One of the principle means by which a work of Science Fiction ‘succeeds’ is by the ‘suspension of disbelief.’ It thoroughly immerses the reader in its fictional world, achieving an irony of mimesis whereby occurrences that might be otherwise deemed ‘unrealistic’ are viewed as real by the narrative voice of the work, and, when done well, by the reader. As Paul Kincaid says: ‘one of science fiction’s key characteristics is to make a realistic presentation of the unreal.’ (What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction)
Or, increasingly it seems, there is a deliberate, self-conscious acknowledgment that this fiction is not ‘real’, that it is a construct for a purpose, and that it depicts a ‘storied’ world. This world exists to be told, and only to be told. Its bounds are those of the text, making it effectively an island, with all that implies in terms of psychology.
And so to China Miéville’s multi-award winning novel, The City And The City. The cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma crosshatch, occupying almost the same physical space but not interacting. Through the viewpoint of Inspector Tyador Borlú we are told that inhabitants of one city normally ignore those of the other, and that this is enforced by a mysterious agency called Breach. As Borlú investigates a murder his enquiries point to cross-city contamination, breach, and official intrigue.
As many other reviews have asserted, the grosstopographic cities (to adopt one of Miéville’s own neologisms) make up an ingenious imaginary conceit. Unfortunately I’m reminded of a parallel in The Science Fiction Encyclopaedia entry for Big Dumb Object which talks of:
The disjunction between the gigantic scale of the BDO and the comparatively trite fictional events taking place on, in or about it. The SF imagination usually, if charmingly, falls short at this point, and many BDOs become backdrop for soap operas.
The City And The City is a novel whose central idea vastly overpowers its plot. The mystery Borlú investigates is nothing thrilling, a routine plod through a modest conspiracy story, neither especially good nor bad. In its climax the dramatic tension is due entirely to an unconvincing exploitation of the nature of the two cities. Which leaves us with the idea itself, the novum which drives the text. Miéville’s novum is his BDO is the Cities themselves, and The City And The City consequently works or fails on his ability to make that idea work.
The critical element is the co-existence of the two cities, the respective populace awareness of each other, and how they avoid acknowledgments of their awareness. Our first sight of this is on p.14: ‘With a hard start, I realised that she was not on Gunter-strász at all, and that I should not have seen her.’ So not seeing the other city is a normal act, and the accidental seeing of a resident of the other results in an abrupt, automatic avoidance. Unseeing is the way of things rather than a conscious act. Seeing, deliberately or by mistake, or any form of interaction with the people of the other city, is a breach of the accepted nature of things, punished somehow by the mysterious entity known as Breach. How Breach operates or indeed why they need to operate is not explained.
Therein lies a problem, one of for me, several reasons why, for all its conceptual panache, The City And The City as constructed cannot wholly work. To know of Breach is to know that breach can occur, which implies admitting awareness of the other city, which is itself a breach. To live in Beszel or Ul Qoma is to be in perpetual breach. Reviews have claimed Miéville’s point is that ‘all city-dwellers collide in ignoring real aspects of the cities in which they live – the homeless, political structures, the commercial world or the stuff that’s “for the tourists”.’ (Andrew McKie in The Spectator) If so, and it is a reasonable claim, where does Breach fit in? Why does collusion require brutal enforcement to the extent that even accidental breach results in mindwipe or disappearing? And on a political level why would poor, run down Beszel unsee thriving, affluent Ul Qoma?
These are questions that Miéville may not be interested in fully answering, but partial answers would come from deeper characterisation (and conversely strengthen that characterisation.) However, as Jonathan McCalmont says “if the characters have no emotional investment in the story, then why should we?” Mieville’s characterisation is at best skimpy and there is my other problem with The City And The City.
Without good characterisation a first-person narrative will inevitably struggle for immersion and so true suspension of disbelief is not possible. Discussion on Torque Control (4) considered whether the concept of ‘unseeing’ was psychologically plausible, if people could exist whilst only seeing part of their world, or if it would require such concentrated effort as to make normality impractical. Miéville hints at this, drivers manage to avoid each other, but Borlu describes himself as hemmed in by people who he cannot acknowledge. This is not addressed directly, clearly both are examples of breach, but by telling his story in the first person voice of Borlu there is a tacit agreement that this unworkable conceit does work. For the reader, if Borlu accepts it then we must also, or reject the novel, for if we believe in Borlu we believe this novel’s premise.
Unfortunately, this is made less likely by Mieville’s clumsy exposition repeatedly jolting the reader from Borlu’s head. Three times in Chapter 1 Borlu ‘explains’ to the reader that he is not using English, and uses unnatural, awkward thought processes to describe linguistic trivia that a man used to such situations would not explain to himself. An unnecessary digression into the punning name of a street drug (p5), an irrelevant paragraph on different meanings of the word ‘right’ (p13) and ‘I used the generic term’ (p10) fail to convince and disrupt the flow. Again on page 17 ‘we had stolen gudcop and badcop from English, versed them.’ The reader doesn’t need this, and Borlu would not think this. Done well, science fiction creates and utilises neologisms to make familiar the strange and the science fiction reader learns to parse them. ‘gudcop’ is a particularly simple concept for the reader. The altered spelling hints at strangeness even as the word is unpacked phonetically to reveal its actual mundane meaning. It needs no clumsy justification.
So the psychological issue of whether anyone could accept the two cities is, for me, non-existent because our sole entry into this world, Borlu, rejects our entry.
Curiously, Miéville normally uses puns and neologisms carefully, making these examples more glaring. Miéville fan Gavin Pugh (5) has commented on Twitter about reading Embassytown with a dictionary alongside. From its title The City And The City suggests multiple meanings, interpretations of The City. A point emphasised by the name of the one acceptable point of crossover between the two cities, Copula Hall from the linguistic term for a word linking subject and predicate. Whether Beszel or Ul Qoma is subject or predicate is ambiguous, but no matter, for a copula is a tie and at the end Tyador Borlu has become Tye operating across the divide.
The City And The City is a clever novel, a provocative idea, but ultimately a failure predetermined by its first person narrative and by its misplaced attempts at a realistic mode of telling. And for a novel so much about unseeing, the grandest irony is that it is in the emperor’s new clothes.
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