The City & The City by China Mieville

The City & The CityOver the weekend I read China Miéville’s The City & The City, and once again I’m in awe of his apparently limitless imagination. C&C is a much more understated book than, say, Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, but its premise is startlingly original. Lit grad students take note — The City & The City is as analytically rich as any novel you’ve been reading by Eco, opening itself to critical and metaphorical readings and calling into question all the ways in which political and social divisions are created, adopted, and enforced.

The City & The City is, at one level, a murder mystery: a young woman is found dead in a skate park in Besźel, and Inspector Tyador Borlú must figure out who killed her, and why. Along the way, he finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a baffling mix of myth, conspiracy, and political radicalism.

C&C is also a political novel: Borlú’s  investigation of the murder requires him to negotiate the social and political tensions between two separate and rival countries, Besźel and Ul Qoma, one a quiet backwater struggling to get by and the other a thriving nation grown wealthy from foreign investment. Rivalry and prejudice hinder his ability to work with his Ul Qoman counterpart, but both need each other as their shared case becomes increasingly dangerous.

And, finally, C&C is a concept novel: The streets of Besźel and Ul Qoma are separated only by the ability of their citizens to ignore each other. How the two nations — and their foreign visitors — can carry out such a breathtaking feat of perceptual selectivity is brilliantly thought out, and its complexity makes what seems to be a simple murder investigation infinitely more challenging.

I have a peculiar passion for books about unique cities; for example, I described my love of  eternal cities in an earlier review. The City & The City, not surprisingly, is as much about Besźel and Ul Qoma as it is about any of its human characters. True, Besźel and Ul Qoma aren’t exactly eternal cities — they are more along the lines of Eastern European everycities — but they capture the same sense of strict boundaries, risky transgressions, and discomforting liminalities. And, what’s even better, they do so without quite breaching the border between contemporary fiction and fantasy … although there are some mighty odd artefacts knocking around Ul Qoma.

As I finished this book, I thought to myself that many concepts get recycled in fiction; somebody comes up with an original idea or juxtaposition of ideas, uses it in a novel, and suddenly a half-dozen other writers are following suit and a new genre is born. But the core concept of The City & The City can only be successfully used once, and Miéville has done so.  It is so simple and obvious, as the very best ideas are, that any other attempt to use it will inevitably come across as derivative.

I look forward to finding out how Miéville will impress me next.

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