#CBR4 Maneuver #11 – The City & the City
Profile: Speculative Fiction, Crime Fiction, Psychological Thriller, Weird Fiction
Summary: From the Back Cover, “When a murdered woman is found in the city of Besźel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. To investigate, Borlú must travel from the decaying Besźel to its equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the vibrant city of Ul Qoma. But this is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a seeing of the unseen. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them more than their lives. What stands against them are murderous powers in Besźel and in Ul Qoma – and most terrifying of all, that which lies between the two cities.”
After Action Report:
I don’t really understand how I missed that China Miéville always writes about cities. Probably because the first book I read of his was Embassytown, which, despite the title, isn’t really about the community of Embassytown. Every other novel of his is heavily reliant on the social setting of a city and each is colored by the nature of the starring city. Perdido Street Station is about New Crobuzon, a darker version of our New Yorks and Los Angeles. The Scar, set in the same world, is defined by the community of liberated slaves and kidnapped victims that populate the floating city of Armada. In contrast, The City & the City doesn’t explore the title cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma as much as it examines the political and psychological implications of the unique setting of the twin city-states.
Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space. That’s the entire premise of the book. At some point in the distant past, a prehistoric culture shattered a city into a patchwork of two nations that exist in the same place but are kept apart by psychological pressure and the mysterious forces of Breach. The book never makes it clear if there is a supernatural force at work behind this separation or if it is just a case of nationalism taken to an obscene extreme, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. You need to accept the idea that two people walking down the same street can be in different countries based solely on the clothes that they wear and the way that they walk, or the rest of the book isn’t going to be compelling.
The only way this tenuous system works is because every citizen of both cities has been trained to unsee, unsense even, every aspect of their neighboring city. They erase the crosshatching of the two cities in their minds to maintain the fiction that they are two separate countries. Much of the book is dedicated to this mental phenomenon, and the consequences of ignoring it.
Under the setting is a fairly standard detective story. A murder has occurred and Detective Borlú must try and solve it. His job is complicated by the fact that the body came from Ul Qoma and the case is straddling the international boundaries of the two cities. So the reader gets to explore the nuances of this bizarre society through the eyes of an experienced detective experiencing the mental friction of being forced to unsee aspects of the whole picture.
In some ways, Borlú’s story is underwhelming. The mystery is interesting, but serves mostly as a vehicle for experiencing the setting. Borlú examines the nuances of his own situation by trying to solve the case in front of him. His experiences with being on both sides of the border, having to unsee his home and neighbors, are intriguing looks into a psychological partition that exists in all our minds, albeit in a lesser form.
Miéville is a consistent rejecter of the notion of ‘genre.’ All of his books straddle the border between two or more subject areas. The City is rather obviously a hybrid of crime novel and spy fiction, but it’s also a treatise on the problems and advantages of nationalism. We all fall victim of the Us/Them mentality promoted by the media. It doesn’t matter which Us and Them you fall into, America/Militant Islam, Poor/Rich or even Me/The World, we’re all guilty of the mental construct. Miéville takes the idea past any realistic extreme and successfully creates a compelling scenario that models mental behaviors as international policy. Because of this, the details of Borlú’s story fall into the background while the setting occupies our attention.
Which is not to say that Miéville has failed to tell a compelling story. On the contrary, the mystery of Breach and Orciny is well crafted and serves as an excellent means of moving through the complicated setting. The final moments of the climax are every bit as good as any crime novel you could find. But ultimately, you read The City & the City for the idea of it, not the story.