Nine years ago, China Miéville dazzled readers with his ferociously inventive second novel, Perdido Street Station. Now he's turning the ideas of fantasy literature and the New Weird on their ear again, with the very original tale of The City & The City. Spoilers below!
In his seminal Perdido Street Station, Miéville introduced us to the bizarre metropolis of New Crobuzon, a rich tapestry alive with chimeric monsters, clockwork robots, warped magical science, and shadowy politics. These days, the New Weird Atlas is crowded with entries from dozens of authors, but few can match Miéville's gift at making even the most surreal cities appear lifelike. Now he again defies our expectations changing not just setting but his very writing style. The City & The City is a classic police procedural set in a world almost exactly like our own. The modern city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma might seem familiar to a traveler in Eastern Europe or Turkey, but they're just as weird as any old marching band of steam-driven gorilla crabs.
The streets of Besźel have seen better days. The old-fashioned architecture left quaint decades ago and now sits squarely in shabby — attractive only compared to the brutal concrete housing projects. The alleys are stalked by packs of actual wolves, scrawny critters fighting over trash. There are few jobs and less hope. The Besź citizens might describe themselves as saturnine or defeatist, but would probably settle for a corner of the mouth "feh".
An unidentified woman has been found brutally murdered at a skateboard park. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad has been called in to investigate. Borlú has been around and around the block more times than he cares to remember. More reserved and a bit less corrupt than some of his policzai colleagues, he's a world-weary cop cut from the same cloth as Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander or perhaps Georges Simenon's Commissaire Maigret. We follow the investigation through Borlú's eyes, seeing the clues and his city as he does. The characters show only what moods and motivations they choose to reveal. Miéville totally nails the stripped-down voice of a great police procedural – "Just the facts, ma'am." – a far cry from the abundantly verdant prose of the Bas-Lag novels or King Rat. When the victim's identity is discovered, Borlú must continue his hunt for the girl's murderer in foreign Ul Qoma, Besźel's ancient rival and uneasy partner.
Okay, from here on out I get way SPOILERY about the two very odd cities but not the actual plot. If you hate it when the weird twist in worldbuilding is spoiled, just click away and buy the book, because it really is quite good.
Are all the babies gone? All right, let's proceed.
Where Besźel has sooty crumbling stonework, Ul Qoma boasts glittering skycrapers. This city has adapted handsomely to the modern world, attracting foreign investors and high-tech industry. This would be a surprise considering Ul Quoma's dalliance with Soviet-style communism in the last century. Before that, they backed the losing side in WWII. Once a devout kingdom worshiping something like Islam, they are now a secular Westernized state on the cutting edge of global society. That giant grumbling sound? It's from their neighbors in Besźel. Once he gets through the red tape, Inspector Borlú won't have far to travel – the two cities occupy the exact same geographical space.
This isn't like Budapest or Minneapolis/St. Paul, nor are they divided cities like Cold War Berlin or Jerusalem. Through some unexplained quirk of topology you can be in either Ul Qoma or Besźel and never notice the other except for overlapping areas called "crosshatching". Citizens of both cities are raised from birth to ignore or unsee elements from the alternate side. To travel through these crosshatched zones, or even acknowledge a person or shop sign, is strictly forbidden. Any transgressions are swiftly acted upon by a mysterious force or agency known only as Breach. The punishments cannot be appealed, and Breach does not bother to share its guidelines or agenda. To avoid trouble, certain colors, fashions, even gestures are accepted in one city but illegal in the other. Tourists must complete classes in recognizing crosshatches and un-seeing the other city. Driving in busy traffic must be a nightmarish test of self control.
This is an absurdist extension of what many of us city-dwellers already do. We daily ignore the more unpleasant truths on our streets and often unsee lots of cool stuff: "Feh, that's for the tourists" Yah, I can be a jaded schmuck sometimes. Miéville doesn't lean on this point and I may just reading something he never meant, into the novel. He can get very soapboxy (ahem, The Iron Council) . Not surprising considering his strong convictions. But The City & The City is fairly free of politics, and instead concentrates on the story.
As the murder investigation unfolds, Borlú runs afoul of different political fringe groups who desire to either destroy or unite with the opposite city. The ever present bureaucracy adds to the tangle of conspiracies and shoals of red herrings. The case also involves controversial research into the distant past when the two cities may have been one. The Besź and Ul Qomans have great difficulty with subjects like these. It's hard to have a conversation about things you are not allowed to think about. But Borlú forges ahead: a woman is dead and someone must pay. Everybody does what they must, or gets destroyed by a faceless system that answers to no one. Orwell and Kafka would love this.
Oh wow, that sounded pretty bleak, huh? The plot is grim, but I was charmed by the wealth of details of daily life and characters in the The City & The City. The pacing is deliberate but with a spare writing style, and at just over 300 pages this is a very brisk read. The crime novel feel is tone perfect, although Miéville might have focused on this aspect too much, sacrificing the fantastical elements. After all the imagination he used making Besźel; Ul Quoma, and Breach so different, he never attempts to explain how it all works. Personally I didn't mind this — trying too hard to describe the numinous can ruin credulity (see The Iron Council- time golems, really?). A writer without Miéville's considerable intelligence and talent would have made this a confusing mess.
Readers should shed their preconceptions and treat themselves to a highly original and gripping experience.The City & The City is still Urban Fantasy, yes, but don't look for elves on motorcycles or spell-casting cops. China Miéville has done something very different, new, and — oh yeah — weird.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to the old worker-priests as Christopher Hsiang. His passport to Besźel was revoked after that incident on the Street of Crocodiles.