Tuesday, November 1, 2011

100 Books 60 - China Mieville's THE CITY & THE CITY

The City & The City was the first book I ever pre-ordered for my Kindle. I had had abosolute faith in China Mieville's ability to entertain me and didn't feel like waiting for a pile of shoddily bound paper* to physically ship to me. I remember seeing copies in the wild at an airport bookstore in Baltimore on my way home from BaltiCon and sort of gloating that I already had it, I just needed the time.

That was over two years ago. I started to read The City & The City pretty much just as soon as I got home and unpacked, but its opening chapter, which sets the book up very much as a rather run-of-the-mill murder mystery/police procedural, did not grab me the way Mieville's other books had -- and I had come home with a pretty good haul of signed paperbacks written by friends, the likes of Philippa Ballantine, Tee Morris, Val Griswold-Ford, Nathan Lowell, Patrick McLean... and my attention strayed and never returned.

Then a few of my friends started reporting in that they'd been pretty disappointed with The City & The City (even though it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Hugo for best novel), and my slight enthusiasm fizzled.

Two years later I stumbled across the book again as I was belatedly taking advantage of the collections feature on the Kindle and sorting my considerable horde of ebooks into some broad categories. At first I pulled a face -- I had snagged and quickly read Mieville's follow-up to The City & The City, The Kraken, and had been more than disappointed; I had been actively displeased. But after having enjoyed Zoo City, which was this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, I remembered that the Clarke award, unlike some, is a pretty reliable guide for what I'll consider quality. Plus, I hate to have unread stuff that I've paid good coin for sitting around on my device, vulnerable to deletion should I start running up against storage problems. So I took it up again.

Am I ever glad I did!

Yeah, the first chapter is pretty rough going. It's a bit old-hat, even if the hat being tried on might be Dashiell Hammett's. But I forged on through it, and quickly remembered that old hats can look quite dashing on the right guy, and when the guy in question is basically acting like the mutant offspring of Hammett and Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka and Robert Musil, well, I'm in.

Because as is often the case with things I like (and sometimes things I write), the rather ordinary plot is not what's important. It's just a narrative thread to follow through the labyrinth of an extraordinary world. And when all that is done right, the ordinary plot turns out not to be all that ordinary, but to be entirely sui generis because it is a product of that extraordinary world, and its central questions and mysteries would never even come up outside that world. Which makes The City & The City in part a kind of thought experiment, that produces some fascinating results.

What's Borgesian about it is this unique world, which is very much like our contemporary post-millennial existence, except in that somewhere in eastern Europe there are two independent city-states that occupy the exact same physical territory. Besz is a somewhat drab, Kafkaesque, 1950sish, Prague/Budapest-ish place; Ul-Quoma is slightly more modern and brightly colored -- which is to say there is a striking visual and cultural contrast (they even each have their own language, though how different those languages really are becomes a bit of a puzzle as the story progresses). But the two cities are in the same place! To a degree the reader is allowed to imagine them as sort of gerrymandered around each other by means of squiggly borders, but there is also a lot of overlap -- crosshatching, as it's termed. So one's apartment building in Besz might be abutted on either side by Ul Quoman buildings but, get this -- everyone in the two cities is trained from birth (I imagine a process very like prolonged sessions of hypnosis; since no outright magic ever occurs in the novel, I can find no other likely explanation for how the "unperceiving" that is central to the characters' existence goes on) not to notice the people, the fixtures, the buildings, the traffic, of the other city, so the dweller in that Besz apartment building "unsees" the Ul Quoman flower shop next door. Sometimes he might walk down the street and see someone ambiguously dressed, only perhaps to hear a word or two in the other city's language and abruptly and assiduously edit that person from his consciousness.

The only way to visit the other city is to go to the vast government building that is universally agreed to be part of both city-states, endure some red tape, and leave again -- often walking down the same street by which he approached, but now perceiving only the new city's features. If he walked up a street in Besz, he now sees that street in Ul Quoma. It is and isn't the exact same street. Ow, my brain.

It all sounds more than a little looney, doesn't it? Like a population of lunatics somehow agreeing to live in this ludicrous way... for hundreds of years. And this separation is rigidly enforced, of course, by a terrifying, shadowy entity known as Breach. Breach disappears anyone who is caught looking at, talking to or in anyway acknowledging the coterminous Other; he or she is never heard from again.

Against this bizarre backdrop is played out a murder mystery that takes on positively ontological connotations, starting with a big conundrum: was the person whose murder our protagonist is investigating dumped in Besz or Ul Quoma? And in which country was she killed? And was her killer a Besz or Ul Quoman? So even before the means, motive and opportunity of traditional murder mystery can be established, a lot of weird detective work has to happen.

And since this is China Mieville, who can't leave socialist/revolutionary politics alone, writing, there's plenty of that woven into this story, too. For instance, in both cities are groups who want to put an end to this two cities nonsense and get everyone to stop being ridiculous and admit that there's really just one city there (and they have a good point; driving in a city where half the inhabitants aren't "really" there but can still step in front of your car or sideswipe it with their cars would be a nightmare -- to say nothing of the mental strain of constantly having to edit out half of one's surroundings all the damned time. And to what end? Why  is this so? Nobody seems to know. It's just the way it is. Shut up or Breach will take you away).

There is, too, a weirdly historical/archaeological component to the milieu Mieville has created here. The murder victim was a scholar, unearthing artifacts from a time before the cities split (a time which they refer to more often as "Precursor" than "Pre-Cleavage" because even in the languages of Besz and Ul Quoma -- awesomely Borgesian name, that -- the latter sounds vaguely anatomically naughty), from a world that seems still to have been weird -- one arresting artifact is a lobster claw embedded with some clockwork parts -- and brought to this Bas-Lag fan visions of that tremendously weird steampunk-and-sorcery city, New Crobuzon, as though perhaps that city had perhaps degenerated and then split into Besz and Ul Quoma. Hey, it could be so. Right, China? Fans? Anyone? I can't have been the only one who thought of that as I read!

So yes, the world of The City & The City is all quite a fascinating idea, with shades of the divided city of Berlin before the Wall fell, with hints that some lunatics might take as the ideal solution for the Israel-Palestine problem (oy). And, unlike Borges, who would have thrown it out there in a lazy short story and left the rest as an exercise for the reader, Mieville has done the exercise with a thoroughness -- maybe even a mania -- that most of us would never bother expending on something so goofy.

The result is a weirdly engaging read that I wound up tearing right through (metaphorically speaking, since it's an ebook).

*Really, modern hardcover publishing should be ashamed of itself. Where's the craftsmanship? Where's the respect for people who want to have and keep a nice object that happens to contain cherished content in a durable, heritable form? Rubbish! OK, rant over. It's hopeless. With the exception of some small press holdouts like Tyrus Books, and Dark Overlord Media, who are still trying.

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