The City and the City
by China Miéville
Essay by Ted Gioia

Author China Miéville has described his novel The
City and the City
as a work of crime fiction. Yet this
same book was honored with the Hugo as best
science fiction novel of the year.  And readers
might be equally justified in describing this story
as an extravagant exercise in fantasy literature. On
the other hand, a close reading
of this strange novel shows that
every episode described in its
pages can be interpreted in
strictly realistic terms, with no
need to posit a single invention,
technology or creature not pos-
sible within the limits of today's
scientific know-how. Such is the
richness of this genre-bending
novel, that no classification is
definitive, and any pigeonhole
where you find it tells you less
about the work itself and more about the person
who placed it there.  

Yet a simple conceit underscores this complexity.
Miéville's novel is built on a single, strange
conceptual premise.  Imagine two cities—indeed,
city-states with their separate governments,
languages, customs and traditions—forced to
share the same territory. The map of the dual
cities is broken up into different pockets—on
any given street, one building might be part of
the nation of Beszél, while the structure next to it
falls "across the border" in Ul Qoma.  In other
instances, entire streets might reside within a single
nation, while other areas might be "cross-hatched,"
shared by the two cities, but with different names
depending on the nationality of the observer.  

The behavioral aspect of this sociological model
is even more peculiar than the urban planning
complexities it entails.  Residents of one city are
forbidden from crossing over to the sister city—
and any violation is punished quickly and severely
by a shadowy organization known as Breach. But
the regulations do not stop there:  citizens are not
even permitted to look at objects or people from
the other city.   From a young age, residents are
taught to "unsee" and "unhear" anything
happening across the border.  In a situation rife
with metaphorical implication, the law-abiding
residents must learn to block out much of the
most obvious and incontestable empirical
information that comes to them, day after day,
month after month, year after year.  

Miéville’s fanciful city—or rather cities—serve
as the setting for a murder mystery.  The body
of young woman, lacerated with multiple stab
wounds, is found abandoned in a rundown
neighborhood in Beszél. Inspector Tyador
Borlú eventually identifies the victim as Mahalia
Geary, a foreign graduate student working on
an archaeological dig across the border in Ul
Qoma, where strange artifacts from an ancient
precursor civilization have been uncovered. No
clear motive for the murder is evident, but Geary
had complex political connections with a variety of
underground organizations, and had made many
enemies on both sides of the "border."  She held
controversial views about a third city called
Orciny, hidden in the interstices between Beszel
and Ul Qoma—a mythical place in the mind of
reasonable people, for how could another
community be hidden in the middle of two
others?—ideas that were bound to raise the ire
of nationalists, unificationists, and a host of
other splinter groups.

Borlú finds that his investigation of the crime
puts him in the midst of warring political factions,
both internal and external, above board and
hidden from view.   Influential parties in the
government seem to want to direct, or perhaps
hinder, his search for the murderer. In time, his
efforts at detection become—as in so many
postmodern mysteries—enmeshed in scholarly
pursuits, the study of texts and subtexts,
the interpretation of documents, and a delving
into issues of history and folklore, archaeology
and sociology, an intricate web in which academic
concerns overlap with power politics of the most
dangerous sort.  

The City and the City carries the weight of its
peculiar urban planning concepts on every page.
The most casual activities of everyday life are
fraught with complexities and risks when situated
in the bizarre political and geographical conundrums
on which Miéville has staked his novel. At times,
this strange notion that a city can contain another
city—and perhaps another city beyond that at,
and maybe still another—becomes almost a
monomaniacal theme, threatening to overwhelm
all other aspects of the plot.  But Miéville
ultimately manages to integrate his tale of crime
and detection into this Chinese puzzle box setting.
The result is a unique variant on the urban
landscape novel, one in which the setting is a
prime component of the book, a major contributor
to its ambiance—but is nonetheless a setting in
which the unseen, the unperceived, the unknown
and the unheard add the most resonance.

The solution to the crime also threatens to unravel
the precarious balance between the superimposed
city-states.  Virtually all mysteries are premised
on the pursuit of a solution in which the unseen
becomes seen.  But in China Miéville's novel, this
expansion of the gaze takes on implications not
found in your typical detective story. And here
the age old truism of the genre, dating back to Poe
and his purloined letter, namely that the best hiding
place is situated in plain sight, becomes not just a
clever way of resolving a mystery, of identifying a
culprit and closing a case, but a thought-provoking
challenge to a whole set of social norms and
conventions.  That's a big task for a crime novel,
but Miéville delivers just that in this one-of-a-kind
book.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
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Postmodern Mystery
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It’s a dangerous, volatile mixture. Start with
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Dungeons and Dragons, Dr. Who and Lord of
the Rings.   The end result is author China
Miéville, whose surreal fictions are as
unpredictable as the cultural mélange behind
them.
His unusual name was picked out by
hippie parents seeking something different

and beautiful (China narrowly beating out
Banyan on their list). His parents broke up
around the time of his birth and Miéville

passed his childhood in Willesden, a working
class neighborhood in northwest London.

His education at Cambridge, London School
of Economics and Harvard, veered from the
norm for fiction writers, immersing him in

legal and social studies—a background
evident in the political themes of his stories.
Although best known for his writing, Miéville

has also gained notoriety as an academic,
activist, and political candidate. “The impulse
to the fantastic is central to human
consciousness,” he has argued, “in that we

can and constantly do imagine things that
aren’t really there.”
ROGUES GALLERY:
CHINA MIÉVILLE
Click on image to purchase

Further Clues:

Reveling in Genre: An Interview with China Miéville

Interview with China Miéville from The Believer

"The Books that Made Me" by China Miéville
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
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The Reading List
(with links to essays)

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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

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Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

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Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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