Tuesday, May 4, 2010

China Miéville - The City and The City

In the morning trains ran on a raised line meters from my window. They were not in my city. I did not of course, but I could have stared into their carriages – they were quite that close – and caught the eyes of foreign travelers.

[Note: I generally try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but The City and The City is a novel about shifting perspectives and, as such, I don’t think that it would be possible to do anything more than a shallow overview without them, so be warned.]

China Miéville is no stranger to anticlimaxes. To one degree or another, every one of us his Bas Lag novels have ended in one. The City and The City, however, takes things to a whole new level. The book is, essentially, composed of two massive anticlimaxes.

The novel’s main idea is the overlapping nature of the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The two cities inhabit the same geographic coordinates, yet are actually disparate in location. Despite the fact that their streets overlap, a journey into Ul Qoma consists of passing through strictly guarded borders, rather than crossing to the next block. At first, the whole experience seems delightfully surreal. When the concepts were first introduced, in the opening chapters of the novel, I imagined it as if reality was frayed in the area, with buildings phasing in and out of existence depending on how much crossover there was in the area. At this point in the novel, the reader’s main question is probably along the lines of how the two cities got to be the way they were, and how Breach – a secret police organization, of sorts, that brutally enforces the boundaries – manages to keep the two cities in line.

As the novel progresses, these fantastic layers are stripped away one by one. Near the beginning, we are told that:

I lived east and south a bit of the old town…It is a heavily crosshatched street – clutch by clutch of architecture broken by alterity, even in a few spots house by house. The local buildings are taller by a floor or three than the [Ul Qoma] buildings, so Besz juts up semiregularly and the roofscape is almost a machicolation.

At the time, it seems like this is an exceptional site, the occasion of the worst of the frayed-reality sites that I mentioned earlier (in my terminology, not Miéville’s). As the book continues, however, we come to realize that every part of the city is crosshatched. We come to understand that every Besz building is also, to some degree or other, a part of the Ul Qoma landscape, that every square foot of Ul Qoma also exists in Besz and that there is no fundamental difference between the two. The act of “breaching,” or travelling unauthorized from one to the other, is not one of violating a magical law, but rather the breaking of a social custom. Besz and Ul Qoma are the same city, they just like to pretend otherwise.

It’s commonly accepted that a large part of the allure of fantasy is the ability to deal with real world issues in a new way, analyzing concepts like race without the connotations that something like the Jim Crow Laws immediately drag into play. This is never put to better use than in The City and The City. The novel is about the incorporeal nature of the divides we put on ourselves. It is saying that the man next to us is, no matter what we think, actually not that different at all. By exaggerating our tendencies to stay within our social comfort zone to the point where we try our damndest to pretend any other doesn’t exist, Miéville makes us realize the flaws in our own perceptions.

Of course, such a thing could never work from the beginning of the novel. If The City and The City started with half the population simply ignoring the other half, we would find it ridiculous. Instead, the beginning implies that this all occurred in some fantastic, magical way, and that it is not the will of the individual occupants at all. Because of this, our initial transition into the world is a relatively easy one. As Miéville strips away the trappings of fantasy one by one, we are forced to recognize that he was talking about us all along.

Unfortunately, though the focus shifts from who made it like this, there’s nothing to make the question go away. If there was nothing otherworldly in its schizophrenic creation, why on earth have Beszel and Ul Qoma evolved the way that they have? The obsessive, unanimous, impossible drive that would be needed in the founding generation of such a place is something that I can’t conceive of. The city initially works as a storytelling device and gradually changes over to a thematic one, but the transformation to the latter effectively hamstrings the former.

That is only one of a few similar issues in the novel. In the beginning, Breach seems omnipotent in their ability to enforce the laws. Later, we discover that they have no superpowers at all. This is a necessary realization; a supernatural dividing force would be a bullet to the heart of the novel’s themes. That doesn’t mean that it makes any sense, however. If Breach is a police organization made exceptional only by their ability to traverse the boundaries, how can they appear at the scene of a cross-city accident in seconds?

The second great anticlimax of the novel deals with the plot of the story, and it goes hand in hand with the steady debunking of the city’s wonders. For the novel’s first sections, the mystery grows ever more complex. Eventually, it seems obvious that the force behind the throne, so to speak, is the mythic Orciny, a third city that is believed to be long extinct. Through tantalizing hints and small clues, Miéville builds our expectations of Orciny up to a fever pitch.

And then, in the same way that the fantastical nature of the cities was orchestrated to collapse from the word go, the entire thing turns out to be a very human puzzle, and it is backed by a very human evil. To a degree, this accomplishes the same slow but inevitable shift of perceptions that the change in world building does. At first, we need to feel no responsibility for the increasingly sinister shape that the conspiracy is taking. It is Orciny, a direct product of the bizarre, irreproducible structure of the cities. It turns out, however, that there is no supernatural agency in play at all; in fact, the whole thing is a literal example of the real world’s intrusion into the oddities of Beszel/Ul Qoma.

What is interesting from a thematic point of view, however, is not necessarily interesting form a plot point of view. After having Orciny built up for so long, it turns out to be nothing but the creation of an all but absent side character. Instead of a mind blowing revelation, the book’s climax takes the form of a long speech, in which Inspector Borlu reveals every piece of the puzzle, a scene that serves primarily to emphasize the underlying mundane nature of the whole book. Fascinating? Yes. Rewarding? No.

Any book that shifts our perceptions to such a degree could be hard to relate to, and The City and The City does much to magnify the problem. The book is written, as opposed to Miéville’s Bas Lag novels, in a very cinematic and understated prose style. Events are reported in a matter of fact way, with a minimum of stylistic flourishes. We see the actions of Inspector Borlu from the outside enough to get an idea of who he is, but we never get to see under the hood and learn what really makes him tick. The experience feels like following him from directly over his shoulder. We see what he sees, and we hear what he hears, but we never know what he’s thinking.

There has been much debate over whether The City and The City is a speculative work at all. Now, as I’ve repeated for much of the review, The City and The City has very, very few (if any) speculative elements. That being said, it reads as if it were a speculative novel for the vast majority of its length, and so I think that it should be undoubtedly counted as one. Let’s take one of Miéville’s earlier works. Perdido Street Station is undeniably speculative in nature, but what if, at the very end, someone in New York City had woken up and remarked upon the strange dream that they’d just had? The novel would then contain no speculative elements whatsoever, but would anyone really say that it was not a speculative novel? Though the degree is obviously quite different here, I think that the question of genre is one determined more by form and style than by literal content, and I think that The City and The City dons far more than enough of a genre costume for it to be considered beside Miéville’s other works.

In the end, The City and The City is a novel that is easier to admire than it is to enjoy. It is, at times, a page turner, but visceral pleasure and intellectual interest are in an inverse proportion here. When the novel feels like a fantastic mystery, you find yourself compulsively reading on, but unable to even begin to answer the myriad questions posed by the novel’s setting. When those questions are answered, however, the revelation sucks away much of the book’s thrill. The City and The City is something that I recommend to every genre fan, but it is not something that I can consider Miéville’s best work.


Abigail’s review is absolutely essential reading material. For a contrasting opinion, check out James’s take.

The day after I posted the review, Graeme posted the reading group questions from the back of Del Rey's The City and The City. My answers are here.


  1. Hi. I found your site through Gaeme's fantasy review of this book. This is a much more in-depth review, and it's convinced me that I need to find this book.

    I notice we like at least some of the same authors (ie, all three writers for your upcoming reviews), and maybe even George R.R. Martin. I'm doing a re-read of ASoIaF on my Fiefdom blog, and you should check it out if you're into that sort of thing. http://errantknave.blogspot.com/

    Good luck with the reviews and the writing!

  2. Thanks, I'm curious to see what you think of it, and I wonder if the shift will still be interesting if you know it's coming. I definitely am interested in GRRM (the main reason there's no review of aSoIaF is that I doubt I could ever do it justice), so I'll check out Fiefdom for sure.