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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Robert Charles Wilson

As was already apparent from the novella-length teaser published by PS Publishing a couple of years ago, Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America is beautifully written, populated with engaging and sympathetic, if conflicted, characters, and unlike anything else he's done to date (though its innocent tone echoes a bit of his very first novel, A Hidden Place). It's also a fascinating example of SF's ongoing negotiations with ideas of history and identity, and a good deal more complex than its faux-naif narrative voice and boys'-book adventure plotting would seem to suggest. That narrative voice, for example, seems clearly intended to evoke the cadences of 19th-century moral fiction (Wilson even mentions Oliver Optic in his acknowledgments), as does the initial setting: a rustic village in the far west of a post-industrial, post-oil, post-apocalyptic USA, long since expanded to incorporate most of Canada and under the heavy thumb of a puritanical megachurch called the Dominion. So already we have the 19th-century frontier as one template, and a rather grim theocratic 22nd century as another. And if that's not enough, there are significant echoes of fourth century Rome as well: the title character, who also becomes known as Julian the Agnostic or Julian Conqueror, shares a fair number of characteristics with his namesake, the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (whose story also provided the basis for Gore Vidal's 1964 novel Julian). Both are exiled to wealthy estates after members of their family are murdered by a usurping relative; both are educated by fellow exiles who introduce them to proscribed ideas; both grow into rationalists who tend to view religion as allegory; both — despite their preference for philosophy — become celebrated military leaders; both become enemies of the organized Christian church; both become reformist rulers whose very efforts at reform lead to growing unpopularity.

And, of course, there's a fourth historical template which is pretty hard to ignore: namely us, or at least the United States in the first decade of this century. Julian's war-mongering uncle Deklan, who has suspended virtually all civil liberties and constraints on the presidency (including term limits), enjoys a cozy relationship with the fundamentalist, resolutely anti-science Dominion, which has successfully suppressed all knowledge from the sinful and profligate era known as the Efflorescence of Oil. Deklan has already murdered Julian's father, and is clearly thinking of ways to remove the implicit threat of Julian himself as a possible rival.

Thus, when a new military draft is announced to support the ongoing war in Labrador against the Dutch (I know, that sounds like a Monty Python skit, but there's some confusion as to whether the enemy is just the Dutch or all northern Europe; these rubes sometimes confuse "Dutch" with Deutsch), Julian goes into hiding, fearful that his uncle means to get him drafted and then killed in the army. Accompanying him are narrator Adam Hazzard, the too-earnest lower-class kid who has befriended Julian in his exile, and his mentor Sam Godwin, whose survival instincts have been honed by his own need to keep his Jewish identity secret. Apart from being as loyal as Sam Gamgee, Adam is at first of limited use as anything other than a goggle-eyed foil for Julian's progressive ideas; his ideas of the wider world come almost entirely from the popular fiction of Charles Curtis Easton (whose boys' books sound a lot like Oliver Optic's), and when he finds an ancient forbidden book called A History of Mankind in Space, he's as fearful as he is fascinated. Sam, however, is a shrewd guide, whose goal is to reunite Julian with his mother, living in a more genteel exile in New York. The stage is thus set for an episodic quest odyssey, with the three of them ending up in the army, Julian becoming a hero through some remarkably well-described battles, and Adam inadvertently turning him into a national legend through dispatches from the front which end up in the New York papers thanks to an unscrupulous reporter.

Readers expecting the kind of sudden shift into a cosmic perspective that so often characterizes Wilson's fiction might be surprised at his tight control over point of view here, although later scenes set in a kind of 1840s-era New York being rebuilt in the vaulting shadows of ruined skyscrapers generates a sense of wonder all their own. But in other ways, we're in familiar Wilson territory; as in Spin, the point of view is that of a relatively poor kid who befriends a wealthier and more talented scion of a seriously dysfunctional family; as in Axis, this is essentially a coming-of-age tale set in a world whose history is mostly lost. And as with virtually all his work, we're drawn through the narrative mostly by the characters: Julian, the brilliant thinker and eventual war hero who faces a bright political future but who, it seems, really wants to be Orson Welles; Sam, who faces his own crisis of confidence after being wounded in the war; Adam's courageous and radicalized wife Calyxa (in many ways the most interesting character in the book); and Adam himself, though his towheaded innocence hangs on for a bit longer than it really needs to, and his manner of narration never quite matures to keep pace with his character. As always, Wilson trusts his characters to develop along their own lines, and as a result he earns our trust as well, in one of the more affecting post-apocalyptic, reverse-frontier tales of its type since Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow or John Wyndham's The Chrysalids.

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

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America

Robert Charles Wilson

(Tor 978-0-7653-1971-5, $25.95, 416pp, hc) June 2009.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Moon for the (Technologically) Misbegotten: A Review of Moon

by Gary Westfahl

First, it must be said, there are definite reasons to celebrate the film Moon. At a time when the surest path to profits in making a film about space travel is to utterly ignore its realities, it is remarkable and heartening that a few filmmakers like writer-director Duncan Jones and writer Nathan Parker are still choosing to make films that actually depict humanity's more probable futures in outer space — such as an outpost on the far side of the Moon manned by a single astronaut who must periodically don his spacesuit and venture outside his base to lumber clumsily across the lethal lunar surface. Their film also is admirably performing one of the traditional functions of science fiction by explaining and promoting an innovative scientific idea: the suggestion, much discussed by space enthusiasts but currently unknown to the general public, that we might someday solve all of our energy problems by mining the helium 3 that is abundant on the Moon and shipping it to Earth to be used in controlled nuclear fusion. To be sure, we currently lack the technology to put this plan into effect, but it remains a legitimate aspiration, and this film like this just might inspire the research which would someday make it all possible, in the manner of Hugo Gernsback's original vision of science fiction as a force that could make the world a better place to live in. Finally, as will be discussed later, Moon has some intriguing points to make about the genuine difficulties astronauts will face when they become true inhabitants of outer space, and not just visitors.

Having said these things, I wish I could proceed to offer a more enthusiastic assessment of Jones's film as a whole; however, while the presumed purpose of the spacesuit film is to startle viewers with the unfamiliar, Moon is, to a large extent, a film that rather quickly moves into quite familiar, even derivative, territory, at least to anyone familiar with science fiction films. That is, it is a film which surprises mostly because of what it contrives to borrow from. (At this time, anyone who has not seen the film, and wishes to remain unaware of precisely how the film develops its premise of a solitary lunar astronaut awaiting the end of his three-year mission, should stop reading this review, because it is impossible to meaningfully discuss the film without revealing its major "spoiler.")

Since writer-director Duncan Jones, as the son of singer-songwriter David Bowie, is presumably not in desperate need of money, one might like to assume that he approached the challenge of writing and directing a science fiction film with only the purest of motives; yet it is possible to characterize Moon as the ultimate exercise in cynical self-aggrandizement. That is, if one seeks to identify the greatest science fiction film ever made, there are only two credible candidates: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the only science fiction film voted by critics as one of the ten greatest films ever made, and Blade Runner (1982), named by a recent poll as the best science fiction film of all time. So, if you want your science fiction film to be a sure-fire success, why not combine those two films? Jones might have pitched Moon to skeptical financiers in precisely those terms: "It's 2001 meets Blade Runner!" Or, "Dave Bowman, instead of being taken away by aliens, discovers he's a replicant!" All right, that isn't exactly what is going on in Jones's film, but it's definitely too close for comfort.

To be more precise: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), believing himself to be an astronaut almost at the end of his lonely three-year mission to oversee the mining and transportation of helium 3 on the far side of the Moon, with a wife and baby daughter eagerly awaiting his return, discovers that he is actually only one in a series of clones of the original Sam Bell — each awakened, implanted with Bell's memories, and put to work for three years before being disposed of and replaced by the next clone. (His employer Lunar Industries, we are rather implausibly told, finds this system more economical than actually sending in human replacements.) I will grant that the way Jones brings him to this revelation is ingenious: after he is injured in an accident outside his compound, his replacement is prematurely awakened, illegally ventures outside to discover his injured predecessor, and brings him back to be healed, thus temporarily providing the station with two Sam Bells to interact and figure out the situation. But the various feelings of shock, rage, and sadness that this revelation brings to both Sam Bells will be evocative only to those who have not watched the replicant Rachael (Sean Young) go through all the same changes in Blade Runner. You mean, all my memories of my past were only transplanted into my brain from the person who actually experienced them? You mean, all my photographs of loved ones are only props provided to sustain the illusion that I am a real human being instead of a persuasive copy? Furthermore, as we observe the first Sam Bell grow weaker and weaker, spit up blood, and literally start falling apart (he spits out a tooth, and we learn from a taped report that an earlier Sam Bell's hair was falling out), it seems obvious that these clones, in the manner of Blade Runner's replicants, are programmed to die in a few years, around the time of their replacement, probably to prevent them from having the wherewithal to raise awkward questions around the time they are purportedly being returned to Earth; yet the film does not make this point explicitly, perhaps fearful of appearing to imitate Ridley Scott's masterpiece too exactly. (It may mean nothing, but it did seem to me that the end credits of Moon included more lawyers than is normally the case, possibly to forestall lawsuits.)

Still, despite these obvious thematic resonances with Blade Runner, Jones's film is primarily haunted by inescapable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the definitive spacesuit film which all successors are required to either emulate or contradict. The most visible similarity is Sam Bell's ubiquitous computer companion whose name, recalling HAL 9000, is GERTY 3000 (voiced by Kevin Spacey), although GERTY does move around more in the manner of the autopilot in Wall▪E (2008). Since "Gerty" (short for Gertrude) is a female name, the original intent undoubtedly was to give this computer a female voice, to contrast with 2001's Douglas Rain, but I suspect that early rushes convinced filmmakers that a male voice was needed to match the moonbase's realistic aura. (Despite forty years of vigorous challenges from feminists, it seems there is a lingering attitude that harsh, forbidding environments, like outer space honestly considered, are most appropriately handled by all-male or mostly-male crews, which remain the norm in spacesuit films, unlike more fanciful adventures which pretend that outer space isn't all that threatening, like Star Trek, where female computer voices fit in just fine.) Like HAL, GERTY initially appears competent and friendly, if at times overly solicitous; in one eerie parallel, while HAL at one point inimically refuses to let Dave Bowman enter his spacecraft, GERTY at one point inimically refuses to let Sam Bell leave his protective compound. And it was absolutely brilliant to replace the red eye of HAL with a yellow smiley face, sometimes altered to express puzzlement, indecisiveness, or sadness. But to be definitively different from its predecessor, Moon has its computer remain a stalwart, devoted servant of Sam Bell to the very end: unlike HAL, who starts murdering his own crew in order to prevent them from shutting him off, GERTY cheerfully volunteers to be turned off and have his memories erased before rebooting in order to benefit his human colleagues. Among other references to Stanley Kubrick's film, there are astronomical scenes of the Earth and the Moon in conjunction (but not the Sun); David Poole jogs around the Discovery and shadowboxes, while Sam Bell runs on a treadmill and hits a punching bag; a fleeting, multi-colored image of the second Sam Bell returning to Earth recalls Dave Bowman's "trip" through the Star Gate; and Sam's picturephone conversation with his "daughter" on Earth, though quite different from Heywood R. Floyd's picturephone conversation with his daughter in 2001, cannot be overlooked.

All this is not to say that Blade Runner and 2001 were the only science fiction films on Duncan Jones's mind; for when the first Sam Bell imagines that a beautiful woman is sitting in his chair, or that a mysterious humanoid figure is standing on the surface of the Moon, one cannot help recalling both adaptations of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (1972, 2002) and incorrectly suspecting that the astronaut may be being influenced by some enigmatic alien presence. And the film's characterization of Lunar Industries as an evil corporation, all too willing to sacrifice the well-being of its employees in search of enhanced profits, is right out of the Alien films; and like those films, Moon concludes with conflicting signals regarding whether the company will be forced to change its ways or allowed to continue with its cruel, exploitative practices.

However, despite all of these conspicuous debts to its distinguished predecessors, one must concede that there is something original, and perhaps prophetic, about this film. We all realize that ongoing improvements in systems of communication are making face-to-face contact less and less necessary, and that in Faith Popcorn's terminology, increasing numbers of people are opting for a lifestyle of "cocooning," spending most of their time isolated in their homes, a trend that might someday lead to the world of C. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909), where individuals spend their entire lives alone in enclosed chambers, connecting with other people only by means of long-distance communication. In particular, since outer space will likely remain for some time the home of only a few scattered inhabitants, this will necessarily become their characteristic lifestyle. What would it be like for one or two people to live for years all by themselves, with other people impacting their consciousness only as voices or televised images? One can argue that Moon is providing both a literal and metaphorical answer to that question. Literally, if there is only one person, that person is likely to go insane (which appears to be occurring to the first Sam Bell in early scenes, and also happens with countless isolated individuals living in space in science fiction stories); if it is two or more people, they are likely to end up engaging in verbal or even physical conflict (as the two Sam Bells at one point struggle over possession of a knife), although a common threat to their existence might lead them to reconcile (which is how the film concludes). Metaphorically, the two Sam Bells can be said to represent the process of adjusting to the experience of "living with yourself": first, there is a "honeymoon" period when everything seems fine (the early scenes in the film); then, as symbolized by the appearance of the second Sam Bell, inner conflicts arise which may induce a sort of paralysis (the second Sam at first seems pointlessly angry and argumentative, while the first Sam seems laid back and resigned to his fate, two natural and contrary ways to respond to an overwhelming dilemma); and you finally resolve your inner conflicts and again become a functional individual (the two Sams finally learn to work as a team to investigate their situation and devise a solution). The film's ultimate answer to the key question that continues to bedevil proponents of space travel — can humans really endure the long years of isolated living that the conquest of space will require? — is very much a mixed message: the first Sam Bell, who disturbingly deteriorates both physically and mentally, epitomizes the grim conclusion of James Gunn's Station in Space (1958) — that living in space will inexorably destroy the human heart and soul; yet the survival of the second Sam Bell, with his physique and wits intact, suggests that humans can rise to the challenge of space. What perhaps tips its scale in favor of pessimism is the fact that Moon, like Wall▪E, is a film that shows people returning to Earth, not venturing further into the cosmos, as its happy ending.

Further, as this discussion should be conveying, Moon represented an enormous challenge for its lead actor, Sam Rockwell, for despite Spacey's voice and brief glimpses of other actors on television screens and in flashbacks, this is effectively a one-man film; a further problem is that most science fiction filmgoers, recalling Rockwell only as the addled Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), may initially struggle to take him seriously, which is probably why he quickly shaves off his beard so as to bear less resemblance to Douglas Adams's intergalactic clown. But Rockwell proves his worth in effecting an unusual but necessary shift in perspective during the course of the film. At first, since we have gotten to know the first Sam Bell, he is our viewpoint character, and the second Sam Bell seems a cold, unwelcome intruder. But the first Sam Bell is doomed to die soon, and a continuing focus on him would thus make the film an unpalatable tragedy. Thus, the film must make the first Sam Bell seem less and less appealing and instead establish the second Sam Bell as the new viewpoint character, since he will survive to provide the film with a moderately uplifting conclusion. With an assist from the makeup department, which makes the first Sam look more and more grotesque, Rockwell's acting skills manage to alter audience sympathies in precisely the desired manner.

The film's other message about life in space is that, in contrast to the stark interiors of 2001: A Space Odyssey, humans will always feel a need to familiarize and personalize their surroundings, to make them as Earthlike as possible. Photographs, a kid's drawing, and a Tennessee Titans poster are stuck on the walls, and Sam Bell uses a marker to draw happy faces on the wall to count the days; he is awakened each morning by an incongruous, old-fashioned alarm clock, and a pair of dice dangle in front of the windshield of his lunar rover; replicating the old childhood prank, Sam has placed a note reading "KICK ME" on GERTY's back; Sam builds a model city and talks to and names the plants he is growing; and as a man starved for female company, he naturally seeks entertainment featuring female characters — ancient reruns of Bewitched (1964-1972) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). There is grim irony in the corny t-shirt he wears in the opening scene — which reads "Wake Me When It's Quitting Time" — since GERTY will literally wake up a new clone when it is time for the old one to quit (and the same t-shirt is observed on one of the old, dead clones) — and in the song that greets him every morning — Chesney Hawkes's "The One and Only" — since he is definitely not the "one and only" Sam Bell. (And might his other favorite song — Katrina and the Waves's "Walking on Sunshine" — represent a subtle dig at another recent spacesuit film, Danny Boyle's Sunshine [2007], which depicted life in space with far less success?)

Whether all of these homey touches would really help an astronaut cope with three years of living alone on the far side of the Moon, of course, remains very much an open question; indeed, many filmgoers may react negatively to this film because it too perfectly replicates the experience of living on the Moon for two hours, oppressively limited to the confines of a single set and the company of a single individual. One eventual value of Moon, then, might be as a test for aspiring astronauts when we are actively recruiting people to stay on the Moon for an extended period of time. If you can watch and enjoy this film without qualifications, that is, you might be an ideal candidate for the job; but if you keep shifting in your seat and checking your watch, you should probably remain on Earth. For Moon might qualify as the most realistic film about the probable experience of living on the Moon ever made — which ironically represents both its greatest artistic virtue, and its greatest artistic flaw.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays: Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell. His forthcoming works include the second edition of his book about space stations in science fiction, Islands in the Sky, and a study of films about space travel.

Directed by Duncan Jones

Written by Duncan Jones (story), Nathan Parker (screenplay)

Starring Sam Rockwell, Dominique McEligott, Kaya Scodelario, Matt Berry, Benedict Wong, Malcolm Stewart, and the voice of Kevin Spacey

Official Website: MOON // A file by Duncan Jones

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Faren Miller reviews Greer Gilman

Though her work has been showing up on Locus Recommended Lists since debut Moonwise back in 1991, Greer Gilman remains one of the great hidden treasures of the fantasy field. That novel brought two contemporary women to a stark island known as Cloud, invoked in extraordinary language I described in these terms: "Imagine that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins... had downed a dark, pungent brew of old English ballads and even older myths and, gloriously intoxicated, decided to write a fantasy novel."

I missed out on "Jack Daw's Pack", the 2000 novelette where Gilman returned to that background and style, but managed to catch follow-up novella "A Crowd of Bone" — an eventual World Fantasy Award winner — when it appeared in Small Beer's 2003 anthology Trampoline. Now Small Beer has gathered both works plus a long original sequel to the novella in Cloud & Ashes, for a trio of "Winter's Tales" far more potent and connected than a standard collection.

"Jack Daw's Pack" (a Nebula finalist) starts with a group of vignettes showing figures from myth, folktale, country masque/rituals — not quite a tarot pack, and all still active in some form in Cloud and the other lands of Gilman's world — before turning to an extended encounter between a woman and a beggar with a child. That's an overly bland description of a work that reads like language stripped bare, myth tracked to its origins. Seasons, weather, lust, pain, sacrifice... the stuff of old ballads becomes intensely real, with the natural contradictions of a cold wind that both chafes and dances.

If that opening novelette seems a bit low on actual narrative, "A Crowd of Bone" amply makes up for it. Addressed to a dead woman's daughter by her mother's ghost, this beautifully proportioned novella tells of a young man who is "stolen," then pulls the trick himself as he steals away the daughter of a witch who has some of the powers of a goddess, and takes her back into the world with him. Their trials and adventures over the course of one year will end with her death in childbirth, a tragedy with some magical elements. But the fate of the pair's own daughter Margaret, whom the witch has taken into a kind of metaphysical close custody like her mother before her, still hangs in the balance.

The figures in the cards/constellations/rituals also appear in this tale (and the next one). The most important of these, in both emotional and narrative terms, is Ashes: part Cinderella, part Persephone, and one of the few who regularly take on human form as girls are chosen to embody her in a winter ritual — where their brief reign may also leave them with an unwanted child.

Readers who have spent any time at all as English majors are likely to find many echoes of classic poetry and drama here, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Burns, Marvell, Blake, and Hopkins, along with a few non-Brits like Dante, but Gilman never really seems to be quoting; she's going back to the source. A blurb on the galley cites John Clute's comment on Moonwise, where he says much the same thing about that book's relation to dreams. And a bit of dialog from "Crowd of Bone" condenses the feeling into a brief exchange, as a girl named Ciss says "A new tune? I do love a new tune," to which Kit the musician (and Margaret's father) replies, "One I've made.... The oldest in the world."

Of all the poets quoted, the one with the strongest influence on language and plot turns out to be Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly the opening lines of "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child": "Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?"

We've already seen Margaret, and this book's long original work "Unleaving" — which continues her story — takes its title from that quote, though Gilman goes on to give the word an expanded meaning both richer and even more arcane than Hopkins' reference to the autumnal fall of leaves.

If you're wondering why the subtitle of Cloud & Ashes refers to these three works as "Winter's Tales", it's more than just a passing reference to Shakespeare (or a snub to the seasons in the poem just quoted). Though a few cultural elements could almost come from Victorian England, most of life and work and speech in these magic-haunted isles is closer to the hardscrabble existence of shepherds, farmers and traveling players whose relatively small homelands are bordered by a cold sea and never all that far from Winter's cruel force. Here rituals to bring back the sun and Spring still have an urgency that has almost vanished from our own Christmases and New Years. Like human cruelty, another strong player in Margaret's young life, in the northlands Winter can seem invincible.

Though the publisher calls "Unleaving" a short novel, at more than 300 pages it really qualifies as full-length, and that gives it room for some of the lifelike messiness that gets pruned from the more elegant novella form. Margaret escapes her witch grandmother without quite knowing what she's doing, and tumbles into a new world with no partner or initial mentor. Even after she finds a place in the household of a scholar (who happens to be gay, so no handy romance is in store) and develops a passion for astronomy which even she sometimes finds awkward, her life doesn't conform to the stately cadences of myth, folklore or ballads — at least not until she really gets into trouble, and that won't be for a while.

But by the time you've explored the many forms (physical and metaphysical) of Unleaving, spent time with various incarnations of Ashes, and seen just what Margaret could become after childhood's left behind, it shouldn't be all that hard to show a little patience with her adolescent uncertainties, plus subplots and further arcane references. And the payoff is immense. I finished Cloud & Ashes almost tempted to write a thesis that compares it favorably to what James Joyce did in Ulysses and tried in Finnegan's Wake, yet feeling like I'd lived through it all.


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

Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter's Tales

Greer Gilman

(Small Beer Press 978-1-931520-55-3, $26.00, 438pp, hc) May 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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