Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Cities

In The City & the City, China Mieville blends fantasy, sci-fi and crime fiction into one of the most interesting books I've read in a while. It's a tale of two cities set in eastern Europe. One, Beszel, is in decay; the other, Ul Qoman, is much more prosperous. The kicker is that the two cities share the same physical space and the citizens of one city are strictly forbidden from interacting with citizens of the other.

Citizens of one city are prohibited from even looking at each other or into each others' cities. Should they do so accidentally, they are required to immediately look away and "unsee" what they have just seen. There is one legal border crossing where, with a good enough reason, a citizen of one city may legally cross into the other. To do so otherwise, or to notice something or someone in the other city without looking away, is to be in Breach, and the punishments for being in Breach are beyond severe.

As the story opens, a woman is found murdered in Beszel, and Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad is assigned to investigate. Borlu quickly discovers that the woman was actually killed in Ul Quoma and dumped in Beszel, which would be a clear case of Breach. Borlu assumes that the case will be taken away from him and that the killer or killers will be found and punished by the Breach authorities who deal with such matters.

Because of a technicality, though, it turns out that the murder was not in Breach and so the case still belongs to Borlu. To investigate, he must cross over into Ul Quoma, where he is teamed with a detective named Qussim Dhatt who leads the investigation there. The two quickly discover that something much more sinister than a run-of-the-mill murder may be going on here.

Tyador Borlu is, at heart, the archetypal detective with roots all the way back at least as far as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. He's determined to solve this case and find justice for the victim, no matter the odds and personal danger that might be involved. But he must do so in a world that neither Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Harry Bosch, nor any other such detective could ever have imagined.

It took me a while to get into this book and to buy into the principle of the two cities, but once I did, I was completely hooked and couldn't wait for the climax. There's an awful lot going on in this story and I'm probably not smart enough to appreciate half of what Mieville is attempting to accomplish here.

At one level, the book may be seen an allegory about the worlds that each of us live in and the worlds that occupy the same space but that we might prefer not to see. Think, for example, of the reaction that many people have when seeing a homeless person shuffling down the street, pushing his or her liberated grocery cart full of possessions along the sidewalk. The tendency we often have is to look away, or to "unsee" the person, and to proceed about our business as if problems like homelessness didn't exist in our world.

This is a very interesting and stimulating book, one that the reader will be left thinking about for a long time.

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