China Mieville is a writer who styles his books as being of the “weird fiction” genre. I used to think of this moniker as being akin to “speculative fiction” and other such pseudo-genres as being for pretentious authors who want their books to be placed atop bestseller shelves rather than crammed onto the measly one shelf allocated to the entirety of science fiction, fantasy and horror in most book stores. Science fiction? No, no! I write weird fiction. Totally different! Now give me an award. Whilst I do still have some issues with this idea of a genre, in the case of The City and the City, a book Mieville wrote in 2009 but which is suddenly all over the shelves again, it’s a pretty apt description. A dystopian police procedural thriller, The City and the City contains no futuristic or fantastical elements whatsoever, but is certainly a shade or two more high-concept driven than your average detective yarn. Perhaps the greatest masterstroke of what is undeniably a really good book is that it takes a totally bizarre and ridiculous concept and makes it seem as natural as breathing.
Tyador Borlu is a detective in the grimy eastern European city state of Beszel charged with investigating the murder of a young woman found dead in an alleyway. The complication is that the murder didn’t take place in his city, or even his country- it happened in Ul Qoma, a separate nation which happens to occupy the exact same geographical location as Beszel but operates under entirely different government and is a totally distinct place in terms of law, economy and culture. Bezel and Ul Qoma are one city but also two- not a single city divided along the lines of east/west Germany- genuinely two nations superimposed atop one another on the map.
Bear with me.
The book does a really great job of introducing the concept of two cities existing in the same space, describing in detail the way some areas and streets exist in both cities-usually under different names- and the regulations and customs which prevent people living in one city from interacting with people in the other. If you are walking down the street in Beszel and see someone obviously dressed in Ul Qoman clothing it is your duty to “unsee” them, as well as all the Ul Qoman cars and even buildings which may be mere metres away but are technically in another country. To fail to unsee the other city would be to invoke the wrath of Breach- a sinister organisation that exists between the two cities and is tasked with preventing any unauthorised crossings from one into the other. A simple act like speaking to someone across the invisible border or walking into the wrong street will often lead to you being vaporised 1984 style and never seen again. For inspector Borlu this creates serious complications when his murdered woman appears to have been dumped in a back alley in Beszel but murdered across the border in Ul Qoma- meaning any attempts to investigate the case would mean crossing into the other city and risking the fury of Breach. He initially hopes to just offload the case onto Breach and let them deal with it, but as he uncovers more details some hidden power seems keen to keep the truth behind the murder hidden. As he begins to obsess over the case and resolves to unravel the plot behind the murder, Borlu gets caught up in a messy web of political rivals and rumours of a hidden third city secretly running both Beszel and Ul Qoma from the shadows.
What a cool premise, right? And yet, given how metaphysical and existential its central concept is, for the most part The City and the City reads like a remarkably mundane police procedural. Not that it’s boring- it’s just very much about the details of the case, and the extraordinary nature of the setting is integrated into the story so effortlessly and with such precision that you almost don’t notice how strange it is. Holding in your head that these two cities are the exact same place and that any “border” exists only in the perception of the citizens is actually quite tricky. Incidental details like disputes over archaeological digs, political parties in favour of both unifying and keeping the cities separate and rising and falling economic prospects in the two cities really make the thing seem believable and figuring out all the weird implications as you read is a lot of fun. Even the names of the places and people are ingeniously crafted to sound vaguely Turkish/eastern European but still have a character of their own. As profound as the idea of two cities in a single space is, it’s also easy to spot real world parallels- post war Berlin and the political divides in Israel are instant examples, but it doesn’t have to be that obvious- every city in the world has ‘neighbourhoods’ and ‘districts’ and unwritten rules that mean that certain people just don’t visit certain areas. Every town has ‘the dodgy parts’ and people from the different areas, classes and races are so good at ignoring each other that they might as well be living in different countries. So much of the normal functioning of society is dependant on construts and ideas which are basically imaginary and meaningless, and The City and The City takes this to a fascinating extreme. The concept of ‘Breach’ is another very interesting idea- with both cities willingly giving up rights and authority to a power they barely understand and have no control over. It’s very reminiscent of Big Brother from 1984, but when Borlu finally runs afoul of Breach it is revealed that they aren’t the all powerful, seemingly supernatural entity they are played up as- they’re just a bunch of very plain guys in suits who hold meetings and lengthy discussions and disappear between the two cities by simply knowing how to play people’s perceptions so that citizens of both countries will ignore then.
The murder case itself is well constructed- complex but with a followable chain of logic behind every discovery. There’s no overall bad guy pulling every string- the case is a very believable mess of lots of different interested parties and it builds and is resolved in a satisfying kind of way. One thing The City and the City clearly isn’t interested in is human relationships- it’s mentioned that Tyador Borlu has a couple of women he sees but neither of them show up at any point- his only relationships are with the surly young Besz constable Corwi and gruff Ul Qoman detective Dhatt, and even in here the dialogue and interaction is kept strictly limited to the case. Borlu reveals his character and motivations through what he does, not through lengthy heart-to-heart conversations. While the world itself is very engaging, the people in it are almost deliberately not. This does rather keep emotional investment at arm’s length, which doesn’t always work in the book’s favour, but for the most part the cerebral pleasures of following the detective work and the existential wonder of the setting are enough to keep you hooked. I did struggle to get into The City and the City– there are a lot of things to learn in the first few chapters and a lot of characters with hard to remember names appear and then promptly disappear again- but it quickly drags you in with its clever ideas, unique world and detailed storytelling. I was extremely impressed by China Mieville’s ability to make really bizarre concepts seem so tangible, and his ability to write a gripping story is for real. Definitely check this one out if you want a thriller with a strong, original voice and a unique and compelling world.