The always-original China Miéville has won a number of awards and been nominated several times for the Hugo. His latest Hugo nominated-novel, a Kafkaesque fantasy/SF police procedural, takes a hardboiled cop deep into his home city of Besźel, somewhere in Eastern Europe—and into Ul Qoma, which occupies the same geographical space.
Title: The City and the City
Author: China Miéville
ISBN: 0345497511, 978-0345497512
First published: 2009.
A murder sends Inspector Tyador Borlú investigating political extremists, possible conspiracies, and the fantastic politics of his home city and its counterpart. Besźel and Ul Qoma, the city and the city, occupy the same territory. Some physical spaces belong to one only. Some alternate, with properties side by side in different worlds. Others "crosshatch," containing parts of each reality. Residents of one ignore and "unsee" the other, and the mysterious forces of Breach maintain the separation between the city and the city. Residents who ignore the divisions— or fail to adequately ignore the other place— disappear without a trace.
In order to associate with each other, people from one city pass through Copula Hall, pass inspection, practice shifting-- seeing the other city-- and then return to where they started—but as visitors to a foreign land. Miéville continues as a world-builder and mind-expander, and he tweaks and reinvents the language in order to communicate his ideas.
Numerous fictional detectives have found themselves working with mismatched partners. Borlú must first work with his associate in Ul Qoma. Then he must team up with Breach itself.
It's a fascinating work, and one that succeeds in a way his third Bas-Lag novel failed. I love Perdido Street Station and The Scar, but felt Iron Council, for all its strengths, tripped over its own metaphor/symbol in the final chapters. The City and The City presents us with a far more resilient and multifoliate metaphor in the Kafkaesque interactions between its communities. In reality, we "unsee" quite a lot in human societies, and feel genuinely shocked when our perceptions shift and we discover things hiding in plain site. Members of separate communities walk by and avoid each other every day. The novel's handling of laws may also give readers pause. In reality, we build some complex constructions so that the world matches our preconceptions. The novel's fantasies resonate with a thousand realities, and they do so with real power.
However, whereas The Bas-Lag novels (and even the somewhat unsatisfying children's tome, Un Lun Dun) roiled with fantastic imagery, this novel features more ideas and less description. I could imagine these cities and play with the puzzles their interactions create, but I never had the sense of a fully realized physical world the way I did with Bas-Lag.
I also had too little sense of the secondary characters. Borlú has been realized more fully, but his lack of any real connections and relationships required further investigation.
Nevertheless, The City and the City remains a book worth reading, a novel of ideas that succeeds precisely because the ideas are at once bizarre and familiar-- and well worth pondering.
Miéville has said he wants to write something in every genre—adding fantastic twists of his own. To that end, he will be joining forces with Candace Bushnell to write Sex and the City and the City. Can Carrie and the girls get passage from Besźel to more glamorous Ul Qoma, without revealing that they've each illicitly seen something (new shoes, a hunky guy) across the invisible border? And what will happen when they learn the colors designated for Ul Quoman clothing aren't fashionable this season?
Many readers will try very hard to unsee this one.