Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The City & The City by guest blogger Steven Head

Some of you may recall I received two copies of The Gargoyle in a 24 hour period a while back. The source for one of those copies put The City and The City by China Mieville in my hands about 10 days ago. It came at just the right time.

After ten pages I checked the front of the book to make sure it was not translated from another language into English. No such indication. I kept reading, confused about where the action was taking place geographically, some sort of German - Arabic blend. And whether certain words were made up or English slang I did not know. But is was a mystery, there was a dead body, and there was a detective narrator. I kept reading.

In bits and pieces I was able to determine the narrator was in Beszel (with an accent over the z, which I will refer to as B) which may be a country but might just be a town. But, and here is the strange part, there is also Ul Qoma (UQ) which may be a country or just a town, but parts of B and UQ overlap. The same streets have two names, one B and one UQ. Parks have two names, one B and one UQ. And even though they overlap, the only approved way to move from B to UQ, or vice versa, was through Copula Hall.

Let me share one more little curiosity about B and UQ. Those in B or UQ could not interact or acknowledge those in UQ or B, requiring unseeing and unhearing. The places where B and UQ overlap are referred to as crosshatching. You can only imagine the kinds of mental gymnastics required to drive and unsee cars and pedestrians from the other world without slamming into them.

The entity that keeps the citizens of B and UQ in their respective universes is Breach, an omnipresent, all-powerful law enforcement agency. Of course B has it's policzai and UQ has it's militsya, but Breach has authority over all IF there has been a violation of the 'stay in your own world' protocol.

Our narrator detective discovers the body of a graduation student from UQ in his B territory. While he finds it curious, he hopes to turn it over to Breach. But somehow a breach has not occurred and ends up in a co-operative operation with a UQ counterpart, in UQ. The investigation takes them to the Bol Ye'an digs, an archeological site where students are extracting antiquities from UQ ground.

By now you may be either interested, confused, or both. No matter, there is still more. The dead girl was a vocal advocate for Orciny, the hidden city in the crosshatching of B and UQ where a separate, powerful, and near invisible controlling group operates. However, Orciny is universally acknowledged as a fairy tale. To this add the Unifs (unificationists) and the Nats (nationalists), the USA who recognizes B but not UQ, and the Canadians who favor UQ but recognize B.

Lump all this together and you have a political thriller as well as a detective story. Of course our B and UQ lead detectives arrive at a place where they trust no one except each other, suspect they are in deeper than they want to be, and are questioning beliefs and assumptions like never before.

One one level this is just a story with a beginning, middle, and end. I also think this book is allegoric in nature and Mieville is commenting on contemporary existence. Are there parts of your town that you do not see even when they are right before your eyes? Or certain people, or types of people, who are invisible to you? Or thoughts and viewpoints you simply un-exist?
I have no idea if this book will achieve the status of Huxley's Brave New World or Orwell's 1984, or if this is even what Mieville was attempting. China has labeled himself as part of the New Wierd, whatever that is. Check it out, or don't.

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