This month we are featuring author China Mieville, in particular his novel “The City and the City“. Some of you may be familiar with Mieville’s work already, some of you have never heard of him. To start, here’s the brief overview of Mieville from Wikipedia:
China Tom Miéville (pronounced /ˈtʃaɪnə miˈeɪvəl/; born 6 September 1972 in Norwich) 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 epigones. 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. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_Mi%C3%A9ville)
His awards include the Bram Stoker Award, the Arthur C. Clark Award, and the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. He’s also been nominated multiple times for the Hugo Award and writes on socialism and international law.
What draws me to Mieville is his creativity. A lot of fantasy is so derivative as to border on plagiarism (Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle), or so repetitive as to be dull (Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth). Then there’s the overly epic, spend-five-pages-describing-a-woman’s-outfit of Robert Jordan, not to mention the plethora of Tolkein imitators. Mieville fits in none of these categories.
Much like Neil Gaiman, who’s American Gods beat Mieville’s Perdido Street Station for the Hugo in 2002, Mieville throws off the derivative and often boring shackles of most mainstream fantasy, going for his own completely unique style. In his New Crobuzon trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council) this includes combining the mainstay of fantasy — magic — with steam punk. Clockwork and steam engines play a huge part in the mis en scene of that trilogy. His short stories toy with alternate realities and strange happenings, walking the line between fantasy and horror. Unlundun, his young adult novel full of puns and good humor, is the tale of a strange alternate city behind the scenes of the real London. The City and the City, a worthy addition to Mieville’s oeuvre, is completely unlike the rest of his work and serves to show his versatility as a writer. Reading this novel after all his others gives me confidence that he has avoided the trap of staying with one style or setting for too long.
The City and The City is essentially a hard boiled detective novel set in two fictional (presumably) Eastern European cities called Beszel and Ul Qoma. The thing is, the cities coexist, on top of each other, overlapping each other, bleeding into one another. However, the border between the two is constantly and militantly policed by a force called “Breach”. Citizens are trained from youth to “unsee”, “unsmell”, “unhear” things from the sister city. Something as small as nodding to a passerby in the other city will bring Breach down to enforce the border. Outside the cities, the world is much as we know it. America is an economic super-power and all our real-world countries exist (what is never addressed is whether they have any uniquely fantastic attributes like Beszel and Ul Qoma).
The story begins simply enough with a murder. A young woman is found dead in a park with no identification and very few clues. Tyador Borlú, Extreme Crime Squad, is called in to investigate.
Borlú fits the ideal of the hard-boiled detective. He has no family to speak of, two sometimes-lovers, and a bit of a mysterious past. He spent time abroad, both in London and Ul Qoma, and speaks the language of both fluently. Although his background is never explicitly stated, one gets the impression he is well educated and worldly. There’s definitely more to Borlú than meets the eye.
The investigation quickly hits a dead end. Borlú and his assistant Corwi run out of leads. It is not until an anonymous caller from Ul Qoma gives them a name that they can make any progress. The problem is, this is Breach, and illegal.
“My informant should not have seen the posters. They were not in his country. He should never have told me. He made me accessory. The information was an allergen in Beszel – the mere fact of it in my head was a kind of trauma. I was complicit. It was done.”
Borlú, however, can’t give up, and draws you through an extraordinary story.
“[T]he whole investigation might be breach too. I should not incriminate myself by pushing this… It was escapism for a moment to pretend I might do so. In the end I would do my job, though doing it meant breaking a code, an existential protocol more basic by a long way than any I was paid to enforce.”