Science Fiction Review Series: The City & The City by China Miéville

July 7, 2017

My review of Railhead compared the novel to China Miéville’s Railsea, a wild steampunk-Western packed with action and adventure. By contrast, Miéville’s The City & The City seems almost subdued, though not wanting for intrigue. This novel succeeds because of its subtlety, and because it never quite shows all of its cards.

The City & The City unites speculative fiction with the noir detective novel. The story revolves around the murder of postgraduate student Mahalia Geary, and it quickly becomes clear this is more than a crime of passion. Her body turns up in the decaying, vaguely Eastern European city of Beszel, but the murder occurred in its twin/neighbor/alter, Ul Qoma. Though these two cities somehow occupy the same geographical space, they are in fact worlds apart. The citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma must not cross between them, interact with each other, or even acknowledge the presence of the opposing city: they must “unsee” it, or risk provoking the mysterious and nearly omnipotent forces of Breach. Only by formally and legally “crossing the border,” can they experience the other city safely.

Miéville’s prose almost entirely avoids exposition about Beszel and Ul Qoma, requiring the reader to slowly piece together their relationship from the brisk first-person narration of Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates Mahalia’s murder. Borlú himself doesn’t know all the answers to the questions these cities raise, such as how they came to be, what Breach is, and whether there might be some truth to the urban legend of Orciny, the fabled “city between the cities.”

These questions lead to the brilliant thing about this novel: how Miéville skirts the edges of the sci-fi genre, possibly making you unsure whether you’re reading sci-fi at all. Given that it has won or been nominated for several awards for sci-fi/fantasy genre fiction, including the Hugo Award, the BSFA Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Nebula Award, it seems fair to shelf it in that genre. But by the end of Borlú’s investigation, it isn’t clear whether anything supernatural has gone on at all.

Breach and Orciny are the two pieces of Miéville’s world that add something supernatural to the story. Without them, Beszel and Ul Qoma could just be two cities that have somehow separated, or been built up around each other, and impose strict behavioral rules on their citizens. One of the characters goes so far as to call Breach an “alien power,” a “shadow over which we have no control.” Both Breach and Orciny are painted, at least for the first three-quarters of the book, as inexplicable forces lurking just beneath the surface.

As Miéville winds through the murder investigation, he leads the reader to suspect one explanation, then another, as any good mystery should. And depending on who Borlú is talking to at a particular time, or what new piece of evidence he has uncovered, the truth behind the two cities and Mahalia’s murder seems more or less fantastical. Orciny and Breach become heavily involved in the conspiracies Borlú chases, and the more he learns about them, the more mysterious and formidable they promise to be.

The last quarter of the book nearly overturns the elements that would place this book in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. In one of the most intense scenes, Borlú commits a blatant act of Breach and is spirited away to their headquarters, where he is kept prisoner. Slowly Borlú persuades Breach to let him continue his investigation of Mahalia’s murder, now as an honorary member of Breach rather than a Besz police officer. Through this investigation, we discover what Breach really is.

For all its fearsome influence in society, Breach simply consists of people who do not have to “unsee” either city. They do not adopt the defining features of Beszel or Ul Qoma, such as clothing, gait, or language. A member of Breach explains to Borl, “[You’re] in Breach. No one knows if they’re seeing you or unseeing you. Don’t creep. You’re not in neither: you’re in both.” In many ways, Breach operates the way Orciny was said to—but by the end of the story, Orciny is largely dispelled as a useful myth.

In the falling action, Breach recruits Borlú, further reinforcing the revelation that Breach does not have any supernatural powers beyond the ability to see both cities at once. The separation between the cities simply comes down to social contracts: “It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Beszel and Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work.”

So if Breach can be explained through purely natural means, not even stretching the boundaries of science (although perhaps stretching the boundaries of psychology), and Orciny is confirmed as a myth, where does that leave the story in terms of genre?

Arguably, it leaves loose ends that still allow for something beyond known world powers to be at work. The origins of Beszel and Ul Qoma are never explained, opening up endless possibilities: it could be as realistic as two societies diverging in what was once one city, or as far-fetched as two colliding dimensions. Some reviewers have suggested that Miéville is alluding to theories in theoretical physics that multiple objects can occupy the same space, stretching the imagination even further. The unknowns in this novel are, quite literally, the most speculative elements.

But this near-realism is perhaps what gives The City & The City an honored place in the sci-fi genre. Miéville avoids all the typical tropes: interstellar travel, aliens, hovercrafts, AI, genetic engineering. But he still uses natural means to produce a highly fanciful world, which is exactly what sci-fi is meant to do: take plausible concepts to the extreme, and explore the implications of the result.

Reviewed by Lauren Klepinger


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