Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The City & The City

Even though Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl won more awards for Best Novel of 2009, China Miéville’s The City & The City dominated the lists as easily the most acclaimed novel of the year. Recently I bought both books and eventually hope to have my own opinion on which is better.

The City & the City begins as a routine mystery set in a fictional city of Besźel involving the murder of a graduate student. But as the novel goes on, there is mention of another city named Ul Qoma which seemingly inhabits the same piece of land as Besźel, except people in one city are forbidden from seeing either the inhabitants or the landmarks of the other. Intermingled with the murder is talk about the mysterious time in the distant past when the one city split into two cities as well as a war between them. While it is possible to travel from one city to the other, there are legal ways to do so similar to traveling to a foreign country. And when inhabitants of one city need to contact somebody in the other, it is similar to phoning a foreign country. Should somebody try to enter one city from the other city illegally–which can be done at various "cross-hatching" sites in either city–or even intermingle with somebody from the other city, it is illegal and apt to attract the attention of an entity (perhaps a supernatural one, although the inhabitants of the two cities are not sure about its origins) called the Breach which has the power to cause a person’s permanent disappearance.

As police detective and narrator Borlú investigates the murder, he learns that the victim had lived in Besźel originally, but relocated to Ul Qoma for her studies, even though her murdered body was discovered back in Besźel. Because of her questionable beliefs concerning the twin cities, she had gotten involved with various political groups, incurring the wrath of a Besźel patriotic group, and possibly a Ul Qoma patriotic group as well. To make matters even more complicated, she dabbled in the theories of a disreputable scientist who believed in the existence of a third city Orciny situated on the same piece of land as both Besźel and Ul Qoma, but somehow between the other two cities.

When Borlú learns of the involvement of both cities in the case, he brings his evidence to a group who serves as “secret masters” of both cities, containing members from both cities who meet in a building situated on the overlap between them. At first the group decides that the murder can best be solved not by police of either city, but by the mysterious Breach itself, to whom they turn over the mystery, but soon afterwards that decision is mysteriously overturned and jurisdiction returned to Inspector Borlú.

This might all sound somewhat confusing, but it is not really at all. Miéville unpeels the layers of the cities like an onion, slowly and carefully as the murder investigation progresses, and it not only becomes believable but more and more enthralling as the novel continues.

The second portion of the novel takes place in Ul Qoma where Borlú is a visiting inspector working with Inspector Dhatt. We soon learn that while Besźel is an open society which has ties with America, Ul Qoma is a closed society which is compared to Cuba and China in the novel. America refuses to have any dealings with Ul Qoma, even though it is considerably more prosperous and advanced than Besźel. Instead it has close dealings with Canada. Borlú’s time in Ul Qoma is fascinating, and the mystery both deepens and spreads wider as two more people connected with the murdered girl also disappear, and the mystery of Orciny, which has been disregarded as pure legend by most inhabitants of the two cities, including both investigating officers, eventually becomes an important part of the investigation.

I dare not say too much more about The City & The City without treading on spoilers, so suffice it to say this novel has numerous appeals to it: as a fascinating murder mystery (usually not my type of fiction, but Miéville has overturned that prejudice), as an exploration of an outrageous concept which actually works and provides considerable thought, and as a character study of the differences between living in an open and closed society. I recommend this book very highly and give it my top rating of A.


  • You make this book sound fascinating. I will have to find a way to move it up in the reading stack. One of my friends has been trying to get me to read Mieville for a couple of years. Maybe this would be a good one to start with.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 9:16 PM  

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