Book review: The City & the City by China Miéville

Given the choice between worldbuilding and good characters, I always pick the latter. But every rule has an exception, that The City & the City is just that. The worldbuilding here is absolutely perfect. It is unique, yet simple enough to be open for interpretation, to the extent where I’ve been thinking about the author’s setting ever since I finished the book a few weeks ago. This novel has deservedly won the BSFA and Locus awards, along with many others.

A young woman is found dead, her body dumped in a decrepit park in the city of Beszel. The case is assigned to Inspector Borlu, an overworked by-the-book cop, who is immediately looking for shortcuts on how to resolve the case or pass it on somewhere else. He commandeers the young policewoman Corwi to do the legwork. They quickly realize that the victim was killed in the neighboring city of Ul Quoma. Borlu tries to pass the case over to Breach, a mysterious enforcement bureau that deals with illegal cross-border cases, but he soon finds out that the body crossed the border between the two cities legally, and he is forced to keep the case.

Borlu travels to Ul Quoma to liaise with the local inspector Dhatt. Together, they are slowly uncovering a multi-layered conspiracy where the reader is kept guessing whether this is a mundane money-grabbing venture, the work of political dissidents or even myth and legend come to life. In an explosive finale, Borlu commits the gravest of crimes and is arrested by the Breach. He persuades the officers to let him help them with a crisis in both cities, and in the process, he finally uncovers the mastermind and motive behind the murder.

That’s it. This is the entire narrative. It’s also quite linear, with very few side stories. And yet, despite its relatively simplistic story and unlikeable, flat characters, this novel is one of the most decorated speculative fiction works of this millennium. The secret of its success lies in the inventive worldbuilding.

Beszel and Ul Quoma are twin cities that exist in parallel universes. Some parts have a strong enough grip on reality that they are clearly in their own universe. Others, however, bleed into each other’s reality and create the so-called crosshatched sections, where one can see people, vehicles, or buildings from the other city. But people are actually not allowed to see them. Seeing the other city or its elements constitutes the crime of a breach, and citizens of both places are trained to consciously unsee what they saw. They are conditioned to ignore the other city, and if that’s not possible, to forget what they saw. They still need to be aware of their counterparts, as not to crash into them (especially while driving) but cannot pay them any attention.

There are worse breach crimes than seeing the other city. One could throw objects into the other universe, or even cross over. For these more egregious crimes, there is the Breach organization, consisting of agents who can seamlessly travel through both cities and pull the offenders out, into their own reality between the cities. Borlu is not one of them, so he needs to use the only official crossing between the cities, but doing so requires paperwork and initial training in the culture and fashion of the other city. There are lines of communication between the cities, but physically, Borlu is quite restrained in his investigation.

As to why the cities exist in this way, there is no explanation. According to the book’s lore, a cataclysmic event split the cities sometimes in the past, but no other details are given. This, however, introduces some interesting political concepts into the story. There are nationalists, who strive to keep their cities as apart as possible, but also unificationists, who are trying to find a way to re-merge the cities. They all play a role in the book’s narrative.

It is the simplicity of the concept that makes it so powerful. Miéville set up very few, but very rigid rules, according to which the characters operate, but most of the world is wide open to interpretation. Even my assumption that the cities exist in parallel universes is just one of such interpretations, as valid as many other theories by other readers. For me, though, trying to figure out how this world works, was not important. I focused (and keep focusing) on what the world means.

There is a joke that if you ask three economists to discuss an economic policy, they’ll come with four opinions. It is fully applicable with this book. If you ask ten readers what the twin cities and especially the act of unseeing mean to them, you may get twenty answers. Some people find allusions to various societal problems, others may feel a strong us-versus-them nationalist undercurrent, but I tend to be a little more literal. The comparison of the two cities fills me with nostalgia, while the unseeing reminds me of my current situation, and turns my mindset squarely against my nostalgic feelings. I still haven’t reconciled the two, and I credit the book for that.

The two cities aren’t real, but to me, they appear to be located somewhere in the former Austrian empire, possibly in the Balkans. Trieste would be a good bet. Beszel is full of old buildings, desolate places, and overall, it reeks of a lack of progress. People have their own stories, some happy and others sad, but in general their lives seem to be slower, more laid back, with time for restaurants, cafes, and friends. Ul Quoma, on the other hand, is quickly modernizing, tearing down the old buildings to replace them with skyscrapers, and life seems to be much more hectic there.

This strikes close to home for me. I grew up in Bratislava. During the Austrian empire, the city hosted the summer residences of the Viennese elites. There are plenty of mansions in the city center where Liszt or Mozart used to entertain the gentry, with their opulent architecture, in styles ranging from Renaissance to Rococo. I grew up there in deep communism. Whatever was not taken over by various government institutions was in disrepair. My friends and I lived in houses and apartments built centuries ago, for local townspeople. When they were built, they were far better than anything that’s being constructed today, but by the time I was born, they were leaky, moldy, with falling plaster and drafty windows. As a child, I didn’t mind, and with my friends we roamed the city streets, backyards, and courtyards. Our grandparents took us to delicatessen shops or milk bars. I left shortly after communism fell. I still occasionally visit, and even though before I left I was working as a tour guide in the city, I can hardly recognize it now. Some buildings were fixed, others rebuilt to their original form, but many were also allowed to deteriorate until they collapsed, so that modern steel-and-glass monstrosities could be built in their place.

Beszel and Ul Quoma feel just like that. Beszel is Bratislava during and right after communism. A city I have strong nostalgic attachment to, and which I could very easily see reflected in Beszel. Ul Quoma is the city Bratislava has grown into. I don’t much like it. It’s hectic, ugly and doesn’t have the space for inner city children anymore. Miéville further reinforced the opposing vibes of the two cities by their respective representatives. Borlu is laid back, preferring to negotiate or retreat in the face of confrontation. He is methodical, and he follows the rules, until he feels like he is going against the government, when he switches to dissident mode. Dhatt is rash, business-like and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty if it gets him closer to his goal. In this, both inspectors are good representatives of the people in old and new Bratislava as well.

For me, the contrast between the two cities perfectly illustrates the transformation of a post-communist city that saw its glory days well before the Great War. The act of unseeing, though, is a more modern phenomenon. It illustrates the changing culture in the UK and Ireland. Miéville is British, and I believe he wrote from his own experience. I now live in Dublin, and despite a century of separation, Ireland is still culturally and socially very similar to the UK. And Ireland, in particular Dublin, is perhaps more illustrative of the unseeing than the UK.

Economically, Ireland changed significantly from the back-water island of the 1980s to the technology hub of Europe of the 2000s and beyond. Socially and culturally, however, some elements remained the same. This created an ongoing culture clash between the original Irish and the new immigrants, many of whom are highly educated and motivated tech workers. Unseeing exists here and is part of the Irish culture. The most common example is when witnessing a crime. Especially when facing a rowing band of feral teens, the Irish revert to the toddler mentality of “if I close my eyes, they won’t see me either.” The Irish pretend not to see the criminals, in the hope they won’t be noticed, either. They are thus maintaining the status quo of their world: a parallel world of multigenerational social cases who commit petty crimes with impunity, existing alongside highly paid young professionals in the tech and financial sectors. But God help the poor tourist or foreign worker who didn’t get absorbed into the system yet and actually stands up to the criminals: the full wrath of the law will fall down on them, in order to preserve the societal status quo. This is precisely what both the Breach organization and the Irish police, Garda, are doing as well, while they are actively encouraging the unseeing culture (to the point where they refuse to take witness statements).

This culture clash goes far deeper than crime, however. The old Irish mentality is reflected in the type of buildings and building regulations they champion, which are akin to the deteriorating architecture of Beszel. On the other hand, young people and immigrants from the European continent are demanding more modern building standards, which they are accustomed to. The same goes for social, medical, and other services. The Irish, even those who experienced progress in other countries, are often stubbornly resisting, unseeing the potential progress at home. Suddenly, thinking about the culture clash in the context of unseeing, I find myself in agreement with modernization against nostalgia. I still did not reconcile my two conflicting feelings this book has triggered, and I consider it a good thing.

The worldbuilding completely overshadows the weaker elements of the book, and for once, I don’t mind. I’d like to mention some of them, though. Probably the most noticeable issue with the book is the character development. There is none. The time scale is too short for any development, much less a redemption arc. However, both Borlu and Dhatt are introduced as quite unsympathetic, and neither gains any qualities that would make me like them. Corwi is probably the most likeable character, but she is severely underutilized. The problem with the two inspectors is further augmented by the lack of any compelling investigative technique. Even some of the greatest detectives, beginning with Sherlock Holmes, are quite unlikeable as people, but the reader must respect their intellect. Here, however, the investigation seems to be stumbling along a single, mainly procedural line, without much of an explanation. Borlu makes some brilliant moves, but the reader will never know why he made a certain decision, even long after it’s been made. Much of the inspector’s thought process is obscured. Related to this, I found the dialogue to be suboptimal, to say the least. It leaves a lot of important information out, and without any visual hints on the mental state of the characters, only they may understand each other; the reader is being kept in the dark again.

I’ve read opinions of people who found the book barely readable for the technical reasons, such as local jargon, imperfect dialogue or a plot line where they could not work out the reason for the twists. While all this criticism is valid, I believe the superb worldbuilding completely overshadows these deficiencies. Miéville struck a very delicate balance in simplifying the worldbuilding, essentially introducing two related ideas and letting them constrain the storyline. He created a very compelling world that has been living in my head ever since I finished the book. This will be highly individual for each reader, though. Finding a strong relation with the worldbuilding will have a great impact on how much the reader will enjoy the book. I was one of the luckier ones, and I’m immensely happy and grateful that I had the opportunity to read The City & the City.

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