Neither pure science fiction nor entirely naturalistic, China Miéville’s The City and The City functions in a strange hinterland between genre spaces. Significantly influenced by hardboiled detective fiction (notably Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy) and taking cues from Kafka, the novel is strikingly difficult to pin-down; and although many reviewers have resorted to long compound chains of bullshitty genre labels (‘post-modern-sci-fi-detective-noir’ etc.), this is probably more confusing than helpful. So I think it’s best if we stick with Miéville’s own self-disclosed moniker ‘Weird Fiction’ [his capitals], which though concise and a tad self-satisfied, is nonetheless a pleasingly eloquent descriptive of what is a damn unusual book.
As the name suggests, The City and The City is a novel rampant with doubling: it’s set in two fictional cities in Eastern Europe: Besźel and Ul Qoma, which although being different administrative, legal and cultural entities, nonetheless share the same physical space, topographically speaking; so one street may be in Besźel, whereas the street immediately adjacent might belong to Ul Qoma. The citizens of each city must ignore the existence of the other entirely (‘unsee’ it – strikingly Orwellian neologism?); if they don’t, then they are said to have committed a crime called ‘Breach’, and weird things happen to them. Principally the novel concerns a by-the-numbers ‘extreme crime’ detective called Borlú, who’s tasked with investigating the murder of a Besźel woman by a citizen from Ul Qoma; all the while Borlú becomes more and more obsessed with pseudo-academic theories that a third city called ‘Orciny’ exists – functioning entirely unseen between the other two.
Borlú narrates in the first-person past tense, and in essence he acts as the mouth-piece of the reader by expressing confusion at the book’s bizarre goings-on on the reader’s behalf. Large chunks of the narrative can be baffling, and the book only really comes-together at its shocking dénouement. Compounding this tonal confusion is China Miéville’s very slow reveal of made up, idiosyncratic terminology, which has to be gradually decoded by the reader as no gloss or moments of explication are provided – but rather than being frustrating, this refusal to elucidate contributes to a sense of immersion and authenticity that’s so often lacking in other, less delicate sci-fi – where heavy-handed exposition is often problematic.
The cast is drawn competently, though occasionally it does veer into clichés of genre-type (feisty side-kick, cantankerous police chief, unidentified telephone informant etc.) and this is a shallowness of character that can’t always be hidden by complex plotting and non-stop action, but I’m willing to let this pass because the real shining stars of the novel (the most developed ‘protagonists’, if you want to be poncy about it) are the cityscapes of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Miéville takes his (admittedly brilliant) idea of the inter-meshed cities and really runs with it, augmenting the characteristic cityphilia that he’s shown in earlier novels with a fetishistic attention to the physical description of skylines, road layouts, architecture and city administration. Not only does this contribute to a unique and highly original sense of place, but also instils an unnerving feeling of the uncanny, as the cities in The City and The City function more like characters than mere settings. As Borlú moves between the two cities, the very nature of the streets, like arteries of the cities, pulses, flows and shifts – the streets tell lies and trick reader and narrator alike. Simultaneously belonging to two very different cities, the streets are alarmingly schizophrenic and threatening: they display a shifty inconsistency that creates an unsettling cognitive dissonance, an effect created by Miéville’s unashamedly intricate, complicated prose. The permanent danger is that Borlú will slip-up and commit Breach, and I was torn between simultaneously wanting to see this happen, while also wanting the best for our narrator (who, remember, really functions as the mouth and eyes of the reader – a point of view character in this strange but familiar (hence ‘ uncanny’) world).
So, The City and The City is a dark, violent and complicated hybrid of genre types that functions as a celebration of the idea of ‘city’ rather than of the detective as moral paradigm or of the crime as grotesque indulgence (a trap so many hardboiled novels fall into). It’s grounded by a rigorous attention to police procedure and a penchant for unexpectedly naturalistic dialogue (you’ll read lots of ‘ums’ and repetitions of colloquialisms/idioms: ‘you know’ etc.) that weights the novel into a quasi real-world context when it could so easily have floated into the realms of the purely fantastical. This teasing of the fantastic can, however, be a source of frustration. The more outré, sci-fi aspects are dangled like the proverbial carrot in front of both reader and protagonist alike: the hidden ‘third city’, the possibility of advanced technology, the strange crime that is ‘Breach’ – these are all narrative threads that are im-rather than ex-plicit, and it’s demonstrable of Miéville’s skill that, even when he’s writing minor fantasy, he can suggest the most head-spinning weirdnesses. But readers looking for the out-and-out bizarro creations of his earlier novels might find The City and The City lacking.
There are obvious parallels to be made between the book’s notion of ‘unseeing’, and the real tendency we all have to ignore truths about the world around us. Equally, it’s become a touch-stone of lazy internet journalism to draw comparatives between the novel’s twin cities and various real world locations (Islamic/Jewish Jerusalem, or pre-unification Berlin, for e.g.) – but such comparisons, as well as being dumb and inaccurate, are also utter dead-ends, and I’m yet to read any review that offers more depth of analysis than ‘it’s a bit like cities x and y, isn’t it?’ So… for my own compare and contrast exercise, I’ve decided to look briefly at the more obvious source of inspiration: sci-fi’s other famous bi-metropolitan genre mash-up: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke.
Not only is Miéville riffing off the title of Clarke’s early sci-fi masterwork, he also borrows many narrative through-lines and set-pieces. Briefly: ‘Diaspar’ has existed unchanged for a billion years as the last city on Earth. Alvin (our protagonist) manages to escape only to discover a second city thousands of miles away, ‘Lys’.
The tensions and divisions between the peoples of once twined, now cleaved cities is the predominant theme of both novels. Like in Miéville’s Europe, the inhabitants of Clarke’s two cities display a prejudgemental intolerance and xenophobia towards each other which acts as a microcosm for larger, real-world instances of division and fear. The forced convergence of two cities via the mechanisations of an individual outlier is the event that drives the narrative action of both novels. Similarly, on a structural level, these two books both sport first halves that explore their protagonists’ home city, whereas the second offers an exploration of the ‘other’ cityscape. Thus Clarke’s Alvin and Miéville’s Borlú both function as the stranger-in-a-foreign-land archetype: at once tour guide, trespasser, pioneer and detective.
Clarke’s The City and the Stars, however, is a purer, more unadulterated work of science fiction than Miéville’s book, and the scale of new/weird ideas intrinsic to this necessitates a large amount of expositional dialogue that Miéville manages to avoid with the quasi-real nature of his own work. Thus while the books are thematic and structural twins, they’re not entirely identical: Clarke’s prose being significantly more stilted and heavy than Miéville’s, impelled by the demands of his adherence to a purer genre, that of ‘hard’ sci-fi.
But where they differ in style, these novels meet in the patchiness of their characterisation – I’ve already noted that Miéville’s characters often devolve into clichéd genre types (forgivable given the semi-homage nature of the work) – but Clarke’s characters aren’t even separable by extremes of personality or novelistic genre roles – rather, they read kinda like robots each with a designated function – either to mechanise the plot or explain the finer points of Clarke’s ideas. Too many characters are perfectly situated to make long expositional speeches just when the reader most needs it, after which they are abandoned and the plot moves forwards. This brings a level of artifice to the dialogue which is apparently the price you pay for wanting to write Big, Clever sci-fi crammed with the kind of ideas and theories which need explaining. It’s a frustration which unfortunately takes away from Clarke’s otherwise brilliant novel: his imagination is massive, he just articulates himself in the most stilted, boring and text-book ways.
I am glad I read them together – they make worthy twins for study: ultimately their similarities are more convincing than their differences. Where The City and the City challenges its readers with an abject refusal to explain itself, The City and the Stars suffers from an over-abundance of delineation and detail: differing approaches each with attendant frustrations and successes which, when read together, provide a kind of holistic insight into the ways the respective leading sc-fi writers of their generations deal with the same themes. If you want an unashamedly complex detective story, read China Miéville; if you want high-concept sci-fi with brain-hurty sentences like “A million years later…” read Arthur C. Clarke. And if you want to read one writer riffing off another, and the twin-like ways in which two writers have violently portrayed (in their own ways), the convergence of two very different city-spaces and the fallout that results, then read both.