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Murder on the Fractureline

The City and the City

By China Mieville
Ballantine Books, 2009

Fantasy flirts with otherness, and cities are their trysting-places. The encouragement cities give to personal fracture has no close rural parallel – the urban accountant who ‘becomes a different person’ during his weekly forays into Chinatown does something a farmer can’t do simply by going from one part of his small town to another. The reason is simple: large cities vigorously resist homogeneity; they foster enclaves, ghettos, Little Everywheres in which radically different behavior can be indulged to the precise extent that it goes unreported – the city version of “What happens in Vegas …”

Such unspoken agreements naturally attract fantasy writers, and even their forebears – the respectable Neville St. Clair can only become the squalid beggar Hugh Boone in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip” by diving into the vilest depths of London’s teeming metropolis; likewise Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Edward Hyde finds the main expression of his brutish nature in seedy city fleshpots his other self, Henry Jekyll, wouldn’t think of visiting. You can sense the great H. G. Wells working against this in “The Invisible Man” – he strands his title character out in the boondocks specifically because to do otherwise would have produced a very different book: an invisible man would be invincible in the overpopulated chaos of a big city. It’s no coincidence that Jonathan Harker feels he’s “leaving the West and entering the East” only when he reaches the famously conjoined cities of Buda and Pest – once he crosses that boundary, he doesn’t only change cultures, he enters a world where vampires can exist, and where every simple townsperson knows it (note that the fiendish Count’s plan to conquer England involves more than simply traveling there – he has to transport the very ground of his alternate world along with him).

The most fascinating part of this fantasy is that city-dwellers live it every day – split reality works its way into the daily fabric of their lives in a way their rural counterparts would find bewildering. You’re riding a packed subway car and some idiot starts yelling on his cellphone, and reality splits: he’s in a reality where that’s acceptable behavior, and everybody else is in a reality where he isn’t, in fact, speaking at all. You’re walking down the street and approach the block where your ex girlfriend used to live – and you change your route, even though she doesn’t live there anymore, almost as though you fear running into that earlier version of yourself, whistling happily as he leaves in the morning.

This phenomenon is rendered all the stronger by cities that are literally segregated. When the Wall went up in Berlin, whole populations were shifted into the alternate realities of East and West. Belfast, Jerusalem … these and many other cities are traditionally represented unironically by commentators referring to them as different worlds. Most ancient cities in Europe have ‘Old Towns’ with hulking old buildings and narrow, twisting streets, relating to the modern urban layers around them almost through a time-warp. The oldest inhabitants of such cities walk in two coincidental realities every time they go outside.

For the inhabitants of the two eponymous cities in China Mieville’s superb new novel The City and the City, this urban fracture is as extreme as only a mind as inventive as Mieville’s could make it. Located rather vaguely in the eastern end of Europe, the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma aren’t exactly conjoined – they’re co-existent: they occupy the exact same space “grosstopically” (a nifty Mieville coinage, as is “topolganger”), and yet their citizens scrupulously observe not only different civicalities but different nationalities. Large parts of each city are either distinctly Besz or distinctly Ul Qoman; some “crosshatched” parts unquietly abrade; a few are openly disputed between the two cities – and the only legal way to travel from one city to the other is through the carefully-guarded border portal at Copula Hall.

That’s the only legal way – the obvious illegal way is for somebody to simply step from one city to the other. Through time and adamant social conditioning, this transgression, called ‘breaching,’ is the worst crime any citizen of either city can commit and is harshly punished by the mysterious authority called Breach. Breach intervenes the instant breach has occurred; they care about nothing else, and their enforcement powers are vast and entirely unconnected to the police of either city. They consequently inspire awe in both cities (it’s a tribute to how thoroughly Mieville has imagined his setting that you almost immediately become comfortable thinking of Beszel and Ul Qoma as “both cities”), as The City and the City’s main character, indefatigable Besz police inspector Tyador Borlu, observes:

There is no theology so desperate that you can’t find it. There is a sect in Beszel that worships Breach. It’s scandalous but not completely surprising given the powers involved. There is no law against the congregation, though the nature of their religion makes everyone twitchy. They have been the subject of prurient TV programs.

Hangdog but intensely observant, Borlu is the perfect reader guide (Mieville here omits the kaleidoscopic multi-viewpoints of many of his earlier works, including the magnificent Perdido Street Station), mainly because the fact that he’s lived in Beszel his whole life hasn’t dulled him to the strangeness of the cities’ co-habitation, as when he ponders “crosshatched” forms of life:

Most vermin are interstitial. It is very hard to prove that the shy cold-weather lizards in the cracks in Besz walls could live in Beszel only, as frequently claimed: certainly they die if exported to Ul Qoma (even more gently than by children’s hands), but they tend to do so in Besz captivity as well. Pigeons, mice, wolves, bats live in both cities, are crosshatched animals.

The two cities are fiercely nationalistic, but Breach reaches beyond national boundaries and isn’t answerable to either nation-state – although that reach is punctiliously exact:

Breach has powers the rest of us can hardly imagine, but its calling is utterly precise. It is not the passage itself from one city to the other, not even with contraband: it is the manner of the passage. Throw felid or cocaine or guns from your Besz rear window across a crosshatched yard into an Ul Qoman garden for your contact to pick up – that is breach and Breach will get you, and it would still be Breach if you threw bread or feathers. Steal a nuclear weapon and carry it secretly with you through Copula Hall when you cross but cross that border itself? At that official checkpoint where the cities meet? Many crimes are committed in such an act, but breach is not one of them.

Transgressors who get taken by Breach are never seen again, so naturally all citizens of both cities are leery of literally seeing the wrong thing or taking the wrong step. This is especially true for law enforcement, whose uneasy relationship with Breach is expertly delineated by Mieville, since the central plot of The City and the City confronts Borlu (and his hastily-recruited partner Lizbyet Corwi) with a young woman’s dead body – a body evidence increasingly suggests was transported from Ul Qoma. It turns out the young woman – Mahalia Geary – was associating with “unificationists” (dedicated to officially combining the two cities) and investigating the dual-urban myth of Orciny, a third city rumored to exist in the interstices of Beszel and Ul Qoma, controlling both from the shadows.

Events quickly conspire to send Borlu through Copula Hall to Ul Qoma in pursuit of Geary’s killers, and even here in the midst of one of the book’s few irritating narrative fumbles – Corwi doesn’t go with him, so the endearing detail-work we’ve read about her suddenly feels a bit pointless – Mieville’s tremendous storytelling gifts almost effortlessly carry the whole thing along. His characters are splendidly drawn, and there is no permutation of his deceptively simple premise he hasn’t exhaustively anticipated. In The City and the City he tries out a quasi-noir style and makes it work. Dialogue crackles, as when Borlu checks in with Corwi from his Ul Qoma hotel:

“…. I have to say I trust Ul Qoman geeks more than ours. Lots of Hi Mom love you emails, a few essays. She probably used proxies and a cleaner-upper online too, because there was bugger-all of interest in her cache.”

“You have no idea what you’re saying, do you, boss?”

“None at all. I had the techies write it all out phonetically for me.” Perhaps one day we would be finished with I-don’t-understand-the-internet jokes.

Mieville resists the temptation to make Borlu’s counterpart in the investigation, Ul Qoman Senior Detective Qussim Dhatt, a one-dimensional thug or stooge. Dhatt is a touch more provincial than Borlu, a bit more brutal and abrupt (at one point he irritatedly refers to Borlu as a “lugubrious tutting bugger,” but they end up feeling a tense kind of respect for each other), and he knows it. The City and the City manages the uncanny feat of giving cities occupying the exact same physical area entirely separate national characteristics, as Dhatt himself ruefully points out:

“Goes without saying, I mean, that I’ve met some great Besz in my time.” He glanced at me. “Nothing against the place and I hope I get to visit, and it’s great that we’re all getting on so well these days, you know, better than it used to be – what was the fucking point of all that shit? But I’m Ul Qoman and I’m fucked if I want to be anything else. You imagine unification?” He laughed. “Fucking catastrophe! Unity is strength my Ul Qoman arse. I know they say crossbreeding makes animals stronger, but what if we inherited, shit, Ul Qoman sense of timing and Besz optimism?”

The mapping of a more or less conventional noir thriller onto this fractured terrain makes for beguiling reading; this is Mieville’s least rococo book and easily his most readable (it’s the first thing he’s written that a devotee could give to somebody who’s never read science fiction, with a better-than-decent chance that they would read it and like it). Through dealings with bigoted Ul Qoman policemen, grieving parents from abroad (who can’t help but view twin-city “grosstopicality” as the ultimate quirk of Old Europe), rabid unificationists, loony conspiracy theorists, Borlu and Dhatt get closer and closer to figuring out what Geary learned that got her killed. That secret knowledge naturally involves Orciny, but not in any predictable way, and during the entire course of the investigation, Borlu and Dhatt must do what citizens of both cities have done their whole lives: they unsee everything in the ‘other’ city, a reflexive and near-total reaction no different in its mechanics than what those subway passengers perform with the idiot yelling on his cell phone.

Mieville is acutely alert to the dramatic possibilities here; his detectives routinely come across things and people they can’t allow themselves to see without risk of breaching. The book’s denouement features a bravura set-piece in which the cops can’t actually look at the man they’re chasing through a crowd or even act overtly as if they are chasing him – it’s exactly the kind of mind-shifting scene we want science fiction and fantasy to provide, and Mieville does it brilliantly.

The book’s climax explodes upon Borlu with freight-train speed, and through a gripping turn of events, he gains a much closer understanding of Breach than he ever dreamed at the story’s start. This leads to the book’s gripping final segment, in which Borlu almost literally comes to see his home city in a different light. Scene after scene brings out some of Mieville’s sharpest, most musical prose:

That evening Ashil walked with me in that both-cities. The sweep and curves of Ul Qoman byzanterie ajut over and around the low mittel-contintental and middle-history brickwork of Beszel, its bas-relief figures of scarfed women and bombardiers, Beszel’s steamed food and dark breads fugging with the hot smells of Ul Quoma, colours of light and cloth around grey and basalt tones, sounds now both abrupt, schwa-staccatoed-sinuous and throaty swallowing.

Mievile has already carved for himself the status of a young master in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, and it’s refreshing how earnestly he keeps earning it. He follows in the métier of Jack Vance and M. John Harrison by squarely situating the strange amidst the streets and squares of modern cities, and never more so than in The City and the City. In this latest novel, he has created perhaps the ultimate parable of our modern urban disassociation – and written one hell of a book in the process. Citizens of both Beszel and Ul Qoma would feel compelled to unread it; the rest of us are a bit luckier.

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Khalid Ponte is a technical writer and linguist working in Dallas. He lives in Fort Worth.

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