Crazy Hugo Project: The City & The City

Little Kitty dutifully unsees The City & The City

The City & The City by China Miéville is Hugo Novel nominee number two (four more to go!) and the short blurb description is that the story is a murder mystery with some conspiracies thrown in for good measure. The longer more meatier description is that The City & The City is about the wheres and whyfores of a murdered archeology student who happens to end up across the border of a divided city. Inspector Tyador Borlú is assigned the case and after some investigation he discovers that it is most probably out of his jurisdiction since all signs point to the case involving an illegal border crossing. Breaching the boundaries of either city is handled by a very specialized department but before things can get into full swing, the Inspector finds himself hip deep in secret organizations, conspiracies and assassins.

I knew coming into the book that part of the issue dealt with the fact that there were two cities that existed pretty much on top of each other but I didn’t know how. Extra dimensionally? Temporally? Phase shifted? Perhaps merely separated like East and West Berlin; I had no idea. The story doesn’t help out much until about 30 pages in where we learn that the divided cities of Bes?el and Ul Qoma physically exist within the same boundary (geographically as well as temporally). Each city has space that is completely Bes?el or completely Ul Qoma as well as space that is a mixture of the two but are regarded as Bes?el if you are in Bes?el or Ul Qoman if you are Ul Qoman. If you happen to be walking down a crosshatched area (an area common to both cities) you are only supposed to notice the things that are happening in your own city and “unsee” (something a little less than ignore since ignoring is actively not dealing with things and the other city isn’t even supposed to exist for the opposite citizens) the things that are happening in the other city even though they are taking place in your near proximity. This is helped a little in that that language, custom, architecture and fashion are distinctly city specific so if you happen to…register someone in clothes of the other city you “unsee” them. People of both cities do a lot of registering in order not to crash into cars form the other city when driving in mutually shared spaces, or avoid a tree that has fallen over a boundary etc.

Breach is what happens when something or someone from one city interacts with something or someone from the other city. “Registering” an other city taxi that has stopped in your path such that you have to swerve to avoid hitting it is day to day standard operating procedure. Swearing and shaking your fist at the other city driver is breaching. When this happens, Breach is called in to deal with the situation as quickly and as non-disruptively as possible so that the citizens of both cities can go about their business.

China Miéville does a superb job of (once he gets to it) explaining how the citizens of the cities live and function without breaching and then he plays with that idea in interesting ways. I really enjoyed the whole concept of the interlaced but very separate cities and the discussions about what is breach and what is not breach. Breach is the Boogieman of both cities since people who have deliberately breached often times disappear. Breach also seems to show up quasi supernaturally whenever there is such a situation so I had first thought that they were some sort of spooky something or other (Magicians? Aliens? Lovecraftian policemen? Take your pick) but they turned out to be more mundane spooky than extrasupernatural spooky.

And this gets me to one of my “Hmmms” about the book; it’s not particularly soundly Sci-fi at all. It’s possibly alternate history but also equally possibly near future and neither plays a huge role in the story. The cities are both eastern European city-states which could conceivably exist right now somewhere. Especially if there is an eastern European city that has an archeology dig which is unearthing strange undecipherable artifacts. Hey, the Antikythera Mechanism came from somewhere right? Anyway, if Boneshaker seemed a little light on the Sci-fi, The City & The City was positively buoyant with its scanty sci-fi. I was even more unsure of The City & The City‘s sci-fi-yness (for that matter, its also somewhat weak on the Fantasy too).

As far as the mystery and conspiracy aspect of The City & The City, I had the bad guy figured out several moments before the reveal, but I’m usually not one of those clever “figure-it-out half way through” kind of people. The book is written in first person and the Inspector is supposed to be way more clever at detecting than I am so I’m a little disappointed that I got there first. However, following the story as it winds in and out of the cities was very entertaining.

I also really enjoyed exploring both the cities and the citizenry but sometimes the writing annoyed me. Miéville likes to conscript words to do the word jobs they weren’t necessarily designed to do…like verbing a noun or adjectizing a verb. I think that’s pretty cool, actually, but it did tend to throw me out of my reading rhythm trying to figure out where exactly the sentence was going. Add to that the fact that Miéville likes him some fragments and that made it really tough on occasion to read. I found myself rereading bits a lot more than I usually do because I had missed a clever word play or hadn’t realized he was fragmenting. Often when Mievelle was done with a sentence I was still looking for a verb or a noun to complete it.

The City & The City is good, but Boneshaker is just a little bit better. Next book!


1. Boneshaker.
1.5. The City & The City.
3. ?
4. ?
5. ?
6. ?


2009: JSFR: Bouron Choco&Coffee

2008: And best of all, we can say TAKE THAT, YOU CAPITALISTIC GAS PIGS!

2007: Unseeing this year’s post.

2006: Incidentally, someone asked me today if this was my natural color. I replied “Yes. I’m one of the rare pink headed people of this world.”

2005: Sunday sucked ASS in the weather department, which was a continuation of the Saturday “It’s so damned hot I’d spontaneously combust if I weren’t sweating like some mall fountain” so we decided to hell with hot, sticky and nasty, we were going to grill us some meat. Damnit.

2004: What entry? OH! Look at that thing over there!!!!

2003: I’m a big fan of romance and lust in the same package. Hee, package.

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