Sunday, July 31, 2011

China Miéville, The City & The City (2009)

The idea is that there's this eastern European city-state that is in fact two city-states: Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same territory; it's left somewhat ambiguous to what extent this is a "magical" thing--ie, they're occupying different layers of existence--and to what extent it's a matter of willfully disregarding the "other" city. It's clearly some of both, and there are very strict punishments for people who don't respect the boundaries.

This is definitely more subtle than any other Miéville I've read to date, and the world-building is really kind of brilliant. Both cities are very palpable and real, and he stacks in real-world details with great aplomb. My favorite bit is where he quotes a passage about the archaic script of one of the cities, supposedly from Sterne's Sentimental Journey. That's just great. The business too with the "crosshatching"--the bits where the two cities connect up--is executed really well; I would describe it, at times, as haunting.

So what's the problem? Well…I'm sorry to say that all of this really great stuff turns out to be in service to a competently-executed but not terribly exciting murder mystery. I was really interested in the cultures and the reasons for this separation--not that I was looking for everything to be nailed down in a neat and discrete package, but the whole thing would seem to lend itself very well to some very interesting exploration into the nature of belief and nationalism and like that. No such luck, though: deeper ramifications, ultimately, are barely explored. Also, it has to be said, the least believable part of this world is "Breach," this invisible, omnipotent police force that exists mostly-invisibly and cracks down brutally on anyone breaking the separatist rules. The idea that such a thing could really have existed and remained impenetrable for thousands of years…mmph. This is one of those things that, again, could have been employed in a really interesting way but…wasn't.

So that's about that: in spite of being clearly a better novel than Kraken, in some ways The City & The City is actually more of a disappointment, as all the ingredients were there for something really fucking awesome, but that something never really comes to fruition. At the end I was left wondering: really? Is this all there is?


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