Now, all of what I’ve read from China Miéville so far has been categorizable as fantasy (often with some SF or steampunk elements mixed in), and this particular novel won a ridiculous number of top awards for best novel in both the SF and fantasy fields, including a Hugo, a Locus Award, the Arthur C. Clarke award, and the World Fantasy Award. Just about the only one it didn’t win, apparently, is the Nebula Award, although it was nominated for a Nebula. So when I started reading it, I naturally assumed it was another fantasy novel, in which the two cities of the title—Beszel and Ul Qoma—occupy the same space in different dimensions, a la any number of other novels or, say, my short story “The Fold“; but as it turns out, China Miéville was up to something much more interesting in The City & the City. Beszel and Ul Qoma are not in different dimensions; they are literally in the same place. But if you’re “in” one city, you’re not allowed to even see people, places, or things that are in the other city, and you certainly can’t interact with them. The only way for someone in Beszel to interact with Ul Qoma, and vice-versa, is to go to what amounts to an armed checkpoint in the center of both cities and cross the “border”, at which point that person is now in the other city, and has to ignore (or “unsee”, in the parlance of the novel) everything in the city they just left. Failure to observe this unseeing puts you in what’s called Breach—that is, breaching the border between the cities—and liable for immediate arrest and detention by the authority that enforces this rule. This authority, also called Breach, amounts to a secret police cadre, of which everyone is justifiably terrified. If this puts you in mind of any number of real-life segregated societies, well, you’re not alone.
Anyway, that’s all background. The actual plot of The City & the City involves the murder of a woman whose body is found dumped in Beszel, but who, investigation reveals, resided in Ul Qoma. If you murder someone in Ul Qoma and dump them in Beszel that is—you guessed it!—Breach, and so the investigating detective attempts to hand the case over to Breach, only to be thwarted when surveillance footage surfaces that shows a vehicle carrying the victim crossing the checkpoint legally. So there’s a murder, but there’s no Breach. And because only highly-placed officials could have access to the surveillance video, it’s immediately obvious to the investigators that somebody does not want the crime solved, and that they’re being set up to fail:
“This is bullshit. We’ve been screwed.”China Mieville, The City and the City
“It is bullshit, he tells me,” Gadlem said to the world. “He tells me we’ve been screwed.”
“We’ve been screwed, sir. We need Breach. How the hell are we supposed to do this? Someone somewhere is trying to freeze this where it stands.”
“We’ve been screwed he tells me, and I note he tells me so as if I am disagreeing with him. Which when last I looked I was not doing.”
“Seriously what …”
“In fact it could be said I agree with him on a startling scale. Of course we’ve been screwed, Borlú. Stop spinning like a drunk dog. What do you want me to say? Yes, yes, yes this is bullshit; yes someone has done this to us. What would you have me do?”
“Something! There must be something. We could appeal …”
“Look, Tyador.” He steepled his fingers. “We are both in accord about what’s happened here. We’re both pissed off that you are still on this case. For different reasons perhaps but—” He waved that away. “But here’s the problem you’re not addressing. While yes we can both agree the sudden recovery of this footage smells not a little, and that we appear to be bits of tinfoil-on-string to some malevolent government kitten, yes yes yes but, Borlú, however they’ve come by the evidence, this is the correct decision.”
To quote Snake from Running Scared, “You ain’t got no crime.”
Anyway, aside from some mysterious weaponry of questionable abilities and provenance, there’s really nothing fantastical, supernatural, or even particularly SF-ish about The City and the City, other than the fact that, being set in the real world, with the addition of the weirdly partitioned cities, it technically qualifies (in my classification system, anyway) as an alternate history. So once I finished it, off came the “fantasy” tag I had given it. I still tagged it as “SF”, but only just barely. Still, who am I to argue with that raft of awards?
My rating: ★★★★★
Incidentally, it turns out that the BBC made a miniseries out of this book, which is as far as I know the only China Miéville book to be so adapted to date.
I’ve watched most of the first episode of this miniseries and it’s all right, although it made some changes that, so far, seem unnecessary; for instance, it bestows upon the main character, the detective Tyador Borlù, a wife who vanished years earlier courtesy of Breach, presumably to give him a grudge against Breach, which in the book he does not have; in fact, in the miniseries, it is Borlù himself who obtains the video that takes the murder out of Breach’s hands, which is a fairly major reorientation of motivations which, I suspect, I’m not going to like later on. But we’ll see. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in how long it took the miniseries of The City and The City to put my wife to sleep, the answer would be “almost immediately”; although to be fair I did spend at least 15 minutes explaining to her about the partitioned city, Breach, how I thought it was going to be alternate dimensions but it isn’t, etc. etc. etc., so this could be at least partially down to my droning on and on rather than the show itself.)
Anyway, it’s now time for the usual Teaser Tuesday excerpt from one of my own books! This time the Gods of Randomness decreed that it would come from my fantasy novel Ravels, and they further decreed that it would come from a page quite near the end; but I couldn’t find anything on that page that wouldn’t be overly spoiler-ish, so I asked them to reconsider, and they gave me another page much nearer to the beginning, in which Our Heroes are attempting to get some provisions for a little trip through the mountains.
“What sort of supplies do you need?”James V. Viscosi, Ravels
Mercy said: “Well, we’re going over the mountains―”
“Will you be needing goats to ride, then? Or are we expected to give you horses?”
“A wagon would be nice,” Bernard said.
“No,” Cynidece said. “At elevation, the rain we came through will be snow or sleet. A wagon would get stuck.”
Bertram gave her a long look. “Are you serious?” he said. “You intend to go through the Fists at this time of year?”
The little man shook his head. “Madness, but no more than I should expect from you three, I suppose, let alone from you.” This last was directed at Cynidece, a hooligan so dire she required separate denunciation.
Yeah, what a bunch of hooligans. They’re probably slackers, too!