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Literate and nerdy. By Michael James Boyle.

The City & The City

Mar 13, 2014

The City & The City

The City & The City

China Miéville

Del Rey, May 2009

ISBN 978-0345497512

Humans have an addiction to pigeonholing things. It isn’t out of spite. We break things into categories because it’s how we think. We see something new, and the first thing we do is compare it to things we already know. In that way, the unknown becomes familiar, comfortably encircled in a realm of expected responses.

But as every teenager knows, this makes posturing more than a game of affectation. The little signs by which we signal what category we belong in are our one way to influence how people will interpret what we do. We’d all like to think that we can change our mind about something, but once you’re slotted away there’s usually little you can do. So you declare it loudly without saying a word, and probably without even being aware you are doing it, “This is the sort of person I am!”

It’s the same with books. Genres are just tools we use to explain what to expect out of a book. I don’t mean to be dismissive by saying that. They are powerfully important marketing tools, and marketing, for all the bad connotation the term sometimes gets,1 is how books get read. But it’s also important to remember that there is no law of the universe that declares a book to be of a certain genre. We can (and probably will) argue about what defines different genres until language ceases to exist, but at the end of the day a book belongs to a genre because people perceive it to be so.

With that definition in mind, The City & The City is clearly science fiction. It won the 2009 BSFA Award, the 2010 Hugo,2 and the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. With that pedigree, I’d wager most people pick up the novel expecting science fiction. But what it dishes out isn’t exactly staple genre. It doesn’t take place in the future or on a different planet or involve much in the way of technology at all, beyond crappy eastern-block government office PCs. It doesn’t have fantasy trappings either. It doesn’t take place in the past, feature mythical creatures or magic. It doesn’t even have the common trappings of magical realism. An apt (if tonally different) comparison is to the television show, Louie. Louie is presented as comedy, but it often verges into absurdism more surreal than comedic. Nothing that happens is, strictly, something that couldn’t happen in the real world. It just wouldn’t.3

Likewise, there’s nothing physically impossible about the premise of The City & The City. In fact it presents itself as a rather run of the mill murder mystery with a dash of political intrigue. The protagonist, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad reports to the scene of a crime, a young woman murdered and dumped in a slum. His investigation turns up connections to organized crime and anti-government groups. And when he uncovers potential connections to the neighboring city of Ul Qoma, he finds his investigation challenged by the possibility that a higher branch of special police might swoop in to take the case away from him.

Except Ul Qoma isn’t a neighbor, not as we would term it. The two city states coexist in the same physical location. The first real clue that something strange is going on comes as early as page 124 with the conclusion of the first chapter as Borlú takes a final look around the crime scene:

As I turned, I saw past the edges of the estate to the end of GunterStrász, between the dirty brick buildings. Trash moved in the wind. It might be anywhere. An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStráz at all, and that I should not have seen her.

Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. I raised my head, towards an aircraft on its final descent. When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street at the facades of the nearby and local GunterStráz, that depressed zone.

“It might be anywhere.” The significance of that statement doesn’t sink in at first, seeming an innocent observation that the view is one you could see anywhere. But there’s nothing innocent or casual about about the act of noticing where things might be seen in Beszel or Ul Qoma. The signifiers by which people and things declare their allegiance to one or the other aren’t a matter of adolescent posing. They’re the borders of life that separate the cities. And if you momentarily fail to observe those boundaries and see something that is elsewhere, you must, and must be seen to, unsee it. If you don’t, Breach will come.

How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besz maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, never speaking a word across the border.

Because the book is introduced as science fiction, I found myself receptive to all sorts of explanations for how this separation worked and for the nature of the feared Breach who police it. Is this really taking place in a fictional Eastern European country near the Balkans? Or would the curtain pull back to reveal a fishbowl world in a science fictional universe? Were Breech simply secret police, feared for all the reasons authoritarian power is feared? Or were they an alien power possessed with magic? But for every hint that something deeper might be going on, further examination reveals only more human, more mundane explanations. If perception is reality, and you can convince yourself that you have unseen what is elsewhere, then it really is elsewhere. Perhaps you secretly have a little trouble convincing yourself that you really can’t see the towers of Ul Qoma from your window, but you’re the only one who seems to have this trouble, and you’d never admit it. Strange as it seems to live in a world where everyone denies what is in front of their face, you’d never challenge it. The price is too high.

This playful dancing around the possibility of the supernatural extends into the text itself. Rumors of a mythical ur-city, between and of the two drive speculation about the mythical origins of the twin cities, and even at the end of the book there is an archeological artifact with rumored power never explained. But, as in the real world, everything examined turns mundane. Members of Breach are able to disappear or coexist in two places at once by manipulating the perceptions of natives trained their whole lives to unsee, and the primary antagonist is similarly able to manipulate people’s perceptions by careful study of the signifiers, the ways of moving and holding yourself that declare, “I am in Beszel” or “I am in Ul Qoma.”



I thought it was the shocked declaration by those who had witnessed the crime. But unclear figures emerged where there had been no purposeful motion instants before, only the milling of no ones, the aimless and confused, and those suddenly appeared newcomers with faces so motionless I hardly recognized them as faces were saying the word. It was statement of both crime and identity.

The book reads like science fiction. Not because of the subject matter, but the way it is discussed. We may argue over whether such a bifurcated city could ever be brought into existence, and I certainly have my own doubts about how long it could sustain itself, but there isn’t anything fundamentally impossible about it. There are other things that do exist in the world that I would have trouble crediting if I didn’t know they were real because of how foreign they are to my own experience. But like much of science fiction, The City & The City uses a fictional city to comment on real forces in the world, in this case governmental oppression and the way in which we can be complicit in maintaining it over ourselves. Moreover it reveals the nature of the world over time through passages like the one I quoted above, not setting out to directly discuss the setting which is so important to the nature of the book, but revealing it piece by piece through the eyes of a native who doesn’t find the world strange at all.

In that way, The City & The City manages to pull off the same trick performed by Breach. It exists simultaneously in two worlds, able to be seen from each, but existing in neither and both. It is a science fiction novel, wearing a science fiction novel’s clothes and adopting a science fiction novel’s mannerisms. Yet it is also a novel about fictional people in the real world, tackling a subject no more fantastic than most crime dramas. And by being so, it is visible to people of both worlds and calls into question the rationality of believing in the division between them.

  1. Marketing gets such a bad rap because it’s one of those things where when you’re aware of it, something went wrong. It’s just like when you see someone trying too hard to declare the sort of person they are. They come off as a poser. But that doesn’t mean people you recognize as genuine didn’t send you signals about who they are, and it doesn’t mean that working to help make sure you’ve heard about a book is a bad thing either. It’s just hard to do well and invisible at its best.

  2. It shared the award with The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

  3. In Louie many of the situations are so strange that it makes you doubt the objectivity of your point of view, something you normally take for granted on a TV show, creating a sort of unreliable narrator. You ask yourself, did that really happen? Or am I seeing a visual interpretation of Louie’s emotional state, how the situation felt? Or is Louie just crazy? But Louie is the topic for another article.

  4. This is book jacket territory, and being the main conceit of the book (and explanation for the title), it’s unlikely that a reader wouldn’t actually know something like this is the case from the start. That said, at the outset I didn’t have a clear idea of how the cities were interconnected, and one of the great joys of the book was continually revising my impression of what exactly was going on here.