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The City And The City by China Miéville

A novel that's both here and there
I like an author who doesn't explain too much. I like monsters you don't see, mysteries that go unexplained, realities that exist without question and especially without answer. I also like detective fiction, particularly noir. And I have an incredibly soft spot for science fiction and fantasy. Step up, China Miéville. A British writer of scope and talent, winner of the 2010 Arthur C Clarke and Hugo Awards for this very novel, Miéville is a member of the 'New Weird', a writer that, although he loves to explore genres (indeed I have heard he wants to write a novel in every literary genre) is not easily pigeon-holed, unless of course you go and make up a label, just for him. So of course I was going to like him, when I got around to reading him. It was highly likely that my recent dabbling with Gene Wolfe opened the intertextual door to this novel, although I can't be sure. Nonetheless, I went and got me a digital copy as soon as I could after realising the kernel of the idea was stuck between my teeth, wilfully and unabashedly purchasing a copy of James Smythe's The Echo while I was at it*. 

In The City and The City we have Miéville's entirely successful stab at detective noir, set in a reality and landscape that is familiar but very, very different. Although recognisably modern day Earth, the action takes place in two cities which are, geographically, situated in the same place. However, they are dimensionally separate, I think, or else they are the same city but just perceived as separate. Both cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, exist at the same time in the same place, and citizens are trained to only see that which exists in their own city ('unseeing' that which belongs to the other) and to definitely not interact with those of the other, or else they are in breach, which carries significant penalties. Each city has zones where both interact (cross-hatched areas), areas which are total (i.e. all in one city) and alter (that which are in the other city in their entirety). Thankfully, this slowly becomes clear through the novel, with no real attempt to explain why or how this happens. Indeed, part of the narrative revolves around the archaeological exploration of their shared past, pre-cleavage. But there is also a third place - Breach, wherein reside Breach, the intra-dimensional police force which maintain order and an orderly separation between the two antagonistic city states. Into this internecine nightmare comes a murder most foul, a visiting student from America murdered and dumped over the border, and an investigation which will take one man from his home city of Besźel to Ul Qoma and eventually, into the breach. 

It's a complicated idea to represent in text form – although probably more difficult to render cinematically – but Miéville does so admirably, never allowing it to run amok or slip into the shadows. It's shamelessly entertaining too, with all the hallmarks of a sci-fi setting that could be revisited often; character, novelty, and more importantly, verisimilitude. And it works as a police procedural with a convincing plot and murder mystery, and characters that are fully fleshed-out and believable. Also interesting to note that Miéville's political bent peeks through the curtains, hinted at by the interactions with members of political factions in favour of or set against unification of the two cities, although it would be hard to say he exhibits any bias which is all the more impressive given his seriously left-leaning attitudes**.

In conclusion, what started out as curiosity has been sufficiently fed by this novel to have become a big fat desire to read much more of Miéville's work. If you've not reached out to the New Weird yet, this would be a great way to touch hands across the divide.

* Books are highly addictive and most, I find, are gateway books to more books.
** Miéville was a founding member of the left-wing Left Unity party, formed in 2013, who have all-of-a-sudden started following me on Twitter. Coincidence?

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