The City & the City is an award winning and critically acclaimed novel by China MiÃ©ville.
If you are a fan of science fiction or fantasy the chances are you will already be aware of this novel, not only has it won nearly every major genre award for 2010, it also received critical acclaim from almost every quarter. Along with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl it was one of THE breakout novels of 2010, it was even reviewed by the legendary author Michael Moorcock in the Guardian.
I have been wanting to read this novel for some time now, and managed to buy a copy with Amazon vouchers I had been given for Christmas at the end of last year. Since then it's been sitting on a bookshelf haunting me with it's silence, begging to be read. I must admit though to some trepidation in writing a review when a novel has received such coverage as this has, it can be difficult to create something that feels unique when so many others have voiced their own impression, however as with any other review, this is my own opinion and not influenced by any other factors.
This is the first novel I have read by China Mieville and I was somewhat unprepared by the eloquence and elegance of the prose, his intelligent and clear voice manages to convey a literary quality without sounding contrite or condescending.
The story follows Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel city "extreme crime squad" as he investigates what at first glance appears to be a fairly mundane if somewhat gruesome case of murder. Matters are soon complicated however with the discovery that the victim may infact have been killed in another City, known as Ul Qoma. This is compounded further by the fact that Ul Qoma is physically located in the same space as Beszel, both places intertwined with each other to the point that some areas are superimposed on one another in areas known as "crosshatches".
Citizens of each city are trained from birth to "unsee" their counterpart and it is against the law to look at or try to move to the other city, other than through the one official guarded tunnel. Known as a "breach", this is ruthlessly policed by a special department simply known as Breach who appear to have almost limitless powers at their disposal. As a result people markedly "unsee" the dim shapes of others, going to great lengths to make sure they don't pay attention to them, or inadvertantly touch them at any "crosshatches". This is assisted by both populous using different colours and styles for their clothes and cars etc. To all intents and purposes these two cities exist in the same space but as completely separate entities with their own government, airport, cars and buildings.
It's an original and thought provoking idea, based on the theoretical notion of more than one object occupying the same physical space, but one that admittedly did take me a few chapters to get to grips with. It's not a ctitisism of the author, more that I have a very good imagination and clearly visualise a story as I read it, as such it took a while to be able to really conceptualise how two cities could co-exist in the manner Mieville has intended. This is helped by the fact that the story has a contemporary setting, albeit in a city on the very edge of europe that appears somewhat behind the times in many technology aspects (think faded Eastern Bloc).
The style is faintly reminiscent of one of my favourite authors, Philip K Dick, with the same focus on a character led story that features a fairly ordinary cast of people, where the plot is discovered in small chunks as the book progresses and becomes more involved, insightful and significant towards the end. As also with some of PKD's novels, most markedly The Man in the High Castle which also share's the use of the book within a book idea, it's treated very much as a literary novel that just happens to contain a science fiction or fantastic element rather than use the tropes of the genres. Even if you stripped out the two cities asomatous bit, this story would still make a better thriller than any of those that hit the New York times bestseller list, and the story really does keep you guessing right up to the end.
The message that Mieville effortlessly portrays here is one of our modern idiosyncrasy's to ignore or even "unsee" that which does not directly affect our own lives. We live in a massively inter-connected world and yet we know more about someone living half way around the world than those living next door, thanks to the pervasive presence of social networks and mobile technology. We know more about the lives of those "Reality show" celebrities than we do about the lives of those around us, we are often strangers in our own town or city. There are also a number of subtext, racism rears it's ugly head, as does the greed of capitalism.
The City & the City is a profound preternatural thriller that challenges the reader in ways few novels have managed to accomplish and makes it all seem so effortless. I intend to read every book Mieville writes at least once.
Written on Sunday 13th February 2011 by Antony.
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