The City & The City

October 17, 2011

by China Miéville

Can you unsee? Can you unhear? If I ask you not to think of a tiny green rhinoceros wearing a straw hat, can you do it?

No? Then you might not be welcome in Besźel, or Ul Qoma. Two cities, physically entwined, psychically distinct, located at the frontier between Europe and Asia. No-one knows how these twin cities, estranged at birth, came to be. No-one knows if there are only two. The shadowy interstitial force of Breach certainly exists in the gaps between the cities, the spaces unclaimed by the citizens of either Besźel or Ul Qoma. So why not a hidden third city? Or a fourth, a fifth? An infinity of fractally entangled citizenries, passing each other in their shared unshared streets, eyes sliding across the things that should not be seen, ears filtering out unbidden sounds from other countries?

And if you have the power to conjure such a place? What do you do with it? If you’re China Miéville, you use it as the setting for a police procedural, with a laundry list of well-worn tropes: we start with a murder scene, we have the mismatched cops from different jurisdictions forced to work together, we have mystery and slow unfolding. As a stylistic framework for a slow reveal of Besźel/Ul Qoma, it works well. The plot carries the process of discovery along, and Miéville has a light touch with the details of life in the conjoined cities.

There’s a pleasing thread of restraint all the way through the book. “Restraint” is not usually a word one might associate with China Miéville: he’s not one to shy away from the grotesque, the bizarre and the weird. Here though, it sometimes feels like he’s teasing himself and his readers, presenting opportunities to fly off into the wildest flights of fantasy but, at every step, adroitly turning away to a mundane explanation.

The only truly fantastic element in The City & The City is the stability of Besźel and Ul Qoma, even in the face of encounters with the wider world. Given that, everything else follows logically. No angels, no demons, no hidden dimensions, no magic. Just a social contract construed under different parameters than our own.

Try unseeing: walk the streets of your town and tell yourself that you will not see anyone wearing red. It’s hard. But we know that unseeing is possible. We do it every day: the disadvantaged among us are easy to ignore, our eyes slide past theirs, we easily unhear their requests for help. Perhaps with training, we could live in Besźel. Or Ul Qoma, for that matter.