by China Miéville
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 26, 2011
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This novel won a 2010 Hugo, in a tie with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. It also won both a World Fantasy and Arthur C. Clarke award, and was nominated for a Nebula. It is the first of Miéville's books that I have read, although he's been publishing for well over a decade and quite a few of his other books have won and/or been nominated for other awards. I don't think I have read anything negative about his work; on the contrary, he has received extremely high praise in all reviews I have seen. He once said in an interview that while most all of his work would fall within the SF/Fantasy realm, he intended each of his books to be in the style of other literary genres. He considers The City and the City to be a crime novel first and foremost.
Not being a regular reader of crime/mystery/police procedural stories, I may not be the best person to judge this novel on that aspect, but a good test should be whether the mystery is easy or difficult for the reader to guess. I did not figure it out myself, but that might be because I was caught up in the more speculative nature of the book. I won't get into spoilery territory for the mystery itself, but I feel the need to give some details on the background of the setting and characters to explain why I was confused through most of the story.
Somewhere in Eastern Europe there are two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma. What country they are in is questionable, perhaps they are in their own separate fictitious countries. A different, but related, language is spoken in each city. They share much of the same land area, although there are distinctions of what portions are totally in Beszel or totally in Ul Qoma, and what areas are "crosshatched," partially in both (or neither?) city. Then there is the mythical Orciny, possibly hidden in those areas between the city and the city.
One can walk along a street in Beszel, and if not careful, can see another person walking beside them in Ul Qoma. Only here, from the earliest age, people are trained in how to "unsee" people and things in the other city. The separation, or Cleavage, of the two cities is lost in the antiquities of time, and the author does little to elaborate the cause or reasoning behind it. Ul Qoma is the more advanced socially and technologically, although one of the Ul Qoma characters states that it is just a matter of time for the situation to be reversed, since apparently that has happened previously in the cities' histories.
What happens when someone accidentally (or purposefully) sees or interacts with the other city? That is when Breach is invoked. Breach is used equally as a verb and a noun. As a verb it means the illegal interaction of a person or persons in one city with the other city. As a noun it is the body of people(?) who judge and administer punishment on those who breach. Since it is practically impossible for someone to completely "unsee" things they shouldn't, it is up to Breach and a coordinating citizens' council (made up of government officials from both cities) to determine which infractions are serious enough to constitute a breach. The novel begins with the discovery of a body in an area of Beszel which is very near one of the crosshatched regions. The lead detective on the case is Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad, and he is the first-person narrator of the story. For reasons I won't go into, Borlú is convinced that the crime is a result of a breach, but he is unable to convince the citizens' council of this, and instead he is assigned to assist an Ul Qoma detective on the case in that city.
Not confusing enough? Just wait. There are procedures in place for people to interact city-to-city without invoking Breach. The citizens' council meets in Copula Hall, which also has sanctioned avenues of travel between the two cities. If one were to cross over the invisible boundary between the two cities anywhere else they would breach, but to do so through Copula Hall, with the proper paperwork, then it is legal and not a breach. When the unique situation of the two cities was first addressed I thought it possible that they were actually in two separate realities, and the first mentions of seeing things in the other city that one shouldn't was an indication that there was some barrier between them that was breaking down. That would have been more understandable from a fantasy perspective. But no, both cities are real, both are in "our" universe, they just chose (or were forced) to separate. But why shouldn't the separation be complete? Why even acknowledge that the other city exists? And Breach itself, when or where did that start? Was Breach the cause of Cleavage or was it formed as a result of it? Is Breach alien, as rumor has it? I don't think so, but I'm still not sure.
This is the first new book I bought for my Kindle. There is an interview with Miéville at the end, but I'm not sure if it is included in any of the print editions. The interviewer mentions allegory, but the author says he doesn't care for allegory, if the story can be related to some other situation or concept, why not just say the thing rather than couch it in allegory or metaphor. However, I am not sure how else to read this book. Since it is set in Eastern Europe my first thoughts were of the different countries that were formed from the former Czechoslovakia, but there are also several other examples of divided cities/countries from history. East and West Berlin, Cyprus, the disputed lands between Israel and the Palestinians. In recent years has come the concern over growing Muslim communities in several western European nations.
Perhaps this book can be read in various ways. The Cleavage of Beszel and Ul Qoma was done to preserve two separate cultures rather than let one dominate, or eliminate, the other. Perhaps Miéville is telling us this might be a way for such volatile situations in our world to be rectified. If so, then Breach must be created to oversee any infractions between two cultures. As has been speculated in the genre for years, it might take an alien confrontation for Earth's various countries to set aside their differences and co-exist, or else we might cease to exist as a species. In this context, it is understandable that there is a rumor that Breach is alien (or at least supernatural) in origin, the Boogey-man who will get you if you don't follow the rules. Another perspective is that the author is telling us what most of us do on a daily basis in the real world, choosing to ignore things about our city, country or planet for which we feel helpless to rectify. How many times have I chosen to "unsee" a beggar at an intersection, or ignore other signs of poverty and neglect that are all around me?
In summation, I recommend this book, both for its mystery story as well as the speculative nature that got me thinking about many different things going on in the world today. Miéville uses a noirish style here, reminiscent of Hammett or Chandler, just what the story needed. The mystery itself is intriguing, and is full of the typical red herrings (at least one of which I had been suspecting before it was revealed, then later debunked). The only negative I can think of is that the finale and reveal of the culprit is too wordy, too much exposition. In the previously mentioned interview, the author says there are other stories that could be told about these cities, but most if not all of them would be prequels. He originally subtitled this book "The Last Case of Inspector Borlú," but his publisher convinced him to remove that since readers might leave the bookstore empty handed if they couldn't find the earlier books in the series. If and when he does write any of those I'll be interested in checking them out. Borlú is an interesting character, but so is his assistant, Lizbyet Corwi, along with his Ul Qoma partner, Qussim Dhatt, and I really would like some clarification of the origins of The City and The City.
Miéville's page at PanMacMillan.com
His bibliography at fantasticfiction.co.uk
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