It’s impossible to discuss China Miéville’s The City & The City without discussing its premise. I don’t consider this much of a spoiler, as the reader is pretty fully confronted with the premise about 20-30 pages in, but it is led into with hints here and there so before hitting the premise, I’ll offer a very short summation and recommendation in the next two paragraphs, followed by the full discussion which includes the premise.
Despite the title’s promise of more urban New Weird fantasy along the lines of Perdido Street Station, anyone coming to The City & The City expecting more Bas-Lag fantastical settings and inhabitants, or the wild abundance of imagination that was the city in Un-Lun-Dun will find all that stripped away. The same for those looking for Miéville’s sometimes-baroque style or mini-treatises on economics/socialism. The City & The City tweaks reality in a tiny, almost singular fashion and runs with it. It’s a laser beam fantasy, not a Vegas show of neon. It’s more noir police procedural than fantasy, although the fantastical element is essential.
The police procedural part is compelling — filled with murder, red herrings, conspiracy theories, good cops fighting red tape, mysterious figures, pawns, buddy cops, chase scenes. The main character (it’s told from first person), a somewhat worn down cop, has a nice world-weary sense of justice to him and is drawn relatively fully, though I thought his character could have been a bit sharper. Secondary characters in general were a bit sketchy. The plot moves along at a strong pace throughout with very few slow spots and it does what this form should — becomes more tense and gripping the closer one gets to the end. The language is wonderful throughout: true-sounding dialogue, vivid descriptions, thoughtful metaphors. It’s a great book.
The City & The City is set in two cities that share the same geographic location at a vague edge-of-Europe area. The two cites are Beszel — an old Eastern Europe sort of city with a whiff of decay about it — and Ul Qoma, a more modern type city on the rise. When I say they “share,” I don’t mean they are neighbors, nor are they like the twin cities. They sit basically atop each other, intertwined with one another, weaving in and out of each other, sometimes wholly separate and sometimes overlapping. There are sections that are wholly Beszel, sections that are wholly Ul Qoma, and sections that “crosshatch.”
What keeps the cities separate is the mental processes of each city’s inhabitants: they see only those in their city and “unsee” those in the other. To acknowledge the other city’s residents, to talk to or touch one, accidentally crash a car into a “foreign” car, is a “Breach” — a crime that is swiftly and often harshly dealt with by mysterious agents of Breach who appear as if out of nowhere.
The City & The City opens with Tyador Borlu, Extreme Crime Squad Inspector of Beszel, called to the scene of a murder. The murder, of course, is only part of something larger and soon Borlu is dealing with a possible Breach and then ends up having to “travel” to Ul Qomo and work with a partner there to pursue his investigation.
I found the premise both utter genius and utterly unbelievable. Those who can set aside disbelief will find the way the premise colors the events of the book and lingers in one’s mind afterward to be absolutely brilliant and thought-provoking. Those who can’t will toss the book down within 50 pages.
I have to say: the premise bothered me throughout. I think part of the reason for that is that the book is so mundane otherwise, so I’m being asked to believe regular people in our regular world would act this way. But, I managed to inhibit my rejection because I felt the premise forced the reader to question our ways of seeing, how and what we choose to look at and look away from, our motivations for doing so, how we separate and group ourselves, the ways in which we are always being “watched” and what effect that has on us, how we define culture and nation, how we can and cannot control our thoughts and language, how and whether we doubt our own perceptions, how we monitor ourselves constantly and pretend or edit or “unsee.”
The premise also added to the plot in a more mundane sense: it produced a thoroughly original chase scene! But what the premise did best was take a standard police procedural and turn it into a “big book” — one full of ideas, deep ideas, thoughtful ideas. It makes the book not simply compelling or interesting or entertaining, but thought-provoking.
Tyador Borlu is a police inspector in Beszel, an Eastern European city-nation. Borlu is good at his job and two things that make him good at it are a dogged persistence and a willingness to bend — or break — certain rules. When he gets called to scene where the body of a woman has been dumped, he cannot know, at first, the impact this single case will have on his life.
The anonymous woman is no unlucky prostitute or party girl fallen victim to a predator. She is something more mysterious and pivotal. Borlu and his assistant Lizbyet Corwi soon draw the conclusion that their Fulana (what we would call a “Jane Doe”) was murdered in a completely different city and dumped in Beszel. This creates a bureaucratic and diplomatic incident of dramatic proportions, for their Fulana lived, and died, in Ul Qoma.
Ul Qoma, a city with a different language, culture and customs, occupies exactly the same space and time as Beszel, but a different dimension. Mostly the two cities are discrete, but in places they cross-hatch, or bleed through. Most cross-hatching is thoroughly mapped, and citizens of each municipality are trained from childhood to “unsee” the incursions of their neighbor. To make contact across dimensions — to breach — without authorization will bring down instant action from the mysterious all-powerful entity also known as Breach.
Borlu, our first person narrator, never tells us all this straight out. He lets us discover it for ourselves as we ride along with him on his investigation. He speaks in the slightly world-weary tone of a good cop who, while disappointed by things he has seen in his work, is still not jaded. His stubbornness and his imagination, both of which he will need to solve the mystery of the murdered woman, have also made him a chronic crypto-criminal. Borlu frequently breaches, refusing to “unsee,” once even deliberately making eye contact with a woman on an elevated train in Ul Qoma.
Once the experienced reader knows that Borlu commits breach, he or she will know exactly where the book is headed. This does not lessen the enjoyment or the impact of the book in the least. Miéville constructs a convincing police procedural against the backdrop of these two cities. He uses tiny details to build up the mosaic of our understanding. To call someone in Ul Qoma from Beszel, even though the two cities are in the same place and the person you are calling might be standing right next to you (or right where you’re standing) it takes an international phone call. People in Beszel are banned from wearing certain colors, colors common in Ul Qoma, so that passers-by aren’t confused and don’t inadvertently breach.
Borlu’s investigation takes him into Ul Qoma legally, where he partners with a detective named Dhatt. Dhatt is a good investigator, if a very different kind of cop than Borlu, accepting the “cop discount” from local diners and having a fondness for what Borlu diplomatically calls “assertive interrogation techniques.” The case takes them to an archeological dig where the murdered woman, an American graduate student, worked. The artifacts, believed to be from a time deep in history or even pre-history when the cities were one, are intriguing and incomprehensible. Clues lead Borlu to nationalist terrorist groups in each city and the more elusive unificationists, who want to do away with Breach and unify the two cities. Along the way, more people are killed, but Borlu does not stop, confronting Breach itself to solve the mystery.
In some ways Miéville has returned to his literary roots, the sundered London of King Rat. His artistic triumph here is not the vision of two cities interlaced across dimensions, clever and thought-provoking as it is. It’s his exploration of how quickly humans adapt, how willingly we learn to “unsee” and “unknow.” Clearly this can be read as a metaphor for the things we choose not to see in our own cities or our own lives, but Miéville also celebrates the elasticity of the human mind. In the Ul Qoma section of the book, Borlu sits with Dhatt at a club. He looks across the street and sees, stuck on a wall, a poster of the murdered woman. He quickly tries to unsee it, in case it is one he posted in Beszel before he knew the woman’s identity. However, there is a chance, implied at least, that the poster he is not-seeing is in Ul Qoma, posted by the dead woman’s colleagues, and therefore no breach to observe. What do you unsee? What do you unknow? How do you know?
Borlu, inhabitant of the nested cities, is someone who rebels. He chooses to see. He always chooses to see. This lets him solve the mystery, and seals his fate.
Miéville manages to pull off a police procedural, and a surprisingly linear novel, that involves quantum theory. The City & the City succeeds on every level.