The City & The City

by China Miéville

Cover image

Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 0-345-49751-1
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 312

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The European cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are twin cities. Besźel is a somewhat shabby and run-down metropolis, economically depressed. Ul Qoma is thriving due to an economic revival often attributed to a great national leader, said to be the inspiration for Atatürk (often said to be the founder of modern Turkey, for those not familiar with European history). It's being boycotted by the US for vague reasons not detailed much here, ones that smell like religion and dislike of the Ul Qoman government, but that's not slowing it down. The two cities have different governments, different languages, and are different city-state countries.

Besźel and Ul Qoma are not neighboring cities in the traditional sense. They occupy the same physical space.

Cities have always been the heart of China Miéville's writing, but I think these twinned cities are his most memorable creation yet, surpassing even the amazing New Crobuzon. The citizens of both Besźel and Ul Qoma learn from birth to distinguish between the cities and people sharing the same physical space and "unsee" the things that are only in the other city. Some portions of the shared space are entirely in one city or another, but many are shared, or "crosshatched," and navigation in those areas is a careful dance of seeing and unseeing that the natives learn with a depth that can only be created from childhood. The inhabitants of this book are human and therefore of course are aware of the other city, but they studiously suppress conscious knowledge and interaction, moving from one city to another only through the official border checkpoint in a tunnel under the center of the city.

This strange and one would think precarious situation has persisted for centuries due to the mysterious Breach, a police force uncontrolled by (although somewhat answerable to) authorities in either city, and possibly not even human. When the invisible lines are breached and one city interacts with the other, Breach appears with startling speed and unknown technology, healing the breach, routing people from each city away from the other, and enforcing the separation. Natives who cause breach disappear into the grip of Breach and are never seen again. The natives treat Breach with a combination of reverence and superstitious dread.

Miéville explores this concept with all the depth and thought that the veteran SF reader could hope for, from the psychology to the practicalities. One might immediately object that this sort of unseeing is psychologically impossible, and indeed Miéville implicitly acknowledges this as early as the first chapter. Everyone is cheating in little ways, although the natives are far better at unseeing than visitors (even after the required two months of training in simulators), and those born there are the only ones who can achieve anything like true unseeing in practice. But Breach still exists and is real, and however much people may be cheating in quick glances or quiet thoughts, the combination of ingrained respect for the boundaries and Breach's enforcement of visible violations maintains the stability of the system.

This backdrop is teased out and slowly revealed over the course of a murder mystery and police procedural. A woman is found murdered in a corner of Besźel. No one knows who she is, and the investigating officer, Tyador Borlú (our protagonist), resorts to putting posters up around the city. He gets his first investigative break from a phone call from Ul Qoma, a phone call that, despite being properly routed through international lines, is itself a possible act of breach since the informant apparently saw the posters that exist only in Besźel. From there, the case unfolds into a problem spanning both cities, a problem that initially appears to be a case of breach and then becomes a problem as carefully balanced between the cities as their separation.

This is both a brilliant concept and a page-turning, engrossing police procedural, an almost-perfect wedding of idea and execution. For those familiar with Miéville's earlier Perdido Street Station and The Scar, it also shows a stunning flexibility and maturation of writing ability. Miéville was always a great descriptive writer, but here he adds a truly sympathetic and complex protagonist, tight and tense plotting, and a story basically devoid of the sorts of monsters with which he populated previous books. If you've bounced off Miéville in the past, try this anyway. The description is much more restrained but still evocative, and there's far less dark horror. Miéville has said in interviews that he's exploring genre in his books, and here he proves quite adept at shifting genre away from his dark fantasy beginnings.

I went into this book knowing about the twinning of cities and expecting this to be used effectively as a metaphor for the haves and have-nots living in the same physical location, or for sociopolitical problems involving two people with claims to the same space (Palestine, for example). But one of the strengths of this book is that Miéville does not use it to preach, or to present any clear connection with politics at all. The concept is deeply metaphorically rich, and those readings are present if the reader wants to bring them to the story, but Miéville is content to leave that richness unstated and instead bring to the idea the sharp eye for extrapolative detail that SF readers know and love. In the process, he makes Besźel and Ul Qoma entirely their own places, with a murky history, strange archeological digs, competing mythologies, unification and nationalist political movements, and sharply differing attitudes towards policing. He also makes the reader care deeply about what seems initially a bizarre and artificial separation, leaving the reader deeply respecting something that starts off feeling faintly absurd. These are also cities embedded in the modern world and aware of (and somewhat scornful towards) the analogies that spring most obviously to mind.

The one complaint I have of this book is more of a plaint: I wanted more! The police procedural plot and character arc reach solid and satisfying conclusions, but the nature of the weird twinning of the cities is only partly explored and leaves many open questions. The SF reader in me is hoping for a sequel that will explain more of the mysteries. But despite that, The City & The City is deeply satisfying for what it is and one of the best SF novels I've read. I had high expectations for the underlying idea going into the book, and Miéville surpassed even those, while going in a much less political direction than I was expecting. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-05-01

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21