Mieville’s The City and City: A Commentary on Willful Ignorance

9780345497529Yesterday, I discussed the mixture of fantasy and police procedural novels. But there is more to fantasy that wizards and warlocks.

“New Weird” writer China Miéville has melded non-magical fantasy and the mystery genre to produce the incredibly original and inventive book, The City and The City. It tied for the Hugo award in 2009, won the Locus award for best fantasy novel, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, World Fantasy Award, BSFA Award, was nominated for the Nebula award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In other words, this is an amazing book.

Miéville wrote it as a gift to his terminally ill mother. She wasn’t a fan of fantasy but loved mystery novels. Mieville, though, didn’t want to disappoint his fans. The result is this perfect marriage of the two genres.

The premise is both fantastic as it is relevant. Two ethnic groups inhabit a modern central European city state. Born out of a past of violence and mutual attempts at genocide, they settled on a bizarre solution. They pretend that there are two cities, each occupied by only one ethnic group. The protagonist Tyador Borlú lives in Besźel, and works for the Extreme Crime Squad. The other “city” is Ul Qoma. Each city has its own government, language and culture. In areas occupied exclusively by one ethnic group the illusion is easy. But, there are areas of the city which are “cross-hatched” meaning that both groups live and work side by side. The solution is that from an early age, children are trained to ignore the other city. This “unseeing” involves people, buildings, and even cars. The social protocol is strictly enforced by a shadowy agency called “Breach”. If someone sees what should be unseen, they are spirited away. Breach is also a metaphor for the intersect between the two cultures.

Miéville’s description of the two cities and how they co-exist is stunning and compelling. Without uttering a word of direct criticism, he provides a damning social commentary on the ethnic lines which fracture the human family.

Belgium as country resembles Mieville’s dual cities. On one hand there is Flanders, the Dutch section, and Wallonia, the French. In Flanders there is social convention to treat Belgium as if it doesn’t exist. There is only Flanders. Belgium, like Mieville’s city, is a single country divided by language and culture.

The plot of the book involves Tyador investigating the murder of Mahalia Geary, an American archeology student who was found dead with her face disfigured on a Besźel street. His investigation leads him not only to the sister city of Ul Qoma, but into the heart of the relationship between the two cities. Both the motive and solution are inextricably tied to this marvelous duel-city construct.

As Tyador moves between the cities, Miéville manages to  convey a sense of both strangeness and the mundane. For the denizens this absurd solution to their racial hatred is both logical and very ordinary. Perhaps the best way to describe this work is that of political surrealism. Miéville posits that people will allow themselves to experience the most complete delusions to protect their fragile world views. Unfortunately, both history and current events have proven him to be right.