July 15, 2010

Book review: "The City & The City," by China Miéville

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The City & The City, by China Miéville

The City & The City
By China Miéville
Del Rey / Random House

I was recently reminded that it's only two months now until the announcement of this year's Hugo Awards, arguably* the most important honorary in the entire science-fiction industry; and that means that I need to get on the ball as far as a favorite pet project of mine each year, to read as many of the Best Novel nominees as I can before the actual awards ceremony, which this year had remained still only one title, the remarkable steampunk epic Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. (And seriously, genre fans, read that novel if you haven't yet.) And this just happened to coincide with me finally getting my new Sony eBook Reader to play nice with the website of the Chicago Public Library, which has several thousand ebooks now available and growing by the dozens every month; and so it is that the very first digital library book I was to ever check out in my life just happened to be the trippy speculative crime novel The City & The City by China Miéville, particularly pertinent given the author's overall reputation. Because Miéville, see, isn't exactly a traditional SF author (and in fact doesn't come from a writing background at all -- instead, his degrees are in social anthropology and international relations, and he's as well-known in the UK for his political activism as for his novels), but is rather part of a school of writers who Jeff VanDerMeer famously called the "New Weird" earlier this decade, a term literally from the Victorian Age when such separate genres as mystery, horror, SF and others hadn't been invented yet, meant in this modern context to denote artists who are trying post-9/11 to bring these genres back together again. (Did you like the television show Lost? That's probably the most famous example of the New Weird out there, a show which crossed the traditional borders of several different genres during its run without exactly becoming a textbook example of any of those genres.)

In this case, for example, Miéville first sets up The City & The City to be a fairly simple crime drama, a procedural tale about a dead foreign-exchange student and the steps the police take to track down her killer; but much like Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2008's Hugo winner), the real reason to read this book is not for the mystery plot but rather to examine the fascinating, plausible yet completely made-up city where the mystery takes place. And that's because this book takes place actually in two different cities, the down-on-its-luck "Beszel" and the suddenly rising "Ul Qoma," but with both these cities existing in the same exact physical space on the planet as the other; and if you think that sounds confusing, just imagine how it must look to the citizens of both these cities, who are charged by local law and a thousand years of tradition to strictly "ignore" all the places and people from the other city that they are constantly coming across in semi-ghostly form, or else face permanent expulsion into a ultra-mysterious shadowy land called the "Breach" which has existed as long as both cities, and is manned by a group of intimidating "Matrix"-like agents who are just as misunderstood as the place itself.

If you're anything like I was at the beginning of the book, then, such a set-up will have you quickly filled with practical questions about the actual logistics -- like how exactly do you selectively ignore an entire city going on around you, anyway? Would those people literally bump into each other if they weren't paying attention? And why is it so important that the cities maintain separate planes of existence in the first place? But that's what makes Miéville so brilliant, is that instead of giving any answers to these questions, he makes the debates themselves an integral part of this story's tapestry, using the already fantastical concept of Beszel and Ul Qoma merely as a starting point for even more fantastical conversations. And so it is that some people maintain the schism over an overwhelming fear that one of these cities and its entire population might simply dissolve if the other one was to gain too much power, despite a complete lack of evidence that any such thing would actually happen; and so too is this separation maintained because of the cities simply not liking each other very much, even as both cities also contain groups of radical unificationists who think that the Breach should be totally done away with, as well as equally radical nationalists who believe that the other city should be done away with once and for all.

And again, much like Chabon's novel, Miéville uses the fairly simple crime story at the heart of the book to tertially examine all these issues about the cities themselves, a lovely way to look at all kinds of theoretical and metaphorical ideas without having to move any of them front and center; just for one obvious example, simply the situation and the cities' unspecified location somewhere in the "Fertile Crescent" will remind many people of the situation in the Turkish Muslim capital of Istanbul, which for a millennium before that was known as "Constaninople" and was the second most important city on the planet for both the Roman Empire and Catholic Church. (And I should make it clear that Miéville doesn't make the comparison so blatant himself, and in fact like Ursula K Le Guin goes out of his way to mix and match global references when it comes to these two cities; Ul Qoma, for example, is supposed to be a typical Middle Eastern city but with a closer relationship to Europe than Beszel, and that is supposedly going through a "Celtic Tiger" economic boom much like Ireland's in the 1990s, while Beszel is an intriguing combination of eastern Europe and far Asia in its language and architecture, and is supposed to have a much better relationship with the US than Ul Qoma does.) Definitely the geographical space described in The City & The City is supposed to exist in our real world, and is supposed to be influenced by all the real events in history that have influenced us as well, even while definitely being a fantastical space that could never really exist in the physical world, pretty much as good an example of "New Weird" as you're going to get.

And if this wasn't enough, Miéville cranks up the speculative tension even more by examining the super-mysterious origins of this thousand-year-old "Great Cleavage" in the first place, by making this murdered student part of an archeological team unearthing the bizarre remains of whatever semi-mythical society lived there before the space split into two, a group these modern scientists are learning left behind not only Stone Age weapons but intricately geared steampunk-like mechanical devices whose purposes are a complete and utter mystery; and if this still isn't enough for all you fanboys out there, Miéville also introduces a conspiracy theory that there is actually an entire third secret city called "Orciny" hidden between the two, in spaces that Beszel thinks belongs to Ul Qoma and vice-versa, which is perhaps what eventually became known as Atlantis or perhaps is what's now known as the Breach, or maybe is some Illuminati-style secret society that the Breach people have been locked into a millennium-long "Highlander" style battle with, all theories that first became popular among "Chariot of the Gods" hippies in the 1970s and never completely went away.

Whew, yeah, a lot to digest for a supposedly simple crime thriller! And that's why this book has been getting so much attention in the last year, and why it's a favorite** to win this year's Hugo; and in fact, I think it's no surprise that in an interview at the Onion AV Club that coincidentally just came out today as well, Miéville mentions that The City & The City is the book of his he now most recommends to those who aren't natural SF fans, a tightly structured story with barely any speculative elements at all besides the main conceit, unlike his more fanboy-revered mindjob freakouts like Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun. It's a perfect example, I think, of what the New Weird is all about, an astute look at contemporary global politics masquerading as a challenging alt-history speculative thriller, and is why it's getting a score here in the 9s, which as regular readers know can only happen with a genre novel at CCLaP when it elevates itself beyond its genre, and becomes a book that people can love whether or not they love that genre itself. Once again, just like The Yiddish Policeman's Union, you absolutely do not need to be a SF fan to really dig The City & The City, which is why today I'm recommending it to just about every general CCLaP reader out there. It's definitely worth taking a chance on, even if at first it sounds like it's not going to be up your alley.

Out of 10: 9.5

Read even more about The City & The City: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*As mentioned here before, the Hugo Awards are determined each year by the attendees of that year's Worldcon, the largest sci-fi convention on the planet (and which actually moves from city to city each year, Olympics-style), which makes it in many people's eyes the most "valid" honorary in the industry because of being decided by the planet's most fervid genre fans; this is then in direct competition with the Nebula Award, awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, who claim that their award is more valid because of being determined by only industry professionals. Of course, you shouldn't forget as well such second-tier honoraries as the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Thomas Sturgeon Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the Locus Award, the Saturn Award and a lot more; although I admittedly do forget most of these awards every year besides the Philip K Dick Award, given to the best cutting-edge SF novel that year, and known for being a good predictor of future genre leaders and society influencers.

**And actually, this year's Hugo for Best Novel is the most hotly contested race the award has seen in years; there seems to be even money these days for not only Boneshaker and The City & The City but Paolo Bacigalupi's insanely popular The Windup Girl and Robert Charles Wilson's passionately loved Julian Comstock, with the nominee list then rounded out with Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest and Robert J. Sawyer's Wake. I'll be trying to tackle as many of these before mid-September as I can, so make sure to stop back by the website regularly this summer and early fall.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:55 PM, July 15, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |