China Miéville's novel The City & the City was published in 2009. The novel has won awards such as the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Hugo Award.
The story is set in what could be the world as it is known today with the addition of the two fictional cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The two cities are not ordinary neighbouring cities, but rivals ignoring the presence of one another while they exist in the same space. The two cities are not separated by a physical barrier but by a social one. Indeed, the inhabitants of a city are trained since childhood to 'unsee' the inhabitants of the other city. Inhabitants of both cities can recognize if a passer-by is from Beszel or from Ul Qoma by some factors such as the way this person is dressed or walk. If this person happens to be in the other city, they have to 'unsee' one another. A mysterious organization with unlimitated power, Breach, insure that the citizens of both cities do not break the law by 'breaching'.
The main protagonist, inspector Tyador Borlù investigates the murder of a young woman whose body was found in a grim neighbourhood of Beszel. He is quickly convinced the crime was committed in Ul Qoma and is therefore a case for Breach. But he sees his request to hand over the investigation to the organization refused and he therefore has to cooperate with Ul Qoman police officers. As Borlù progresses in his investigation, the reader further explores the relationship between the two cities. The victim was an American student who was, in appearance, there to participate in a dig in Ul Qoma. But Borlù discovers she was convinced of the existence of a third city, hidden between the two cities : Orciny. Borlù decides to explore this theory as it became apparent it is linked to the girl's death. As his investigation progresses, Borlù is dragged into a world he had never suspected, of conspiracy theories, Unificationists and Nationalists. As he comes closer to the truth surrounding the myth of Orciny, his life and the lives of those around him are put in terrible danger...
The spaces in between by Michael Moorcock, Saturday 30 May 2009.
China Miéville is perhaps the current generation's finest writer of science fantasy, that beguiling genre for which JG Ballard and M John Harrison have produced so much of their fiction. Miéville's first novel, King Rat, was a grim urban horror story about contemporary London. His later work is primarily set in the alternative world of Bas-Lag - ambitious novels such as Perdido Street Station and Iron Council, packed with grotesque characters, gorgeous imagery, amazing monsters, political parables and intricate plotting.
The City and the City is very different. It takes place in our familiar world, a post-Soviet locale which draws on string theory for its ideas and conventional experience for its story. Apart from one exceptional detail, this book could be a clever mystery story told from the point of view of a Balkan policeman struggling to cope with the problems of a society burdened by traditions and attitudes from its recent authoritarian past. Featureless concrete, rattling trams and antiquated office equipment invoke Greene's The Third Man and Vienna's zones of occupation. You can almost hear a zither twanging somewhere in an echoing sewer.
Playing off the current theoretical physicists' notion that more than one object can occupy the same physical space, Miéville demonstrates a disciplined intelligence reminiscent of the late Barrington Bayley (who specialised brilliantly in scientific implausibilities), helping us to hang on to the idea that the city of Beszel exists in the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Citizens of each city can dimly make out the other, but are forbidden on pain of severe penalties (administered by a supreme authority known simply as Breach) to notice it. They have learned by habit to "unsee". The cities have different airports, international dialling codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city.
Subtly, almost casually, Miéville constructs a metaphor for modern life in which our habits of "unseeing" allow us to ignore that which does not directly affect our familiar lives. Yet he doesn't encourage us to understand his novel as a parable, rather as a police mystery dealing with extraordinary circumstances. The book is a fine, page-turning murder investigation in the tradition of Philip K Dick, gradually opening up to become something bigger and more significant than we originally suspected.
Though Kafka is predictably invoked by the publisher, this is in no way an absurdist or surrealist narrative. All mysteries and events are either explained or open to explanation; the protagonist, Inspector Borlú of the Beszian Extreme Crime Squad, is a dogged discoverer of the truth, frustrated by but accepting Breach's rules, which we see early on demonstrated in all their stern inflexibility.
A young woman's body is found on a rundown housing estate and Borlú is assigned to the case. Pretty much from the beginning he realises there's something unusual about the murder; he's convinced that it involved illegal passage between the two cities and is thus a matter for Breach. Someone with power, maybe a politician, is keeping it as an ordinary police case. But why? Soon Borlú's investigations lead him to request official permission to follow up inquiries in co-existent Ul Qoma; after considerable bureaucratic rigmarole, he meets his rather condescending opposite number, who escorts him across the border from one reality to the other.
The wealthier city has succeeded in getting better foreign investment. North American archeologists have been discovering mysterious remains there for some years. The murdered girl had been participating in a dig which clearly plays a crucial part in the mystery. Under the influence of her team's senior archeologist (who now strenuously denies any such belief) she became convinced that a third city, Orciny, exists in the interstices between one city and another, unseen by occupants of both and guarding its secret by means of cynical violence, perhaps in direct opposition to Breach or even identical to it.
Steadily, Miéville thickens his plot with exceptional mastery. Next, evidently terrified of something, the senior archeologist disappears, maybe taken by those mysterious Orcinians whose artefacts he's helped to uncover. A friend of the murder victim is next to vanish. Against their wills, Borlú and his partner begin to believe in Orciny, and ultimately events force Borlú into contemplating an act of Breach. But Breach severely punishes all transgressions, no matter what their motives or status. Those who defy Breach usually disappear for good. Even those who commit Breach accidentally are found with their memories wiped. Why does it have to be so unforgiving?
Despite the violent deaths of those he seeks to help or interrogate, and a growing fear for his own life, Inspector Borlú slogs on in pursuit of the truth as the book moves remorselessly towards its extraordinary denouement. As in no previous novel, the author celebrates and enhances the genre he loves and has never rejected. On many levels this novel is a testament to his admirable integrity. Keeping his grip firmly on an idea which would quickly slip from the hands of a less skilled writer, Miéville again proves himself as intelligent as he is original.
The City and the City by China Miéville: review by Robert Hanks, 15 June 2009
In the corners of literature where such divisions are regarded as important, there is a debate about what genre China Miéville’s novels belong to. He has twice won the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction, but sci-fi purists complain that his frequent breaches of the laws of nature – magic, in other words – place him in the “fantasy” camp.
Miéville himself dislikes that label, with its overtones of elves and dwarves, and has suggested the term “weird”. A more precise category might be “urban surrealism”: surveying his career so far, it looks as if his central concern is life in the modern city, though filtered through dreams and nightmares.
Sometimes the city is explicitly London – as in his first novel, King Rat, and his children’s book Un Lun Dun. Sometimes the resemblance is less obvious, as in Perdido Street Station and Iron Council, where the setting is the wildly imagined city-state of “New Crobuzon”, swarming with sorcerers, giant humanoid cacti and women with scarab beetles for heads ruled over by a caste of aristocratic corpses.
The first city in The City and the City is Beszel, somewhere in south-eastern Europe: local names and words mingle Germanic and Slavic roots, the old Jewish quarter has been settled by Muslim refugees from the Balkans, and the cafés serve Turkish-style coffee. Inspector Tyador Borlú is investigating the murder of an unknown woman. She turns out to be an American postgraduate, Mahalia Geary, who was working in the other city of the title, Ul Qoma, Beszel’s rival and, for want of a better word, neighbour.
As Borlú’s investigation proceeds, the reader is slowly initiated into the bizarrely intimate relationship between Beszel and Ul Qoma: two cities which occupy the same physical space, overlapping, crosshatching, mingling. What separates them is not a conventional border – though there is one, which can be crossed with a passport – but the equally impenetrable barriers set up by law and custom.
The citizens have learnt the art of “unseeing”, of never quite being conscious of the other. So two houses may sit next to one another, one in Ul Qoma, the other in Beszel: the inhabitants will never meet, talk or even glance at one another; two people can walk down the same pavement side by side, one in Beszel, the other in Ul Qoma, never bumping into one another, and each seeing a different set of passers-by, shops, beggars.
To acknowledge the presence of the other, even inwardly, would be to tempt the attentions of “Breach”, the feared secret police force that patrols the borders. It begins to look as though Mahalia Geary has endangered this age-old order.
Although fantastic, Miéville doesn’t make it work smoothly: the mechanics of the situation are a little sketchy, the plot strained and the prose jerky, with coded foreign words and contrived neologisms – a street both in Beszel and Ul Qoma is a “topolganger”. But as in all Miéville’s writing, there is a core of disguised realism: isn’t this exactly how modern cities work?
Communities are jammed together, cheek by jowl, yet completely separate: next-door neighbours may go to different supermarkets, drink in different bars, buy different clothes, watch different television programmes and if they pass on the street they don’t say hello. To walk anywhere in London is to enjoy a masterclass in unseeing, in failing to catch the other person’s eye in case they take it the wrong way or ask for money.
The City and the City is not a conventionally well-made novel, but it sparks thought in a way that more conventional novels would never dare to.
The City & the City was adapted into a play which premiered on February 15 and ended on April 7, 2013 at the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago. The play was adapted by Christopher M. Walsh and directed by Dorothy Milne. The main characters were played by Steve Schine as Inspector Borlù, Marsha Harman as Corwi, Patrick Blashill as Dave Bowden and Chris Hainsworth as Dhatt.
The set was designed by Joe Schermoly. Alex Huntsberger in his review of the play discribes it as 'a single, Soviet slab of concrete that sets the tone and then gets out of the way'. Samantha Nelson of the Chicago Theatre Review notes that 'with inventive blocking, director Dorothy Milne and movement designer Amanda Link adeptly demonstrate the strangeness of people coming and going next to each other without acknowledging one another; a particularly well-orchestrated scene involves Borlu tailing a suspect. Costume designer Izumi Inaba plays up the difference in the two cities residents with their garb, with Beszel’s dwellers clad in drab Eastern European-style clothes – wielding dated cellphones – while the more prosperous Ul Qumans sport vibrant neons and headphones. Scenic designer Joe Schermoly’s set adds to the paranoiac atmosphere via a set of windows overlooking the stage; actors sometimes peek through the blinds and lights periodically go on and off, giving the constant feeling that you are being watched'.
The City & The City trailer:
Some reviews of the play:
By Lawrence B. Johnson
If the idea of Big Brother watching your every move gives you the creeps, imagine trying to avoid attention if it’s a crime just to look at the wrong person on the street or walk into the wrong store — because all the people and all the shops occupy common space shared by two sovereign city-states. Such is the fanciful setting of China Miéville’s “The City & The City,” a political murder mystery novel brought to the stage with panache and dark seriousness, as well as remarkable clarity, by Lifeline Theatre.
In the mythic East European city of Bésźel, the body of a female American student is found, apparently the victim of a violent attack. The case goes to Inspector Borlú of the Bésźel Extreme Crime Squad. Very soon, two probabilities arise: A political element lies behind the slaying – the student’s research may have put her on to a firmly held inter-city secret. And the killer may have violated city boundaries, a punishable act known as Breach.
Twists and turns of plot eventually draw in the director of an archaeological dig, a disgraced professor, underground advocates of unification and entrenched defenders of the two-city arrangement. A critical shift occurs when Inspector Borlú’s superiors decide the whole matter must be handed over to police in the co-existent city, Ul Qoma.
That’s when Borlú (Steve Schine as an unglamorous but experienced cop who’s just trying to make things add up) encounters his iron-fisted opposite Detective Dhatt, also a veteran, who makes it clear who’s in charge in Ul Qoma. Chris Hainsworth’s strapping Dhatt is an immediately likable character, for all his bluster, and the camaraderie forged between the two detectives goes a long way in keeping the viewer engaged through the play’s convoluted switchbacks between city and city. Hainsworth’s Dhatt, rough-humored but ultimately practical, is to Schine’s gumshoe Borlú as John Wayne is to Columbo.
Bringing this cross-hatched manhunt to the stage was initially the work of adapter Christopher M. Walsh, who has distilled – or perhaps the word is processed – Miéville’s novel with a sure sense of cohesion amid the froth of complexities and the punctuation of surprises. It’s fun just watching this ball of yarn play out, and that’s a credit to director Dorothy Milne, who is also Lifeline’s artistic director. While the story moves forward often through Borlú’s narrative, the whirl of events is also made visible – and readily comprehensible – by the visible churn of characters bustling about the stage.
Yet, out of that human cloud representing the converged masses from both cities precipitate well-drawn characters beyond the two dogged detectives: Marsha Harmon as Borlú’s ever-ready, foul-mouthed police assistant; Millicent Hurley as the dig supervisor; Patrick Blashill as the fallen professor who may hold a key to the murder, and Don Bender as, well, a late-arriving official who, like Detective Dhatt, reveals unsuspected humanity behind a dark mask of authority.
The set, with its many doors and windows controlling the stream of players and perceptions, is the efficient handiwork of Joe Schermoly, artfully abetted by lighting designer Brandon Wardell. Izumi Inaba’s evocative costumes add much to the mixed aura of distant place and familiar function.
Lifeline’s skillful and imaginative adaptation of “The City & The City” is a head-spinning theatrical lark, even if in the end it’s little more than a guilty pleasure. But you can be sure that when the ride’s over, you walk out knowing you’ve been somewhere. Two places, actually. Just try describing them on a postcard.
by SAMANTHA NELSON on MARCH 4, 2013
China Miéville’s novels are dense works of science fiction, and sometimes deciphering them feels more like work than entertainment. That’s why it’s impressive that Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere adaptation of his Hugo Award-winning The City & The City is so accessible. Adaptor Christopher M. Walsh has stripped the 352-page book down to a taught detective story with a strange premise.
The action follows Inspector Borlu (Steve Schine), who is investigating the murder of an American student in the Eastern European city of Beszel. But as her grieving parents (Millicent Hurley and Don Bender) quickly learn, Beszel is no normal city. It occupies the same space as its rival city, Ul Qoma. While crossing between the two can be as easy as crossing the street, the residents live in fear of making such a “breach” and have been trained to ignore the foreign residents that walk among them.
Borlu’s investigation sends him deep into the strange politics and history of both cities and Schine provides a delightful noir-style hero, standing tall in the face of increasing adversity with the help of the hilariously smug Dhatt (Chris Hainsworth) and the foul-mouthed and in-over-her-head Corwi (Marsha Harmon.) Plenty of cop shows and movies could use the sort of chemistry that forms between Schine and his partners. Other excellent acting turns come from Patrick Blashill as the disgraced scholar Bowden and Bender’s over-the-top leader of the mysterious police force Breach.
While the narrative may seem confusing at first look, it comes together beautifully for a dramatic and satisfying climax. It might take an act to get used to the characters and concepts, but once you do, you’ll find yourself immersed in a tale that will satisfy both mystery and science fiction buffs.
Interviews of China Miéville:
Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing The City & The City? What was the spark of inspiration that led to the creation of Besźel & Ul Qoma?
I’d had this idea for the two cities and their peculiar relationship to each other for quite a long time and I’d been trying to work out what story to set there, to investigate that setting. And I sort of auditioned a short story in my head and a romance between one person in one city and one in another. And I just got more and more interested in the idea of doing a crime novel because crime has a very strong tradition of urban writing and so, as an exploration of these two cities, it lent itself quite well. And also because I was very interested in crime as a very rigorous narrative structure and genre and because I wanted to write something as a present to my mum, who was a really big crime reader. So it was a kind of cross-fertilization of this idea of the setting, which I’d been chewing over for quite a while, and the crime thing came later, but I’d alwaysvaguely been interested in crime as it was always in the house. But this research really brought it to the fore.
This novel’s a big departure from your other novels in that it’s sort of set in our world, but not really. Google, Van Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk make appearances in Besźel. Why have the cities exist almost in this world?
Well, for a bunch of reasons. Partly because it’s just more interesting doing different things. Partly because the aesthetic of weirdness that I was interested in for this novel, the aesthetic of de-familiarization. Rather than being a kind of really, really, sharp, radical de-familiarization of the previous books it was much more an attempt to do a more subtle, uneasy sort of half-familiarity, like something you feel that you almost know, but not quite. So I want it to be very nearly home territory, but a little bit skewed. And because I’d been reading a lot of Eastern European fiction and depictions of Eastern European cities, so that was a very strong aesthetic in my head that I wanted to tap into. I think that you do different things if you try to create the estrangement through radical weirdness or whether you try and create it through half-familiarity and I was just much more interested in doing that for this one. It was a different task to try and invent cities that were realistic, and I hope, coherent and believable but that were also rather than totally fantastic but felt like they intersected with our world. I think it makes for a more interesting book, a subtler book, than it would have been with the shape of its narrative in a completely different world.
There’s a long tradition of creating lands that are in our world. Because when you write within fantasy of science fiction, we tend to think of these totally separate, imaginary worlds. And we forget that there’s actually a lot of writing that we may or may not think of as part of our genre, Islandia for one, that are these very careful works of essentially world-creation, certainly culture creation, but also within our world. And that has its own effects and there are things you can do with one that you can’t do with the other and vice versa. I just wanted to try it out.
So many of your stories touch upon realities behind realities (like The Weaver in Perdido Street Station, the world of Un Lun Dun, etc.) but none quite so apparent as in this novel. Why do you think you keep returning to this theme?
Well, I think that lots and lots and lots of writing has as an idea, a theme, a motif, that the sense that there’s something bigger going on, there are more things in heaven and earth than is part of your philosophy. What you do with that intimation whether you relate to it religiously or whether you relate to it in terms of magic or in terms of secret conspiracies. I mean, The Da Vinci Code has the same kind of logic. For some of us, we think in terms of magical underworld place in our world, but in The Da Vinci Code, thinks of things in terms of enormous secret conspiracies, but it’s all about trying to decode reality at a level behind what we see in front of us.
Now, I don’t necessarily think that’s true in the real world. I mean, I think it’s important to make a distinction between art and fiction on one hand and reality on the other and I am not a religious man and don’t, for the most part, believe there’s a secret cabal running things, at least not in the way people who do think that think about it. No fairies or ghosts, that sort of thing. But that doesn’t mean I’m not really, really interested in fiction about that, so that tradition of trying to tap into something other, something behind things, something numinous, I find really, really interesting. And you’re right, it is something in my fiction, but to be fair, I think it’s in a lot of fiction.
Which authors did you read most during the writing of The City & The City?
Two different traditions in particular. One was Eastern and Middle European fiction particularly depictions of cities, so that would be Alfred Kubin, Paul Leppin, Kafka, obviously, Bruno Schulz... and representations of the city in films and such. And on the other hand, noir and crime. So above all, Chandler, but also I read Dashiell Hammett. Martin Cruz Smith [Gorky Park] I think is really, really great. That sort of stuff. Plus all the other stuff I’ve read.
There’s something almost Orwellian about the term “unsee.” Going back to the questioning of reality and perspective in the novel, is it completely out of whack to think of the social contract the inhabitants of Besźel & Ul Qoma live under as metaphor for apathy, a refusal to recognize different viewpoints, different perspectives, especially on a political level?
Well I certainly wouldn’t disavow that metaphor and I think that’s a perfectly legitimate reading, but I’m very adamant that fiction, at least my fiction I hope, shouldn’t be reducible to allegorical readings because if you want to make a point, if you want to say “The problem with the world is the things that we exclude from our consciousness” and that’s the main thing you’re interested in doing, then just say so. So this this has to work as a detective novel, as a piece of world-creation, it has to keep the pages turning, make you wonder whodunnit, all that stuff. And also I think I would make a distinction between allegory and metaphor, whereby Orwell is a much more overtly allegorical writer, although it’s always sort of unstable, there’s a certain kind of mapping whereby x means y, a means b. With metaphorical fiction, I think it’s more interesting because they’re always more unstable. You can’t settle on one closed meaning. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t any meanings, there’s loads of meanings and the meanings beget other meanings and fractal other meanings. So all this is a long-winded way of saying, yes, absolutely, sure that stuff is in there, but I’d be disappointed if people thought that’s what it was “about” or that’s what it “meant” because you have to want to be able to have it both ways and you want those metaphors to be a bit unstable and to make sense up to a certain point but then also to undermine themselves. So within each city you have rich and poor, so you can’t make a nice stable mapping of one city represents the rich and one city represents the poor, because those elements are there but they break down with the specificities of each city. So “Yes, but,” I would say.
You’ve been so open about your political viewpoints, so, with my previous question considered, do you feel people may be too quick to pigeonhole your work in light of your activism, like you’re “that Marxist author.” Or even in another way that you’re “that New Weird author?” On one level a lot of your books are about politics, but on the other hand, they’re really genre stories with murder mysteries and pirates and monsters. Lots and lots of monsters.
I don’t mind being categorized, I think it’s something the human mind does all the time. Obviously as a writer, I don’t want people to say, “Oh, okay, China is this type of writer and I don’t like this type of writer, so I’m not going to like his kind of stuff.” But I’ve talked about my political positions, so it’d be a bit hypocritical of me to now object to people relating to me as a political writer. And that’s where the previous question comes in because I have no problem with that at all, but I refute the idea that the one is reducible to the other. I’m a political writer and I’m a writer of science fiction and fantasy and now crime novels. Of course the texture of one will enter the other.
In terms of whether someone calls me a New Weird writer, it depends. If they find it a useful category then why not? I don’t get my knickers in a twist about that stuff. What does sometimes frustrate is that because people think here is that pigeonhole x, this is what I think that means, in a very rigid, narrow way, and because I put China there, or whoever, into that pigeonhole that therefore means that about them. And that kind of reductive thinking irritates me. But they’re using shorthand and as long as we’re not getting hobbled by them, then fine.
You’ve said you’d like to write a novel in every genre and The City & The City is your police procedural. What other genres have been catching your eye recently?
I like spy thrillers, ghost stories, although that’s not as far from the stuff I’ve done before, but I’ve never written a ghost story at novel-length. Those are the ones that jump to mind. Other than that I’ve done sort of a take on the western and a romance. Oh, and the historical novel! I’ve got some ideas for historical novel. But I’m also open to suggestions, so anyone who thinks there’s a genre I should have a go at, I’d be interested to hear about it.
Sometimes characters are mouthpieces for the author and I was wondering if that wasn’t true of, say, David Bowden [The City & The City] the author of one really big book or Lin [Perdido Street Station] the artist thinking about her creative process. Do you have a character in one of your books you feel is closest to your heart?
Well those are two different questions. There’s the question of which character is closest to you and one of which character is closest to your heart. For example, I really like Borlú. I think that Borlú is a character I really enjoyed writing, rereading him. But I hope we’re not terribly alike and I think that it’s very important to stress, repeatedly, because it should go without saying, but unfortunately it doesn’t, which is that you don’t necessarily endorse what your characters do. Even the sympathetic characters. I’ve repeatedly had readers say “I really want to argue with you. I think you’re completely wrong about the moral position you took at the end of Perdido Street Station.” And I’m like, “Dude, I didn’t do anything at the end of Perdido Street Station. I wasn’t there.”
I love Bellis in The Scar, she’s one of my favorite characters. And I like Cutter [Iron Council]. I think Judah’s an interesting character, but I don’t like him very much. But Cutter I like very much. Which character is most like me? That would probably be, I don’t know if you’ve read the short story “Reports of Certain Events in London?” There’s a character called China Miéville. That would be the one most like me. [Note: World Fantasy Award-nominated, published first in McSweeney’s and reprinted in the collection Looking for Jake.]