Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The City & the City

The City & the City
by China Mieville
Published in 2009
Published by Macmillan
ISBN: 1-4050-0017-1

Tyador Borlu is a police investigator in the Eastern European city-state of Beszel, trying to learn the identity of a young woman found beaten to death on the sidewalk one morning, and track down her killer.

What follows starts off as a fairly standard police procedural in many ways, but complications ensue which could happen nowhere else on the planet. For Beszel is a peculiar little nation. It lies next to a rival city-state, Ul Qoma, but the two cities overlap territory: huge chunks of urban area are claimed by both cities.

Every native of Beszel and Ul Qoma is trained from childhood to diligently ignore this geographical oddity. A citizen of Beszel walking down the street 'unsees' passers-by who are actually in Ul Qoma, and vice versa; foreigners are distinguished from locals by differences in their clothing, mannerisms, and gait. Motor vehicle traffic does its best to operate safely when motorists must dutifully ignore half the vehicles on the road.

And yet, it's perfectly possible for a native of one city to 'travel' to the other city: after passing through Copula Hall, the gateway in the city center that acts as the sole border, the visitor dons a badge proclaiming him or her to be in the other city now, and every man, woman, and child who passes them on the street must react accordingly.

The rigid separation of cities is policed by Breach, a supranational agency with extraordinary powers of arrest and detention. You really don't want to have Breach come down hard on you.

It's very tempting to see this as a political allegory, but if it is it's not a simple one with a specific solution. Mieville has made it clear that Beszel and Ul Qoma are not Israel and Palestine, nor any of the other possible real-world equivalents. If The City & the City is an allegory for any aspect of the real world, it's for our habit of automatically not seeing what we do not wish to see; the equivalent of Douglas Adams' 'Somebody Else's Problem Field'. We all learn to tune stuff out, to 'unsee' what we do not wish to acknowledge.

But enough with the allegory analysis. Despite the inventiveness of the setting,  The City & the City is a police procedural at its heart, and never ceases to be one even as the weirdness of Beszel and Ul Qoma is explored. Mieville, who once said he plans to write a novel in every genre, crafts it with all of his signature weirdness without losing sight of what basically makes the genre tick. I approve, and admire what he's done here.

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