The City & the City [book review]

This morning I completed the book called The City & The City, by China Miéville. As my regular blog readers may know, I generally read science fiction and fantasy novels. Miéville’s work is no exception. It was published in 2009, and captured my attention immediately. It is no slouch in the field, having won the following awards:

The Book Cover
  • Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
  • Arthur C. Clarke Award
  • World Fantasy Award
  • BSFA Award
  • Hugo Award for Best Novel (tied)

It was also nominated for the Nebula Award the  John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. This post will be unlike many of my book reviews, because I would like to indulge my recent reading, and think through some of the ramifications of the work itself. Even if you generally skip my book reviews, I’d be curious to have you read this one over, and tell me what you think of Miéville’s ideas.

I have read, or have tried reading,  other works by this author, and soon discarded them as “not my style.”  He is known for his work in steampunk fiction, and “weird fiction”, which is a term that’s been around since the 1930s and HP Lovecraft’s Chthulu mythology. City & The City was my first try at reading weird fiction, and I didn’t find it all too weird.  I have generally disliked steam/cyberpunk fiction because the worlds created within are generally dystopian, ugly visions of an alternate past or future. If I want to see ugly, I could find a congressman, or a local slum, and be just as depressed. I haven’t got much time for that sort of thing.

Yet, The City & the City captivated me. Its premise reminded me a bit of a Twilight Zone episode. Miéville’s book reads like a cop novel, a bit like Steig Larsson’s Girl With The… series, in the imaginary European city-state Besźel (pronounced beh-ZHELL). Inspector Tyador Borlú investigates the murder of an American archaeol0gist. Besźel has distinguished itself internationally because it exists concurrently with a second city, Ul Qoma, inside its own boundaries.   the citizens of are taught from birth to ignore (or “unsee”) the attributes of the other city. Ul Qoman shops exist alongside Besźelian markets; both cities have their own governments, trade agreements, and police force. The ultimate societal crime is for a citizen to notice (or “breach”) the existence of the other city or its inhabitants. It is vaguely reminiscent of real-life Jerusalem of today, or East/West Berlin during the Cold War. The rub, in Miéville’s world, is of crimesthat were committed in either city’s No-Man’s-Land, where either nation’s laws could not apply.

This question constantly hovered at the edges of my mind: does there exist a real-life analogue to this situation? It’s not a new theme for literature: almost 60 years ago, Ralph Ellison wrote The Invisible Man, which touched hesitantly at some 0f these themes, speaking of the plight of those growing up African-American in a “white” society. So, who (or what) do we notice on a day-to-day basis?  Do we ignore everyday things for our own comfort, and tell ourselves it’s okay? I don’t know how many times, on city streets, or in airports, I’ve turned a blind eye to homeless people holding out a coffee cup, asking for a coin. About 12 years ago, my family and I took a day trip to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, CA, to browse the bookstores, print shops, and coffee houses.  When we finally located parking, my son Daniel shouted “Hey Dad, Can I have quarters for the bums?” My companions all laughed heartily at the cheek of my young son. The street is indeed busy with impoverished people, camping out at People’s Park and in corners all throughout the avenue. Dozens of times per visit, we are asked for spare change. More often than not, we try very hard not to make eye contact with these people. We try to leave them “in their world” so we can continue on in our world–the one where I have money, and a mission to spend $30 at Amoeba Records, and maybe have some decent Thai food. Meanwhile, it took a three-year-old’s prompting before I would open my eyes to the “other” Berkeley; the less-desireable one.  Even today, I remain chastened when I think of that day.

China Miéville is unafraid to use profanity. His characters seemed, as a result, hardened, as perhaps a streetwise cop should behave. Everyone in the novel were the odd mix of engaging, all while being rather unsavory. You wouldn’t want any of these folks for friends. The writing is, of course, commendably good. Miéville doesn’t preach. He just writes and lets the story tell itself.

It was an interesting read, with an interesting premise, and enormous sociopolitical and moral ramifications. Who do we unsee on a day-to-day basis? What, in our paths, do we ignore? I am sure every reader of this blog has a story about the auto accident where nobody stopped, or that heart attack victim who died because everyone assumed someone else would administer CPR. Perhaps The City & The City is a wake-up our society needs today.


One thought on “The City & the City [book review]”

  1. I think I told you the story about Zac and his friends doing an all night sleepover. They had to walk one boy home in the night, cause he was vomiting, and they passed a “hobo” (the boys’ term) lying unconscious on the road. The other two boys debated about whether to help him, opting to keep moving, because he wasn’t worth their time. Zac made them call 911. Hobos are people too 🙂


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