A review of The City and the City, by China Mieville
@@@ (3 out of 5)
You may think “Franz Kafka” as you make your way into the depths of The City and the City. It’s definitely not Charles Dickens! As this novel was a favorite of science fiction fans and won the Hugo Award, I was expecting something a little different from what I got — which was a more than generous dose of confusion.
I’ll say this for The City and the City: it’s truly original. I’ve never read a science fiction novel quite like this.
Tyador Borlu, a detective on the Extreme Crimes Squad in the tiny nation of Beszel, is confronted with the seemingly unexplainable murder of a young foreign woman. In his usual obsessive fashion, Borlu sets out to follow every clue, no matter how unlikely, to bring the woman’s killer to justice. The path he follows is long and tortuous, taking him in unexpected directions where he faces threats from powerful forces he barely understands.
Nothing quite out of the ordinary there beyond the other-worldly character of Beszel. But wait.
This seems to be present-day Earth, but it can’t be. A country that exists nowhere on your Earth or mine, Beszel lies somewhere in southeastern Europe — the Balkans, perhaps — and overlaps with another unfamiliar small country, Al Qoma. I say “overlaps” advisedly. This is not a tale of two Jerusalems, or two Berlins. It’s much weirder, and therein lies the rub.
The capital cities of these two, often antagonistic little countries, also called Beszel and Al Qoma, aren’t just adjacent to each other. They somehow overlap, simultaneously occupying the same physical space where their sprawling neighborhoods have grown into one another. A more conventional sci-fi writer would probably explain this as the intersection of alternate universes, but there’s no such reference in The City and the City. Instead, Mieville presents this conundrum as a simple fact of life in the two countries, and his novel explores what lies “between” them. This strange set of circumstances dominates life in both countries.
Originality aside, and admittedly it’s fascinating, The City and the City is a flawed work. Mieville never fully develops his characters, not even Borlu, the protagonist. And the book is confusing at times — not to avoid telegraphing essential elements of the plot but simply because the language is unclear. (It took me forever to understand that the word “Breach,” which represents a key concept in the novel, is both a noun and a verb that simultaneously connotes an act, a condition, a place, and a group of people.) The high hopes I had when I read the first half of this book slowly dissipated as I progressed. At the end, I was unsatisfied — and the news that Mieville may write a series of novels based on Borlu and the unique geography of his surroundings is not enough to humor me.
The City and the City won several literary awards, including a Hugo for Best Novel, and was nominated for a Nebula Award.
China Mieville is a British author, now 40 years of age, who styles himself as a writer of “weird fiction”. He gravitates to fantasy but has set himself the goal of writing a book in every genre. With The City and the City, he can check the box marked “police procedural”.
My 20 all-time favorite science fiction novels
I don’t read much science fiction these days, but that was by no means always the case. I devoured sci-fi novels as a teenager and for extended periods later in life, attracted above all by the sheer creativity the writers demonstrated in speculating about life and reality from new perspectives.
Here, in alphbetical order by author, are the science fiction novels that have lingered in my mind — in some cases, for fifty years or more:
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