Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

May 22, 2010

China Miéville – The City and the City

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:02 am

This is an utterly classic crime novel (of the grim, realist kind—low crime?) in its structure, but unmistakably science fiction in its methodology. The kicker is that the science involved is poli-sci and sociology.

Besźel and Ul Qoma would each individually be a typical Ruritania[1], but it’s the interaction between them that produces the novum here. Instead of facing each other across a defined border, as other doubled cities do, they interpenetrate—share physical topology, while the psychogeographical landscape is entirely different in each.

The setting could only have been Eastern Europe, and not just for Balkanesque reasons; this sort of calm acceptance of surreal sociopolitical realities, and the concomitant black humour, is utterly characteristic of the literature of the region.

It’s hard to classify by type[2], but then that’s the best kind of novel to think about in that way. The approach it takes to the inherent strangeness of the city and the city (a linguistic construction used in Besźel and Ul Qoma themselves—saying “the twin cities” or “the split cities” would be an extremely politicised speech act, because it would be an attempt to define the relationship between them) is thoroughly immersive, presented as it is by a first-person narrator who does not explain strangenesses to us.

Structurally, though, it’s a liminal fantasy in that it approaches and then (denies? subverts? co-opts?) the possibility of further strangeness hidden within the already bloody weird structure of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

That kind of liminality, an insistence on ambiguously negotiated boundaries, is mirrored in all the narrator’s relationships—unspoken agreements, unoffical arrangements, “they don’t know but they wouldn’t mind”. That’s how they do things in the city and the city, it seems…


[1] “Besźel” is probably taken from the Hungarian beszél, “to speak”. My Arabic-fu is rather more dodgy, but “Ul Qoma” could well be “The Summit”. Most of the initial establishment of place is done through language—the police slang mectec, or a trilingual pun in the name of a drug. The second book, set in Ul Qoma, makes much of the sheer size of the more economically advanced city’s building boom.

[2] The terms “immersive” and “liminal” come from Rhetorics of Fantasy (Mendlesohn – review here). And yes, I’m aware of the peculiarities of using a fantasy-specific theoretical schema on Debatable SF, but you use the tools that fit your hand…

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