Tuesday, June 16, 2009

China Miéville - The City & The City (2009)

When I first read Perdido Street Station, I was both terrified and mystified by the talent of this author. The world of Bas-Lag was a beautiful and ominous dark fantastic steampunk setting, and Miéville had more writing chops and inventive ideas in single chapters than most genre authors can conceive throughout their entire careers. Perdido Street Station is quite possibly the finest dark fantasy I've ever read, a testament to world building which puts so many peers to shame. Embellishing roots fantasy tropes with a dark urban style, ala 'New Weird', it's clear that China is fascinated with cities. Even The Scar, which was set at sea, involved a unique and rag-tag city of various craft and flotilla.

I was personally disheartened when Miéville decided to take a break from Bas-Lag to sample other genres. Un Dun Lun simply wasn't for me, but not at all a bad read for anyone perusing the kid's section for something fresh and inviting. Still, I can understand the man's motivation not to burn himself out. For his new novel, China has delved into the mystery thriller, with that dash of conspiracy that will be familiar to fans of his previous work.

WARNING: This is a very new novel, and there are potential spoilers ahead. Skip to the rating if you plan on reading the book and don't want it spoiled!

The City & the City is set in the fictional neighboring city-states of Ul Qoma and Beszel, somewhere in Eastern Europe. The cities became separate during something known as the Cleavage, and through hints in the story we are led to believe that the region was once home to a fascinating civilization with unusual technologies. Much of Ul Qoma and Beszel occupies the same physical space, the cities overlap and thus 'crosshatch'. However, from a very young age the citizens of both are trained to 'unsee' one another, that is to completely ignore the presence of their neighbors, even when using the same public works or buildings. This is a pretty fascinating concept and China stays true to this even through the close of the book. It's the 'New Weird' of this novel.

When someone fails to 'unnotice' a person from the neighboring province, they incur something known as Breach. Breach is basically this almost supernatural law enforcement group (kind of like the CIA) which will silence locals or export foreigners who 'breach'. They can also be invoked by the governments of the cities to investigate particular crimes. Breach is another of the great ideas in the book, but unfortunately it peters out in the climax of the story.

Our protagonist is an investigator from Beszel, named Tyador Borlu, who is investigating the mysterious murder of a Canadian student of Ul Qoma. The investigation leads Borlu into a web of intrigue and conspiracy. A subversive corporate figure and a scheming academic have both set into motion an event which will cause a rebellion of splinter groups who desire the unification of the cities, if only to cover up their own ambitions (for example, the corporation wants to study and 'steal' some of the Pre-Cleavage artifacts and technology). For some strange reason, Breach is not invoked to cover the murder, so eventually Borlu has to take his investigation from Beszel into Ul Qoma, where he is teamed up with an angry but well-meaning cop named Dhatt to get to the bottom of things. Because as long as you have an official visitation pass...you can go to the other city.

And this, unfortunately, is where I nearly lost my mind. The whole idea of these two peoples occupying the same space and 'unseeing' one another is fantastic, but it's excrutiatingly hard for me take seriously when they can simply get official 'papers' to travel to the other, even as a street vendor or delivery man! I get that this is a metaphor for stupid social stratifications, bereaucracy, political boundaries, and so forth, but it wound up truly downplaying one of the key ingredients of the novel. It's that same sort of self-defeating post 1984/Fahrenheit 451 concept which ruins a lot of dystopian fiction (like the Equilibrium film, for example, with it's 'no emotions' society that is constantly expressing emotions by, even when 'not'...). Another thing that irked me here is once Tyador winds up breaching himself and then essentially becomes an agent of Breach, another of the fascinating mysteries of the novel is revealed a little too early, and thus downplayed. Surely, we still can't explain the almost supernatural grace and presence of Breach, but hearing them argue and talk on cellphones kind of dulled things.

As for the rest, it's actually not bad. Tyador is a strong detective character and I like that China fused the characters' dialogue with the doppelganger of an East European English dialect. Once you get past the first 50 or so pages (a rather typical mystery novel opener) into the mysteries of the setting, the book starts to pick up pace. The investigation has the usual twists and turns of a mystery novel, and the presence of what we can't 100% perceive to be supernatural or science fiction, or the mundane really gives it the flavor of a Philip K. Dick book. Some of the side characters like the compulsory, cussing Corwi are fun, but the majority are throwaway. In particular I didn't care for the antagonists, who were cardboard cut outs. There is one very cool interchange between the corporate Croft as he leaves the scene in the end, giving a tongue lashing to the silly way of life, but otherwise none of the villains are at all memorable.

I can't fault any lack of creativity here, but even if I credit him for sticking to it, Miéville's central hook here just fell flat for me, almost like the past few M Night Shyamalan flicks (okay...not that flat). I wanted to love this novel. It started off dull, picked up in strength, then just kind of went 'splat' against the windshield of my attention span. Those hoping for the near suffocating wealth of dark intrique and world building in his Bas-Lag novels will find a bit of a Perdido 'lite' feel to the book, but I'm really hoping he returns to that world within the next few years. Until then, I'll just have to wait and see which genre hop he makes next.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]


frank austin said...

I really loved this book for what it was; a police procedural with an element of the weird thrown over it. Anything will suffer by comparison to Bas Lag, but The City & The City stands on it's own as a unique novel, if not something that will revolutionize the speculative fiction world.

It's worth noting that China Mieville wrote this book for his sick (now deceased) mother as a gift. She was a big fan of police procedural novels, and he wanted to give her something along those lines.

I disagree about a few of the finer points here; I thought the Breach reveal was well-timed, considering the length of the book. I also rather like that Breach draws their power from perception in a city (and a city) that relies so heavily on selective senses. The fact that they're mortal makes sense in the world that they're in. Remember, China Mieville is the man who wrote the ambassador of hell as having an office. Granted, it's a pretty kickass office, but mixing the supernatural and the banal isn't totally out of left field for him.

Where did they talk about street vendors crossing between the cities? I seem to recall that the process of getting visitor's papers for a citizen of one City would take months of training, and that they accelerated it all for Borlu's sake.

I can see where you're coming from with this review, even though I don't agree with the outcome. I read a lot of police procedurals when I was young, and this was a lovely way to revisit them through the eyes of my favorite living author.

autothrall said...

Street vendors may have been stretching it a little, but we know that businesses, restaurants, etc from one can get the papers/training to cross over (also...seems the same would apply to whores, etc). It still took me out of the intrigue.

One of the reasons the Breach reveal irked me was for the very same reason China said he liked that mysteries weren't always explained (in his video interview for the book). For myself, Breach was the best mystery in the book. Had it remained that throughout, it would have left a more lasting impression on me. As it stands we are left with the maybe/maybe not Orciny question and wanting to know more about the Precursors.

Also, every time I say Precursor I keep thinking of the first Jak & Daxter game.

I actually liked the idea of China doing a police procedural when I was going into this novel, but let's be honest, that part of the book (the murder and all) takes a backseat to the setting, which is far more interesting. Without the cities and Breach, it would be little more than a typical murder mystery (with a pretty boring resolution).

Have you read the Jim Butcher 'Dresden' books or the Denise Vitola books? Pretty interesting takes on the police detective thing, you may enjoy them, sir.

Also, sorry to hear about his mother.

frank austin said...

Huh, I wonder why I remember the part about getting papers differently. It seemed to be easy enough for people from other countries to do, but for citizens of the two cities, it was significantly more difficult. I definitely remember them having to undergo months worth of training to be able to cross over - Borlu references this when he gets done in a couple weeks.

I wasn't as bothered by citizens from each city crossing over, mostly because I felt as though Mieville had emphasized enough that the process of unseeing/unhearing was what made the grosstopical arrangement possible, not so much the individual things that you were unseeing/unhearing. If he had gone into just a little bit more detail about the process of learning this kind of thing, it would have helped.

You're right about the mystery part of the story taking a backseat to the setting, for sure. I would have liked the ending to be less predictable and maybe even a bit more fantastical, but sometimes this approach is all right, too.

I tried to get into the Dresden Files, but the first book lost me. Yes, dude, we know he's a fucking wizard. Stop talking about being a wizard already. I hear such good things about the series, consistently, that maybe I will give them another shot. The Denise Vitola books aren't familiar to me, I'll have to look into that.

Thanks for the recommendations/discussion! I've been itching to talk about this book with someone.

autothrall said...

The Dresden books do get quite a bit better than that. Certainly better than the weak TV show.

Also, you might like the Patlabor anime films, very cool cop stories, smart stuff. Mamoru Oshii. Not the TV series anime or the OVA, mind you, those are a little more light hearted. Just the three films.

is this your life? said...

Ha, I totally got the same Shyamalan feel - it wasn't as reliant on a twist, but the way the truth was delivered kind of dimmed the fantastic build-up.

I really loved Mieville's use of English not being their main language to make their discussions slightly intangible.

I was also a bit disappointed in what Breach ultimately came to be, but I think...well, I guess I really wanted Orciny to factor in. I didn't really want a realistic explanation for everything, ha. I'm not a fan of mysteries or detective stories all that much, so it was the quasi-supernatural aspects that pulled me in here.

In the end I think my overall enjoyment was higher than a 6, somewhere in between 7 and 8.

Walri said...

META, write a review of the new Patrick Wolf album!

is this your life? said...

haha, ok fine. I've been giving it time to digest, but I'm starting to get a good feel for my thoughts on it.

frank austin said...

I like that Orciny could still be a factor based on Breach's reactions to Borlu bringing it up in conversation.

For my cop fiction craving I'm currently watching The Shield from be beginning; it's pretty good so far. I will revisit the Dresden books and finally watch Patlabor after all these years.

autothrall said...

What I like about Dresden is, despite the obvious gimmick, I was far more engaged than in all the other shitty vampire-lite investigator fiction (Anita Blake, for example, where the entire series seems predicated on the author's secret sexual fantasies with creatures of the night).

There are some really cool characters. Too bad about that TV series, but they tried.

autothrall said...

Also, and I totally forgot, Glen Cook (more known for the Black Company fantasy series) does a series about a detective in a fantasy world, the Garrett P.I. series. Pretty fun. The first novel is called "Sweet Silver Blues" and they all have similar titles.

frank austin said...

The Anita Blake books are some of the worst shit that I've ever head the displeasure of reading. I still can't believe I made it all the way through one of them.

I keep meaning to read the Garrett, PI books, especially because I'm such a massive fan of the Black Company, but once I'm in a book store I can never remember which one is supposed to be first. This time, I won't forget.

Thanks, man!

autothrall said...

No problem.

Now that my library is all in order, I'll probably start posting a lot more book reviews. I was even thinking of going through the entire pulpy, smutty, silly 'Chronicles of Gor' series for fun.

Maybe we could do Garrett P.I. or Black Company. I could even get a friend to do some Black Company, that's his favorite fantasy series.

Kiel said...

Just about finished with this. I really like all the detectives, but agree that the side characters are forgettable.

Also I'm not sure I buy the central concept. The part where Tyad is walking around in both cities for the first time was cool, but the whole time reading I'm just thinking "doesn't any one ask how ridiculuous this whole thing is?"

I like it as a metaphor for east/west Berlin. If they tried to film it, it could be really cool visually which is how I was trying to picture the concept. Different architectures with specific colors right on top of one another.