The Short Version: Inspector Tyador Borlú is a policeman in Besźel, the odd twin city of Ul Qoma. The two cities overlap one another, fractured at some point by unknown forces – and it is a crime to see those in the other city, even if they are right next to you on the street. When a crime occurs that would seem to invoke “Breach” – the mysterious entity that polices the crossing – Borlú finds himself caught up in a mystery that might reveal the truth of both cities…
The Review: There is intelligent speculative fiction… and then there is The City and the City. I can, quite frankly, state that I have never read anything quite like this book – the high-wire act of its intellectual derring-do is so impressive that you almost forget that, oh yeah, Miéville has also written an incredibly gripping & well-paced crime novel too. On the one hand, he’s tipping his hat to Raymond Chandler and John le Carré while at the same time, he’s bowing to Borges and Bruno Shulz – and let’s not ignore the influences of folks like Orwell, either. But even as he looks to these authors for spiritual inspiration, he transcends them and creates something wholly original.
Imagine, if you will, a city in our modern world – for there are references to everything from Chuck Palahniuk to the growing tech industry in Eastern Europe – where there are, in fact, two cities overlaid on one another. It is not explained how or why this came about, only that it has been this way for centuries. It isn’t a divided city like Jerusalem, though: the city is literally two cities that overlap. Sometimes quite a bit, in sections called “crosshatchings”, and sometimes there are parts of the cities that are totally in one or the other. Now, imagine that you can see through these crosshatchings – but if you don’t immediately unsee, you’re guilty of a crime and whisked away by some mysterious totalitarian bogeyman. All of this is just fascinating: Miéville could’ve written the book as travelogue, no real plot, and I still would have been completely engrossed in just trying to understand these marvelous cities. And he does allow the reader, in the first half of the book (and even several important times later on), to dally a bit. To wrap your head around the idea of cars sharing the same roadway for a stretch but not actually being allowed to acknowledge each other – you think driving in your city is a nightmare. To consider the oddly lovely folktale of a couple who lived next door to each other but in opposite cities and who never met but spent their lives studiously not-seeing one another their whole lives. To laugh and also shudder at the ridiculous politics that govern two cities that happen to occupy the same footprint of land. To wonder why they don’t just merge.
But the game is afoot here, too. We aren’t just tourists. Borlú, a dogged and determined detective in the classic mold, just can’t let this case go: a girl who winds up dead but who seems to’ve been dropped back in Besźel as part of a Breach. But something about it nags him and dredges up the stories of a mythic third city – the one between the two, Orciny. Miéville’s imagination is so hyper-powered that he puts together this whole mythology inside of the already complex world he’s created and then he sets his characters to attempting to confirm or deny it. There is an assurance to the writing that almost seems like how he manages to pull this off: he says “yeah, of course I can do that” and you’re so wowed by the fact that he’s so brazenly sure of his own abilities that you sit back and watch him do it – and he does it because of that moment of blustery “yeah, I can do this!”
If that makes sense.
The crime, too, is enough to drive a story of its own. There are secret assignations, heads knocked together, and an epic set piece at the joint-city-hall that reminds me of the end of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Indeed – and perhaps it’s just the Eastern European setting – but there’s something distinctly Cold War about this story, even though it takes place in (ostensibly) the present, or at least a handful of years ago. The idea of a fractured city seems so strange to us today, but it wasn’t terribly long ago that Berlin had literally a wall through the middle of it and this story seems rooted not in that era but in that era’s traditions. We don’t have cops like Borlú anymore, not outside of movies and books anyway. You can see him, from the very first moment, as somebody who could walk into a smokey bar and sit down with all the other grizzled detectives we all love (from Kurt Wallander to Tana French’s Dublin Crime Squad and so on) and fit right in.
So we’ve got these two things, this crime story and this spec-fic idea of two cities – and Miéville takes it all to a more hypothetical level. He wants this to function as both a novel (a spec-fic-mystery, let’s say) and as a meditation on identity. The two cities, Ul Qoma and Besźel are radically different: they speak different languages, they have different clothing, different cultural development (as well as architectural and financial to boot)… but they are, when it comes down to it, the same place. The street maps are the same – but the names of the streets are different. The things on those streets are different. But the streets themselves are the same. And I won’t go into spoilers except briefly to say that end of the novel brings this point to the fore. Even as the crime plot is wrapping up in the perfect, traditional way, the reader is facing the questions head-on of what this individuality means and how individualities can be blended to create something else entirely. It is, in its own way, a sort of cry for peace and tolerance: no matter how different we are in our presentation to the world, we’re all just human beings. Of course, that’s a sunshiney, reductive way to think about it – but a good crime novel ought to make you have a moment like that, where you realize the goodness even in the midst of the dark.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. The high-functioning work happening here is just mind-boggling. You have to pay attention to this book in a way that people have to pay attention to science experiments – except that the book is also immensely readable and Miéville’s voice carries you away. He blends highbrow and lowbrow so effortlessly that he creates something else, an Orcinian third. He’s addressing really smart, important questions of nationalism and identity (on both the personal and national levels) while also wrapping it up in the most original, daring speculative concept I’ve encountered in a very long time. I wish I could go visit Besźel and Ul Qoma – in a way that I haven’t thought about a fictional place since probably Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris. If you pointed me to a map, I’d swear it was “just right there, right?” Just really smart, really cool stuff.