Book Title: The City & The City
Author: China Mieville
Year Published: 2010
Publisher: Random House
I read this book for science fiction club. I’ve seen news about China Mieville on a lot of literary scifi blogs, so I was looking forward to reading this one because I thought the prose would be a little more satisfying than most scifi. While I did like Mieville’s writing style, in this book he affects an Eastern-European noir voice that is a little choppy and hard to follow. I did laugh when I came across the Yiddish-inflected sentence, “She doesn’t know from vans.” I don’t usually read mysteries, so this book was slightly out of my comfort zone. However, the concept of the book is unique and memorable.
The City & The City is a work of noir fabulism. It takes place in our own world, in a small, unspecified Eastern European country, but contains some fantasy elements. The two cities–Beszel and Ul Qoma–occupy the same physical space, but the residents are conditioned not to see the “other” city. People in Beszel are forbidden from looking at people, buildings, and even from noticing smells or noises that originate in Ul Qoma. If they look, they “breach” and vague entities called the Breach will come and take them away.
Beszel made me think of Prague, since it has a lot of old buildings and it used to have a Jewish ghetto. In Beszel and Ul Qoma, Jews and Muslims live in relative peace. There are places called DoplirCaffes, which have both a kosher and a halal deli under one roof. They are so close they even get lumped together under one racial slur: Ebru. This line made me laugh so hard:
“These days the term was used mainly by the old-fashioned, the racist, or in a turnabout provocation by the epithet’s targets: one of the best-known Besz hip-hop groups was named Ebru WA.”
Ul Qoma is a bit like the Middle East or India. The food is spicy and people wear brighter colors. Ul Qoma is doing better than Beszel financially, but one of the characters mentions that as one country gets richer, the other gets poorer. There are some things that are shared between Beszel and Ul Qoma, namely weather and animals. Wolves can live in either city; fatter wolves are considered Ul Qoman and skinnier wolves are considered part of Beszel. People in both cities try to ignore the wolves, though, for fear of paying too much attention to the wrong ones and being arrested by Breach.
The idea of The City & The City really connects with how being in a city influences how we perceive our surroundings. If you’ve ever ridden public transportation or walked in a big city like San Francisco, you probably recognize the action of “unseeing” that Mieville talks about in this book. If you walk by somebody peeing on the sidewalk or making a drug deal and you don’t want to get involved, you “unsee” them. If you pass somebody whose appearance or actions send up a red flag in your brain, you unsee them. It’s prejudicial self-preservation via willful ignorance.
On to the plot… a Betz detective named Tyador Borlu is called in to investigate the murder of a woman whose body was dumped near a skate park. At first they believe her to be a prostitute, but they find out that she was killed because she asked too many questions about the nature of the two cities. Tyador interviews the Nationalists (like Neo-Nazis, but more regional) and the Unificationists (a group that wants to join the cities). Like the protagonists of other detective novels, Borlu puts himself into increasingly risky situations to find out the truth about the murdered woman until there’s a climactic scene and the murderer’s identity is revealed.
The main issue that I had with this book is that the ending is rather unsatisfying. Mieville sets up a complex, magical-seeming world and at the end you find out there’s no magic… or so it seems! It leaves open the possibility that there may be some kind of magic, but it’s unrelated to any of the magic that’s played a part in the plot up until the end. It’s frustrating, but Mieville probably meant it to be that way to make the story different from the genre standard for fantasy novels. Still, I didn’t like it. If you like detective stories which brush away the disguises at the end and show the wires and pulleys, you’ll probably like this book.
Sometimes I like that type of ending when it’s done cleverly, but there wasn’t anything that made me say “Wow, so that’s how they did that!” The detective story gets squared away, but the fantasy elements never get explained. We never learn what caused the world to be set up like it is or operate like it does. We also never learn what the magical artifacts do. I’m not even sure I believe either of the villains’ character motivations. It’s kind of just… eh, ok. It’s not really believable or exciting. I give it a star for concept, a star for prose, and a star for character (because I really did like Borlu by the end).