The City and the City by China Mieville
Published by Pan MacMillan, May 2009
Review by Mark Yon
One of the first reviews I wrote for SFFWorld was a review of Chinaís story collection, Looking for Jake. Iím surprised to find that that was about four years ago.
In the meantime, a lot has changed. The idea of New Weird that China was often claimed to be part of (including in my review!) seems to have been and gone, if it ever happened in the first place. But Iím pleased to see that China has remained. Though his latest could be perceived as something that isnít particularly fantastical (it is subtle) it clearly reflects an authorís evolution that I suspect will lead at least some of those poor souls out there that donít read the genre to find that Ė gasp Ė theyíve read a fantasy novel.
The book actually starts, knowingly, as a homage to detective novels. (Raymond Chandler is referenced in the acknowledgements.) Detective Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad is summoned to a homicide of a young blonde woman found on the streets of central European-like Beszel.
So far, so typically a crime novel. But of course, this being China, itís not long before things start to read strangely. The first person narrative begins to speak of Ďunseeingí things. Another city, that of Ul Qoma, is mentioned.
As this masterful conceit is revealed, the reader becomes aware that the tale is more than that of a murder but actually more a tale of two cities: Beszel and Ul Qoma overlap each other in space to such a degree that you can walk from one side of a city street to the other and find yourself suddenly in the other city.
Relationships between the two cities are, as you might expect, complex. They co-exist and coordinate social, economic and cultural aspects of their respective societies surprisingly well after years of an uneasy detente. Any inappropriate actions between the two are dealt with by a nebulous third party known as Breach, who quickly Ďremovesí any issues arising from their coexistence. China gives a great account of an event from Borluís childhood where he observed an accident in one city over-spilling into the other and Breachís dealing with the incident. Itís a very well thought out and well considered concept that China does well to keep the reader suspending their disbelief.
The taleís complexity expands when the victim is further found to be an archaeologist, one of a left-wing group who work in both cities. Her murder may not be an accident but instead related to her activist dealings. Though Breach is invoked, Borlu, and his able assistant, Corwi, soon discover that the case is not as simple, nor as straightforward as it first appeared to be. There is talk of a third city, Orciny, which seems to be a secret that many wish to keep.
Itís hip, itís smart, itís intelligent. Iím sure Orwellís 1984, Franz Kafka (also referenced in the Acknowledgements) and Philip K Dick will be mentioned in comments relating to this novel. To those with a greater knowledge of the genre, Iíd add Neil Gaiman myself. To me, The City and The City shows a writer improving and evolving his craft.
The sense of place (or perhaps places) is excellent. The streets and places evoke a sense of reality, Ďrealí places and cultural icons (such as ipods, Ethernet, and Spielberg) are peppered throughout. China does a great job of keeping the feel of the two cities different. I was quite surprised to discover that the older style gross-out moments of Perdido or Looking for Jake, if not The Scar, are not here. In fact, the book reads as a pleasantly restrained and tightly written book, to such an extent that if I were to criticize it, I suspect some may find the pace a little too controlled, a little too slow, though I enjoyed its subtlety myself.
As is often in the tales that may (or may not) be New Weird, it is the ending that causes most problems. Many earlier tales have been found to evoke a wonderful mood, a sense of unease that permeates through the story but then all fall apart at the end. The last third of the book, where Borlu actually enters Breach, may either infuriate or enlighten readers in equal measure. However, I found the ending to be suitably elegiac and enigmatic, with most of the problems resolved for me.
Nevertheless, I still suspect some readers may ask, Whatís the big deal?, to which I have no real answer, other than to say I found this book is one of those Iíve kept thinking of and going back to after I finished it. It is a thought provoking, challenging tale that examines cultural, social and political issues without hitting you over the head with them, and has scary monsters that are not clichťd.
Iím sure that you could, if you wished, allude to connections between Beszel and Ul Qoma and Iran/Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention comments on the role of international peacekeeping, asylum seekers, refugees and other events happening in our world today. Like the real world, the real horrors are there, but they are subtle. And like the best (or worst!) horrors, they stay with you when the tale is told.
Mark Yon, April/May 2009
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