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The City & the City by China Mieville

The world is an endlessly fascinating place and we depend on our abilities to understand all the signs and signals that surround us to navigate safely from innocent childhood to mature adulthood. The study of this interaction between the individual and his or her environment is most commonly called semiotics. So, when we pass each other in the streets, we make a mass of instant judgements based on the hairstyle, facial expression, posture, clothing and shoes, each factor being shaded depending on the time of day, the geographical location and any other socially relevant information. So we could conclude that, in one context, we see a police officer while, in a different context, we see a stripper about to remove his or her clothes. In some urban areas, there are signs identifying the local gang whose turf you are walking through. In other areas, we might choose not to see some people because their presence is somehow embarrassing or offensive. All of us go through a process of socialisation to learn the local culture and its nuances. Our willingness to conform ensures each culture and its niches survive and, where appropriate, evolve to different but nevertheless mutually compatible forms. This adaptability can make cultures act as if independent creatures. For those of you interested in the theory, you can google autopoiesis and take it from there.

The idea of interstitial areas has been briefly explored in two recent novels: Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams and The Shadow Pavilion by Liz Williams. Both assume that there will be one or more “spaces” or “lands” between more structured spaces. It is also interesting to compare Thunderer by Felix Gilman who is interested in the essential mutability of a city’s geography in time and space. Returning to gang culture for a moment, there may be areas of overlap or separation between two gang territories where members from different gangs may meet in safety, or where a “no man’s lands” exists as a buffer zone, i.e. no gang members may enter, but other citizens may pass through.

In The City & the City, Mieville engages in a clever exploration of two overlapping cities, each one socially invisible to the other. As children growing up in one city, you learn not to “see” the other city or its inhabitants. This is a sophisticated mental trick because, of necessity, you see your surroundings to avoid walking into people and not crash when driving. But other than this basic behaviour to ensure mutual survival, neither side acknowledges the existence of the other. Indeed, the cities are considered located in different countries, with a formal border control between them. Policing this bilocation is the mysterious Breach — a term which expresses both the physical transgression of failing to relate to the city environment in which you are currently resident, and the agency (assumed not to be supernatural) responsible for punishing all transgressions. As you will gather, there is a very detailed system of metarules in place, maintaining the separation.

Into this existential anomaly comes a murder which seems to have been committed in one city with the body dumped in the other without this crime involving a Breach. Thus, at a metalevel, we are immediately pitched into a game of establishing the rules of Breach and then understanding why no Breach has occurred in the movement of the body between the cities. It soon becomes apparent to the investigating officer that another element to be considered is whether there is balance at all levels, i.e. just as there are two cities occupying the same space, are there also two metalevel agencies: Breach and Orciny?

At this point, I want to refer to one of my favourite authors, Anthony Price. He began with a series of outstanding titles and, although he tailed off as he grew older, even at his least inspiring, he was still better than most. To avoid spoilers, all I will say about the quality of the murder and its investigation in The City & the City is that it’s one of the most elegant puzzles of the last few years and worthy of Price at his best. Even though Price is now mostly out-of-print, you should seek him out.

In writing this review, I note I’m coming to this book late (courtesy of the US postal system which lost a complete batch of 2009 titles on its way to me for several months). In the intervening time, The City & the City has been picking up prizes, the most recent being the Arthur C. Clark Award which Mieville is winning for a third time. In every respect, I agree with the assessment of the world. This is a remarkable piece of fiction that seamlessly blends fantasy with detective fiction to produce a mesmerising novel. If you have not already read it, do so immediately.

P.S. For those interested in trying Anthony Price, you have a choice. The first published novel was The Labyrinth Makers (1970). The novel that starts the internal timeline is The Hour of the Donkey. The series is unbeatable as well-developed characters struggle to solve some wonderfully complex problems.

As an added note, The City & The City won both the World Fantasy Award 2010 for the Best Novel and shared the Best Novel Award for the Hugo Award 2010. It was shortlisted for the Nebula Award 2010 for Best Novel. It also placed third in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award 2010. It was Le lauréat du Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire 2012 for Roman étranger.

For reviews of other free-standing novels, see
Embassytown, Kraken and Railsea.

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