The City & The City
Pan paperback �7.99
review by Jonathan McCalmont
The term 'urban fantasy' gets thrown about in a lot of reviews. Some people apply it to fang-banging quasi-romance novels like those produced
by Laurel K. Hamilton and Stephenie Meyers. Others use it to refer to muscular but ultimately empty exercises in faux-noir pastiche similar to
those written by Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie. In fact, the term gets thrown around so much that it has effectively ceased to be a useful
piece of critical terminology. Let's face it... it means fuck all, but I'm still going to use it. Ready? Okay...
China Mi�ville is an urban fantasist. What I mean by this is that he is an author who works largely in the fantasy genre but whose subject matter
is invariably the city: its architecture, archetypes, topology, and sociology. Its smells, swells, and taste. What it feels like to live cheek-by-jowl
with millions of other people. What it feels like to live confronted every single day with people from radically different cultures and classes.
What it feels like to live stacked in boxes built inside bigger boxes built to serve entirely different purposes by people who are long dead and
Mi�ville is a writer who writes about the gothic weirdness and squalid surrealism of the urban experience and he does this by exaggerating the
traits of the real world and projecting them back at us using a semiotic vocabulary culled largely from the fantasy and science fiction genres.
This tendency has been present in his work from the very beginning: in his first novel King Rat (1998), Mi�ville explored the mythology
of the city and the way in which the built environment blossoms around and comes to be shaped by much older and weirder structures from the deep
past. In his 'Bas-Lag' novels, Perdido Street Station (2000),
The Scar (2002), and
Iron Council (2004), he constructed a living and breathing fantasy world
that reflected not the xenophobic little England insularity of Tolkien's middle-earth but the eternally evolving and morally compromised
multiculturalism of a contemporary city.
His short fiction collection Looking For Jake And Other Stories (2005)
demonstrated a continuing creative relationship with his adoptive home city of London through stories such as Reports Of Certain Events In
London, The Tain, and Looking For Jake, which all explored facets of the British capital using different parts of the genre
toolbox. This relationship with London continued in Mi�ville's young adult novel, the whimsical but ultimately unsatisfying Un Lun Dun
If Mi�ville's work struggles to be held within the tortured semantics of the term urban fantasy then his categorisation as a fantasy author does
not fare much better. Indeed, despite King Rat and the Bas-Lag books all fitting quite neatly inside what we currently think of as
the fantasy genre, Mi�ville's work has always shared a deep kinship with the methods of science fiction and the imagery of horror. In fact, despite
being known primarily as a fantasy author, Mi�ville is not only the only author to win the Arthur C. Clarke award three times, he has done it three
times within the space of a decade. The novel that won Mi�ville his third Clarke award is The City & The City.
This is a novel that fits quite comfortably inside the broad narrative sweep of Mi�ville's career as outlined in this introduction as it is not
only a novel all about the urban experience, it is also a novel that draws upon genre storytelling techniques but without completely surrendering
to the expectations and formulae that accompany many of those techniques. The City & The City is, in many ways, an extraordinary piece
of writing. But it is not the novel it should have been. It is competent where it should have been challenging, abstract where it should have been
concrete and timid where it should have been bold.
We begin with a beautiful idea and an ugly murder. The book is set in a pair of cities in eastern Europe. One city named Beszel is an old friend
to the west but is currently on its uppers. It's a bleak and poverty-stricken place that has not seen any of the benefits of globalisation or US
friendship. The other city, named Ul Quoma, has moved from donkey carts to sports cars in a single generation as the old Iron Curtain city state
has re-invented itself as an economic powerhouse with civil liberties and cultural openness struggling to keep up with the demands of a torrent
of suddenly free-flowing capital and foreign investment.
The two cities are rivals, and former enemies. They distinguish themselves from each other through their fashions, their language, their institutions,
their architecture, their cooking, and even the physical bearing and gait of their citizens. They are utterly different... and yet they occupy the
same physical space. Mi�ville devotes the first act of the novel to laying out how this topological coexistence might work and it is here that
The City & The City really shines.
"With a hard start, I realised that she was not on the GunterStrasz at all, and that I should not have seen her." [page 14]
Initially, we only grasp the nature of life in the cities through the odd turn of phrase or passing remark. With exquisite control over the rate
of exposition, we are introduced to a few familiar psychological tendencies which, though only minor quirks in the way we experience the world,
are absolutely central to the existence of the residents of Beszel and Ul Quoma as they battle the forces of cognitive dissonance that threaten
to destroy the carefully constructed mass delusion they call their cultures. Quirks such as how easy it is to pick up new pieces of slang, jargon
and foreign language that carry with them conceptual baggage quite different to that attached to our native words:
"'It wasn't that hard, and at least it made it easier for me to gudcop.' We had stolen gudcop and badcop from English, verbed them."
Throughout the book, Mi�ville repeatedly returns to the ways in which different names and terms can become attached to the same objects, thereby
changing our perceptions of them, obscuring old truths and uncovering new ones.
"It was an obvious, and elegantly punning, pseudonym. Byela is a unisex Besz name; Mar is at least plausible as a surname. Together their phonemes
approximate the phrase bye lai mar, literally 'only the baitfish', a fishing phrase to say 'nothing worth noting'" [page 57]
"below her various invented names, there her real one" [page 70]
The obsession with the layering complexity and ultimate arbitrariness of language feeds the idea that culture is not something that is born of
essential properties but of habit, custom and will. Our culture does not have the characteristics it has because of some environmental force; it
is just that we have fallen into the habit of relating to each other in a certain way and using a certain set of behaviour patterns. In principle,
there is no reason why these patterns of behaviour and language should not be completely different. It is quite plausible to imagine a separate
set of semiotics and rules governing the same people and places as those presided over by our culture and language. The cities of Beszel and Ul
Quoma are manifestations of the ultimately arbitrary and essence-free nature of human culture: two cultures, one shared space.
Because culture is a question of habit and will rather than essence, it is necessary for culture to be asserted and in the cities of Beszel and
Ul Quoma, this asserting is mostly done by groups of ultra nationalists who claim that to acknowledge the existence of the other city is a form
of betrayal. For the nationalists, to recognise the existence and legitimacy of the other city is to recognise the fact that your own culture is
not some expression of deep-rooted identities, but a random assemblage of habits and fashions. The same is, of course, true of the nationalists
and racists of our world...
Those most wedded to the concept of Britishness are those who would also deny the fact that Britishness is the constantly
evolving face of a group of islands that have undergone an endless process of demographic change. There is no such thing as true Britishness because
Britishness is only ever a reflection of the people who happen to live here at the moment. In Beszel and Ul Quoma the desire to keep your culture
pure and untainted is clearly absurd... but not much more absurd than our own fear of immigration and cultural change:
"In Beszel, unificationist demonstrations were fractious, small, dangerous things. Obviously, the local nationalists would come out to break them
up, screaming at the marchers as traitors, and in general the most apolitical local wouldn't have much sympathy for them." [page 59]
Though Mi�ville introduces us to some of the abstract psychological and sociological ideas behind his twinned cities, he also makes sure that we
have a decent grasp of the practicalities of two cities sharing the same space whilst trying desperately not to acknowledge each other's existence.
These little practical asides dealing with attempts to drive through city streets without swerving round cars from the other city or walk down
streets that are both empty and full are peppered with examples of cognitive dissonance expressed as beautifully surreal blossomings of lyrical
"I was hemmed in by people not in my city" [page 44]
"We stood together in a near-deserted part of Beszel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng" [page 54]
"Frantic liminality" [page 75]
The City & The City is not obviously a work of either science fiction or fantasy. Mi�ville leads his exposition with psychological
and sociological concepts in order to drive home the point that the cities are kept apart not by magic or futuristic technology, but by normal
human psychology. The suggestion being, of course, that we too live our lives ignoring facts about the world that are staring us in the face.
However, despite a desire to ground a fantastical work of fiction in the mundane reality of human psychology, Mi�ville does rely upon certain
storytelling techniques that are more common in genre writing than in more mainstream works of literary fiction; techniques that he has used in
his past works with some considerable success.
Firstly, consider for example his use of neologisms; new words that he has created. Words such as 'unsee' [page 72] and 'unsmell' [page 66] that
describe the act of convincing oneself that one is not seeing or smelling what one is in fact seeing and smelling because the source of those
sights and smells is in the wrong city. Another good word is 'topolganger', which describes an object that occupies the same physical space but
which exists as a different object in each of the different cities.
The book's use of neologisms is fascinating as all of the above words ask huge philosophical questions; the idea that we can 'unsmell' something
is deeply troubling as, since Descartes, our philosophical understanding of the world has been anchored to the idea that there is no room for
scepticism about one's primary sense data. You can question whether you saw what you thought you saw and you can question whether a particular
smell was petrol or perfume but according to most western philosophical thinkers, you simply cannot deny that you have experienced something.
Even if the sights and smells were placed in your head by an evil demon, you cannot deny that you experienced them.
However, by suggesting that you can 'unsee' someone or something, Mi�ville seems to be suggesting that it is not the private world of the mind
that grounds our knowledge of the world, but rather the much more public world of social convention and language, an idea explored through the
concept of a language-game by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (1953). Similar questions can be asked of the concept of
a 'topolganger': how can two objects occupy the same physical space at the same time without being identical?
These are questions that cut straight to the heart of our assumptions about the world and what we claim to know about it... and Mi�ville asks
these questions of us with a simple word, thereby revealing how much work our language does in shaping our relationship with the world. Of course,
Mi�ville has form in this area.
Most genre neologisms serve didactic ends. They draw two familiar concepts together and create a third concept that may well be new but is also
instantly accessible because of the familiarity of the two atomic concepts that go into forming it. For example, we may not be physicists or
experts in the mathematics of multi-dimensional space, but we can all grasp the concept of hyperspace travel: it is like normal space travel...
but hyper: faster and more impressive. Most genre writing uses neologisms as a shorthand way of introducing new concepts without the need for
a lot of exposition. They answer questions.
Mi�ville, however, uses neologisms to ask questions of his audience. Even in his more traditional works of fantasy such as Iron Council,
he uses neologisms to create a sense of 'otherness'. So while we may know what ghosts, whispers, hands and smiths are but we have no idea what
a 'ghosthead' empire might look like or a 'whispersmith' or a 'handlinger'. Mi�ville uses neologisms to destabilise his audience. To remind them
that fantasy is about the other.
Secondly, consider the conceptual blurring around the concept of 'breach', which occurs when someone from one city acts in a way that either
acknowledges the existence of the other city or denies that there is a distinction between the two. Mi�ville applies a floating capital letter
to the front of 'breach' but does not initially explain the protocols for its use. Is 'breach' a state one falls into? Or is it a place, or an
agency, or a mystical force? The truth is that the inhabitants of the cities seem somewhat unclear on the question themselves but they seem to
suggest that there is something monstrous and alien about Breach:
"As kids we used to play Breach. It was never a game I much enjoyed, but I would take my turn creeping over chalked lines and chased by my friends,
their faces in ghastly expressions, their hands crooked as claws, I would do the chasing too, if it was my turn to be invoked." [page 46]
"In seconds the Breach came. Shapes, figures, some of whom perhaps had been there but who nonetheless seemed to coalesce from spaces between smoke
from the accident, moving too fast it seemed to be clearly seen, moving with authority and power so absolute that within seconds they had controlled,
contained, the area of the intrusion. The powers were almost impossible, seemed almost impossible, to make out." [page 81]
Breach serves as an elegant reminder of the way that culture and values anchor themselves to us despite their ultimately arbitrary nature. The
people of the cities live in fear of Breach. Such fear that they are attribute monstrous powers and capabilities to it. In a city where your
worldview can be overturned by focussing on the wrong person in the street, transgression becomes not an abstract threat but a tangible ontological
one; a source of existential dread that reminds us of the debt owed by Mi�ville to H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft's creatures threaten the sanity of those humans who perceive them not because of the level of physical threat they represent but because
their very existence shatters the comfortable assumptions humans have about the nature of the world and the way that the universe operates. Breach
poses a similar threat. Breach reminds the residents of the cities of the limits of their cultures. Of the fragility of the worlds they cling to.
Of the state of comfortable delusion they live in. But unlike Lovecraft's monsters, Breach are a necessary evil.
Without Breach to define and police the limits of the cities' cultures, the cultures would naturally start to dissolve into a multicultural soup
of values and perceptions. Just as the cultures of our parents have dissolved and changed over time and in the face of social and demographic
change. Breach is the otherness that people can kick against in order to assert the immutability of their culture and worldview. They are the
teeming immigrants denounced by tabloids and lazy politicians. They are the comedian or artist who challenges our values. They are the limits
of our world and if we want our world to stay as it is, we need to know where our limits are.
If the various quotes I have used above only draw from the first third of the novel it is because Mi�ville covers a frankly astonishing amount
of intellectual ground in the time it takes him to lay out the concept of the twin cities. Indeed, part of what makes the opening section of
The City & The City so exciting is the incredible feeling of intellectual momentum that the book manages to accumulate. As the pages
flick past and your head spins, you cannot help but be impressed by the fact that the central concept of the book is not only a natural continuation
of the themes and quirks that have made Mi�ville's writing so impressive in the past, it also represents a bold development of an idea that has
been kicking around in genre for a while.
The idea of two cities that are spatially co-existent but culturally separate will be familiar to anyone who has read books such as Vernor Vinge's
Rainbows End (2006), and Alastair
Reynolds' The Prefect (2007), or played games such as Syndicate (1993) and Ex Machina (2004) which explore the idea using
the science fictional concept of augmented reality. The idea also pops up in in a story from Jack
Vance's collection The Dying Earth (1950), where the character Ulan Dhor visits a city inhabited by red-clad and green-clad people who
refuse to acknowledge each other's existence. This sense of momentum and potential grows and grows as the book progresses.
As the book's impressive conceptual infrastructure slowly falls into place, you cannot help but wonder what target Mi�ville will unleash it against.
Will The City & The City be an attack upon the pointlessness of xenophobia, or the middle classes' refusal to acknowledge the existence
of pressing social and economic problems? Perhaps it will serve to deconstruct all of the arbitrary social distinctions that are seen as 'natural'
but only really serve to keep us apart? By the end of the first act, the novel is positively chomping at the bit... ready to be unleashed in the
service of some grand political or social allegory. But Mi�ville never unleashes the intellectual energy he has captured in the creation of his
twin cities. Instead, he allows the energy to ebb away from him resulting in a novel that hits an intellectual brick wall about a third of the
way in. The problem is a lack of ambition.
Had The City & The City been written by the likes of Vonnegut, Dick, Borges, Eco, Pynchon, or Calvino then we might have expected the
book's central concept to be put to work servicing either some grand social satire or some stylistically complex and intellectually mesmerising
head-fuck that would push at the boundaries of what can be achieved with a piece of fiction. But instead, Mi�ville wastes his beautiful idea by
chaining it to an utterly pedestrian and poorly executed imitation of a crime novel.
The narrative problems with The City & The City begin with the characters. The main protagonist is a Besz detective named Inspector
Tyador Borlu. He's a veteran detective, he has travelled a bit and... well, that's pretty much it as far as characterisation goes. Borlu initially
befriends a young female beat officer named Lizbyet Corwi and he comes to rely upon her as an assistant who can talk to younger people with a
degree of intimacy not possible for a veteran detective. And that's pretty much all the characterisation Corwi gets.
There is no romantic subplot; there is no sense of Corwi being ambitious and maybe using her new contact to advance her career. She's simply
an assistant right up until Borlu travels to Ul Quoma, at which point Corwi gets forgotten about, apart from the odd phone call that serves no
purpose other than to reassure the reader that Mi�ville has not simply abandoned one of his characters, whereas in fact that is exactly what he
has done. Once Borlu travels to Ul Quoma he hooks up with a senior detective named Quissim Dhatt.
Dhatt is far and away the best drawn character in the novel, but he is also a walking clich�. He swears continuously, beats suspects and makes
a big show out of not trusting the Besz interloper he has been asked to show around. Dhatt's old school Gene Hunt-style police brutality plays
nicely against Borlu's tendency to not really say or do very much but in a liberal and modern kind of way.
The profoundly generic and under-written nature of The City & The City's characters plunges the novel into the same trap as befalls
many of the works of Charles Stross: because the characters are shapeless, their personalities have no pressure points. Because they lack pressure
points, it is impossible for events to put them under pressure. Because it is impossible for events to put the characters under pressure, the
novel lacks anything approaching tension.
Consider classic crime novels such as Derek Raymond's He Died With His Eyes Open (1984), or William McIlvanney's Laidlaw (1977),
and you will find novels that are about crime but which use the psychological impact of the crime on the characters to drive the plot. In the
best psychological crime novels, the crime creates tension and characters act to overcome those tensions within themselves. The City &
The City's characters have no definition and so they possess no inner tensions. This lack of inner tension means that the plot drags them
aimlessly along like dead fish floating down stream. Simply stated, if the characters have no emotional investment in the story, then why should
Of course, a lack of compelling characters need not prove fatal to a crime novel, a mystery or a thriller. All it means is that the author must
turn to other wellsprings in order to infuse the text with the requisite amounts of tension. Alternative wellsprings include plot structure, prose
style, and atmosphere. Indeed, with a setting as singular as The City & The City's it seems not unreasonable to imagine Mi�ville's
central concept being attached to a plot full of surprise revelations, unexpected reversals, unreliable narrators or fractured narrative streams.
After all, The City & The City is a book all about the way in which humans can see the same things from different perspectives and how
they can ignore obvious facts about the world. Themes related to the flow of information and how people can prevent themselves and others from
seeing the truth; themes absolutely central to the crime genre. But instead of drawing upon these kinds of storytelling technique, Mi�ville opts
for a plot that is entirely linear and entirely straightforward. A dull and predictable paper-chase in which the characters are dragged from one
bunch of clues to the next, pausing occasionally to deal with administrative setbacks such as paperwork problems and government oversight meetings.
In the hands of skilled crime writers, these political and administrative setbacks can form the basis for an entire genre - look no further than
Simenon's Maigret novels or the TV show The Wire
to see the glory of the police procedural at its best - but Mi�ville manages to make these glimpses into the politics of the twin cities feel like
nothing more than narrative speed bumps, tools to slow down the absurdly simplistic narrative so that a thin story might stretch to close to 400
pages before eventually giving up the ghost with one of the cheesiest, most underserved and jarringly sentimental endings I have ever encountered
in a work of genre fiction, let alone one that desperately apes the rain-soaked nihilism of the hardboiled crime genre. Sadly, The City &
The City is not only dull, it is also pointless.
There is a strong tradition of social criticism in crime writing. This is present in real world crime writing such as Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah
(2006) but also in the work of authors who use their focus upon crime to draw attention to certain facts about the world around them. This tradition
is particularly strongly represented by continental crime writers such as Jean-Patrick Manchette and Massimo Carlotto whose works such as 3 To Kill
(1976), and The Goodbye Kiss (2006), draw upon socialist sympathies and ideas to cast a brilliant light onto the rotting corpse of late stage
capitalism in France and Italy.
Even John Le Carre's 'Smiley' novels can be read as an examination of the end of the British empire as the class of civil servants who once administered
huge swathes of the globe are reduced to the status of pawns and clients by the far more powerful and competent Russian and American powers. These
are novels that construct their own worlds in order to explore our world. Mi�ville constructs a world, a brilliant and madly imaginative one at
that, but at no point does he put that conceptual infrastructure to work. Sure there are suggestions of social commentary in the fact that Beszel
got in on the ground floor of globalisation only for it to slump into poverty while its previously communistic twin is benefiting from a sudden
inrush of foreign capital but there is never a sense that The City & The City is about any particular characteristic of our world. It
is a novel that remains frustratingly abstract, and depressingly so. Safely so...
The City & The City is a novel that I desperately wanted to love. Throughout the first section of the novel I scribbled notes frantically
as I struggled to keep up with the allusions and implications in Mi�ville's development of a long-overlooked and under-developed genre trope. But
as beautiful as that central idea might be, it simply cannot make up for a novel as blandly plotted and characterised as this one. Even if one
allows for the fact that Mi�ville might have wanted to produce a work that would prove more accessible to his genre fan-base than the works of
the postmodern novelists The City & The City invites comparisons with, it is still depressing to note how weak and underwritten Mi�ville's
work feels even compared to works from the mainstream of the crime genre.
The City & The Cityis not a bad novel, but it is not a great novel either. It is an okay novel, and novels that are merely okay simply
do not deserve to walk away with the BSFA, Clarke and Hugo awards. Science fiction has a lot more to offer than the merely okay. As does China