The City & The City by China Miéville is the third novel I’ve read that’s up for this year’s Hugo Award and my least favorite. But don’t get me wrong, if I wasn’t comparing it against other stunning novels, The City & The City would stand out on its own as a major novel. So far, I’ve read three of the six nominees and they’ve all been impressive.
I really don’t want to say much about the story itself because the novel creates a rather unique fantasy world that readers should slowly assemble in their minds. Please don’t read reviews or plot summaries of this story beforehand.
The City & The City is a murder mystery, like the 2009 Hugo Winner, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon, which was about another fantasy city, but one from an alternative history. China Miéville’s cities might be considered from an alternative history, or just an extra invention for our own world we never learned to see. I don’t know, but it’s extremely clever.
Michael Moorcock at The Guardian sees the story as science fiction, trying to tie in string theory physics, but I don’t buy that. Don’t read Moorcock’s review until after you’ve read the book, he gives away practically everything, but do read his review, it has a lot of good stuff to say. A case could be made that The City & The City isn’t fantasy or science fiction.
The City & The City depends on believing something that’s pretty hard to believe, or imagine, although I think it would make a wonderful movie if it could be pulled off visually. Miéville ask his reader to believe the mind is far more powerful than most people suspect. I think the mind is capable of this kind of power. I don’t know how psychological Miéville intends to be with his story, but I can read a lot into it.
How far can culture condition us? We know suicide bombers commit horrendous acts because their beliefs have programmed their minds to see reality very different from the rest of us. But how much do we perceive and not perceive from our training in childhood?
I am reminded of an experiment I read about decades ago. Kittens were raised in two control environments. One environment only had vertical lines, and the other only had horizontal. After some months the cats were removed to live in a normal environment. The kittens who grew up with only horizontal lines would walk into chair legs and other objects that were made up of vertical structures. Kittens that were used to vertical lines wouldn’t jump up on shelves or chairs seats. Whenever I think about this experiment I wonder what I don’t see now because I never learn to see it in childhood.
We follow Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad, as he searches for a murderer in a city of Besźel. I had never heard of this city before. Because I was reading a novel up for a science fiction award, I first thought it might be new pronunciation of one of our existing city’s name in the far future, but I was wrong.
I’m not a mystery reader, but I have read several of the classics like The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. Cities are very important to the mystery genre. In fact, I don’t care who commits the murder in mysteries, it’s the details of the setting and character that have to enchant me when I read one. And it’s character and details I like in The City & The City.
As an untrained mystery reader I can’t say how successful Miéville is at writing a murder mystery. The City & The City is very readable and entertaining, but it’s not science fiction, what I am trained to read. Nor do does it really feel like a fantasy novel. It’s hard to categorize this tale, but I think it’s main appeal will be with mystery readers. Oddly, it wasn’t nominated for the Edgar Award this year, so I don’t know if mystery readers are even giving it a chance.
This novel seems targeted to some unseen genre, like the cities in this story. I think it was best summed up by Denise Hamilton at the LA Times, “If Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler’s love child were raised by Franz Kafka, the writing that emerged might resemble China Mieville’s new novel, The City & the City."
The City & The City is such an odd novel, that I’m having fun reading reviews of it after I finished it, to see what other readers made of this very different story. That’s the strength of fantasy writing, writers can write about anything they can imagine, but all too often writers crank out the same old crap. I make and rest my case with the current vampire craze.
JWH – 6/12/10