Jan 18, 2010

Monkey droppings - The City & the City by China Miéville: "Nothing are still like the dead are still."

Today, the monkey tries to see two points of view at once.

My brain! MY BRAIN!!!

The City & The City
by China Miéville (2009)
She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.
I can't speak for everyone, of course, but it's been a banner couple of months for me, in terms of discovering quality mysteries set in worlds that'll wrench your brain around and make it glad for the experience.

I've traversed the mushroom-laden streets of Ambergris in Jeff Vandermeer's Finch. I've gone colour-blind in Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey. I've trekked through the caverns of dreams in Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection. Speaking honestly, I didn't think I was up for any more bizarre literary worlds.

Well, shut my mouth, 'cuz China Miéville is on the scene.

I'm not personally familiar with Miéville's output, but I am aware of his stature as a fantasy world-builder of no small repute (his
Perdido Street Station, set in his fictional world of Bas-Lag, has been taunting me to pick it up for some time). His newest novel, the detective mystery The City & The City (hereinafter C&C), is set in a new universe, one only a stone's throw away from our own.

But there are throws, and then there are throws. And Miéville has one hell of an arm.

C&C is, as the title implies, set in two cities. On one side is Besźel, a poor European city-state guarded in part by Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad. As O&C opens, a woman's body has been discovered, and Borlú soon learns that solving the crime may involve the authorities in Ul Qoma, Besźel's sister city. The cities have existed in a state of truce for some time, although there are constant rumblings from nationalists as to the unfairness of the truce. And if that was all there was to it, C&C would be an interesting police thriller set in an unusual yet familiar setting. While the physical descriptions of Ul Qoma and Besźel set one in mind of European realms such as Croatia and Serbia - war-ravaged regions of Europe that are slowly becoming integrated into the 21st century - there are signposts that mark this world as being very much like our own. People use cell phones, and the Internet, and they Google for information on their neighbours.

But the border between Ul Qoma and Besźel (and this is where it gets weird, and where Miéville's manic genius for world-building becomes obvious) is not so much physical as it is psychological. For the two cities exist in the same geographic space, and are kept separate and apart by each city's populace psychologically "unseeing" the other. Borlú explains it thusly:
How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border.
Each population lives in constant yet unnoticed awareness of the other, and the cities, while in the same physical space, are experience through unseeing as being distinct cities. "If someone needed to go to a house physically next door to their own but in the neighbouring city, it was in a different road in an unfriendly power. This is what foreigners rarely understand. A Besź dweller cannot walk a few paces next door into an alter house without breach."

Each population is kept in their place by Breach, a mysterious third entity that exists somewhere between the two psychological empires. To traverse from own city to the other at any place other than a designated cross-hatch is considered a crime, a breach, and Breach is summarily summoned to ensure that the guilty party is punished.

Yeah, it's a complicated world, and one that twisted my tongue more than once as I tried to explain it to friends. It's difficult to describe in a few words a world where people drive through border crossings and then "they doubled back, to the crosshatched streets in the Old Town or the Old Town, to the same space they had minutes earlier occupied, though in a new juridic realm." You try and wrap your head around that.

Luckily, Miéville has obviously written a map, and consults it constantly. C&C flows effortlessly, and its mind-boggling premise quickly becomes second nature, never drawing attention to itself except through its interaction with the story. For this is a story, and a darned good one, a police procedural with twists and turns as labyrinth as any one of the twin cities' shared back alleys. The cities are fascinating enough on their own, but Miéville is not out to create a Lonely Planet guidebook; he's telling a hardboiled noir police thriller, and excellently to boot.

It almost comes as a disappointment when Breach is contacted directly, but this was a risk Miéville had to take. I won't give away Breach's purpose or construction here, but there is an inevitable disappointment as a tantalizing mystery is revealed. Miéville never shows too much, luckily, and keeps the plot moving at a speedy pace that propels the reader through some crazy passages (including this reader's favourite, a foot chase down a single street between two men in different countries).

The City & The City is one crazy mind-trip, and an excellent mystery. Miéville may not traverse his new realms as deeply as he supposedly has with Bas-Lag (again, I'm going on the opinions of others here), but who cares when the result is this damned good?



August said...

I would highly recommend the Bas-Lag novels. The Scar is by the far the best of them, but it's good to read them in order, I think.

My only real complaint about Miéville (aside from the fact that, like a lot of modern SF authors, he sucks at short fiction), is that as his novels progress, those long sort-of-dream, sort-of-memory sequences he italicizes get longer and longer, and less and less coherent. I had a lot of trouble getting through Iron Council because of them, and I think if he'd been able to integrate the information he tried to get across in the sequences into the main body of the text using his 'normal' authorial voice, it would have been more effective, in terms of plot, style, and pacing.

King Rat is also worth a look. It's a lean little urban thing, with a strong whiff of Gaiman's Neverwhere and every Vertigo comics take on London ever about it. Smart, fun, and fast.

I reviewed it here: http://www.vestige.org/2007/05/25-king-rat-by-china-miville.html and if you're interested, you can find reviews I wrote of four of his other books in 2007 by paging through the archives (for some reason the search function isn't indexing them).

Corey said...

I'm going to get to more Miéville , but at present he'll have to wait. Your concern over his dream-memory sequences has no bearing on C&C, as there is nary a dream to be found. the world is weird enough already.

And if you're looking for strong sci-fi short fiction, I recommend Douglas Smith's soon-to-be-released Chimerascope. I'm reading an ARC for review at Quill & Quire, and am enjoying it fully. Good stuff. Also, Cliff Burns' The Reality Machine has some heady stuff to offer.

August said...

I'll keep an eye out for Douglas Smith's book, but I'm going to pass on the Cliff Burns (if you're talking about the Cliff Burns I think you're talking about). Read some of his samples online, and... well, let's just be kind and say his work is not at all my kind of thing.

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