The City and The City and The City and The Stars

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.


15 responses to “The City and The City and The City and The Stars

  1. Lovely comparison.

    I really like The City and the Stars, though I shouldn’t because it’s massively flawed and your criticisms are spot on.

    It has a certain ironic status in my memory, because I recall when I first read it there was a passage about computers without moving parts that I scoffed at. As I recall I accepted the telepathy, but that was a step too far.

    My iPhone proved Clarke right much sooner than I think he imagined he would be. Never bet against Clarke on futurology. A tremendous writer despite his utter inability to write a single decent character.

    I haven’t read the Mieville yet. This is one of the best reviews I’ve read of it and does make it more tempting, particularly with the comparison you draw. Mieville is of course referencing Lovecraft, CAS, Lieber and so on with the wierd fiction tag and in that vein I can think of no greater compliment to pay someone seeking to write wierd fiction than to say they instil “an unnerving feeling of the uncanny”. I think he’d be very pleased to see that in a review.

    • Wow; many thanks for your kind words.

      I know what you mean about Mr Clarke: when I read ‘TCATS’, and I thought some of the technology was dubious, I kept having to remind myself ‘this was written in 1955!!’ which is just incredible. Decades before there was such a thing as mainstream sci-fi, and it’s still more accurate/advanced/imaginative than most of what’s currently being published today. And yup, his protagonists are all vehicles to drive the plot and have absolutely no depth of emotion or character whatsoever. But I love him anyways. ‘Rendezvous with Rama’ blows my mind. (as an aside: did you know Morgan Freeman owns the rights to make RWR into a film? How randomly odd is that?)

      I couldn’t resist the comparison between TC&TC and TC&TS though (even the titles are almost identical – deliberately so, I feel).

      You’re right that the whole ‘Weird Fiction’ is a massive Lovecraft reference, and I guess it’s down to the caprice of the individual reader to decide whether or not Mieville is actually making a major continuation of a lost genre, or just being incredibly pompous and self-aggrandising by placing himself next to Lovecraft. For what it’s worth though, I’m loving Mr Mieville.


  2. I’ve seen so many reviews of this book, I must find it in the TBR piles and read it. Read TC&TS many many years ago, and can’t remember anything about it, so thanks for the reminder. Lovecraft is an author I only got around to reading a little earlier this year, and I loved the few short stories I read. It sounds like WF is a suitable soubriquet for Mieville if one has to genrify a book…

  3. Lovecraft is one of my great literary loves. I’m not sure he should be, but love is nothing if not blind.

    Rama is my favourite Clarke. I like to imagine there weren’t any sequels. There certainly shouldn’t have been.

    Regarding Mieville and the wierd fiction tag not having read this yet I don’t know of course how fair it is, but given the result is good if that’s what he wants to call it that’s good enough for me.

    • I think Mieville’s earlier stuff is much more deserving of the ‘Weird Fiction’ tag, this is the most mainstream he’s been.

      I love Lovecraft too; I just try to ignore the fact that he was such a massive racist – luckily it only really features in a tiny, tiny handful of his stories – it’s just something Lovecraft fans have to deal with.

  4. Yes, HPL’s racism is problematic. I actually think it runs through his work, but there’s only a few as you say where it’s really in your face. I think though it underpins stories such as The Shadow over Innsmouth and its inescapable in stuff like The Horror at Red Hook.

    Still, a great writer even so.

  5. Fab review Mr Cat – I just finished TCATC last night and loved it. However, you articulated something I’d had a vague sense of – of just wanting something ‘more’ as far as Oriciny or Breach were concerned. I was awaiting some kind of horrific reveal as to their ‘true’ nature that just never came. Still, it bent my mind – can’t thank you enough for the recommendation 🙂

    • Thanks Carly – so glad you enjoyed the book. China shows amazing restraint by only *hinting* at the weird in TCATC. The idea that Orciny is a bizarre cover-up to get access to possibly hyper-advanced/alien technology is so interesting – but in a way, I quite like the off-screen manner in which he handles it. If you’re into the more weird/outre aspects of his writing, you should try his Bas-Lag novels: giant inter-dimensional moth creatures, telepathic-power inducing drugs called ‘dreamshit’, steam-powered suits of armour that resemble bulls, women with beetles for heads, frog-human hybrids that can shape water into sculptures – they’re very, very weird novels. He’s also written a Cthulu cult novel called ‘Kraken’, which is pretty darn cool. Tom.

  6. Well, I’ll certainly be picking up a copy of The City and the City now. Read your review, then read the first few pages online and found it thoroughly engrossing.

    As for Arthur C. Clarke, I think I’ll be giving him a pass. Doesn’t sound like my sort of book at all. I prefer sci-fi that requires a leap of faith on my part, rather than the sort that derails the plot to explain, expound and theorize – which is what Clarke’s style sounds like. But I really enjoyed the compare-and-contrast approach you took in this review.


    • The City and The City is fantastic – the strangest take on the cross-border crime novel you’re ever likely to read.

      I really like Arthur C. Clarke – his novels are more about the quality of his ideas than the quality of his prose of characterisation – but what great ideas he had! He was the scientist who devised the theory of geosynchronous satellite orbit – which is what keeps all those communications satellites up there today. He had a massive contribution to astronomy and astrophysics.

      If you ever do want to read one of his books, you should try “Childhood’s End” – total mind-fuck.

      Many thanks for reading and commenting – much appreciated.

  7. Pingback: Reading Between The Lines*: The City & The City « Postmodern Idiosyncrasies

  8. Pingback: No machine may contain any moving parts. | Pechorin’s Journal

  9. Got to here from Max’s mention. Enjoyed your take on TC&TC, and take your point about it not really being about or comparable to any ‘real’ city/cities. I hadn’t picked up on some of your other comparisons, especially haven’t read the Clarke novel, but I think there might be some other references that are implicit: my review is here: if you’re interested.

  10. As someone who have read The City and the Stars recently, I do admit that Clarke’s 1956 novel isn’t without faults. However, I greatly admire him for conveying a sense of wonder found in few other SF books. Yes, the story is a bit simplistic but you have to credit the author for imagining such an incredibly advanced city, Diaspar, and spaceship more than 60 years ago. We are now about to develop such technologies and I was in awe when reading Alvin’s quest and adventure for the truth. For readers interested in high-concept sci-fi as you wrote, I really recommended this classic SF book.

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