Saturday, July 23, 2011

Book Review: The City & The City

In The City & The City, China Miéville gives us a murder-mystery that gets shelved under "Fantasy" only because of its location: the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same space and yet exist as foreign entities to one another. Heck, maybe it's not even fantasy, per se: the mechanism of this divide is never really explained and may simply be a distinction that the citizens of each city make in their minds. In an almost Orwellian act of double-think, the citizens of each city must, from a young age, learn to ignore the other city and its citizens, to simultaneously see them (for instance, to avoid car accidents or tripping over homeless people) and un-see them. It's an interesting premise with, of course, real-world application. After all, even if the training isn't so formal, aren't we all conditioned to see certain aspects of our own world, our own culture, and of the cultures of others, and to be almost unable to see other aspects? 

The action centers around Tyador Borlú, the Besźel Extreme Crime Squad detective who ends up investigating the murder of a graduate student who was apparently murdered in Ul Qoma and dumped in Besźel. Ordinarily, such a crime would fall under the purview of Breach, the name for both the laws against Besźel and Ul Qoma interacting and for the secret police who enforce those laws, but it happens that for technical reasons the crime does not, in fact, involve Breach, so Borlú finds himself working with his counterparts in Ul Qoma and on the edges of his city's laws to try to find justice for the murdered girl and to find out the truth that she died for--truths that are at the heart of the workings of Miéville's fictional world and which could threaten the status quo in a number of ways.

Overall, I found the novel to be an enjoyable read, a mystery that kept me in suspense well into the novel, in part because it's not a simple "whodunit" sort of mystery but instead involves a fairly complex skein of interests and motivations that illuminate the whole of this society. At the same time that I enjoyed the novel, I also felt like it could have gone deeper than it did, could have explored its own premise more deeply than it did. Perhaps that perception on my part is symptomatic of the fact that I listened to it as an audiobook, thus letting it pass through me more easily than it might have if it had been fully masticated and digested in dead tree format. If so, I would love to read a brilliant essay or review showing me my own shortcomings in this regard, because the novel did seem to have, philosophically speaking, more potential than payoff.

1 comment:

  1. I have to admit that I've tried 3 or 4 times to read a book by Mieville, but I simply cannot get through them. I don't know why, but they feel full of sound and fury, lots of intricate details and baroque twists, but signifying nothing. A little too precious. I'm also put off by the bizarre names, which are hard to remember if you like to subvocalize them, as I do. I resist making a character list, just so I can read a book. I had similar problems with other authors' exotic naming systems. Put me off, they do.