City and the City (Mieville)

The City & the City 
China Mieville, 2009
Random House
416 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345497529

New York Times bestselling author China Miéville delivers his most accomplished novel yet, an existential thriller set in a city unlike any other–real or imagined.

When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.

Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own. This is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen. His destination is Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, and struggling with his own transition, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of rabid nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them and those they care about more than their lives.

What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.

Casting shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984, The City & the City is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—September 6, 1972
Where—Norwich, England, UK
Education—B.A., Cambridge University; Ph.D., London
  School of Economics
Awards—Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice); British Fantasy
   Award (twice); Locus Award (twice)
Currently—teaches at Warkwick University

China Tom Miéville is an award-winning English fantasy fiction writer. He is fond of describing his work as "weird fiction" (after early 20th century pulp and horror writers such as H. P. Lovecraft), and belongs to a loose group of writers sometimes called New Weird who consciously attempt to move fantasy away from commercial, genre clichés of Tolkien imitators. He is also active in left-wing politics as a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He has stood for the House of Commons for the Socialist Alliance, and published a book on Marxism and international law. He teaches creative writing at Warwick University.

Miéville was born in Norwich and brought up in Willesden, a neighbourhood in northwest London, and has lived in the city since early childhood. He grew up with his sister and his mother, a teacher; his parents separated soon after his birth, and he has said that he "never really knew" his father. He is an alumnus of the public school Oakham School, where he studied for two years. In 1990, when he was eighteen, he lived in Egypt teaching English for a year, where he developed an interest in Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics.

Miéville acquired a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge in 1994, and a Master's with distinction and PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics, the latter in 2001. Miéville has also held a Frank Knox fellowship at Harvard. A book version of his Ph.D thesis, titled Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, was published in the United Kingdom in 2005 by Brill in their "Historical Materialism" series, and in the United States in 2006 by Haymarket Books.

Miéville has indicated that he hopes to write a novel in every genre, and to this end has constructed an oeuvre that is indebted to genre styles ranging from classic American Western (in Iron Council) to sea-quest (in The Scar) to detective noir (in The City & the City). Yet Miéville's various works all describe worlds or scenarios that are fantastical or supernatural and thus his work is generally categorized as fantasy: Miéville has listed M. John Harrison, Michael de Larrabeiti, Michael Moorcock, Thomas Disch, Charles Williams, Tim Powers, and J.G. Ballard as literary "heroes"; he has also frequently discussed as influences H. P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, and Gene Wolfe. He has said that he would like his novels "to read for [his imagined city] New Crobuzon as Iain Sinclair does for London."

Miéville played a great deal of Dungeons & Dragons and similar roleplaying games in his youth, and includes a specific nod to characters interested "only in gold and experience" in Perdido Street Station as well as a general tendency to systematization of magic and technology which he traces to this influence. In fact, in the February 2007 issue of Dragon Magazine, the world presented in his books was interpreted into Dungeons & Dragons rules and on February 19, 2008 it was announced that Adamant Entertainment will be developing an RPG based on the Bas-Lag universe.

Miéville has explicitly attempted to move fantasy away from J. R. R. Tolkien's influence, which he has criticized as stultifying and reactionary (he once described Tolkien as "the wen on the arse of fantasy literature"). This project is perhaps indebted to Michael de Larrabeiti's Borrible Trilogy, which Miéville has cited as one of his biggest influences and for which Miéville wrote an introduction for the trilogy's 2002 reissue. The introduction was eventually left out of the book, but is now available on de Larrabeiti's website. Miéville's position on the genre is also indebted to Moorcock, whose essay "Epic Pooh" Miéville has cited as the source off of which he is "riffing" or even simply "cheerleading" in his critique of Tolkien-imitative fantasy.

Miéville's left-wing politics are evident in his writing (particularly in Iron Council, his third Bas-Lag novel) as well as his theoretical ideas about literature; several panel discussions at conventions about the relationship of politics and writing which set him against right-wingers ended up in heated arguments. He has, however, stated that:

I’m not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. I’m a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. And when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points. I’m writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I’m creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have... I’m trying to say I’ve invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that too, that’s fantastic. But if not, isn’t this a cool monster? (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
In the cleverly altered present-day of China Miéville's The City & the City, Inspector Tyador Borlú is tracking a murder case that takes him from his home town of Beszel to the city of Ul Qoma... two city-states [that] sit literally on top of each other, "crosshatching" and overlapping in a complicated tracery.... Miéville, the acclaimed author of "Un Lun Dun," clearly takes pleasure in working out the details of his audacious premise, placing a somewhat old-fashioned police procedural into an obsessively imagined world complete with its own history, anthropology and linguistics. And yet perhaps because this construct is so very intellectual...the novel requires more than a bit of suspended disbelief.
Sara Sklaroff - Washington Post

Better known for New Weird fantasies, bestseller Miéville offers an outstanding take on police procedurals with this barely speculative novel. Twin southern European cities Beszel and Ul Qoma coexist in the same physical location, separated by their citizens' determination to see only one city at a time. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad roams through the intertwined but separate cultures as he investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, who believed that a third city, Orciny, hides in the blind spots between Beszel and Ul Qoma. As Mahalia's friends disappear and revolution brews, Tyador is forced to consider the idea that someone in unseen Orciny is manipulating the other cities. Through this exaggerated metaphor of segregation, Miéville skillfully examines the illusions people embrace to preserve their preferred social realities.
Publishers Weekly

Miéville tells vivid stories in the borderlands of literary fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and here he adds noir crime to the mix. Fittingly, his tale is set in the borderlands, creating a mysterious pair of cities somewhere on Europe's eastern edge. Beszel and Ul Qoma share the same ground, but their citizens are not allowed to react to one another, learning to "unsee" the other city and its inhabitants from a young age. Enforcing this division is a mysterious power called Breach. When an archaeology student is found dead, Inspector Tyador Borlu gets caught up in a case that forces him to navigate precariously between the cities, perhaps into the sinister worlds that straddle them. It's a fascinating premise. Unfortunately, the cities, protagonist, and case remain stubbornly in the haze. For all genre fiction collections because Miéville is a trailblazer with a dedicated following, but this work is more an existential thought piece than a reading pleasure.
Neil Hollands - Library Journal

A blend of near-future science fiction and police procedural, this novel is a successful example of the hybrid genre so popular of late. In a contemporary time period, two fantastical cities somewhere between Europe and Asia exist, not adjacent to one another, but by literally occupying the same area. Forbidden to acknowledge the existence of one another—a discipline imposed by the shadowy and terrifying entity known as Breach—residents in both cities have honed the ability to "unsee" people, places, and events existing in the other realm. This ticklish balance ruptures when Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad must investigate the murder of a foreign archaeological student. Long after the book's satisfying conclusion, astute readers will have much to ponder, such as the facility with which Authority can manipulate and repress a population and the attendant ills that life in such a society inevitably generate. Add in the novel's highly effective cover art and the result is a book that may appeal as much to a young, new-to-Mieville audience as it will to his loyal fans. —Dori DeSpain, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library, VA
School Library Journal

Fantasy veteran Mieville adds a murder mystery to the mix in his tale of two fiercely independent East European cities coexisting in the same physical location, the denizens of one willfully imperceptible to the other. The idea's not new—Jack Vance sketched something similar 60 years ago—but Mieville stretches it until it twangs. Citizens of Beszel are trained from birth to ignore, or "unsee," the city and inhabitants of Ul Qoma (and vice versa), even when trains from both cities run along the same set of tracks, and houses of different cities stand alongside one another. To step from one city to the other, or even to attempt to perceive the counterpart city, is a criminal act that immediately invokes Breach, the terrifying, implacable, ever-watching forces that patrol the shadowy borders. Summoned to a patch of waste ground where a murdered female has been dumped from a van, Beszel's Detective Inspector Tyador Borlu learns the victim was a resident of Ul Qoma. Clearly, the Oversight Committee must invoke Breach, thus relieving Borlu of all further responsibility. Except that a videotape shows the van arriving legally in Beszel from Ul Qoma via the official border crossing point. Therefore, no breach, so Borlu must venture personally into Ul Qoma to pursue an investigation that grows steadily more difficult and alarming. Grimy, gritty reality occasionally spills over into unintelligible hypercomplexity, but this spectacularly, intricately paranoid yarn is worth the effort.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

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Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The City and the City:

1. Mieville provides no overall exposition in this book, leaving it up to readers to piece together the strange co-existence of Beszel and Ul Qoma. Do you appreciate the way in which the story gradually unfolds? Or, finding it confusing, would you have preferred an explanation early on?

2. Many critics and readers—but not all—have talked about Mieville's imagined world, a world constructed so thoroughly that readers were easily absorbed in the two cities. Was that your experience as you read the book...or were you unable to suspend your belief, finding the whole foundation too preposterous?

3. What does it mean to "unsee" in this novel...and what are the symbolic implications of unseeing? In other words, do we "unsee" one another in our own lives? Who unsees whom?

4. Talk about the absurdities that result from the two cities ignoring one another's existence—for instance, the rules put in place for picking up street trash.

5. What theory was the murdered graduate student investigating and what makes Borlu begin to think the theory is more than just theory—that it might be closer to truth?

6. Do you feel Mieville's characters are well developed in this work...or under-developed? Defend your the death. What about the book's dialogue? Does it sound realistic—the way individuals actually converse? Or do you find it stilted, tiresome...or perhaps overly ambitious? Does it matter?

7. Point out some of the strange word-usage Mieville incorporates in The City and the City: words/phrases like... crosshatching, grosstopically, the alter, and so on.

8. What is the "Breach" and why it's required to maintain control over the two populations? What does the Breach suggest about authoritarianism in general—its origins, purpose, enforcement, corruption...?

9. Was the crime/mystery solved to your satisfaction by the end of the book? Was the crime the book's central focus...or tangential? If the latter, what was the real focus?

10. Have you read other works by Mieville? If so, how does this compare? If not, are you inspired to read more of his books?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.) .

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