Friday, July 23, 2010

The City & the City

A murder has been committed in Beszel, a city in Eastern Europe, and Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad is assigned the case.

But far more mysterious than the crime is the setting. Somehow Beszel and a sister city, Ul Qomar, share the same location, even though the inhabitants speak different languages, have different customs, and are generally distrustful of each other.

Moreover, occupants of each city are forbidden to interact in any way. When they pass in the street they must "unsee" each other. There's only one official channel between the two, and that is (the brilliantly named) Copula Hall, which is a sort of customs and border post.

Should anyone violate the rules of non-interaction, they are said to have "breached" the invisible membrane separating the two cities, and are quickly apprehended by a shadowy but much-feared group known only as "Breach." Its powers take precedence over those of the local authorities.

It is uncertain whether Beszel and Ul Qomar were once a single city, or whether they were two cities that have somehow converged. Canadian archeologists have been working in Ul Qomar, and one of them has written a provocative book called Between the City and the City, which suggests a precursor civilization called Orciny.


At first the book reads like an urban fantasy, describing something that could never exist in the real world. Yet as the reader learns more and more about Beszel, Ul Qomar, and Breach, it becomes apparent that the situation is not beyond the realm of possibility. Surreal, yes, but not impossible.

Even if it were, it still contains uncomfortable echoes of the real world, where there are (or were) divided cities like Berlin and Jerusalem, and societies whose sense of reality has been distorted by secret police. And who among us has not walked past beggars or the homeless without seeing them?


Though the ending was not as satisfying as I wished for, The City & the City is built on a fascinating concept.

Mieville has also altered his style to one that is gritty and noirish, with lots of choppy dialogue and awkward sentences, to reflect the strange and ugly place he's describing. It's a risky but effective artistic choice.

I can't wait to get my hands on Mieville's latest, which came out just last month. There's no author better equipped to tackle a novel named Kraken.


China Mieville talks about The City & the City
SF Reviews
Schuler Books