Monday, 11 July 2011

The City and the City by China Mieville

This is based around one of those ideas which hit you like a punch on the nose:  simple, original and convincing, but which seems so obvious, you wonder why no-one's thought of it before.

It's really a murder mystery set in the city of Beszel, somewhere in Eastern Europe.  But the policeman protagonist soon discovers the victim was actually killed in another city - Ul Qoma.  This is a problem, because both cities are in the same place.

Now, this could've gone down the line that the cities are in different dimensions (think Zelda or Metroid games) but here it's all done psychologically and culturally.  Some neighbourhoods and streets are all in one city or the other, while some are in both.  And they don't interact.  The system's kept running, in the main, through taboo.  People of each city are trained to "unsee" people and things in the other city.  The way that folk walk and talk, architectural styles, even certain colours will tell a citizen that they've seen something which they should immediately disregard.  Driving seems to be a particular problem, although at least they both drive on the same side.

But the masterstroke here is the realism.  You've got certain dynamics being played with - East and West, democratic and authoritarian, Christian and, well not exactly Muslim.  The Ul Qomans seem to follow Zoroaster or Mani more than Mohammed, but you get the idea.  But these aren't abstract ideas of cities; they're convincingly fleshed out.  You've got the broad strokes of a deep history between the two which means, for instance, that Bezsel has coke while Ul Qoma has Canadian cola because of a US embargo.  And there's certainly no good city/bad city thing going on either.

What I really liked about this book is how it plays with the idea of cities split by history, politics and culture.  Berlin certainly, but also Belfast, Istanbul, Budapest - even Edinburgh.  Most cities, in fact, have a bit of that duality going on.  Here it's taken to ridiculous, but believable extremes.  I also love the notion that it's the people themselves who're conditioned to perpetuate it.

Now there is another force called "Breach" keeping the people seperate, and the way it's gradually explained is nicely handled, but I'm not convinced it was really needed in the book.  In fact, it raises more questions than it answers.

Looking at the plot, this is a fairly conventional thriller with some politics and archeology thrown in.  Some of the parts work better than others.  There's the traditional Hollywood double-baddie reveal towards the end. The first part concerns the most minor and shoe-horned-in of characters, and is pretty unconvibcing.  It also expressly refuses to explain the significance of the Maguffin, which I was a bit annoyed by.  The last baddie reveal is handled much better.  Not a massive surprise, but a lot more convincing psychologically and thematically.

Still too many unanswered questions overall for my taste, but there's certainly scope for more thrillers set in the city and the city , so fingers crossed.

I'm actually halfway through another book by Mieville called Perdido Street Station which is a big, sprawling, Dickensian, steampunk affair.  It's also really good, but it's a book on tape and I've been listening to a lot or music and podcasts recently.  I'll finish it when I finish it, but I will finish it.


Anonymous said...

"I'll finish it when I finish it, but I will finish it."

A good epitaph there...

- Bryce.

Ali said...

I think Magnus Magnusson said the same thing with a little more efficiency ;-)