Review: The City and the City by China Mieville
Since the book is coming out in about a month (May 26th), I’ll go ahead and post my review, based on an Advance Reader’s Edition.
Liminality, interstitially, hybridity. Whatever you call it, it’s one of China Mieville’s biggest leitmotifs, and in The City and the City, it is that hybridity and liminality which provides the speculative question and driving narrative force of the novel. Beszel and Ul Qoma are doppelganger cities, existing in the same space in vaguely-defined eastern Europe, but they are not one city, but two. Crossing between the crosshatched cities is ontological 1984-style offense called Breach. Beszel keeps to Beszel, Ul Qoma to Ul Qoma. And in rare cases, when people or things cross between the two interlinked cities, Breach occurs, summoning Boogeymen to reinforce the urban apartheid.
Investigator Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad finds himself working the murder case of an anonymous woman, a Fulana Detail as they are called in the city of Beszel. As he digs into the case, the details of her life and her death tie Investigator Borlu into the intricate history and politics of the doppelganger cities.
Mieville’s experience as an academic and an economist student of international law come to the forefront in The City and the City, as the book follows Borlu through the world of academia, rendered with the petty politicking, insularity and competition that shows he’s lived it. In addition politics of national identity and an awareness of international economic, cultural, and political maneuvering elevate the novel above the mundanity of Yet Another Homicide Procedural.
Because The City and the City is in fact a crime procedural, drawing just as much on the literary tradition of Raymond Chandler as Phillip K. Dick or George Orwell. The hybridity of the novel extends to the level of genre as well. From a genre standpoint, it combines Urban Fantasy, Dystopian SF, and Noir Crime Procedurals. Just as his Bas-Lag works Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council served as the lightning rod pieces of the New Weird movement, combining Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and Pulp aesthetics, The City and the City freely combines ideas and genre modes to produce its own mélange. It’s clearly a work of speculative fiction, but in a larger genre sense, belonging in the company of noir detectives. It’s a work of urban speculative fiction that has more in common with works like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files than some of the work of his New Weird contemporaries K.J. Bishop or Jeff VanderMeer.
While Mieville’s work has been sometimes criticized for being unfocused, or overbearing in its use of language, The City and the City shows Mieville pushing himself in craft of language as well as in genre. The work still shows Mieville’s loving attention to culture, to the organic nature of cities and their lives, and world-building in general. However, the fact that Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in our world means that the strangeness exists in contrast to a more familiar baseline. Here, Mieville’s prose is more transparent and accessible, akin to in his YA Un Lun Dun, but clearly adult in its content and execution. The novel is paced more aggressively than many of his works, only occasionally lingering a beat too long on a cultural/historical/economic note before returning to the action.
The interconnected nature of the cities suffuses the entire world of The City and the City, it is stitched into the worldview of the inhabitants of both cities, a double-think that is not recent but the result of many years of history, dating back to centuries before as a result of the Cleavage, an event which either split the cities apart or brought them together, depending on which historian you asked, and if they were being watched at the time.
Since Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in the same space, anyone who lives in either city must learn an intricate process of seeing and unseeing. A person in Beszel must be able to see what goes on in their city, but they must also unsee what happens in Ul Qoma. A driver must unsee the Ul Qoman car coming right at her, but will still swerve to get out of its way. Unseeing is meant to be unconscious, keeping the other city in the peripherary, just aware enough to stay safe, while never fully acknowledging the other city, maintaining the metaphysical distinction between the cities. Children must learn to see and unsee as they grow up, learn to identify and distinguish an Ul Qoman design from a Besz one, unsee certain color shades reserved for one city and not the other, and more. Immigrants and visitors are subject to a several-week acculturation course, wherein the distinctions are ground into their head, and a respect and understanding for Breach instilled in them.
Breach is the big-brother-like mysterious entity/organization which polices the places in the city which are crosshatched, fully extant in both cities, where the boundaries are weaker – a careless person walking down a crosshatched street could walk in from Beszel and walk out Ul Qoma, committing Breach. People in the two cities are always self-editing, self-aware of their own perceptions, asking “Should I be seeing that person, or unseeing them?” The categorical doubt of perception, the internalization of the panopticon of Breach, shows Mieville’s critical theory background making itself known in the work itself, calling upon the dystopian mode of literature.
The City and the City is similar to Mieville’s other works in his inventive and generative combination of genres (the New Weird is alive and well, but always changing, always evolving), but distinct from Mieville’s other works in several other ways, most notable being the lack of a clear socialist bent and a lack of focus on the aesthetic of the grotesque.
The City and the City still manifests aspects of the New Weird, but in a different inflection. The novel is just one of the countless ways to approach and implement the ideas and conventions that have been connected by writers and critics. It crosses over with ideas that Mieville has considered in his shorter works, most notably his novella The Tain and the title story of his short-story collection, Looking for Jake. Familiar, contemporary cities made strange through inexplicable metaphysical change, a sense of searching and longing, the quest for understanding resisted by the city itself.
On the other hand, the book shies away from the explicit arguments for/discussions of socialism which are prevalent in his Bas-Lag works, most notably Iron Council. The protagonists’ critique of the governmental systems of Beszel and Ul Qoma are not on matters of economics, capitalism vs. socialism, but on the ideological insistence on a violently-maintained distinction between the cities, as well as the commonplace distaste for red-tape and bureaucracy (what you’d expect to see in any procedural crime work).
The aesthetic of the grotesque, so present and central in many of his works, another of the signature aspects of Mieville’s style, is mostly absent in The City and the City. There are no Remade, no slake-moths or impossible bodies, no Cacotopic Stains. The city crossover takes some of those ideas at a different angle, but it is never depicted in the loving and disgustingly provocative language that accompanies Mieville’s use of the grotesque.
The City and the City is much more akin to the kinds of speculative fictions that posit one novum, one distinction between the world of the story and our own, then explores the possibilities and results of that change. Rather than a wholly-foreign world like Bas-Lag or the weird Mirror-London of Un Lun Dun, The City and the City takes the Beszel/Ul Qoma duality and runs with it, using Investigator Borlu as its agent to dig into the connections and overlaps between the city as part of his investigation into his Fulana Detail.
Accessible to readers familiar with mystery but not fantasy, or vice a versa, The City and the City is a departure for Mieville, but a welcome one. He carries lessons learned from his earlier works and provides a tightly-paced novel which is easily read as a crime procedural, a work of metaphysical archaeology, political commentary, an urban fantasy, and more. Mieville fans who yearn for his socialist argumentation and inventive use of the aesthetic mode of the abject and the grotesque may not be as pleased, but Mieville’s lush use of language and detailed world-building maintain much of what we have grown to know and expect of Mieville. I hope that he continues his trend of branching out and expanding his range, applying his critical eye and skill to many combinations of genres for many different audiences.
The City and the City by China Mieville will be released on May 26th by Del Rey.