China Miéville is an author whose work has been vaguely on my radar for maybe a decade now, but I never I picked up or even learned more about it than a few titles. I was aware, barely, that there were people who like his books, but, other than that, he existed in an enormous blind spot. Until now. I finally picked up a copy of The City & The City and read it in two days.
The City & The City is, in some respects, a straightforward murder mystery noir, following Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad as he looks into the death of a young woman. What sets The City & The City apart from most noir is that its setting that forces Borlú into a unique course of action.
Borlú is a detective in the city of Beszel, an ally of the United States with Balkan overtones; twinned and overlapping with Beszel, though, is Ul Qoma, interdicted by the United States based on Cold War allegiances, though that has not dampened recent Ul Qoman economic prosperity. There is speculation that the two cities stem from a common “Pre-Cleavage” ancestor, but they have been rivals and opponents since time immemorial. Large portions of both cities are cross-hatched such that many buildings and streets exist simultaneously in both, so existence requires a constant “unseeing” of vehicles or people that threaten collision should they end up in the same space. Rarely are there physical boundaries, but the chasm is preserved by tradition and by Breach—a mysterious and magical force that exists primarily to protect the balance. Borlú’s case thus becomes significantly more complicated when he learns that his victim was killed in Ul Qoma and transported to Beszel. Even more perplexing is when his request for Breach to take over the case is rejected because, in fact, no Breach had occurred.
Borlú doesn’t particularly stand out as a protagonist and mystery novels are so plot-driven that I hesitate to say more about it. Both are competently realized, but what made The City & the City such an achievement is how Mieville melds these traditional elements with the breathtaking setting that speaks to a huge number of contemporary issues. Alluded to above, the touchstones for the setting were almost all Eastern European, building on resonances of the Muslim and Christian cultures of the Balkans. Then there is a commentary about split cities like (Cold War) Berlin and (contemporary) Jerusalem, but intertwined to an extreme degree. But, even more, Mieville weaves in a subtler critique of modern cities with the idea of “Unseeing”, that is, seeing what is happening enough to avoid it, but actively and immediately forgetting what was just seen. Unseeing is a plot device in terms of Breach, but it can also be seen as a commentary about issues of economic inequality and the homeless—worlds that are intertwined, but, ultimately, entirely distinct.
I have found myself saying some variation on this a lot lately, but I am ashamed it took me as long as it did to read anything by Mieville, but am glad that I got around to it eventually. It won’t take me nearly as long to read something else of his.
I built up a bit of a reading backlog this week, finishing Gail Tsukiyama’s Women of the Silk and Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. Now I am between books and don’t know what I am going to pick up next.