Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Report: The City and The City, by China Mieville

This is a mystery, a police procedural, a hard-boiled detective noir, but it takes place in a city unlike anything I've ever imagined.

In fact, it takes place in a city that I have considerable difficulty imagining. The City is Beszel, a middle-European town whose best days are behind it. The OTHER City is Ul Qoma, a modern and upscale metropolis heading boldly into the 21st century. The odd thing about these two cities is that they share the same geography. They overlap.

And that's where I sprained my medulla.

I thought they overlapped in the sense of parallel dimensions: that Ul Qoma overlay Beszel with occasional areas of bleed-through ("crosshatching" in the novel) or shared territory, that you would stand on one street in Ul Qoma and see one set of sights, but would be standing on another in Beszel and see a completely different set. However, I've recently seen the possibility that their division is less physical and more psychological: that the cities are separate only in the minds of their inhabitants. Some neighborhoods are Ul Qoma only, some are Besz only, with the citizens conditioned to see and interact only with those things that are in their city. In crosshatched areas, they have to be extremely careful to ignore anything they might see or hear from the other city.

That the whole thing is told in first-person by a Besz native to whom all this is second nature just makes the truth of it all the more obscure to the reader. The division is never fully explained. The reason for the split is lost to time. It just is, and the citizens have to deal with it.

It's weird, but fascinating.

The story follows a Besz detective investigating a murder in Beszel of a woman from Ul Qoma. In unraveling the mystery, he has to travel from one to the other, a journey more about psychology than geography. The mystery is complicated by extremists who believe the cities should be united, other extremists who believe they should be fully separated, politicians vying for power, and academics and conspiracy theorists who suspect there may be a third city hidden between the other two. There is also Breach, the terrifying and implacable organization which investigates and punishes those who cross the border from one city to the other without going through the proper checkpoints.

It's tightly written and atmospheric, the way a good crime novel ought to be, but it also brings up questions of urban identity and how much our environment shapes our society, like the best science fiction. I recommend this highly, and would love to find out what other people think is REALLY going on with the separation of the Cities.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

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