My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The City is Besźel. The City is Ul Qoma. Both somewhere along the European/Asian border. Besźel is old-world and rundown; Ul Qoma is modern and wealthy. The science-fictional relationship the two cities share, and what they don’t, is at the heart of China Miéville’s The City & The City. Layered over this foundation is a police procedural that pays homage to Raymond Chandler. To say more would ruin the pleasure of discovery. Stop reading here if you don’t want the secret to be spoiled. Suffice to say that The City & The City is a top-notch novel that will appeal to both science fiction and mystery fans.
A young woman is found murdered in Besźel. The evidence indicates that she was killed in Ul Qoma and then moved. Detective Tyador Borlú of the Besźel Extreme Crime Division is assigned to the case, along with beat cop Lizbyet Corwi. The investigation eventually takes Borlú to to Ul Qoma where he teams with detective Qussim Dhatt. All is not as it seems, and as clues are uncovered this becomes a dangerous political case.
With a concept that would be at home in a Philip K. Dick story, the two cities inhabit the same physical space. The citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma walk the same sidewalks and drive the same (although differently named) streets. Custom and law dictate that residents of each city “unsee” the other. If one “sees” something in the other city, he is committing the crime of breach. To ensure compliance, a mysterious, all powerful authority known as Breach exercises immediate and complete enforcement in both cities. Thus, everyday interactions, such as avoiding cars and pedestrians in the other city, become second nature by adulthood. Travel and trade to and from the cities are allowed, but only at highly regulated checkpoints.
How the cities split apart is not explained, having been lost to the sands of 2000 years of time. The only clues are artifacts buried in an archeological dig in Ul Qoma—a site that the murdered woman was researching. Conspiracies abound around those who would unify the two cities and those who would forever keep them apart. Certainly, one of the unresolved issues is why the taboo of crossing illegally is so severely enforced.
Miéville shapes his writing style to reflect the place he is describing. The early chapters in Besźel are somewhat broken and unclear, but as the story progresses toward Ul Qoma the prose evolves to a smoother, more confident tone. Miéville does this so unobtrusively that only on reflection does one realize what he is doing. Miéville brings the urban settings of the book to life, and the reader will be rewarded for having the patience to see the mysteries unraveled.
The City & The City is ultimately a metaphor for how we “unsee” the unpleasant aspects of our lives, be it a homeless beggar, a public argument, other people in an elevator, or any kind of awkward situation. Let us hope that Miéville will further explore this fascinating duality.