Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The City and The City by China Mieville

The City and The City has to the one of the more bizarre books I’ve ever read! The basic plot line follows the conventions of a detective/police procedural novel fairly tightly, starting with a murder, introducing the police to be responsible for solving the crime, and a bit of basic scene setting. However, it is the setting that made this book so special, and for me it was the most interesting aspect of the book, so mainly what I will focus on.

The two cities of the title are Beszel and Ul Quoma, two cities transposed onto each other so in someway they exist in the same physical space, whilst still being different places! How that is supposed to work I’ll never know, but I’ve spent many an hour trying to figure that one out. The two cities have very distinct and rigidly controlled boundaries, yet conversely, much of the shared territory is passable just by a step from one city to another, and in many parts the residents of the two cities can see each other, or should be able to, except that they practice something called ‘unseeing’.

With a hard start I realised she was not on Gunterstrasz at all, and I should not have seen her.Immediately and flustered, I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. When after some seconds I looked back up, unoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street a the facades of the nearby and local Gunterstrasz, that depressesd zone.

‘Unseeing’ is when they purposely don’t notice anyone or anything which is in the other city, a skill taught from birth and which any transgression from will incur the wrath of the body know as Breach, feared by residents of both cities. This strict control causes problems for inspector Borlu, when it transpires that his murder victim is probably an Ul Quoma resident whose body has been dumped in Beszel.

What follows is a solution to the original murder, whilst exploring the difficulties and complexities of living in such odd cities. The explanations don’t come in a linear format though. Key concepts related to the geographical placement of the cities are mentioned before they are explained, making them seem a normal part of the world, as they are fed to us gradually. This is the main reason this book works so well. At no point did I disbelieve any of it. The terminology is drip fed enough to make it seem normal, the rest of the world is normal, as we know it and crucially, the rest of the world accepts Beszel and Ul Qoma as twin cities and even have their own foreign polices regarding them, and comply with the strict entry procedures.

I think what I found most interesting about this book were the concepts of ‘unseeing’ and the idea of ‘Breach’. Particularly the way these ideas, although metaphysical in this story, could be viewed as a way of commenting on our own lives. In the context of this story, unseeing is a conscious action undertaken by all city residents. I found myself comparing this necessary process in he book with the way that in our societies we are capable of looking but not really seeing, ignoring aspects of the world around us if it makes our lives easier, and possibly even comparisons with the way the media reports stories. In effect, the bias of a particular report is subtle way of telling us what to see, and what to ignore, or at least discouraging us from seeing things a certain way.

Breach actually refers to two things in the novel. To breach is to illegally cross, or see across boundaries, but Breach is also the mysterious power that polices these breaches when they do happen. Another difficult concept to comprehend. Breach exists, but they don’t exist in either city, they exist outside of the cities, in unseen, unknown places. Nobody really seems to know what Breach’s power is, but everybody is afraid of it. When it becomes clear that is only this fear that enforces the boundaries, it is relative easy to see the parallels to our own lives. Many boundaries we live by are self imposed. We observe them because we are supposed to, usually in the belief that something will collapse if we don’t. This may be true, but it is a power open to abuse, particularly when an element of fear is added to the mix, as with dictatorships and totalitarian regimes.

I found so much to think about and enjoy in this book. I was gripped  it from the beginning, I adored the descriptions of the two cities, they really did seem to come alive, and I could almost imagine visiting them (although I'm not sure I could deal with the 'unseeing'). The paralells to our society were interesting to spot, and made it a good story, and a thought provoking read.

Favourite Quotes

I policed a music festival once, early in my career, in a crosshatched park, where the attendees got high in such numbers that there was much public fornication. My partner at the time and I had not been able to forbear amusement at the Ul Qoman passersby we tried not to see in their own iteration of the park, stepping daintily over fucking couples they assiduously unsaw.
I po