China Miéville is surely one of the most distinctive voices writing in modern fantasy today; indeed, to the point where he pretty much defines the sub-genre of ‘new weird’ in order to distinguish his work from the hoards of Tolkien, Martin and Rowling clones occupying the broader uploads of fantasy literature.
Rather than writing about elves, dragons and magicians, Miéville’s stories are based on speculative imagination – taking an idea or observation from today’s world and then twisting it into a bold new take on alternative reality, which is then told in an uncompromisingly modern way. The most famous of his works is arguably the award-winning The City and The City, a book I’ve intended to read for years. With a BBC TV version imminent, I realised I had to get a move on if I was to see it before the adaptation is broadcast.The concept of The City and The City is that two distinct cities share the same physical location, but are two totally different entities consisting of their own cultures, traditions, governments, police and military forces, clothing fashions and architectures. Besźel is akin to a declining East European city, while Ul Qoma is financially booming and closer to the Muslim world.
It might sound impossible to have two separate cities occupying the same space without resorting to science fiction or magic to explain what’s going on, but Miéville needs neither. Instead, the separation of the two cities is an entirely social construct: people in one city are forbidden to see or acknowledge anyone or anything in the other, under pain of draconian punishment should they inadvertently ‘Breach’. If they wish to travel from one city to another then that have to follow a formal emigration procedure and make their way over at a central Checkpoint Charlie border crossing. They might leave their home in Besźel, cross at the border, and then return to the same street where they lived and see all the Ul Qoma people and buildings for the first time – but now they would no longer be able to see their own home since that is now a whole country away.
Sounds fantastical? Of course. But in many ways it is a simple thought experiment extension of what happens every day in big cities around the world. Rich and poor walk the same streets but live in different worlds; enclaves of immigrants live side by side embedded within an indigenous culture with no one acknowledging the others. Commuters will know just what it’s like to walk through a crowd and intentionally ‘unsee’ the people around them, since making eye contact or exchanging a nod or a few words would be a shocking violation of the established order. Indeed, it’s when these separations between the different ways of life start to break down that friction occurs and trouble erupts.
In The City and The City, anyone going from Besźel to Ul Qoma (or vice verse) has to undergo extensive training and exams before they receive their visa, and in many ways the book itself is like a training manual for a literary visit to either place: we get vibrant portraits of each place and detailed descriptions and discussions about the social consequences resulting from such a formal separation of the same physical space, and what happens when there are inevitably grey areas where no one is sure which city has domain.
It can be quite a difficult and tough read to start with until you become accustomed to the situation and to the author’s style, but Miéville makes a smart move by using a typical film noir murder mystery/conspiracy theory as the main narrative backbone of the novel to draw us in and help keep things coherent. In some ways the tone and style of this aspect of The City and The City reminded me of the likes of Robert Harris’ imagined alternative history Fatherland, one of my favourite modern novels.
Here we follow the investigations of Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel Extreme Crime Squad into the death of an unidentified young woman whose body is found in a wasteland. A tip-off reveals that the victim is from Ul Qoma, so Borlú expects the case to be referred to Breach – the shadowy all-powerful agency responsible for prosecuting transgressions of the strict separation of cities. When that doesn’t happen, Borlú finds himself following the trail and going ‘abroad’ by crossing the border into Ul Qoma, where he finds himself alone and under threat despite being just feet away from his colleagues who can now longer communicate with him.
It’s an absorbing tale, and the climax of the book delivers both a new insight into the social status quo between Besźel and Ul Qoma and a genuinely surprising whodunnit, making it both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. It won’t be for everyone – not for nothing is the sub-genre called ‘weird’ – but I found The City and The City more than lived up to its glowing reputation and well worth every minute of the time and effort invested in reading it.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the BBC version starring David Morrissey turns out. However, I suspect that this is the sort of story that benefits infinitely from the time and space available from the written word and that too much of the subtlety and detail will get lost in translation to the screen. I strongly advise anyone whose interest in The City and The City has been piqued by this review to read the book first, and not rely on the TV production alone.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
The City and the City is available from all good book stores and in eBook format from online sellers. The BBC will air a TV adaptation of the novel in 2018.