As someone who typically prefers speculative fiction over more mundane literature, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to get when I picked up China Mieville’s The City & The City. Rachael asked for it for Christmas, so I bought it for her, and after she finished with it she implored me to queue it up, but refused to explain the concept. All she said was that she wasn’t sure if it was technically spec fic, but it was definitely worth reading.
With an endorsement like that, I decided I had better give it a go, and just accept that I wasn’t going to get any help in knowing ahead of time what I was in for. Now that I’ve finished it, I can understand why Rachael was hesitant to tell me anything about the premise; encountering it firsthand and slowly realizing what’s going on is a pretty rewarding thing here, and I’d rather not take that away from anyone who hasn’t read the book yet. The best I can say is that this book reads very much like a standard police procedural, with an unsolved murder that leads into a larger conspiracy. I’m tempted to call it noir, but I don’t think that classification quite fits, since I found the ending to be an ultimately optimistic one, even if it conveys a pretty significant loss for the protagonist. So call it hard-boiled instead. This is hard-boiled speculative fiction.
For anyone who doesn’t care about being surprised by the concept, or who has already read the book and knows what’s going on, spoilers will follow.
I quite enjoyed the structure of this book, with its three distinct parts for each stage of Borlu’s investigation in the different cities. Each part parallels the others in fun ways while also escalating the tension of the situation. I particularly like Borlu’s progression of partners from the subordinate Corwi, whom he conscripts because he sees how competent she is, to the equal Dhatt, who appears resentful of Borlu’s encroachment on his territory at first, but eventually reveals himself as genuinely invested in solving the case even under highly inconvenient circumstances, to the aloof Ashil, who mirrors Borlu’s own mentorship of Corwi at the book’s beginning as he initiates Borlu into the ways of Breach. For a story that’s so heavily internal with Borlu’s own reactions to the case he’s working, I think having a partner figure in each section is essential for helping present the unique challenges of each version of the environment as Borlu moves from Beszel to Ul Qoma to Breach (the climax where Borlu makes use of his connections with both Corwi and Dhatt to track down the ultimate suspect as he wanders in a superposition that’s in none of the above is also really satisfying).
Really, the point of the climax seems to be an examination of the absurdity of the compartmentalization that’s at play in the world of Beszel and Ul Qoma. These two cities are overlaid on top of one another, and it’s only through the persistent cultural policing that everyone in the system engages in that they’re able to remain distinct. Borlu’s acceptance that Breach is a strange necessity for maintaining the order of the world seems to me like a commentary on the need for any kind of arbitrary framework to establish some semblance of a working order. When Breach falters during the unificationists’ brief rebellion, the inhabitants of the two cities get thrown into a situation where they don’t have a clear schema for how to act; the mental barriers breaking down is disastrous on a practical level, and at the same time, as we experience the chaos from Borlu’s perspective when he’s becoming accustomed to his new paradigm of existing in Breach, it seems like things would be a lot better in the long run if the cities really did merge.
But for all that, you have to consider that the people of Ul Qoma and Beszel have developed distinct cultural identities, and they do have a right to maintaining those identities, even as they’re inhabiting the same physical space. The divide between the cities seems like an extreme but effective way of maintaining those differences (and given that Borlu observes repeatedly that many of the markers between the two cultures are subtle enough that untrained outsiders frequently breach by accident, the extreme demarcation may be necessary).
All in all, I’m still trying to parse out what Mieville’s trying to say with the device of the divided cities. Though he employes extremists of both types in the story’s narrative (unificationists who want to merge the cities and nationalists who care only about establishing cultural dominance of their own city), it’s never really clear who’s most sympathetic. Borlu is pretty solidly a moderate who respects the boundaries of the cities, and his ascension to Breach at the book’s conclusion suggests that he’s going to continue policing the boundaries, but that seems like a strained position to maintain when he’s reached a state of mind where the boundaries are no longer relevant to him.
Nonetheless, it’s quite a good book, and now that I’ve spent some time thinking on it, I can see why it’s such a compelling concept. Pondering the mental gymnastics implied in such a set up is a lot of fun, and trying to tease out what the larger real-world implications of such a story is challenging, but rewarding.