10 January 2010

Books Update: Chinatown

For the first time in a couple of months, I've managed to finish a book: The City & the City by China Miéville, which my grandmother-in-law was kind enough to obtain for me for Christmas.

I love Miéville's three New Crobuzon books: Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council, complex, intelligent tales of radical politics in a baroquely embellished fantasy world. If I had a quarrel with them it was that the quality of the worldbuilding vastly outstripped that of the stories. Their plots wouldn't look out of place in a Terry Pratchett novel (which, much though I love them, are rarely primarily concerned with plot): it's the creation of the city of New Crobuzon, and to a lesser extent the surrounding world of Bas-lag, that's been Miéville's real masterwork to date.

In The City & the City, for my money, he outdoes himself. The presentation of the titular cities constitutes one the cleverest, strongest and most innovative settings in the whole of urban fantasy (if indeed that's what this book is -- see below for a few thoughts). Besźel and Ul Qoma are independent city-states located somewhere on the fringes of Europe. As you'd expect, each has its own distinct cultural and political history, which is expressed by its unique populations through the usual urban semiotics of architecture, dress, currency, signage, behaviour and bylaws. The mind-altering part is that the cities -- Besźel vaguely Eastern European, with Communism and Orthodox Christianity in its past, Ul Qoma approximately Ottoman-Byzantine and implicitly post-Islamic -- occupy the same geographical space as one another, their territories being interspersed, distributed and in many cases making use of the same thoroughfares, open spaces and even buildings.

Because they are, after all, in different cities, the two groups of citizens refuse to acknowledge one another's presence, or those of the clumps of foreign cityscape in their midst. A psychological habit as familiar yet as extreme as Orwell's doublethink enables them to "unsee" one another, subliminally registering their neighbour city (sufficiently to navigate around its traffic, for instance), but refusing to acknowledge the evidence for it in any other than the crudest practical ways. The narrator, Inspector Borlú, recalls policing an unusually wild music festival during the '60s, and unseeing the strollers in the congruent Ul Qoman park genteelly picking a delicate path between copulating Besź couples.

Locals learn the skill from childhood, eventually internalising it as instinct; visitors to one city or the other need to be painstakingly trained to avoid the heinous crime of "breach". The twisted ramifications of this collective denial include the checkpoint which constitutes the cities' only official border, and where it's uniquely legitimate to look from one into the other; and Besźel's "Ul Qoma town" district, where the locals implicitly understand the parodic inflections from one city which overwrite the other's characteristic stylings, to the utter confoundment of visitors.

It's a rare novel that you can feel rewiring your brain as you read it, but The City & the City qualifies. Its brilliance lies not merely in the task of conceptualising the cities, which is stunningly inspired yet always rigorous, but in the fact that none of this is explicitly spelt out for the reader: we learn what we learn through implication alone, as the conventionally-minded Besź Borlú describes an everyday life which makes perfect sense to him.

Compared to this, the actual story -- of Borlú and his Ul Qoman counterparts investigating the disappearance or murder of foreign archaeologists who may, just conceivably, have discovered the existence of a third city occupying the gaps between the two -- is, while clever and entertaining, hardly the point.

Miéville is a fantasy writer, and yet I'm not convinced that The City & the City is a fantasy. To be sure, his setting is a fictional one, but that's merely a matter of degree. A story set in a fictional world is by assumption fantasy even if its inhabitants are insurance underwriters and equalities compliance officers (unless that world is explicitly located elsewhere in our universe, in which case it's science fiction)... but in most cases a fictional city is understood to be no more fantastic an invention than a fictional family, organisation or person. Besźel and Ul Qoma exist in the contemporary world, with European investment and American diplomats in evidence (Besźel has a fully-fledged U.S. embassy, while Ul Qoma remains under a slightly embarrassing embargo). The missing academics are all American or Canadian. Characters refer to Google, Coke and Nikes with all the enthusiasm one might find in Prague or Ankara.

There's nothing supernatural, magical or miraculous in the entire novel: indeed, it feels like an attempt to reclaim the familiar fantasy trope of the hidden city-within-a-city for the mundane world. With the exception of one whimsical detail -- the anomalous relics of the pre-Cleavage Precursor civilisation, themselves no less plausible than the Baghdad Battery or the Antikythera Mechanism -- all the apparent weirdness proves to be purely psychological in origin. The central conceit is extreme but far from impossible -- nearly every city-dweller practises less extreme and formalised types of "unseeing" on a daily basis -- although Miéville never delves into its potential for political allegory, leaving this (with consummate restraint, given his socialist sympathies) as an exercise for the newly-rewired reader.

Neither is this quibbling about genre in any way the point, of course. The City & the City is a book that will change your mind: not in terms of convincing you of a particular agenda, but of subtly altering the way you perceive and understand the world. If I could write just one book in my career that achieved as much, I'd be a very happy author.

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