Two years ago, I was blown away by the brilliance of Embassytown. The ability to take spec fiction tropes and use them to interrogate a whole raft of ideas—ranging from linguistic theory to postcolonial critiques—reminded me why I love spec fiction so much. So here I am again, back to worship at the altar of the big, bald socialist that is China Miéville.
Somewhere in the depths of Eastern Europe, in a small city called Besźel, a girl has been murdered. But when Inspector Tyodor Borlú begins investigating the case, even he cannot imagine where it will lead him— Besźel’s greatest nemesis, and closest neighbour, Ul Qoma.
Though there are glimpses of the brilliance seen in Embassytown—including a gift for imaginative linguistics every other fantasy author on the planet would kill to have—The City & the City does not reach the heights of Miéville’s sci-fi masterpiece. His desire to stick slavishly to the procedural crime novel genre doesn’t give him the chance to move out of a fairly limiting structure and style, though there is no question he pulls of the style perfectly. And the twist ending is a little silly—I get that Miéville is a proper socialist, but the twist (“capitalism is the bad guy!”) undercuts the beautiful work he does in foreshadowing secret societies, rogue nationalists and perhaps even fantasy creatures.
Having said all that, the core concept at the heart of The City & the City is so brilliant, I can almost forgive the other stuff. This is a novel about the ways in which humans throw up arbitrary borders around our groups and the ways in which we exclude people from our lives simply because they are different. At first glance, the idea that two cities could occupy the same space seems inherently ridiculous. How could people possibly be taught to ignore the parts of their surroundings that are considered to be foreign? Remember, it is not just the space they share—they have a common history, a common archaeology, even a common architecture. How do you convince people that these identical things are really unique?
Yet that is exactly what we all do, each and every day we are alive. We teach ourselves to see the things we don’t want to as we walk through town—the charity workers trying to fleece our spare change, those supermarkets with signs written in a script we don’t understand, that homeless man begging for money.
Take, for example, my hometown. Though Sydney is widely held up as a successful model for integrating various ethnic and cultural groups into one city, so often, the real world application of these policies ends up more like these Miévillean (I’m totally making that a word, by the way) parallel cities. We all move through our lives taking in only the parts of the city that directly relate to us—we actively block out the ones that we believe have nothing to do with us. Taking this point to its logical conclusion is this novel’s greatest strength. By exaggerating the human characteristic, Mieville forces us to re-examine how we (literally) view the world around us.
Despite the genre and structure issues in The City & the City, an average Miéville book is still going to make you think about the world in which you live—who else would be able to come up with the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma? Once again he proves that the best kind of spec fiction focuses on ideas and themes, and not flashy aliens and dragons