22 June 2009

The City and the City

Some weeks have passed since I last added anything to my blog. But I have been silent for the best possible reasons: lots of interesting work (including a couple of big volumes of essays from folk more or less all aligned with Radical Orthodoxy) and getting started at last on the revision of the novel.

Since my last entry, I have also found time to read the book mentioned there (The City and the City by China Miéville), which I found among the new books at my local library the other day.

Ostensibly the story is a murder mystery, but what really maintained my interest was the setting, which provides the story with all the strangeness that one could wish for. Located somewhere in a liminal space between Europe and the Middle East, the city states of Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space. But their inhabitants are separated by centuries of cultural conditioning – a kind of internalized apartheid which means that the citizens of one city habitually ‘unsee’ those of the other. The deepest social taboo is breach: any action that causes someone in one city to interact with the people or artefacts of the other.

The murder at the beginning of the story sets the narrator (the detective Tyador Borlú) on a quest that takes him from one city to the other (there are legitimate ways of making the crossing) and ultimately into the ranks of Breach, the shadowy organization that polices the taboo.

Characterization is about what you would expect for a murder mystery. But the descriptions are superb, particularly the way Miéville has managed to get inside the heads of people living with this peculiar cultural conditioning. As you read, he manages to draw you into a culture that in some ways is far more alien than many of the alien cultures found in science fiction. And for me the climax was his description of the foreigner who having carefully studied Besźel and Ul Qoma for many years has perfected the art of dressing and moving ambiguously so that those looking at him cannot tell which city he is in.

Definitely worth reading more than once!

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