Review: The City and The City by China Miéville


Some Pre-Review Thoughts

I was listening to an interview with Jay Lake and he mentioned that his Trial of Flowers was written as a conversation on other books that he referred to as decadent urban fantasy. With his necrophiliac dwarves and giraffe cavalry, he was “in conversation” with Miéville’s Pierdo Street Station and VanderMeer‘s City of Saints and Madmen. I’d normally call this “conversation” a sub-genre and the sub-genre in question new weird, but I was pleased by his turn of phrase. Jay brought this up to point out that his new novel (1) Mainspring was an attempt to start a new conversation.

A few more thoughts before the review. I think it was from Tim Pratt that first heard (source is eluding me) urban fantasy described as interstitial fiction. Fantastic elements intruding into a world that we recognize as ours. As I’ve been examining the connection between noir and speculative fiction, I’ve been noticing that mystery and seedy underbelly elements of noir are pretty much staples in urban fantasy.

The City & The City

At first glance it would seem that Miéville is starting a new conversation with The City & The City. It’s definitely not the new weird (or decadent urban fantasy) he’s know for (2) and it’s not straight forward urban fantasy by any means. Miéville describes it as a cross between a traditional mystery and 1984, however the element that’s center stage in The City & The City is the question, “How do we perceive the world around us?” The heavy plotting of a traditional mystery and the social commentary of writer channeling Orwell take a back seat to exploration of this question and how it affects the protagonist. As a speculative fiction or mystery fan, it would be easy to just label this a literary novel and reach for the next genre book on your list.

But the fantastical Big Brother that’s intruding upon the familiar IS the mystery. The murders and disappearances that are investigated over the course of the novel are a quest that ultimately leads the protagonist to a confrontation with elements at the core of his reality. Miéville states, in his Crime Novels post:

These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows.

I find it intriguing to think about a quantum narrative outside of a narrative explicitly about quantum mechanics and it’s a perfect way to think about this book.

Divided into 3 sections, the first part of the book takes place in Beszel and the second in Ul Qoman, the two titular cities. I particularly enjoyed the verbal gymnastics Miéville performed to describe seeing and unseeing the setting. This element (used often and constantly iterated upon), which might dissuade the unsuspecting reader, makes a subtle appearance in the first sentence of the novel: “I could not see the street or much of the estate.” Coming to terms with the gravity of that statement involves learning the consequences of seeing what should be unseen. Figuring out the rules of Breach was a refreshing experience. In such a diverse literary landscape, exploring a truly new idea is a joy.

By investigating the intrusion of the fantastical and it’s affect on 2 cities, Miéville is using familiar urban fantasy elements (the interstitial and noir) to deconstruct OUR perceptions of the genre. The mysterious Breach intrudes upon the two cities. The phenomena of 2 superimposed and entangled cities intrudes upon Eastern Europe. If Miéville is starting a conversation, he’s asking a question: “How much magic makes a story fantasy?” Despite Miéville’s admonitions that crime novels inevitably end badly, I was quite satisfied with the results. I suspect that The City & The City was written to stand alone, but I can’t help but wonder how an avatar of Breach would fare in the wider mundane world.

  1. That “new” dates the interview I was listening to.
  2. This is the first novel by China Miéville that I’ve read, so my opinion that this book is a departure from his standard fare is based on reviews and other second hand sources. The same could be said for much of this post, I absolutely welcome argument if you feel I’ve missed the point somewhere.

~ by mentatjack on September 5, 2009.

2 Responses to “Review: The City and The City by China Miéville”

  1. […] I was most excited to hear about the novel’s big idea in the author’s own words. I reviewed The City & The City […]

  2. […] The City and The City by China Miéville […]

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