Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: The City & The City by China Miéville

The City & The City by China Miéville
Published: Del Rey, 2009
Awards Won: Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, World Fantasy, British Science Fiction Association, Locus Fantasy
Nominated: Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial

This is the first book I’ve read by China Miéville.  As you can see by the genre split in the awards, this book is difficult to classify.  When one examines the plot, The City and the City is a detective story.  The protagonist is Inspector Tyador Borlú, and the story follows his investigation of the murder of a young female student, Mahalia Geary.  Solving the case is more complicated than it first appears, and Borlú must deal with both conspiracy theories and the odd difficulties caused by nature of his environment. It is the setting that pushes the story past the realm of a simple murder mystery and into the bounds of speculative, or at least weird, fiction. 

Tyador Borlú lives in Besźel, which seems to be somewhere in Eastern Europe.  What sets Besźel apart from our usual world is its partner city, Ul Qoma.  These two cities have some separate zones and some “cross-hatched” areas, where their land overlaps.  All that truly separates Ul Qoma and Besźel are the perceptions of their respective citizens.  People who live in Besźel are taught from birth to ignore, or “unsee”, anything or anyone in Ul Qoma, and vice versa. To help people always be able to recognize and ignore the foreign, Besźel and Ul Qoma have different architecture, fashion, and even mannerisms.   In some cases, however, this separation is accidentally or deliberately violated. In this case, the mysterious organization called “Breach” swoops down to take control. 
It is between the physical, cultural, and political cities of Besźel and of Ul Qoma that Tyador Borlú must navigate as he searches for the truth behind Mahalia’s murder.  It is possible that she knew something about a mythical third city, “in between the city and the city”, called Orciny.  Her murder leads Borlú deeper and deeper into the connections between Besźel, Ul Qoma, Breach, and Orciny.

My Thoughts:

I found myself taking the viewpoint of a typical foreigner, as described by Borlú.  I had a hard time accepting the separation between Ul Qoma and Besźel.  The whole book was written with a sense of realism and detail, and everything, except the basic premise of the dual city, seemed reasonable.  I’m doubtful that any human organization could possibly police every action and glance of every citizen, as Breach is purported to do.  In order to be sustainable, it seems that the system would need the wholehearted support of every citizen of Besźel and Ul Qoma.  Given my experience of people, in general, I find this very unlikely.

Why would people support this kind of mass doublethink in the first place?  Other than Besźel and Ul Qoma, the world seems to be pretty much the same as our modern world.  In our world, there does not seem to be such a shortage of land that people would be forced to “cross-hatch” their territories.  Was it simply a matter of two ethnic groups claiming the same land?  They would have had to hate each other enough to eliminate interaction through creating these mental borders, but tolerate each other enough to willingly share the same physical territory. 

There just doesn’t seem to be a logical basis for the origination of these cities, nor for the capabilities of the Breach organization.  The dissonance between the realistic style of prose and the impossible elements of the story overshadowed, for me, the actual plot.  I can only think that these elements exist deliberately. The City and the City is a traditional murder mystery whose setting juxtaposes the ordinary with the impossible, and smudges the lines between what is real and what is not.

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

I was much more enthralled by the setting than the plot or characters.  In the end, though, the setting was more than bizarre enough to keep me entertained.  I’m glad I read this book, and I will probably read his New Crobuzon series at some point in the future.

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