When Granta compiled its decennial list of the best young British writers ten years ago, it did not include China Miéville, thank to his well-known connections to fantasy and science fiction. Yet it paid him the even greater compliment of including him by name in its salon des refusés. Miéville is unabashedly a writer of the fantastic, but his influences trace back to Bruno Schulz and Mervyn Peake as well as the pulps. Not to mention Marx—Miéville is a committed socialist and has stood for Parliament. And, as Michael Chabon has observed, Miéville’s first instinct toward the conventions of genre is to play with them.
In The City & the City Miéville continues to play, offering a distinctive combination of fantasy’s two familiar flavors. Committed fantasists such as C.S. Lewis embrace the obsessive literalism that the British novelist M. John Harrison has unkindly described as “the great clomping foot of nerdism . . . the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there.” They try to make the fantastic seem real in its own right, internally consistent and painfully detailed. By contrast, mainstream novelists who dabble in fantasy—José Saramago in Blindness, Cormac McCarthy in The Road—do not fret about internal consistency or detail. For them, the fantastic provides a device for allegorical comment on some aspect of the real world.
But rather than serving up fantasy as a world in itself or as an allegory subordinate to the real world, Miéville treats the real world (or something like it) as a set of detailed, overlapping fantasies. In The City & the City he takes elements of our own world—the social relationships that organize our lives—directly into his imagined one, and reconfigures them with the machinery of fantasy. Miéville’s task is as complicated as it sounds, but he’s up to it. The result is an innovative way of using fiction to understand ourselves.
In addition to fantasy, The City & the City is part police procedural, a form that relies upon, and relentlessly documents, the workings of bureaucracy and the social relations that are Miéville’s focus. But even if his city of Besźel is reminiscent of, say, Martin Cruz Smith’s Moscow in Gorky Park, it is on no map. Furthermore, it is superimposed on a very different city, Ul Qoma (or, you might say just as easily, Ul Qoma is superimposed on it). The two share much the same geographic space, but the occupants of each do not acknowledge their everyday contacts with the occupants of the other. They have learned to “see” only the city that they live in and to “unsee” the inhabitants, buildings, and sometimes even the animals of the other city that overlaps their own.
The relationship between Miéville’s two cities emerges gradually as the book’s protagonist and narrator, Inspector Tyador Borlú, tacks a course across both in his investigations. The victim whose body is found in Besźel in the book’s opening scene has been murdered in Ul Qoma. This appears to be a case of “Breach”—a flouting of the complex social conventions that keep the two cities separate. The crime is referred to a mysterious organization, also called Breach, which polices the boundaries between the two cities, ensuring that people do not move from one to the other by ceasing to see one and starting to see the other. Yet the murder soon turns out not to be a case of Breach at all, obliging Borlú to enter Ul Qoma on a temporary visa, to help the police there investigate the crime.
Miévilles terrain may be reminiscent of, say, Moscow, but it is on no map.
Miéville introduces the strange topology of his two cities through little clues and odd phrases and neologisms. When Borlú walks by brick arches,
at the top, where the lines were, they were elsewhere, but not all of them were foreign at their bases. . . . In Besźel it was a quiet area, but the streets were crowded with those elsewhere. I unsaw them, but it took time to pick past them all.
Throughout the book, the other city “elsewhere” is not a different place, but all the things that are deliberately unseen. They are separated from the protagonist not by physical distance, but by an intricate set of social protocols. He is aware of people elsewhere, just as they are aware of him, but he and they elaborately and ostentatiously refuse to see each other, except to the minimal degree necessary to negotiate each other as purely physical obstacles.
Seeing and unseeing are matters of convention, not perceptions. As an agent of Breach remarks, “No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does.” The separation of the two cities is a social fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. The inhabitants of both cities can discern what they are supposed to be able to see (and can publicly acknowledge as perceiving) and what they cannot see through people’s clothing and gait, architecture, and other clues. While Besźel and its inhabitants are distinctly Mitteleuropäische, Ul Qoma has the nomenclature and flavor of a secularized Islamic republic built in equal part of “curlicued wooden rooflines” and “mirrored steel.”
When Borlú accidentally sees an old woman in the other city, and she sees him, each quickly recognizes the mistake and rectifies it.
In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.
With a hard start, I realized that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.
Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same . . . . after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away.
Moving from one city to the other does not involve physical travel so much as a shift in what one sees—a shift that happens officially by walking through one entrance to Copula Hall, a building located at the center of both cities, and coming out the other. When Borlú does this, he can begin to see the people and buildings that he has walked among unnoticing during his everyday life.
[Ul Qoma] was a busier city than Besźel at night: now I could look at the figures at business in the dark that had been unseeable shades until now. I could see the homeless dossing down in side streets, the Ul Qoman rough sleepers that we in Besźel had had to become used to . . . to pick our unseeing ways over and around.
As Borlú’s investigations progress, this relationship gains complexities. A woman under Borlú’s protection is murdered in Copula Hall when her assassin fires a bullet from one end of the hall (and one city) into the other. When Borlú chases the murderer, he is obliged to do so in the city that he is in rather than the city that the murderer is in, following him through streets shared by both cities, while trying to avoid quite perceiving him directly. Another murderer tries to escape the city through the ambiguity of social convention. Neither city’s police can arrest him, because he has refused “those million unnoticed mannerisms that marked out civic specificity”:
They don’t think he’s in Ul Qoma. . . . They can’t tell where he is . . . the way he’s moving . . . the clothes he’s wearing . . . they can’t tell whether he’s in Ul Qoma or Besźel.
There are further cities depicted in the book. Borlú—and others—fear that they may be manipulated by a putative third city, Orciny, hidden in the interstices between the two cities, and inhabited by people who have learned to appear to inhabitants of Besźel as Ul Qomans, and to Ul Qomans as inhabitants of Besźel. There is no evidence that Orciny exists, but the possibility that it might exist shapes the thoughts and the actions of residents of both cities. If there is a truly invisible city in the book, it is the one composed of unassimilated refugees from the Balkans, who are kept in segregated camps until they can learn the cultural complexities of living in Besźel or Ul Qoma.
People in one city step over couples having sex in the park of the other.
All of this might suggest political allegory. And Miéville’s novel does connect to the real world, but through non-allegorical means. This is not to say that The City & the City cannot be read as allegory. It plays with some of the obvious interpretations—the politics of nationalism, religious separatism, and irredentism—without ever settling on any one of them. “Unificationists” in both cities want to bring them together, through peaceful means or violent, while thuggish nationalists do their best to keep each city pure of external influences.
But the book cannot only be read as allegory. The cities are not abstractions in service of a parable. They are not some other thing intended to make us think about cities—McCarthy’s post-apocalypse, directing our attention to our own declining engagement with the natural world, Lewis’s Christ-lion. They are cities.
Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy argues that fantasists use “the means by which the fantastic enters the narrated world” as a strategy to shape readers’ expectations about the kind of story they are about to read. In Miéville’s case, the fantastic enters through the mundane practices structuring everyday life in both cities. These customs of seeing and unseeing at first appear bizarre and hypertrophied—people in one city step over couples having sex in the park of the other, not allowed to be aware, yet unable fully to be unaware. But as the reader is pulled further into the book, their internal logic becomes clear and unsettling: unsettling because shared with our own conventions. We see the fantasy in what seems so routine.
Miéville is certainly not the first writer to compose a fantasy set in a pocket country that is “in” our world even if it is not on any of our maps, but he may be the first to use this strategy as a way to think about how we draw those maps. That the two cities are spatchcocked with each other, sharing and unsharing the same geographical territory, doesn’t make them fundamentally different from ordinary cities, or indeed countries. Like an ordinary city, each is built up of social practices, patterns of interaction and of failures to interact, things that its inhabitants tacitly agree to pay attention to, and that they agree to ignore. Miéville’s narrative structure works by accentuating, through the striking juxtaposition of cities and conventions, the arbitrariness of the shared assumptions about people that allow our own social collectives to work.
We are all adept at distinguishing members from non-members: our own ways of seeing and unseeing are thus politically and socially loaded. Middle-class Americans and Europeans commonly unsee the homeless who are around them, affecting not to perceive them except as physical impediments to be circumnavigated. The homeless are recognized by their clothes, their gait, their way of being in the world, and in that act of recognition are dismissed. I live in Washington, D.C., a city where whole neighborhoods are unseen by the middle and upper classes. The well-to-do usually do not go to these neighborhoods, but when they have to, they see as little as they can get away with and forget even that as soon as convenience permits.
Miéville brings these quotidian practices into stark perspective. He uses slips of perception and movement back and forth between cities to highlight the contingency of many of the social aspects of the real world. The City & the City draws no hard distinction between the world of fantasy and our own. Instead, Miéville seems to suggest, the real world is composed of consensual fantasies of varying degrees of power. The slippage isn’t between the real world and the fantastic, but between different, equally valid, versions of the real. As the title makes explicit, neither city has ontological priority over the other—Besźel is not a simple reflection of Ul Qoma, or vice versa.
Miéville’s achievement is at once remarkable and subtle. His overlapping cities take in an aspect of our own world—social conventions—wholesale. But by describing those conventions using conceptual tools borrowed from traditional “worldbuilding” fantasy, he heightens awareness of the unnoticed in our own lives. He doesn’t give us symbols. He gives us real life rendered with all the more clarity for its apparent weirdness.