Sunday, September 8, 2013

The City And The City

This book kept coming up yesterday at the Brisbane Writer's Festival (where I am at the moment) as a possible direction for the crime novel in the future. (Where crime and sci-fi and noir meet.) I loved it so I thought I'd reblog this little review from 2 years ago:
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China Mieville's The City And The City may be the most original crime novel I've read since Declan Burke's Absolute Zero Cool or possibly all the way back to James Ellroy's American Tabloid. It won the 2010 Hugo Award in a tie with Paolo Bacigalupi's excellent The Windup Girl. It also won the Arthur C. Clarke award and was nominated for the Nebula. It was ignored by the all mainstream crime awards, which is a bit odd (and embarrassing provincial of them) because at heart the book is basically a noir detective story. I was impressed by The City And The City's technical prowess and literary ambitions; Mieville has done a great job taking a new slant on a rather staid and somewhat moribund genre.  
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The book is set in Eastern Europe in the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, which are actually adjoining city states somewhere close to Romania and Hungary. A different language is spoken in each city and they are culturally and economically distinct. Fracture lines run through the cities and initially one thinks of East and West Berlin or possibly Buda and Pest; but what makes Beszel and Ul Qoma so interesting is that they actually share much of the same topography. Streets that exist Ul Qoma exist also in Beszel, but travel from one city to the other is utterly forbidden. From a very young age children are trained to "unsee" vehicles and people who are living in the other city. This sounds weird and it takes a while to completely buy into it, but Mieville does convince you that this bizarre state of affairs could work. Mieville has been inspired by the work of Kafka and especially Bruno Schulz and that's no bad thing in a noir. 
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The novel begins when Inspector Borlu is called upon to investigate the murder of a young woman in Beszel. He quickly discovers that her body has been transported to the crime scene from the neighbouring city of Ul Qoma and this raises all kinds of difficulties. Crossing the "border" from one city to city is the most serious crime of all in the two cities and once proof of an encroachment becomes manifest the mysterious entity Breach spirits the breachee away to God knows where. The investigation takes Borlu into the forbidden world of Ul Qoma and there the fun really begins as we begin to see conspiracies within conspiracies and the possibility of a mythical third hidden city know as Ocriny. Borlu remains a bit of a cipher throughout but this fits squarely into an old school noir trope and I didn't mind that at all. I loved the scenes with Borlu in Ul Qoma looking across to his home city of Beszel, trying to unsee familiar shops and people and realising just how strange this all was. I won't reveal any more of the plot, suffice to say that although there are no real surprises the third act of the novel is still satisfying within the predictable Kafkaesque conventions of such a narrative. 
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China Mieville is very much the new Iain Banks, comfortable writing in various genres but with a background in science fiction. Like Banks he is prolific. I've read four of his books and my other favourite is Perdido Street Station a very original fantasy novel set in another fascinating city of dreadful night. Check him out.