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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Gary K. Wolfe reviews China Miéville

One of the more useful terms promoted by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy is "crosshatch," which he defines as tales in which "two or more worlds may simultaneously inhabit the same territory." He’s referring mostly to borderland tales or those in which magical or fantastical worlds somehow intersect with domestic reality, but the term has all sorts of implications for settings that have little to do with fantasy at all, and this is especially true of urban settings: think of the travel guides or walking tours that invite you to view the city as historical palimpsest (as visualized hauntingly by some Sergei Larenkov photomontages that have been recently showing up on the web), or of cities divided into barrios with their own cultures and languages, or cities (like the reunited Berlin) which are virtual tapestries of alternate histories. Or — and this may be getting closer to the provocative ideas raised in China Miéville’s The City & The City — think of the ways in which we move through our cities, seeing the familiar and expected and often pointedly "unseeing" that which doesn’t match our notions of where we live. Then think about legislating that unseeing, and you’re beginning to get a sense of how Miéville has adapted "crosshatch" and its implications of for his own purposes in what is his most disciplined and sharply focused novel to date.

The City & The City may be surprising for those anticipating the symphonic structures and baroque inventions of his famous earlier novels of New Crobuzon. But in short fiction like "Looking for Jake" and especially "Reports of Certain Events in London", and in his YA novel Un Lun Dun, Miéville has been exploring variations on this sort of crosshatching for some time. The real surprise is the form of the novel, which for all intents and purposes is a police procedural: it opens with the discovery of a murdered woman in a desolate part of a depressed eastern European city called Beszel, and the investigation conducted by Inspector Tyador Borlú (of the Extreme Crime Squad) and a sharp-eyed young constable named Lizbyet Corwi. We soon learn that Borlú’s investigation operates under some rather unique constraints: Beszel, it turns out, shares both geography and some real estate with the more prosperous city of Ul Qooma, and the diplomatic and cultural relations between the two cities are so strained that the residents of each are trained from birth to "unsee" the streets and buildings of the other — especially in those areas of "crosshatch" — and must formally pass through a tightly controlled Brandenburg Gate-style portal (called Copula Hall, in a kind of grammatical pun) in order to visit it. (This predictably leads to some confusion on the part of clueless tourists, which later figures into the plot as well after the murdered girl’s parents arrive.) Any unauthorized violation is called a "breach," and breaches are policed by a shadowy authority answerable to neither city government. Apart from this unique political topology, and the invented languages of these nations, the novel takes place in a world recognizably like our own, with punk teenagers imitating American hip-hop, UNESCO, Harry Potter novels, MySpace, Muslim and Jewish minorities existing in uneasy accommodation, and direct flights to either city’s airport from Budapest and Athens.

It’s not uncommon these days for a novelist to begin with an apparently ordinary mystery and then lead the reader over a cliff as the novel opens up into cosmic conspiracies (think Tim Powers) or existential conundra (think Paul Auster), with the initial crime itself all but left behind. To Miéville’s credit, while he does open up the novel in ways that are ingenious and often brilliant, he never loses focus on Borlú’s murder investigation, which is complicated by the possibility that the girl was murdered in one city and her body dumped in the other, thus raising the possibility of Breach. One of his most impressive achievements is the manner in which he respects and retains the integrity of the police procedural form while introducing layer upon layer of more complex mysteries: who, exactly, are the mysterious enforcers of the Breach? What do the archeological investigations of the victim (an American graduate student) have to do with her murder? Is there possibly a mysterious third city sharing space with Beszel and Ul Qooma, invisible to each because each believes it to be part of the other? As Borlú’s investigation leads him to an extraordinary cross-jurisdictional visit to Ul Qooma (where he can now admire the glitzy city he has been required to "unsee" his entire life — but at the same time must trick himself into "unseeing" his own familiar landmarks), to the banned work of a renegade scholar, and eventually to additional murders, the novel turns into something quite unlike Miéville’s earlier work, and for that matter quite unlike anything I’ve seen before at all, as the two cities increasingly echo each other contrapuntally, and echo our own world as well. Miéville may have already staked a claim as one of our most visionary urbanologists with his New Crobuzon tales, but what’s most impressive about The City & The City is not what amazes us about these imaginary cities, but what is familiar about them.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the April issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

The City & The City

China Miéville

(Del Rey 978-0-345-49751-2, $26.00, 318pp, hc) June 2009.



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