China Mieville, The City and the City [Library of Babel]

I’ve tried a couple of times to read China Mieville’s highly praised Perdido Street Station, but found it so unpleasant that I stopped maybe a third of the way in. Some of the things he said about his theories of literature as the guest of honor at Readercon a few years ago also made me think that there was little chance of me liking his work.

Still, he is regarded as a Major Figure in the SF field at the moment, so when he came out with The City and the City and the premise didn’t sound completely horrible, I figured I should give it a shot. Especially since I’m nominating for the Hugos this year.

The City and the City is the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu, a police detective in the city of Beszel, which is co-located with the city of Ul Qoma. Yes, co-located. The two cities occupy the same space, and citizens of each are taught to instantly recognize the characteristic styles of architecture, dress, and motion of both, and to “un-see” buildings, citizens, and even emergency vehicles of the other city. They can visit the other only after an elaborate procedure of border clearance, even though the building they live in may be surrounded by buildings that are technically in the other city.

Violations of the strict separation of Beszel and Ul Qoma are enforced by the shadowy and powerful organization known as Breach. People who knowingly cross from one city to the other in an unapproved fashion, or who accidentally stray for too long, are snapped up by Breach, never to be seen again.

As the book opens, Borlu is confronted with the corpse of an unidentified young woman. The case, as such things inevitably do, turns out to be much bigger than a simple murder, and leads him into Ul Qoma and after rumors of a third co-located city, Orciny, which is said to secretly control the other two.

This is a very tricky premise to pull off, but Mieville does a really good job with it. The thought patterns required to navigate Beszel and Ul Qoma are pretty alien, but he does a good job of sketching them out, and the details of the police procedural plot allow him a lot of opportunities to explore the workings of the paired cities.

The problem is, other than the bravura show of writing ability, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of point to it. There’s no real explanation of why either city would agree to such a daft state of affairs, let alone cling to it as tightly as they do, and while Mieville deserves credit for coming up with some nice plot twists that wouldn’t work in any other setting– the villain’s getaway plan is brilliant– I didn’t feel like the dual city setting really illuminated anything deep about the human condition. In the end, it’s just too artificial.

And while he gets big points for pulling off the showy premise, there are a lot of minor glitches in the book that start to loom larger the more I think about it. Borlu is a well drawn character, but his counterpart in Ul Qoma, Qussim Dhatt, teeters on the edge of several cop movie cliches. It’s not really clear to me why Dhatt even likes Borlu, who never once deals straight with him, let alone why he would take any personal or professional risks for the sake of someone who keeps going behind his back the way Borlu does.

Also, the epilogue was telegraphed from about three pages into the third section of the novel. Mieville’s Readercon declamations against consolatory fiction did at least produce a tiny amount of suspense as to whether he would do something really cruel and dramatic and snatch the obvious ending away, but no. It wound up exactly where it looked like it was headed.

This is a well executed novel with a tricky premise, and unlike his earlier work (at least for me), it was a highly readable book. It comes up well short of brilliant, though, at least in my opinion. If it ends up on the Hugo ballot, I won’t complain, but I’m not eager to help put it there.

10 thoughts on “China Mieville, The City and the City [Library of Babel]

  1. Apropos to the daftness of the plot, he may be trying to comment on ethnically, religously and otherwisely divided cities, like Belfast and many others around the world.

  2. Like The Ridger, I seem to have enjoyed the book more than you, but I think you fairly describe its issues. Other than Breach itself, it’s not clear that there’s anything supernatural going on. I’m pretty sure this is intentional, but it left me itching for even some hints of the backstory.

    I have a hard time articulating my reactions to Mieville. On balance I really enjoy his work for its intensely realized and unusual settings, and for interesting, flawed characters. And yet sometimes it feels a bit forced, like Mieville is shoehorning the story into a metaphor. Plus, there’s usually a tone of unstoppable Lovecraftian doom that I find depressing. All in all, I get a lot out of his books, but they can leave me disturbed — like I’ve just witnessed something unclean. “Not for everyone” is kind of trite, but it’s almost a necessary disclaimer for Mieville.

  3. Actually, when they first meet Borlu states explicitly that Dhatt didn’t like him. And that followed through with Borlu always questioning whether Dhatt trusted him.

    My personal belief is that Mieville took (ultra)nationalism to an absurdist level in the book in order to show people/readers how wrapped up they can get with their own views, while discounting or denying opposing ones…maybe kinda like ID????

    Of course, I also liked Perdido Street Station.

  4. How was the verbiage in this book? I tried to get into Perdido Street Station, but I couldn’t take the tortured prose.

  5. When I read the excerpt on the sb homepage, I thought this was a review about a book about Jerusalem, where this comment applies in spades:

    “There’s no real explanation of why either city would agree to such a daft state of affairs, let alone cling to it as tightly as they do,…”

  6. i got about 1/2 way through Perdido Street Station. then i put it down and never looked back. i did the same thing with Lord Foul’s Bane decades ago. gag.

    i will have to try this new book though.

  7. I enjoyed the ambiguity in The City and the City. Perhaps I was influenced coming off a spate of reading modern urban faery tales. I read the whole book waiting for a reveal to tell me whether to read it as taking place in a magical fantasy world or not.

  8. One city is constitutional America, the other Homeland Severity America, and the third corporate America. Rent your life with no credit toward purchase.

  9. There’s lots of split cities as alluded to in the comments, but separation is not co-location. Usually it’s just a big wall down the middle, and crossing borders is not merely illegal but actually extremely difficult – walls, fences, guards, cameras, dogs. I agree with “daft” as a description, even condsidering Earth’s occasional split cities.

    That said, it’s an interesting premise and I’ll probably read it once I finish my months-long (though very enjoyable) slog through the Baroque Cycle.

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