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A strange tale of two cities in one place
The City & The City - China Mieville
Member Name: FairyG
The City & The City - China Mieville
Date: 22/12/09, updated on 22/12/09 (59 review reads)
Advantages: A fascinating read, and an interesting concept that isn't too far from reality.
Disadvantages: Hard to follow at times.
The City & The City is a murder mystery set in two fictitious cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel, somewhere in present day Europe. The strange thing about the two cities is that, geographically, they occupy the same space. They are two overlapping cities, with some streets, buildings, parks and squares that belong specifically belong to one city, and some areas that 'crosshatch', or overlap. The cities have two distinct identities, with different architectural styles, different kinds of food, different vehicles and separate police forces. Citizens can by identified by visual signals such as the style of clothes they wear, their body language and facial characteristics. They also speak two different languages.
What complicates things even further, is that people can be legally only in one city at a time, and must not step over into the other city without passing through Copula Hall, a kind of passport control. Then they must wear a visitor's badge to identify which city they now occupy.
Anyone who transgresses the rules and steps over a boundary or acknowledges the other city in any way is in breach, and the mysterious and terrifying Breach force will appear, apparently from nowhere, and whisk them away. This is tricky in the overlapping areas where people will pass people from the other city in the street, but the law is that they must 'unsee' people from the other city and must only see the ones that occupy their own city. They must also 'unsee' the buildings and vehicles of the other city, and 'unhear' the sounds.
Inspector Tyador Borlu works for the Extreme Crime Squad in Beszel. He is called out to investigate the murder of a young woman, but things become complicated when the facts of the case begin to suggest that she was murdered in Ul Qoma and then dumped in Beszel. That would constitute breach and the Breach forces would have to be notified, and take over. But until he can prove it, the case is Tyador's.
However, he can only go so far with his investigations in Beszel, and eventually he has to cross over into Ul Qoma to help the Ul Qoma police with their side of the investigation. It's a big step for Tyador, who hasn't visited Ul Qoma for many years, and he has to undergo training to help him 'unsee' Beszel, and see Ul Qoma instead. It would be far too easy for him to forget and inadvertently breach and then he would be arrested, and people taken away for breaching are never seen again. He begins to suspect the murder is something to do with a mythical hidden third city, called Orciny, that some people believe exists in the forgotten or unclaimed spaces between Ul Qoma and Beszel. But does Orciny even exist?
The City & The City is written in the first person, from Tyador's point of view, which gives the reader an insight into his mental struggles to switch from one city to another. It's an existential nightmare where the line between reality and appearance is distorted. Outsiders who visit one of the two cities - immigrants, tourists etc - have difficulty seeing them as anything other than one place and need to be carefully escorted to avoid breaching. To them it seems bizarre. But for Tyador it is about switching his location psychically rather than physically. Physically he has not gone anywhere, but psychically he is in another city, and is no longer allowed to see his own. And he is no longer allowed to be seen by anyone who knows him from his own city. They must pass by him as if he does not exist. He is aware always of being potentially observed by the all-seeing Breach forces, and must not step over the line.
It's a strangely fascinating concept, given added realism by the mention of real cities that Tyador has visited, such as London. Ul Qoma and Beszel have the same problems as other cities in Europe and it's easy to start seeing your own city as not so different after all. Any major city with a large ethnic minority community will have areas where the streets begin to change, where the shops sell strange and different things, and where the people in the street dress differently, talk in a different language and have different racial characteristics. It's like entering another country and we become aware of standing out, of looking like the foreigner, although only perhaps a few streets away from all that's familiar.
It's hard reading at times, with strange terminologies to get used to, and strange laws, that are hard to get to grips with at first. China Miéville's style is at times terse, economical, in keeping with Tyador's efficient, methodical personality. Much is left to the imagination. At other times he allows Tyador's inner thoughts to ramble, giving the reader insights of how the cities work, and how it feels to live there, and these are fascinating. In dialogue he avoids too much use of 'he said' 'she said', which can be a good thing, but at times he fails to indicate who is speaking often enough and it then becomes confusing. He brings in a lot of characters, but these don't always have very distinct voices, which can also make it difficult to keep track of who is speaking.
It's not an easy read, and parts of it become so complicated it's hard to keep pace with what's going on, but it's a fascinating journey if you like a challenging read that makes you think. I almost gave up a quarter of the way through, but then picked it up again and decided not to worry too much about the confusing parts, and just carry on reading, and I'm glad I did as I finally became hooked. There's a constant air of oppression in this story, reminiscent of Orwell's 1984. The characters live in a state of perpetual tension, of being observed doing the wrong thing, and this is what makes it fascinating and drives the story forward.
I found myself breathlessly reading on, and hoping that Tyador would somehow be unable to resist stepping over the line, and have to face the mysterious forces of Breach, so that I could find out what would happen. It makes for compelling reading, as we follow Tyador's journey through the cities and his fate becomes tied up with the resolution of the crime.
Number of pages: 312
Publisher - Macmillan, 2009
Summary: Makes you think.