The City & the City: A Review
Posted by Kyle Sarrasin
The City & the City: A Review
Last night, or, more precisely, earlier this morning, I finished China Miéville’s The City and the City. I first heard about Miéville maybe a year or so ago, that he was the heir apparent to supernatural/horror fiction. I’ve seen a few interviews, recordings of a few talks that he’s given – not always the most eloquent, but clearly knows his stuff. His politics align with my own for the most part, so I may be giving him the benefit of the doubt. This is the first book I’ve read by him, and, on the whole, a job well done. Not too over-the-top with the supernatural (not that that is necessarily a bad thing) and, to his credit, he eschews some of the more ill-advised rhythmic efforts of his antecedent Lovecraft (H.P. may have been a racist hack in other respects, but the purple prose was purposive). I don’t know if this is indicative of his whole oeuvre, but I’m willing, off the back of it, to find out.
The plot of the book, The City and the City, is a fairly by-the-numbers murder mystery. Young woman, murdered horribly. Detective, just this side of too-old-for-this-shit, takes the case. Difficult to find her identity. Knowing the job’ll be better done by a higher authority, he tries to pass it up the ladder. Starts to look as if the crime may have taken place in another city, so he sets off and works alongside foreign equivalents. Only thing is, said foreign city actually occupies the same physical space as his own.
It’s a concept that, in less skilled hands, would have sunk suspension of disbelief immediately. Miéville pulls it off, narrowly. The reader is thrust into it – rather than a full explanation, this is this, this is how it works, etc., we sidle up to the weirdness – little things seem a bit off, why is he describing it like that – getting acquainted with the character’s perspective before we get a more robust exploration of the way this works. Your trust is won over, in small increments, in spite of yourself.
The setting of the story, some time in the early 21st century, is the twin-city of Besźel/Ul Qoma, located somewhere in Eastern Europe. At a point lost in the mists of time, the two cities split, occupying the same location, but with distinct populations, culture, history. There were times that they stood on opposite sides of wars, times when they went to war with one another. At the current moment in time, it is the city of Ul Qoma experiencing an economic resurgence – heavily modernised, plenty of foreign investment, even with a longstanding embargo by the United States. Besźel, by comparison, remains a backwater, stuck more in the 19th century than the start of the 21st. There are factions within each city, nationalists that take pride in their own culture, and unificationists, “unifs,” those that would combine both for the betterment of each. The majority of the population belongs to neither camp, and, like most people everywhere, just try to get by.
There is an extra element of difficulty in that for the good citizens of Ul Qoma and Besźel, though. The physical space that they share, it isn’t divvied down the middle, nor is it a complete overlap. There are slices of space, patches of air or buildings, where you can see, and move, from one city to the other. Crosshatched, these areas are called. There is a third force that operates outside the remit of either city, policing the conduct of both citizenries. Long ago, this force, this group, came about to moderate the bizarre overlap of these spaces. It is known as Breach.
Breach – one of those great multi-tense jargon terms that give a space, a story, its personal flavour. Breach is a place, a group of people, an action, a state of being. Breach, this thick concept, allows the reader to get a sense of what it means to be a native of either city: to get a hold on what the psychological space is, and to better understand their motivations. Each citizen is, from a young age, conditioned to not only disregard the “sites” they see, the noises they hear, the odours they smell through the crosshatched spaces but to mentally suppress them, as if they were never experienced at all. Failing to do so results in a Breach. When one Breaches, the agents of Breach descend upon them, removing them to Breach, for the good of both cities. Visitors to either must undergo a strict training regimen before being allowed to enter – leeway is given, but only just. Breach is a mysterious body, nominally accountable to an Oversight committee of the ruling bodies of both cities, but ultimately autonomous and opaque. Fear is one of their most potent weapons, the fear of the unknown. The layers of mystery are slowly peeled back as the narrative progresses, injecting an effective element of poignancy come the dénouement. Along the way, though, the presence of Breach, in all senses of the term, explains the simultaneous anxiety and reservedness of Besź and Ul Qomans alike.
The main plot interweaves with an archaeological dig and the Canadian Academics working it, a dig that goes back to the Precursor of both cities, the strata of which overturn all rules of the Harris Matrix. The items being unearthed there, a nearly incomprehensible mix of broken pottery, Antikythera-like machinery, crude lithics – may – hold extraphysical properties, the possibility of which is attracting the attention of powerful foreigners. The interactions of the students and staff are another effective world-building piece – an academic himself, Miéville knows these relationships, and the bureaucratic tape that tie them, intimately. This group also offers a counter-point to the native perspective on the oddity of life in the Cities, allowing the reader to insert themselves as foreigner.
The bizarreness of the overlap, the “Cleavage,” works – on the microcosm. If you allow yourself to abstract from the level of on-the-ground, you do start to wonder why foreign bodies, if interested in the possibility of supra-physical artefacts, wouldn’t already be pulling apart the mystery of just how in the world two cities can occupy the same physical space. Likewise, a force like Breach makes sense in the hi-tech, modern age, but the logistics of such an operation before the advent of CCTV’s or the Internet is difficult to swallow. As ever with Weird Fiction, I suppose that it is necessary to keep the camera angle tight – else, it becomes difficult to explain how a world could be plausibly different from our own. However, as I said earlier, Miéville handles these concerns adeptly. The incongruous elements of the setting are never such that they overshadow the narrative. The setting serves to augment, rather than railroad.
I would be remiss to not highlight the allegorical element at play throughout – the Situationist-esque concept that we ourselves live in a dense, multiple space, just as do the Besź or the Ul Qomans. How much of our own daily experience do we actively un-see, scrub from our minds? How often do we purposefully ignore the beggars in our streets, the sight of gross inequality, the superstructure of our politics and economics made physical? Do not we, too, self-police our thoughts? Do we not go about our lives, knowing, if only in the back of our minds, that we are constantly watched, examined by a silent, generally unaccountable force? In a certain sense, our cities are just as crosshatched as those of The City & the City, and it is left to us, at the end, to determine whether it be best to Breach or not.