Monday, July 20, 2009

China Mieville's _The City & The City_

China Mieville is probably best known for his science fiction novels; I've read his Perdido Street Station and have a copy of his The Scar awaiting in my TBR bookcase. I was surprised therefore to hear his latest work described as a mystery, a police procedural, to be exact.

I found a copy at the library, and The City & The City is exactly as advertised, a police procedural. The body of a young woman who was murdered was discovered one morning and Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad was assigned the case. It is a typical police procedural with all the necessary accouterments--crime scene experts, interrogations of witnesses and suspects, and, of course, the unearthing of the victim's past life. The mystery is sufficiently convoluted with various groups and individuals and motives thrown up at one time or another to confuse the reader. The solution, once revealed, is satisfying.

But, the real charm of this novel is its setting. It is one of the most bizarre settings I have ever encountered and I've been reading science fiction for over a half century now. The closest I've come to this setting was in a novel by C. J. Cherryh, Wave Without a Shore.

Bear with me as I try to explain where the story takes place. It is set in a mythical country in Europe, actually a city-state might be closer, or perhaps two city-states. The body is discovered in Beszel, both a city and the country itself. However, there are two cities and two countries occupying the same territory. No, this isn't a story about different dimensions or time lines, but about two countries, Beszel and Ul Qoma, with differing languages, cultures, costumes, and traditions that occupy the same spot on this planet, and moreover, they dislike each other. Beszel has encouraged good relations with the US while Ul Qoma has developed close links with Canada.

What makes this work is the intense indoctrination that every child born in the two countries receives. They do not see each other even though they may be walking on the same street because they have trained themselves not to see each other. It's called unseeing. Some areas of the city belong to Beszel while others to Ul Qoma. However, many parts of the city, called crosshatchings, are used by the citizens of both countries, but even there they do not "see" each other. An example of a crosshatching might be an intersection that must be used by the inhabitants of both cities.

Buildings of each city may be next to each other, but the citizens of each city do not "see" the buildings of the other. The architectural styles are easily recognizable, as are the clothing fashions, so citizens may not inadvertently enter the wrong building or acknowledge a citizen of the other city.

Somewhere in the city is Copula Hall. Those citizens who find it necessary to visit the other city, as Inspector Borlu does, when he discovers that the body found in Beszel is actually that of a resident of Ul Qoma, must go to Copula Hall. After sufficient bureaucratic paperwork is filled out and an intense indoctrination in Ul Qoma culture and laws is administered, the citizen enters Ul Qoma and can now "see" its buildings and inhabitants, while those of Beszel are now invisible. Inspector Borlu, for example, discovers that his counterpart in the Ul Qoma police actually lives only a block or so away from him, but now he can see him and his apartment, while his own is now invisible.

The citizens know of the other city but they have conditioned themselves to not see it. To acknowledge the existence of the other by entering one of its buildings or interacting with a citizen is called a "breach." It is punished by a group known only as Breach, which seems to have some technology not available to anyone in the two cities. This group's only concern is the maintenance of the division between the two cities. For example, if a citizen of Beszel crosses illegally into Ul Qoma and kills an inhabitant, Breach will intervene because a breach has been committed, and not because of the murder. Frequently the person who commits a breach disappears and is never seen again.

I hope I haven't confused you too much, and that you will get a copy of The City & The City. It's one that I will read again, partly for the enjoyment and partly for a better understanding of the work. I got so enmeshed with the workings of the two cities that at times I forgot I was reading a mystery.

Overall Rating: 4/5 Stars


  1. So glad to hear this book was good. I read "The Scar", and it's one of my favorites. Still have to read "Perdido Street Station".

  2. I have read _Perdido Street Station_ and enjoyed it. I have _The Scar_ and it's slowly moving up in the reading queue. I think it's set in the same universe as _Perdido Street Station_ and may even take place at around the same time.