China Mieville’s 2009 novel The City & The City is a true masterpiece. It won a lot of awards, which I realize will turn some people against it, but even a blind hog finds a truffle now and then.
Now, I did find out that the BBC made a four episode mini-series of the book, which I have not seen. From the episode guide it seems they took some liberties with the storyline, because they do that, but the clips I’ve seen look good, so if I can find a way to watch it I’ll check it out.
But I’m talking about the book here. Let me start with the most important part, the story. This is a Police Procedural Mystery. The main character is Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in the city of Besźel, somewhere in Eastern Europe. The exact location is never specified, but from hints dropped it seems to be on the Black Sea, probably between Bulgaria and Turkey.
Besźel is a fairly poor city, technologically and economically still trying to recover from the collapse of the Soviet bloc, eager to join the West but not entirely certain how to go about it. This is reflected in Tyador’s working environment, we see him trying to use the internet via old Bell Europa exchanges that can’t handle caller ID and relying more on grunt work and the occasional enhanced interrogation rather than high tech wizardry.
He’s no Sherlock Holmes. Nor is he some deeply flawed vigilante with a tragic history, or a madcap loose cannon who ignores his superior’s orders, or any of the other traditional police cliches. He’s a working man, with a moderately difficult job that he does moderately well. It is his very ordinariness that draws in the reader. Tyador is a relatable, believable character.
We see him working a job that starts going sideways almost from the beginning, an unknown woman killed and her body dumped in a park. As Tyador works the case, Mieville works the genre trope of The Case That Is More Than It Seems flawlessly, throwing one clue after another in Tyador’s path, gradually building a picture of a shadowy conspiracy reaching far above the level of a working detective.
It is a fine, solid piece of work, and if that were all that was going on this would simply a very good mystery.
But that’s not all that’s going on. See, Besźel has a rather unusual geographical situation. It occupies the same space as another city, Ul Qoma. Ul Qoma has a different language, customs, economic status (it has a somewhat better grasp of capitalism than Besźel). The cities are not entirely different, they have both been shaped by the history of the region they inhabit, but they are distinct cities.
Distinct cities that just happen to share the same real estate. Literally. This is not a matter of alternate dimensions or some kind of space warp, the two cities are in the same place. The separation between them is not physical, it is epistemological. The natives of one city have learned to ignore (to “unsee”) the other city. Cars and pedestrians from Besźel avoid their opposite numbers in Ul Qoma without consciously being aware that they exist.
There are signifiers–styles of clothing, architecture, the way that people move, even certain color shades–that let the inhabitants of the two cities know at a glance if someone or something exists in their city or the other.
It is an unusual conceit for a story, and Mieville makes it work beautifully, giving the reader the facts of the situation painlessly and gradually letting the implications sink in. And the strange relationship between the two cities becomes an integral part of the case Tyador is working to solve.
Really, I can’t recommend this novel enough. The link I have above leads to the Audible edition, read wonderfully by John Lee, but if you’re the sort of person who prefers to read with your eyes, the Amazon link is here.