China Miéville: The City & The City

  • The City & The City

    • by China Miéville
    • TPB, Ballantine/Del Rey, © 2009, 312 pp, ISBN 978-0-345-49752-9

I read this year’s co-winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel back to back, starting with China Miéville’s The City & The City. Fundamentally, the novel is a mystery: In the eastern European city of Beszel, a woman’s body is found dumped in the trash. Inspector Tyador Borlú investigates her murder, but quickly runs into a problem: not only does no one know who she is, but she appears to have been murdered in Beszel’s sister city of Ul Quoma and her body brought back. But Ul Qoma occupies the same physical space as Beszel, only slightly shifted in dimensions. The two cities are separated by language and culture, and despite “crosshatchings” where the two cities bleed together, their separation is reinforced by a mysterious organization called Breach, which monitors people violating the laws of both cities.

The dead woman is eventually revealed to be a foreigner, and Borlú follows her trail through the fringes of society, groups who champion their own city’s individuality, and those which want to bring the two together. Eventually Borlú travels to Ul Quoma, where he works with detective Qussim Dhatt to track down the killer from that side.

The book is rich in the mechanics of how the two cities stay separate, yet interact through well-defined channels, but how it plays with its premise is ultimately unsatisfying. Hints of the origins of the split between the two cities are dropped, but the truth is lost to antiquity. I understand that Miéville decided that this book wouldn’t be backwards-looking, but the story doesn’t really develop its premise, keeping it constrained to the basic set-up of the divided sister cities, not really expanding on the theme, developing it, or transforming it or the cities through the progress of the plot. While in a way Miéville’s restraint and discipline is admirable – sticking strictly to the plot of the murder mystery, not using it as a vehicle to explore the fantastic premise as the premise as a backdrop to the story – it’s disappointing that such a rich idea isn’t developed more fully.

Miéville is a strong “colorist”, excellent at crafting a world in minute detail and bringing it to life, but his plot and characters tend to be dry, and the story develops slowly, and this book fits right in with Perdido Street Station and The Scar in that regard. Even when the story finally heats up in the final third, it seems to lope along without a sense of urgency, or with much concern that the events at hand are going to have a big impact on the characters.

Overall The City & The City is frustrating for its lack of ambition – not that Miéville doesn’t do his usual strong job of painting the world, but that he doesn’t really do very much with it. Certainly nothing like, say, a Vernor Vinge might. It feels like a very small story in a world the author seems to be actively fighting to keep under control. And unfortunately that just makes the novel feel like much less than it should have been.

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