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The City & the City by China Mieville

Buy from IndieBoundThe City & the City is China Miéville’s best novel since The Scar, and the tightest and most politically observant of his career. It’s existential pulp fiction, a hard-boiled detective story set in an alternate reality that feels like a John le Carré fever dream. It’s got murders, conspiracies, secrets, red herrings, action and suspense to burn. And it’s all upholstered in big ideas — about nationalism, cultural identity, the fear of absolute authority, the perceived threat of borders and their violability, and the overpowering irrationality of xenophobia.

Miéville has always been fixated on cities. New Crobuzon and UnLondon are characters as vivid as the diverse natives who amble their living streets, if not moreso. But to Miéville, cities are defined by their people, not their geography. Cities can be anywhere, and they don’t necessarily have to stay put. Indeed, both The Scar and Iron Council take place in vagabond cities that travel the landscape, founded by outcasts and undesirables who have evolved their own form of nomadic urbanity.

But while turf may not be especially important to Miéville, he fully understands how important it is to people in the real world, their sense of identity and place. The need to put down roots, to define this place as one’s home, is etched into our being. Nationalism is much on the minds of people who feel their borders are being challenged and threatened. Recent history is full of the agony and anger that accompany the politics of division. Conflicts between England and Ireland, and between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, where individual neighborhoods must be walled off from each other; the splitting of Germany into East and West, lasting for decades before reunification; and that mother of all turf battles, Israel vs. Palestine, which, in my more cynical moments, I’m convinced will not end. Even here in the smug USA, our border with Mexico is a perennial political hot potato.

Set in the present day, The City & the City gives us two fictitious eastern European city-states, Beszel and Ul Qoma, that are fighting not merely over a shared border but literally the same little patch of reality. The cities exist atop one another, oddly overlapped and fused together, like two superimposed film images. Some time in the distant past, an event called the Cleavage somehow split this little slice of the planet into two realities. We don’t know what happened or how, and it isn’t the goal of the story to explore the science of it.

Besz and Ul Qoman citizens must be the most neurotic people alive. By law, they must choose to ignore — to “unsee” — those parts of each other’s cities that occasionally intrude on their own. You can be “in” either Beszel or Ul Qoma, but whichever of the two you inhabit, you must be wary of those “crosshatched” areas of the city where bits of the other city are more visible than not. A person in Beszel can be walking the sidewalk right next to someone in Ul Qoma. They are side by side, but a whole city, and a whole reality away, and they can’t acknowledge each other.

Violations of this bizarre boundary are considered Breach, and harshly punished by a shadowy Orwellian law enforcement body who somehow exist independently and above both cities, who possess frighteningly omniscient surveillance powers and apparently limitless punitive ones. (Being marched away by man-in-black types you didn’t know existed, who materialize out of nowhere and know everything about you feels like a distinctly postwar European horror.) But this doesn’t stop both cities from developing the expected rebel countercultures. Left wing unificationists, who favor the assimilation of both cities, duke it out with right-wing nationalists. Perhaps the fact they keep each other busy and are already well policed by each city’s own law enforcement bodies is why the fearsome Breach mostly leaves them alone. All the same, it’s hard to understand why Breach is so punitive, or what exactly would be so drastically damaged by more of an open-border policy here. This isn't a plot flaw; it’s quite deliberate. Miéville is examining how nationalism just gets raised to the point where xenophobic fanaticism is enshrined as policy for its own sake. Unlike so many border conflicts today, there’s no deep-seated religious or political or cultural divide that separates the Besz and Ul Qomans through implacable prejudice and hate. The citizens of either city don’t really seem to have a problem with one another. They maintain their strict separation because few people bother to question the systems under which they’re governed.

I don’t see how either city can possibly be a happy place to live, but the locals seem to manage. Ignoring crosshatching gets to be just another exercise in willful blindness, like stepping over homeless people on the sidewalk. And besides, Ul Qoma and Beszel do interact, and there is a legal way to travel from one to the other, through a tunnel beneath the central government building with the bizarrely suggestive name of Copula Hall. Both cities also interact with the outside world, to varying degrees. The US has blockades against Beszel for some reason, but trades freely with Ul Qoma, with the result that Ul Qoma is quite a bit more modern than Beszel. Western Europe is somewhat more charitable towards Beszel.

Though it contains none of the baffling creatures and very little of the steampunk/gearpunk trappings of his Bas-Lag novels, The City & the City offers us a world no less vivid, and even more disarming for its clear analogies to so much political reality. The plot itself is a deliciously convoluted police procedural, a kind of CSI: Miéville, in which a simple murder mushrooms into a potential international catastrophe. When a Canadian student working an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma turns up dead in Beszel, Besz detective Tyador Borlú, working together with Ul Qoman investigator Qussim Dhatt, uncover what looks like the proverbial conspiracy with leads going Straight To The Top. The killing was committed in such a way as to carefully avoid committing Breach. As the list of suspects comes together and the stakes become clearer, it appears the victim learned something she shouldn’t, something that could threaten the precarious existence of both cities.

At just over 300 pages, The City & the City is Miéville’s most efficiently constructed and fast paced book to date. And the sociopolitical themes it explores make it doubly rewarding. Would it be better for one or the other of these cities to fall, or for them both to unite? Or for them to continue business as usual, two entire populations living elaborately constructed lies for the sake of...what? Patriotism? Cultural autonomy and pride? You won’t find easy answers where none are possible.