The City & The City by China Miéville
29 September, 2010
I saw China Miéville give a talk at the Southbank last year. I wasn’t actually meant to go and see him, it was just on a whim, and because I hadn’t read any of his novels, I bought a ticket because I was fascinated by his name. But he really surprised and charmed me and I grabbed his latest book and got it signed. Of course, being a book junkie, it took me over a year to finally read it and in the meantime, The City & The City has been nominated for many awards and won the Arthur C Clarke, British Science Fiction Association and Hugo awards. And it thoroughly deserves it. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel like it.
Miéville said this was different from his previous novels; it’s a murder mystery and police procedural but with a big difference. I loved everything about it especially the concept of two completely different cities occupying one geographical space where the act of ‘unseeing’ citizens of both cities are taught from birth so as to go about daily life without ‘breaching’ and accidentally stepping into, seeing or confusing the space. It’s genius.
My expectations were pretty high from all the reviews I had been reading but I have to say the novel exceeded it. It’s clever, complicated and what I like most was that Miéville makes you do all the work to figure it all out. He doesn’t spell it out for you or draw a map (although I’d love to see a map of Besźel and Ul Qoma).
The story begins with the discovery of a young woman’s corpse in an empty skating park in Besźel. Inspector Tyador Borlú is called in to take over the case. But things are not as they seem because they can find no trace of the woman. In a strictly controlled and monitored society, this can only mean one thing: she doesn’t belong in Besźel and is from Ul Qoma. Borlú is desperate to hand the case over to the ‘Breach’, the shadowy organisation that deals with any breach between the cities but events conspire against that and Borlú finds himself going to Ul Qoma to track the murderer.
What makes this even more complicated is that the woman is an archeology PhD student who had caused a stink several years back by bringing up the existence of Orciny, the third mythic city which everyone denies exists. With fringe nationalists trying to keep Besźel and Ul Qoma separate and others trying to merge the two cities, Borlú with Dhatt, his Ul Qoma counterpart, must negotiate the intricate laws of the two cities and unravel the mystery of the student’s death.
It’s a difficult book to describe because there is so much packed into just over 300 pages. In The City & The City, Miéville has created a complete microcosm of a world similar to but more fantastical than Berlin when it was still divided. I loved the complexity of the two cities, the sparse prose of the detective story and the power of myth and ideology over the people who occupy that space. Very interesting and different and makes you think about whether you’re really seeing what is there. And after I finished the book I am still thinking about this wonderful world Miéville has created and feel that there are still more secrets that I would like to unearth.
Miéville stated he was greatly inspired by M. John Harrisson’s Viriconium so I’ll have to check it out as it’s one of the fantasy greats. And I definitely want to read more from Miéville. Impressive stuff.
An essay about Mieville can be found here.
I read this as part of the TBR 2010 Challenge. Yay, another one down from my TBR pile. Feels great!