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The City and the City (Spoilers. I Guess.)

The City and the City exists around a central paradox that’s almost as impossible to wrap one’s head around as one of M.C. Escher’s impossible objects. Since it’s equally impossible to write intelligently about The City and the City without giving this central paradox away, readers who dislike spoilers are advised to avoid this review.

Plots exist to get people through the universe the writer wants you to explore. This is true whether you’re Mario Puzo writing about the Mafia or J.R.R. Tolkien writing about Middle Earth. The plot is mostly important as a set of clues.

Think Theseus: Ariadne has given him a ball of string to help him navigate the labyrinth. The protagonist, Theseus, won’t remember anything about the actual steps he took when he finally emerges into full spectrum sunlight. He may remember that he passed a frieze depicting Pasiphaë as she breastfed the half-taurean monster. That crystal stalagmites rose from the dank, ancient floors like forests of quartz trees. That a strange assortment of albino spiders and flies buzzed through the labyrinth’s dark corridors.

The plot is the ball of string. The reader’s takeaway are all the status details in the imagined universe.


The City and the City is a detective story with a relatively simple plot. A woman is murdered. Her body is dumped a few miles away from the murder site but across the border. The detective assigned to investigate the murder lives in the city-state where the body is dumped but must collaborate with another detective who lives in the city-state where the murder takes place.

The universe in which these two city-states exist, however, is not simple. The two city-states are an attempt to contravene the Pauli exclusion principle through social engineering. Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space. They are overlain on top of one another, but for Kafka-esque reasons that are never gone into, they maintain their foreignness. Citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma spend their lives doggedly unseeing, unhearing, unsensing things that go on five feet ahead of them if those things officially take place in the other city-state.

Every street in this paradoxical geography is labeled Besźel or Ul Qoma. In some neighborhoods, the “cross-hatching” is so marked that two buildings existing side by side in geographical space – Mieville’s neologism is grosstopical – can be, respectively, in Besźel or in Ul Qoma. In order to go next door, you would have to have a passport, acquire a visa, talk to a customs agent.

The reader is never given the slightest hint of how this odd state of affairs came into being; it just is.

The most heinous crime that can possibly exist in the Besźel/Ul Qoma universe is not murder, rape, torture, abuse of executive privilege, but something called breach – which is the act of seeing what is physically there in the interdicted territory.


Mieville does some impressive world-building in this one. There are just enough status details to anchor this world to the one we know. The murder victim is an American. People in this world Google and use smartphones. There’s a Starbucks kiosk at the airport. Borlú, the hero detective, speaks English and has visited Berlin and Paris.

On top of that, though, Mieville juxtaposes his own quite intriguing neologisms that are quite as entertaining as Anthony Burgess’s in A Clockwork Orange.

Besźel and Ul Qoma themselves exist in some unidentified quadrant of Eastern Europe. Excellent touch! Not just because of the subtext of strange authoritarian oppression that hangs like smog over America and Western Europe’s impression of “Eastern Europe,” but also – be honest now! – who the fuck knows what goes on in Eastern Europe? Could you actually name five of the countries in Eastern Europe? Not by the names by which they were known between the end of World War II and the dissolution of the USSR but by the names by which they’re known now? I might have a hard time with that one.


A more heavy-handed writer than Mieville might have used this setup as a metaphore for examining all sorts of ridiculous taboos that exist in our real-time contemporary universe. But Mieville is not heavy-handed. He is content merely to invite readers into the paradox and to give them a guided tour. What you remember when you emerge from the labyrinth is up to you.


In other news, it was 40° out yesterday. Forty degrees! This may mean nothing to you, but that’s because you’re locked in your own little reality just as surely as I am locked in mine. In Patrizialand, 40° is a Very Big Deal.

This entry was originally posted at http://mallorys-camera.dreamwidth.org/696953.html. You may leave comments on either Dreamwidth or LiveJournal if you like.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 11th, 2018 03:41 pm (UTC)
I was so happy for the warm up I took my bike out at lunch and I was in work clothes and didn't care! I saw where another cold snap is on the horizon. These temps have been brutal and being stuck indoors is depressing.
Jan. 11th, 2018 05:34 pm (UTC)
I know! I went for a nice long hike yesterday! Today is even warmer though it's drizzling a bit, and I am going to go for another hike! :-)
Jan. 11th, 2018 04:45 pm (UTC)
You've written a really good review. It makes me want to read this.
Jan. 11th, 2018 05:28 pm (UTC)
Thanks. It's a fabulous book. Do read it!
Jan. 11th, 2018 05:38 pm (UTC)
I read his first book, I think, because I saw good reviews. I found it completely unreadable, but despite that I slogged my way through the whole thing. I hated it. I don't even remember why.
Jan. 11th, 2018 05:51 pm (UTC)
I hear you! I've been avoiding China Mieville's books for years because I had the sense that they would be an interminable grey slog through places I did not want to go. :-)

But then lookfar rated The City and the City very favorably. And I kept running across phrases in reviews such as like nothing he's ever written before. So, I decided to give it a try.

And I'm glad I did because it's a fabulous book and relatively easy to read.

I still don't have the slightest interest in reading any of his earlier books. :-)
Jan. 12th, 2018 07:47 pm (UTC)
My first Miéville book was Railsea, which had the same fantastic imagination as you describe here and a good story--I loved it. Then I read Kraken, also fantastically imaginative, but the story held together a little less well. One day I'd like to read this one--sounds very cool.
Jan. 12th, 2018 08:04 pm (UTC)
I've been avoiding Perdido Street Station for years. :-)

I just have the impression that it's very grim, very grey.

I read this one because lookfar gave it a thumbs up, and our tastes converge to a certain degree.

I would like to read more Mieville, but nothing that uses fantasy novels as a Trojan horse for indoctrination into socialist theory.

Maybe I'll give Railsea a look. Thanks! :-)

Jan. 13th, 2018 05:55 am (UTC)
I'm so glad you liked it!

There was one moment where the double-city reality made my head swim, and it was so cool - when Borlu goes to the checkpoint to Ul Quoma, and he makes the driver pass close to his eventual destination on the way, but he doesn't really think about the fact that he was just there until he is in Ul Quoma. He did it intentionally, the way you put your hand close to a flame. And at that moment, I felt, Oh my God, the cities are IN THE SAME PLACE.

There's a similar moment in that Ursula LeGuin book, The Left Hand of God, when the narrator, who is an ambassador to a planet on which the inhabitants are of both/either gender, really gets it, really gets that his companion was a man before and is now a woman. It makes him feel swoopy.

Edited at 2018-01-13 05:56 am (UTC)
Jan. 13th, 2018 02:46 pm (UTC)
I know exactly what you mean by "swoopy"! :-)

In fact, I think we can define a whole genre of swoopy literature! Left Hand of Darkness, definitely! :-) And have you read Christopher Priest's The Prestige? A novel I think very highly of, though I'm not sure I have enough of a fix on your reading likes to recommend it to you. But a swoop novel! No doubt about it. :-)
Jan. 13th, 2018 03:45 pm (UTC)
I put it on my Paperbackswap wish list! To some degree, the wish list controls my reading. By the time The Prestige comes to me, though, I won't remember who recommended it to me.

Reading reviews of that one on Goodreads made me wonder if you have read Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. The first one, especially, is the kind of intricate surpriser that might fall into the same box as The Prestige.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )