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The City and The City May 7, 2011

Posted by futurewired in Reviews.
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A member of the American urban guerilla group the Weather Underground described the moment of panic when she saw an old friend ahead of her in the queue at the grocery store. She was on the run and couldn’t run the risk of being turned in. She nearly panicked but, to her surprise, the friend looked right through her. The power of expectations had come in to play – her friend couldn’t have seen her, she had ‘gone underground’, she couldn’t just be walking around the grocery store.

We do this kind of unconscious filtering all the time – if we didn’t our minds would probably implode from information overload. Countless illusions rely on our brain’s reinterpreting visual data the way it expects it to be, rather than how it actually is. It’s not a huge stretch therefore to imagine that given time this kind of filtering could be incalculated into our everyday behaviour. China Miéville’s The City and the City posits a place where this practice of ‘unseeing’ things we ‘know’ cannot be there  has become institutionalised.

The City and the City was the first China Miéville Book I read; an odd choice in retrospect as it seems to be radically different in many ways from his other works, being essentially a crime novel with no supernatural or science fiction elements. Having read a couple of others, including the landmark text Perdido Street Station, I can now see a bunch of common elements, not least a preoccupation with the urban environment that gives both books a remarkable sense of depth and texture, whether it be the industrialising steampunk aesthetics of New Corubzon or the complexities and contradictions of the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma.

It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the City and the City without discussing its central conceit; Beszel and Ul Qoma are two cities, somewhere reminiscent of Eastern Europe, that occupy the same physical space without ever coming into contact. The inhabitants of each, through a remarkable collective feat of doublethink, meticulously ‘unsee’ the buildings, streets, and people that make up the other. Travel between the two is only possible through one approved border post in the town hall, any violations are dealt with swiftly by the mysterious and terrible force that is Breach.

Its a fascinating idea, the notion of different subjective models overlayed on the same geographical space, each filtering out the other. In some ways its a logical extrapolation of a common phenomena that exists on different levels everywhere in the world; from the ‘hidden homeless’ those whom many choose more or less consciously not to see, the differentiation between tourists views of a place and those of residents – having lived in the historic city of York I lost track of the number of times I grumbled to myself about tourists standing around in the middle of the street, only dimly noticing the fantastic architecture and sights that had them captivated – and on a semiotic level, the various signs and markings that make up a rich symbolic level of reality easily missed entirely by the uninitiated.

Things are complicated in the book by the suggestion of the existence of another city, Orciny, hidden in the gaps between the two. A recurring myth in both cities’ culture, the protagonist at one point goes through a series of ‘realisations’; that Breach is at war with Orciny, that Breach is Orciny, that Orciny is a lie, a trick. The truth, insofar as it is revealed, goes to show that sometimes what counts is the use stories or subjective models are put to; here in the service of capital and corruption.

The idea of a ‘hidden’ city, alongside the one we see and know is a familiar trope – Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, China Miéville’s own King Rat – but this realistic treatment of the idea really stands apart. The book put me in mind of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; a meditative piece describing a conversation between Kublah Khan and Marco Polo, on the subject of the cities he has travelled to. Each has its own unique features and idiosyncrasies; one suggestion is that they are all single aspects of a single city, Marco Polo’s home, Venice. By positing the idea of dual cities and then using it as the setting for a thriller the author manages to take something that in other hands might more resemble a thought experiment and turn it into a real page turner.

The plot itself evolves from a police procedural to a tight political thriller, taking in conspiracies, shadowy forces and foreign intervention, dotting form Beszel to Ul Qoma and to the mysterious spaces in between. Its gripping stuff, but for me the real fascination of the book is in details; the contrasting political systems – Beszel is liberal democratic, Ul Quoma more authoritarian and socialist, both beset by nationalists, reunificationists and various other political groupings – , the intensive training period for the cities few tourists, the question of what it means to be an immigrant from one city living in the other, the perils of ‘criss-crossed’ areas. These were the parts that stuck with me, after the details of the conspiracy had left me.

One scene from the ending struck me in particular though. After playing with the dualities that the twin cities imply, Miéville then switches things round, opposing Bezsel/Ul Qoma to the flattening effects of globalised capital. The contempt shown by the representative of the corporations to these odd little cities, the way in which he mocks the authority of Breach, all pervading in Bezsel/Ul Quoma but irrelevant in the face of the forces of the wider world, somehow changes the way we view the cities’ eccentricities. This seems to be reflected in the way the protagonist reconciles himself to his new situation by the novel’s end.

China Miéville stated in an interview that the novel written for his mother, a huge crime fan, who sadly passed away before the book was published. The book may be his only venture into the genre but it sits comfortably alongside his other works, self described as ‘weird fiction’ in the tradition of Lovecraft, Dunsany and Peake. After The City and The City I moved on to Perdido Street Station, Kraken and the rest of his bibliography’s on my reading list. His latest, Embassytown, is more or less straight sci-fi, but it promises to be just as complex and enthralling as his other works.

I’ll finish up this review with a link, to a short story some people might have missed. It was written for the Guardian newspaper, as part of a series on the theme of Oil. It’s called Covehithe, and has echoes of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, as well as a smattering of Lovecraft references. It’s a fascinating read.




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