The City & the City by China MiévilleDecember 5, 2009 at 12:59 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 4 Comments
Tags: China Mieville
When I heard China Miéville’s new novel was a fantasy / detective hybrid, I was intrigued. I loved The Scar but was not impressed by Iron Council, so I figured changing gears was a good thing. Alas, the result was disappointing. The City & the City is artistically ambitious, but ultimately it ends up neglecting both genres that it hybridizes.
Without spoilers there’s not much to say about the detective story except that it starts out engaging enough but soon becomes extremely predictable. I should probably give career detective fiction writers more credit…it’s a difficult form, demanding a surprising but retrospectively predictable ending. Most fiction tries to hit that target, but with a detective novel, the discovery of the truth, along with the detective himself, is basically the big selling point. Here I’m afraid the plot is not just predictable but very tame, a surprising failing in a Miéville novel. The detective character isn’t annoying but not a major presence either, as he is required to be the reader’s window into this alternate world instead of an interesting voice.
What about the fantasy side? There isn’t much fantasy here, actually. This is a one-difference world, albeit with quite a bit of worldbuilding based off that difference. Compared to the detective elements, it was more interesting, but in the end I felt the explanation to the setting’s major mystery, Breach, didn’t add up.
But the elephant in the room is the one way in which the book’s setting is different from our world: the joined cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The cities are intertwined geographically but separated…well, I’m not sure there’s a good word for how they are separated. Politically? Functionally? And it’s more than intertwined. Physically there’s one city. Some areas are wholly in Beszel, others are wholly in Ul Qoma. Some streets have one sidewalk in Beszel and the one across the street is in Ul Qoma. And the streets themselves are often in both at the same time. But despite this proximity, the citizens of one city never go into the other, and in fact never acknowledge the other’s existence. They are taught from an early age to “unsee” the other city whenever some aspect of it enters their visual field.
That’s quite a mouthful, and Miéville spends the first two thirds of the book trying to defend this situation and convince you it’s possible, even close to realistic. And reading the book, it’s clear that he’s getting at something interesting here. When a typical businessman walks down a city street, doesn’t he do his best to “unsee” the homeless man sleeping on the bench? Even though poor people and rich people almost always live in different areas, there’s close proximity and even overlap in areas…
But this is not an allegorical novel. Beszel, although poorer than Ul Qoma, is not an allegory for poor people. Ul Qoma, although Muslim, is not an allegory for the Muslim world. For the novel to really work, we have to accept the novel’s internal reality. Or to put it another way, to really listen to what the novel is saying about human nature, we must first accept that humans could create and maintain the novel’s world.
For me, that proved impossible. It’s too much of a leap from ignoring a homeless person to ignoring half the vehicular traffic on the very street you yourself are driving on. Yes, Miéville doesn’t paint the system was working perfectly, but I felt such a system wouldn’t work as well as depicted, and more importantly even if successfully attempted could never last more than a couple years (in the book the cities have been joined for many centuries). But even worse, Miéville tries so hard to sell this notion that in the end a huge portion of the novel’s prose is dedicated to fighting for this (for me) lost cause, much to the detriment of the characters and plot.
I’ll say this for the book: it might have failed with me, but it was an ambitious failure. Better to fail through overreaching than from insufficient aspirations. I don’t recommend this one but I’ll be eagerly awaiting Miéville’s next novel.