally it does veer into clichés of genre-type (feisty side-kick, cantankerous police chief, unidentified telephone informant etc.) and this is a shallowness of character that can't always be hidden by complex plotting and non-stop action, but I'm willing to let this pass because the real shining stars of the novel (the most developed `protagonists', if you want to be poncy about it) are the cityscapes of Bes'el and Ul Qoma. Miéville takes his (admittedly brilliant) idea of the inter-meshed cities and really runs with it, augmenting the characteristic cityphilia that he's shown in earlier novels with a fetishistic attention to the physical description of skylines, road layouts, architecture and city administration. Not only does this contribute to a unique and highly original sense of place, but also instils an unnerving feeling of the uncanny, as the cities in The City and The City function more like characters than mere settings. As Borlú moves between the two cities, the very nature of the streets, like arteries of the cities, pulses, flows and shifts - the streets tell lies and trick reader and narrator alike. Simultaneously belonging to two very different cities, the streets are alarmingly schizophrenic and threatening: they display a shifty inconsistency that creates an unsettling cognitive dissonance, an effect created by Miéville's unashamedly intricate, complicated prose. The permanent danger is that Borlú will slip-up and commit Breach, and I was torn between simultaneously wanting to see this happen, while also wanting the best for our narrator (who, remember, really functions as the mouth and eyes of the reader - a point of view character in this strange but familiar (hence ` uncanny') world).
So, The City and The City is a dark, violent and complicated hybrid of genre types that functions as a celebration of the idea of `city' rather than of the detective as moral paradigm or of the crime as grotesque indulgence (a trap so many hardboiled novels fall into). It's grounded by a rigorous attention to police procedure and a penchant for unexpectedly naturalistic dialogue (you'll read lots of `ums' and repetitions of colloquialisms/idioms: `you know' etc.) that weights the novel into a quasi real-world context when it could so easily have floated into the realms of the purely fantastical. This teasing of the fantastic can, however, be a source of frustration. The more outré, sci-fi aspects are dangled like the proverbial carrot in front of both reader and protagonist alike: the hidden `third city', the possibility of advanced technology, the strange crime that is `Breach' - these are all narrative threads that are im-rather than ex-plicit, and it's demonstrable of Miéville's skill that, even when he's writing minor fantasy, he can suggest the most head-spinning weirdnesses. But readers looking for the out-and-out bizarro creations of his earlier novels might find The City and The City lacking.
on 7 March 2010
The City & The City is the latest by an author who has garnered quite a reputation these past years for being original, insightful and basically pretty damn good. The City & The City comes loaded with plaudits, A Nebula Award nomination, and enough cover quotes to ensure even the most insecure author feels the love. Miéville is even compared to George Orwell and Franz Kafka...
Now here's a thing, with all this adulation from the critics you might think I'd be extremely keen to read this book, right? Well the truth is I've wanted to read something of China's work for a while, but I was by no means certain I'd like it. I couldn't help but wonder if it might all be drearily pretentious. You know the kind of book? Difficult to read, self-indulgent drivel, that our cultural tastemakers often effuse over. The ones that leave us mere mortals - who're only looking for a good read - feeling inadequate on account of our inability to invoke the same level of excitement for them. The quote from Socialist Review on the cover also made me groan a bit. Knowing China's politics - was this going to be a disguised party manifesto?
So a little apprehensive and ready to stand against the wave of support for this book if need be, I plunged in, and bugger me - It IS really good! My initial reservations turned out to be completely unfounded. I didn't even mind that it's told in the first person, which as a point of preference is not by favourite narrative perspective.
Inspector Tyador Borlú is the person telling this tale, an investigator in a specialist division of the Bes'el City Police. Borlú is assigned to investigate the murder of a foreign woman, whose body is discovered abandoned by his officers. From the outset there are unaswered questions regarding the identity of the woman, and her activities in Bes'el. As the investigation unfolds, it becomes apparent that Borlú is being drawn into a mysterious series of events; the investigation of which both threatens his life, and his understanding of his country.
Bes'el City is an invented City-State, located it would seem somewhere in Eastern Europe. It exists in exactly the same physical space as another city, Ul-Qoma. The streets, the buildings; all the features of the two cities would appear part of the one city to an outsider, although they are internationally different political entities. To their respective inhabitants they're entirely different worlds. They have different customs, taboos, dress, levels of affluence, language inflections etc and what's more they have developed a culture of not seeing the other - literally. They actively seek to avoid noticing their neighbours from the other city, even if they're standing in the same street, they're in another country. To fail to acknowledge the strict protocols associated with these customs is Breach, and summons a third and mysterious entity by that name to dispense justice.
The story follows Borlu's investigations in a noirish manner, and this novel has many of the essential characteristics of that sub-genre. It is a kind of dystopian police procedural. The reader is a witness to Borlu's investigation in a manner which slowly reveals the nature of his reality, and the challenges to that reality as fresh details of the case emerge and the plot develops. The murder trail leads Borlú out of the confines of Bes'el, into Ul-Qoma and beyond, not just physically but mentally as well.
This is a book about perception and about identity, about cultural indoctrination, and the nurturing of exclusivity and otherness for larger social and economic ends. It's also a tale of misinformation and conspiracy. At times I was reminded of Balkan identities, the Palestine/Israel situation, and Turkish politics with its national obsession for the Deep State. Yes it's political, but not I think in any narrow ideological sense. It can take a little while to become familiar with the dreamlike landscape of Miéville's setting, and to appreciate the fullness of the idea he's constructed. Once realised it's difficult not to be awed by his inventiveness, and marvel at its execution.
This novel has a head full of ideas, but in its heart beats a classic detective story. Crucially, it never forgets to be entertaining. There may not be as much Sci-Fi/Fantasy as some might hope, but there's plenty of vision. Bravo Mr Miéville! I for one am now converted, you fully deserve your plaudits.
on 30 October 2012
The City and The City is a meaningful and important exploration of cultural and social difference and how we learn to exclude others.The premise of the book - 2 cultures inhabiting the same physical space and having to learn not to see each other and not to recognise one another's existence could be applied to Jerusalem, Belfast and many other cities where conflict and division have become the norm. Frighteningly it could also be applied to most cities we live in - for those of us who are not drug users or involved in gangs, the violence that damages and often kills is almost invisible. We don't move in the same circles as the drug dealers or the psychopaths.....until we bump up against the artificial borders and experience at first hand how the other half lives.I think that China Mieville is a gifted social analyst and says important things about our society - more people need to read him! This book inspired me to curate an eponymous exhibition featuring the work of international artists who are women and to investigate their response to 'The City' as a contested space.
The City, The City is in many ways a straight up and down police procedural that is political inflected by trans-jurisdictional and office machinations. The plotting is solid and the writing nicely expressive. The characterisation is a little thin in places, especially with respect to personal lives and back story of the principal characters. It took me quite a while to get into the book, but once I was, I was hooked and it turned into a nice page turner, though I thought the ending with respect to the murder faltered a little, but not with respect to the personal outcomes and wider city politics. The key distinguishing feature of the book is its geographical imagination, which reminded me of the work of Philip K Dick and William Gibson. The twin cities of Bes'el and Ul Qoma, the architecture, the complex geometry and the densely woven sense of place play a heightened role in the narrative. The two cities are literally entwined in and through each other in complex ways to produce a unique spatiality that bought to mind the complex geographies of contested cities such as Jerusalem, Belfast and Quebec. Bes'el and Ul Qoma operate as a separate jurisdiction (with separate governments, cultures, languages, institutions, currency, fashions and so on), with some parts of the city being territorially `total' (that is wholly Bes'el or Ul Qoma) or `cross-hatched' where the city space is notionally shared. Citizens are trained to `unsee' and ignore the other city, even though it is clearly visible to them, and in the cross-hatched spaces that they share they have to avoid contact whilst continuing to `unsee' who or what they might collide with. Failing to stay within a jurisdiction and to unsee the other city is to breach, a terrible crime policed by the shadowy organization known as Breach that has extended powers to punish those that transgress (those that breach are never seen again, which acts as a strong deterrent). Copula Hall is a key location which exists in both cities and acts as a border; effectively the only location through with citizens can officially pass from one city to the other. The geography of the city then very explicitly shapes everyday life and how citizens understand and interact with the landscape they live in. Overall, a fascinating read that does something different and interesting with the police procedural format.
on 17 January 2012
Drawing upon concepts from string theory in physics as well as from science fiction, fantasy and crime thriller, China Mieville's "The City & The City" is yet another exceptional literary achievement from him; one worthy of its 2010 Hugo Award for best novel (An honor shared with Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl".). It is especially noteworthy for being far less baroque in its writing than in Mieville's "Perdido Street Station". It is also a challenging, potentially difficult, read, simply for forcing readers to understand all the nuances with regards to reality that Mieville throws at them. But it is also a challenge worth taking since a writer of lesser literary talent than Mieville would be unable to concoct such a riveting blend of alternative reality science fiction, crime thriller, and even fantasy, whose literary antecedents include work by the likes of Philip K. Dick and Franz Kafka. "The City & The City" is not just a most compelling work of fiction by a writer whose superlative literary craft rises with the publication of each new novel, it also reaffirms his status as one of the most important writers of our time.
In some remote corner of Europe, the cities of Beszel and Ul Quoma exist uneasily side by side; two adjoining cities divided by language, culture, and their perceptions of reality. Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel police Extreme Crime Squad confronts his most vexing criminal case, the murder of young American archaeology graduate student Mahalia Geary. A seemingly routine case that will introduce him to conspiracy theories and conspiracies that threaten to shatter forever, the uneasy coexistence of these two cities. Taking him on an arduous psychological and physical trek from his decrepit Beszel to the more vibrant, more cosmopolitan Ul Quoma, where, as a guest of Ul Quoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlu will search for clues from a decades-old archaeological dig to nightclubs and restaurants frequented by rabid nationalists intent on destroying the other city and by zealous advocates seeking unification of both cities. What he uncovers will have profound implications for the futures of both adjoining cities and for his own, testing severely, his preconceived notions of reality.
on 18 November 2015
I was attracted to this book by hearing China Mieville discussing it on Radio 4. I therefore knew what to expect in terms of the two communities co-existing in the same space, so I do not know whether the introduction of that central idea would have been more confusing if I had not had that preparation. I also liked the idea of dealing with the very serious philosophical and moral paradoxes raised through a detective story. I did enjoy the book but was left feeling that both the crime story and the philosophocal discussion had been slightly short-changed in the process. There were times when the tension of the mystery was dissipated rather than supported by the central idea and equally, that opportunities to explore our own capacity for 'double-think' were missed. In a world where our leaders and almost every aspect of daily life are involved in willingly 'unseeing' moral paradoxes, if not outright attrocities, this book had a potentially explosive comment to make that it did not really attempt. Having said that, it did tell an interesting story, raised fascinating moral and philosophical issues and introduced the reader to a version of reality that challenges how we see our own worlds. Read it, and see where it takes you.
on 3 August 2015
There’s no denying Miéville’s intelligence, ingenuity, and imagination: THE CITY AND THE CITY has at its core one of the most original concepts I’ve encountered in a long time. And he imbues his enigmatic world with a wonderful sense of elusive, arcane mystery. Comparisons with Kafka and Philip K. Dick are sometimes made when it comes to Miéville’s work and it’s easy to see why. This is, however, a little misleading as Miéville has a style and authority all of his own. His prose is assured and artful, although he does, at times, indulge a fondness for abstruse vocabulary, which might put some readers off. I enjoyed the TCATC but I still have reservations. For me the use of a whodunit structure was the book’s weakness. The police investigation never really gripped me as much as I would have liked and I was left with the sense that such a creative concept as that deployed here would have been better served by another narrative framework. That said, it’s evident that Miéville is a considerable talent, and I look forward to reading more of his work.
on 16 July 2012
"The City & The City" is an unusual novel from China Miéville, one which as far as I can tell is rather unique in the fantasy environment in which it takes place. I suppose that most people, if not all, at times become so focused on their own lives that they become less aware of other people who are right in front of us. Certainly people who live in areas where there are a lot of homeless people almost by necessity become blind to the daily condition. Now imagine two cities in different countries, but which use the same space, with the inhabitants of each having learned to ignore the inhabitants and buildings of the other.
Miéville puts together a clever and intriguing crime story in just that type of environment. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad in BesYel is assigned to investigate the murder of Mahalia Geary, a foreign student who is found dead in BesYel, but he soon learns that she was involved in events in Ul Qoma, the city which shares its space with BesYel. The investigation also leads to theories involving the theoretical third city, Orciny, which was thought to be legendary, but was hypothesized to be in areas between BesYel and Ul Qoma, i.e. the inhabitants of both have been taught to ignore those areas as being part of their twin city.
"The City & The City" was published on May 15th of 2009, and was nominated for as well as won some major awards. It won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the World Fantasy Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, it also won the Red Tentacle (best novel) Kitschie award and tied for the Hugo Award. In addition it was nominated for the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
on 2 August 2011
This is the first book by Mieville that I have read - it was recommended by a friend - but I will now be tempted to buy several other books by him.
The novel has a very clever central concept - two cities (with rumours of a third) in a fictional part of Eastern Europe which occupy the same geographical space but somehow exist in different overlapping dimensions. Citizens of each city state are trained from birth to ignore the inhabitants of the parallel city or else they will be accused of breaking the law by the mysterious and seemingly omniscient 'Breach' who enforce the separation of the two locations. This is a marvellous conceit whose philosophical implications are brilliantly explored throughout the book. The metaphor also deliberately draws parallels with a number of contemporary political situations from the Balkans and Cold War divided Berlin to the Israel-Palestine conflict and a broad range of political ideologies and parties feature in the novel.
This may make it seem dry or difficult to read - all high concept and poor plotting being a common sci-fi failing - but the opposite is true in this case because the book is also a murder mystery written in thrilling noir style. The plot is gripping from the very start and there is an excellent resolution which remains faithful to the fictional premises of the novel's own universe.
Combining the qualities of a page-turner with a complex and sophisticated philosophical and political underpinning is a considerable achievement - matched only perhaps by the best of Philip K Dick or Philip Kerr's "A Philosophical Investigation" - but it is to the author's immense credit that he succeeds in this.