Hopefully all China Miéville’s novels are as original and engaging as this one. The City & The City is on one level a standard ‘detective investigating death of girl uncovers big conspiracy’ story, but Miéville has decided to weave the tale into a quite unique milieu. And ‘weave’ is the operative word.
Inspector Tyador Borlú lives and works in Beszél, a run-down city somewhere in Europe. It happens to be spatially (or as he calls it ‘grosstopically’) co-located with another city, Ul Quoma. The two cities are meshed together, existing in the same space, and many areas of them are ‘crosshatched’, places where citizens can see each other’s cities co-located with their own.
These cities have different cultures and different laws; effectively, they are two different societies. Miéville’s mastery of the challenges this causes is both fascinating but also functional, for the story that emerges as Borlú starts digging goes to the core of the relationship these two cities have with each other. It is disorientating initially as we are given Borlú’s first person narrative. Naturally he makes assumptions about his world, so his vocabulary and his introduction to the cities takes some time to settle to.
This is mainly because everyone living in either of these cities has learned to ‘unsee’ the others that live in the same space but are citizens of the other city. Cars driving along cross-hatched streets must swerve to avoid the cars that are co-located but in the other city, and they do so by accounting for them but otherwise ‘unseeing’ them, a cognitive training learned from youth that feels, to read it, not dissimilar to those ‘hollow face’ illusions. This ‘unseeing’ is profoundly important. The different sets of citizens must ignore one another. I found it quite interesting that I as a reader was immersing myself into an initially confusing world where these two separate societies co-exist spatially, then I got into it, a process in microcosm not dissimilar to that Miéville describes a tourist as having to go through, because you cannot visit either city without learning the rules about ‘unseeing’.
Now, the thing that stops these people, indeed compels them in either city to ‘unsee’ and thus ignore the other city is Breach. Breach is a terrifying and mysterious force that acts as judge and jury on anyone that attempts to switch from one city to another without crossing the official border, a neutral zone straddling which is a huge building housing representatives of either city’s government. Breach enforces the boundary between cities and ensures their separation.
If you start overtly noticing the other city’s citizens, if you ‘see’, engage with or otherwise take or drop objects into the other city you will ‘breach’ to the other city and Breach will find you and remove you. You will not be seen again.
The great achievement with this book is partly a page-turning police procedural with a likeable and sufficiently weary protagonist but mainly how well it takes the questions you have as a reader about how these co-existing cities could work. Without undue exposition to clog down the usual requirement for spare prose, Miéville paints a strong and nuanced world where the facts of it, and its history, have that air of being worn smooth; slang, culture, law, even the economy are effectively referenced and thus ground the reader convincingly in this very strange place as the plot thickens and unfolds, and it becomes obvious that Borlú will have to visit Ul Quoma.
There is of course a whole fascinating thematic structure here regarding the nature of different societies and cultures sharing the same space, both ignoring each other, and pretending to ignore each other. It is a lens on our own societies that can be cast through many filters; race, wealth and class in particular. As we come across political pressure groups such as the ‘Unifs’ or Unificationists, who want Beszél and Ul Quoma to simply join together and be as one, I for one couldn’t help questioning the correctness of the need for discipline in maintaining their segregation, which in turn provoked me to think about the nature of of national identity and the notion of a joined up society.
I read somewhere that Miéville was looking to write a book in every genre. Apocrypha or not, this is a great page turner sandwiched into an audacious and original conceit. It’s not sci-fi per se, nor is it dystopian. But if you want a crime thriller bent into an alternate-reality fantasy, a thriller with a satisfying intellectual filling, look no further. If all his genre tourism is this interesting and original, I’ll be travelling through a few more.