Jul 31, 2012

The City & The City by China Miéville

The City & The City by China Miéville

‘It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch; it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time… you can’t come back from that.’
The City & The City is a noir mystery novel set in the “grostopically” overlapping cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. What this means is that the two cities occupy the exact same space but remain separate entities – each has its own government, its own laws, its own history and traditions. The inhabitants of Besźel and Ul Qoma speak different languages, have different customs and mannerisms, wear different colours, and subtly signal their belonging to one city or the other in a myriad of different ways.

Besźel and Ul Qoma have parts that belong entirely to one city or the other, but there are also “crosshatched” sections where a casual visitor could easily take one wrong step and find themselves in a different city. The fact that this doesn’t happen on a daily basis is remarkable in itself – it takes years of socialisation, of learning to “unsee” or “unhear” anything happening in the wrong city, for the people of Besźel and Ul Qoma to learn to ignore each other so effectively and completely. Acknowledging something taking place in Ul Qoma if you’re in Besźel (or the reverse) is called “breaching”, and it’s both a huge social taboo and the worst possible criminal transgression. As you can imagine, this poses many challenges for children, who are still learning to unsee, and also for anyone visiting the city (to obtain a visa, tourists are required to sit an entrance exam).

The narrator of The City & The City is Tyador Borlú, a detective who works for the Extreme Crime Squad in Besźel. Borlú is investigating a murder: someone dumped the body of a woman in a derelict corner of his city. It’s possible, though, that the woman was in fact killed in Ul Qoma, which would mean that Breach (the mysterious division responsible for enforcing the separation between the two cities) would have to be involved. But the more questions Borlú asks, the more he realises there’s far more to this case than meets the eye.

Long time readers of this blog will have gathered by now that I adore China Miéville. However, the way I engage with his books is very different from my usual readerly modus operandi. As usual with Miéville, I didn’t feel particularly invested in any of the characters in The City & The City, but I was all over the book ideas- and language-wise. I don’t think this means Miéville is necessarily bad at characterisation; it’s just that his characters don’t usually click for me for whatever reason. And as I’m very much a character-oriented reader, it’s quite telling that I still find so much to appreciate in his books.

Having said that, The City & The City is not my new favourite Miéville. I found it absolutely brilliant at a conceptual level, but some of his other novels have far more heart. This is a cold and cerebral kind of book, but the premise of the two overlapping cities and the way it’s executed is interesting enough that I could easily go on about it for hours. I loved how the novel engaged with ideas like the power of an agreed upon reality; with the constant dissociation that is part of everyday urban living; with the way tradition and socialisation enforce divisions that are every bit as real as actual physical walls. As Nic at Eve’s Alexandria puts it (in an excellent review I want to quote in its entirety),
Like the people of Besźel and Ul Qoma, we make and remake the world around us, sometimes without even properly realising what we leave out. Ignoring things doesn’t make them vanish, though; what we don’t want to see is still there, it is just marginalised and oppressed. When the detectives are interviewing witnesses, I found one person’s dismissal of Ul Qoman speech as just “random noise” very telling; the assumption that one’s own language (or way of life, or skin colour) is the default and everything else a meaningless or even threatening deviation from it is a prime example of this mentality at work on an unconscious, kneejerk level. (How often are the words of the powerless - women, people of colour - dismissed as ‘gossip’ or ‘chatter’ or ‘gibberish’?)
This is why I found what Bowden does at the end so brilliant (spoiler that will probably make no sense out of context ahoy): he becomes invisible by studying the subtle ways we signal belonging and avoiding each and everyone one of them; by taking advantage of the fact that we ignore things and people we can’t categorise or make sense of. Like the marginalised and oppressed he’s still physically present, but he becomes almost untouchable by turning himself into something everybody refuses to engage with.

I also particularly appreciated the fact that the world of The City & The City illuminates aspects of our world without ever becoming heavy-handed or recurring to one-on-one correspondences that would turn it into a less resonant novel. There are many echoes of history in The City & The City, of course, but the novel is, if anything, about a general human tendency and the conditions that encourage it rather than about a particular historical situation. In an in-depth interview at BLDG Blog, Miéville says the following:
I knew that I didn’t want to make it narrowly, allegorically reductive, in any kind of lumpen way. I didn’t want to make one city heavy-handedly Eastern and one Western, or one capitalist and one communist, or any kind of nonsense like that. I wanted to make them both feel combined and uneven and real and full-blooded. I spent a long time working on the cities and trying to make them feel plausible and half-remembered, as if they were uneasily not quite familiar rather than radically strange.
(You should all go read that whole interview and then come join me in my ever-growing brain crush on China Miéville, by the way. The bit where he elaborates on his thoughts on why it is reductive to think of fiction in allegorical terms and adds that this obviously doesn’t mean fiction isn’t in conversation with the real world is particularly brilliant.)

I’d say he definitely succeeded – and he also succeeded in making a seemingly very out there fantasy premise frighteningly plausible. The City & The City is (to quote from the same interview) “an extrapolation of really quite everyday, quite quotidian, juridical and social aspects of nation-state borders”. These are nothing but the divisions we live by, and around which we organise our lives and identities, taken to a surreal extreme.

The City & The City has a lot happening just under the surface, socially and politically – many of this premise’s implications aren’t really fully explored before the story reaches its conclusion. On the one hand this isn’t really a bad thing, as Miéville does a brilliant job of suggesting a rich and complex political world without overwhelming the reader with tangents. But on the other hand, you’re left feeling that there’s potential for far more here than what we actually get. I found the possibilities The City & The City suggests fascinating in their own right, but I imagine that whether or not that is enough will vary largely from reader to reader.

They read it too: Care’s Online Book Club, The Avid Reader’s Musings, A Striped Armchair, Book Gazing & Just Add Books, Eve’s Alexandria, Shelf Love, Rhapsody in Books, murmujú


Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. I've never read any Mieville, though Perdido Street Station has been on my to-read list for years. This one sounds fascinating, the idea of two cities occupying the same place - brilliant! I'll have to have a look into this book.

  2. This is one that I want to read, and after loving Perdido Street Station, I am thinking about tackling this one. I also have Kraken on my Kindle, so maybe I should start there, but man, your review was really powerful and intelligent. It makes me want to read all his books right away! Fantastic review today, Ana!

  3. I've read quite a few reviews of this book and the premise does sound promising. I suspect it's over my head though.

  4. I've had a copy of this on my shelf for a couple months now, but I've been saving it to read during Carl's RIP challenge. I'm the kind of person who will forgive weaknesses in characters or plot if the writing is good, and your review makes me think I'll love it. :)

  5. The worldbuilding is amazing in this one, you can put almost any kind of story in Beszel/Ul Qoma. Maybe a noir mystery wasn't the best choice for that frame. The mystery plot is really simple, it appears to be there just to give you a view of the cities, not for itself.

    I reviewed it some weeks ago, but it's in spanish: http://murmuju.blogspot.mx/2012/06/la-ciudad-y-la-ciudad-y-los-spoilers.html

  6. I agree and like your statement that "the novel engaged with ideas like the power of an agreed upon reality". I got that funny feeling I was missing something. Like when you open the refrigerator and close it just when someone asks, 'what's in there?' but all you did was grab a soda and didn't view the contents as things to remember even a split second later. Even when you view to remember, you can't *SEE* it all! or something.
    Very interesting book. Great review.

  7. I absolutely adored this book - the most original piece of work I've read in years. I think it would be hard to engage very directly with the characters because the fact of the disjunctive cities makes the people not-quite-graspable...I've never got round to posting about the book because I feel defeated by groping after so many intangibles, so I'm impressed and envious about your comments :-)

    I've just read Embassytown and loved that too. It has the same quality of bending your brain until you think it might explode and then you start to "get" it - a bit sooner than in TC&TC, I think, though I couldn't work out a solution to the problem. I didn't love it quite as much as TC&TC but I think it's more amenable to second reading. I read your review of Railsea and obviously I'm going to read that soon - I expect to enjoy it immensely but be less intellectually wowed by it.

  8. I agree that his ideas are what make his books worth the effort. I love the quote you included from Nic's review! So true!

  9. Wow. The whole concept of this book sounds so utterly fascinating that I'm tempted to run right out and buy it. And yet, I know I wouldn't read it because of all the authors on Earth that intimidate me, I think he intimidates most! I fear his brilliance is just so far over my head that I would be left frustrated. I know how stupid it is of me to continue stopping myself from trying "scary" things. *sigh* Maybe if I read Un Lun Dun first, it would give me a boost of courage?

  10. What a beautiful review. I love your comment about him discussing the power of an agreed upon reality. His whole concept was so interesting. I do wish it didn't feel so cold, but I'm eager to try another one of his books and see if it works better for me. Any recommendations?

  11. I thought this was a fascinating and wonderful book. My husband read it and liked it and he's not a fiction reader at all.

    Interesting that you say you don't connect with his characters. I sort of feel the same way about this book. It was the cities that I found so intriguing and not the characters themselves but the situation they were in together and apart.

    I've read four Miéville novels and need to read more. He's an amazing world builder and these is so much subtly to his writing that I always end up telling people to just read them instead of listening to me ramble on about them. I feel I can never review one of his books and do it justice.

  12. Oh, I love the idea of this book so much! I think I'll have to give it a try just because of the concept.

  13. I have never read this author, but the premise of this novel sounds very interesting to me. Plus I am way beyond intrigued by the idea of combining a good mystery with science fiction. For someone who is new to this author ... what novel would you recommend I read first?

  14. >>Having said that, The City & The City is not my new favourite Miéville. I found it absolutely brilliant at a conceptual level, but some of his other novels have far more heart.

    This makes me curious to read more Mieville! I've only read this and Kraken; out of the two, C&C is by far my favourite. Any suggestions for my third read?

  15. I listened to this one on audio, and it was a real challenge! The cleverness was just kinda mind-boggling. I just kept shaking my head at how CONFIDENT the man must be to create a world such as this. But as usual, you are right about the characterization. This was a concept book, not a character book.

  16. You make Mieville sound so tempting, but I don't know... I'm very much a character person, and my library doesn't have any Mieville books. Maybe some day!

  17. This was the first Mieville that I read. I loved it and it is one that I keep thinking about, even after reading it a year ago.

  18. Railsea, Eva! RAIL-SEA!

    *stops hijacking Ana's comments*

    I agree that there's very little chance to connect to Borlu and that this novel is one of ideas. Reading this review I much more get how TC&TC is about power structures that can exist within a single society. I think when I read it, I looked at it more as a story of international power relations how we unsee other nations. I was also blown away by Mieville in my first exposure. Loving having read more of his work as I think he's the kind of writers whose ideas build with every book.

  19. Katie Edwards: It's such a smart concept, isn't it? I hope you enjoy it if you get around to picking it up!

    Zibilee: I think this is somewhat unusual among Miéville fans, but I absolutely adore Kraken. Couldn't put it down.

    Kathy: And I suspect it's not :P

    Grace: Miéville's writing is always wonderful! I love how playful he is with language.

    Nicolas Diaz: No worries about it being in Spanish; links in other languages are welcome anyway! I can see what you mean about the mystery plot, yes. I didn't think it was bad, but it paled in comparison to everything else in the book.

    Care: lol, I like your analogy. It's interesting to think about how many things we're trained not to see.

    Geranium Cat: You're right about Railsea - it's not as intellectually impressive, but I think it makes up for it in playfulness and warmth. Looking forward to hearing what you think! And I need to pick up Embassytown soon - it's been on my TBR pile for over a year.

    Jill: Isn't it? The whole review was perfect.

    Debi: Both Un Lun Dun and Railsea would be great starting points!

    Melissa: Railsea! It's probably the warmest of his books to date.

  20. Have it on the to-listen list for a while now (do you think it will work in that format?). Seems like a meaty read, lots to analyse there!

  21. Amy: Yes, it's all about the setting. I often feel that way about his novels - I definitely agree that world building is what he's best at. I need to read more of his novels too!

    Cass: I'd love to hear what you think of it!

    Stephanie Ward: This one isn't actually a bad starting place. And yes, I loved the combination of genres too.

    Eva: You could try his latest, Railsea. I think you'd enjoy all the literary allusions (Moby Dick is the most obvious one, but there are more) and the classic adventure story feel.

    Sandy: I know - you need a lot of skill to be able to pull it off!

    Tasha: I really am as well, and yet I still love his books. Do give him a try one of these days!

    Melanie: I think that will be the case with me as well.

    Jodie: Hijack away - that was totally what I was going to say anyway :P That's a great point about the build up. Must read All The Miévilles.

    Alex: I'm not the best person to ask about audiobooks (I get distracted and lost far too easily when listening to things), but it seems to have worked for Sandy above. This is the kind of story where you're supposed to feel lost at first, so if it happens to you, do stick with it. Everything begins to fall into place eventually.

  22. I've wanted to read this book, but I'm glad for the heads up that it's more of an ideas book. I like those, but I also prefer to know that's what I'm getting into!

  23. I didn't like The City and the City when I read it, but your review makes me like it a lot better. I'd forgotten what it's like to live in a big city, but what you say brings it all back to me--I missed it in the fiction because I've lived in the rural so long.

  24. All the way through this book I thought of it as fantasy. It wasn't until I read Miéville's comments at the end that I realized there really aren't any elements of fantasy in the book (not that I can think of, anyway). I was shocked by how duped I'd been--living next to an entire city yet not seeing it seemed so utterly fantastic, but once I started thinking about it, I realized that we "unsee" things in our everyday life all the time, as Nic said. We unsee homeless people; drug addicts; different races, sexes, ages, or religions; and we often make a point of being seen, but there is definitely an art to being unseen as well. I love what Miéville pulled off with this, but I wish I'd loved the story more.

  25. oh I must read it soon just brought second hand hardback and now your review makes me even keener than I was ,all the best stu

  26. I just finished the book yesterday and wow, was it ever good! Still digesting it all and I love what you say about it and the ideas the book takes on. An excellent story but also intellectually engaging book. I did end up liking Borlu quite a bit but it took time for him to grow on me. This is the first mieville I have read and it definitely won't be the last. Off to read the interview now.

  27. Having only read one of China Miéville's books (Railsea--which I absolutely loved), from everything I've encountered it seems to me that he is one of those incredibly unique fantasy writers that manages with each book to do something that you haven't seen before. The City and The City was my first book of his to make it to my TBR, but I haven't read it yet. I'm certainly more excited to now knowing it's all of the same goodness (though I agree, the story seems stronger than characters, at least it was in Railsea), and I like that it comes from a detective's perspective.


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