The City and the City
by China Miéville
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Reviewed 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's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
It’s a dangerous, volatile mixture.  Start with a
schooling in Marxist revolutionary rhetoric,
add an apprenticeship with a loose-knit group
known as the
New Weird.  Spice it up with
doses of noir, horror, westerns and other
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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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Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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