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The City & The City
China Miéville
Del Rey, 320 pages

The City & The City
China Miéville
China Miéville was born in London in 1972. When he was eighteen, he lived and taught English in Egypt, where he developed an interest in Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics. Miéville has a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge and a master's with distinction from the London School of Economics. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both an International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award. He lives in London, England.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Un Lun Dun
SF Site Review: Un Lun Dun
SF Site Review: Iron Council
SF Site Review: The Scar
SF Site Review: The Tain
SF Site Review: The Scar
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

It is hard to think of a more appropriate title for a China Miéville novel. It has always been the city. He started in his adopted home of London but burrowed underground to find the hidden city, cacotopically transformed this to create New Crobuzon, struck out for the sea but found a floating city waiting for him before trekking back through the desert to New Crobuzon and then jumping back to another London, again made strange, made un-London.

Now he has moved East. The exact location of Beszel and Ul Qoma is unclear but they seem to nestle close to the Black Sea, crowded in by more familiar European states. They are not two cities but the city and the city. They co-exist whilst being utterly divided; not as East and West Berlin once did -- the comparison is laughingly dismissed -- but more intimately:

It is a heavily crosshatched street -- clutch by clutch of architecture broken by alterity, even in a few spots house by house. The local buildings are taller by a floor or three than the others, so Besz juts up semiregularly and the roofscape is almost a machicolation. (p. 24)
Beszel permeates Ul Qoma and vice versa: to us, to the outsider, they are, in fact, a single city. Not so to their inhabitants. The process of instinctively recognising and ignoring the other city is so internalised by the citizenry that it acts as an almost physical barrier. The city and the city are sometimes densely crosshatched as in the above quote, sometimes physically as well as psychically separated, but the other city is always there and always foreign.

Inspector Tyador Borlú is -- of course -- investigating a crime, a murder in Beszel that (we are unsurprised) may have links to Ul Qoma. How then can he navigate the paths of a crime which take him into territory that he must assiduously "unsee"? When a higher power than him polices the demarcation? The answer is slowly and by degrees.

Early on, alone in his flat, Borlú eats a "pick-pick supper of olives, cheese, sausage" (p. 36) in order to "cushion" the accompanying bottles of wine. The City & The City is like this for the reader: pick, pick; tease, tease; slowly unravel. As Borlú chews over the evidence, we digest what we have learned of the city (and the city). A gradual and total immersion takes place; only after we have sunk into the world Miéville has created does the pace quicken and the thrill of the hunt begin.

Borlú's voice is our guide. It is toothsome and foreign without every being stylistically ostentatious. To take an innocuous, almost bland example:

I would not, but who would not be tempted to burn or shred the notes of that conversation? Of course I would not, but. (p. 37)
There is a satisfying collision of the New World and the Old Country here. There is that close-bitten, mangled police grammar, stretching across the last century from Raymond Chandler's West Coast to David Simon's East Coast. There are also the languages of the precursor countries (where Europe begins and ends) and Yiddish (language without borders) not quite tamed into English. Beszel and Ul Qoma are recursive and turned in and Miéville's prose matches this.

This is simply Miéville's finest work to date. Never before has he demonstrated such sustained control over both message and medium. It is also -- and, given the venue this review appears in, I feel this needs stating -- his least fantastic. You could read The City & The City as being entirely mimetic, excepting the Ruritanian presence of the cities themselves. Yet at the same time it presents a world which is odder, more unsettling than all the splendid monsters of Bas-Lag. While telling a noir story, he has stripped away the pulp elements that were joyously present but also de-stabilising in his earlier work and replaced them with a deeper strangeness.

Copyright © 2009 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, Strange Horizons and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.

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