China Mieville’s most recent novel, “The City and The City” is one of my new favorites. It has a unique idea at the heart of it as well as a spectacularly plotted story that avoids the pitfalls of over-explanation that plagued his early works.
China Mieville gets a lot of credit from me simply for being at least surface-level unique in almost all of his writing. Having read enough sci-fi to choke a whale as a young adult, I find that I get a little bit bored by even the best stories using the older tropes. So when, in the first Mieville novel I read, the cast of fantasy archetypes was replaced by women whose heads were gigantic scarabs, massive sentient cacti, and evil vampire hands I knew I was going to at least pay attention.
However, Mievilles’s earlier books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, The Iron Council) suffered from a ridiculous amount of what I am certain has a name but I will call World Builder’s Myopia. Mieville, to put it mildly, spends a massive amount of time explaining the intricacies of the city/people/world he built. At first, this adds a layer of interest and complexity to the story. But somewhere along the way he tends to lose the thread, and the book becomes a list of briefly explored ideas followed by a brutally abrupt ending when he runs out. Still, I enjoyed all of his early books because I loved seeing so many new ideas, regardless of the harm to narrative structure. His newer books, a short story collection called “Looking for Jake” and a young adult novel called “UnLunDun” are spectacular because they pull back from the overly copious world-explaining and replace it with a more understated world-building that makes it clear that if you ask he can tell you why exactly giraffes are murderous pack-hunters in UnLunDun, but he doesn’t have to lay it out right this moment. “The City and The City” is further evidence that Mieville is capable of writing about places with complex and interesting backstories without becoming distracted by minutia.
“The City and The City” never really gets any more or less complex than the hook: the city and the city in which the novel takes place are two eternal rivals, Beszel and Ul Qoma. They’re presented as being reasonably like East and West Berlin or Palestine and Israel. The difference is, Beszel and Ul Qoma are topographically the same place. Which is to say, they aren’t next to each other, they’re in each other. The borders of the cities are more mental than physical. Citizens of each city assiduously unsee the citizens, the buildings, the cars, the street signs of the other. Two people can live next door to each other, or sit down next to each other, and be nations apart. This simple idea permeates every interaction the characters have, and by the end seems almost natural.
The novel opens with a murder of a young woman and an investigation by detective Tyador Borlu. Where it gets complicated is when they determine that the murder and the subsequent dumping of the body may have taken place in different cities, in which case an illegal border crossing was committed. In Beszel and Ul Qoma, crossing a border can be physical, mental, or both. And crossing one illegally, or “breach”, is a crime so grievous it merits attention beyond the police or government of either city. In order to continue the investigation, Borlu needs to cross from Beszel to Ul Qoma, and work with an investigator in the other city that exists within and on top of his own. Both of them must then attempt to discover whether this girl was murdered by the citizens of Beszel, Ul Qoma, or something that exists in between both.
The pace of the investigation never slackens, and the transition from one city to the other allows for an interesting change in scenery and character interactions without actually switching focus from Investigator Borlu. The unique setting makes it read like a combination cold-war era spy novel and modern detective story. Surprisingly, Mieville manages to continually raise the stakes and still delivers a close that makes consistent sense with the rest of the story, as well as being exciting in a manner that could only exist in the setting he’s laid down.
Mieville expertly introduces the reader to the city and the city, and allows them to figure out the strange rules that dictate interactions between them. He also takes care to lay down small hints of the interactions with the wider world these two fictional power have had over the course of their lifetime. What emerges is a lifelike picture of two cities with a difficult past and uncertain futures desperate for respect from a world that finds them a curiosity at the best of times. The subtlety with which Mieville introduces the reader to the central idea manages to make it seem plausible while maintaining an element of the fantastic that keeps the reader interested in finding out more about the place he’s created.
I can’t recommend this novel enough. The pacing makes it a quick read, and the central conceit is absolutely fascinating to explore.