China Miéville has been establishing a reputation as a high-quality writer with a very varied SFF output. I have so far picked up three of his books. Un Lun Dun is an intriguing, Alice in Wonderland kind of fantasy which I reviewed here a couple of years ago. It is an entertaining tale which I enjoyed despite it being aimed at younger readers. Next up was Perdito Street Station, a darker, adult story also set in a fantastical city. However, after reading 70 pages or so (with another 800 still to go), it had failed to grip me: I didn't care about the characters and decided that I had other books I'd rather be reading, so I stopped. As a result, I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I picked up The City and the City.
What I found was something very different from the previous two: a story set in the present day in an imaginary Middle Eastern country, consisting mainly of one large city. It is a murder mystery, featuring and told by Inspector Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad of the city of Besźel. So far, so mundane - but this is no ordinary city. I can't say more without a few spoilers, so if you like everything to be a surprise you had better stop reading now. I will just conclude this paragraph by saying that this book has my strong recommendation.
What is peculiar about the city, as the reader soon begins to realise, is that for reasons lost in history it is two organisationally, culturally and linguistically very different cities occupying the same physical fabric. They even have different names: Besźel and Ul Qoma. This doesn't mean the city is carved into sectors like Berlin during the Cold War; while some parts are purely Besźel and others Ul Qoma, these sections are scattered at random throughout the city and the remainder is mixed, with Besźel and Ul Qoma buildings intermingled. Stranger still, the inhabitants of each city are conditioned from childhood only to see the buildings and people of their own city. They can recognise the differences easily enough; the buildings are of different architectural styles and the people dress differently and have different gestures and body language, as well as speaking different languages. It is absolutely forbidden to interact with, acknowledge or even look directly at people or buildings in the "other" city (a crime known as "breach") and the inhabitants learn to "unsee" the other city, ignoring anyone or anything which is not theirs. This draconian rule is enforced by a shadowy and much feared organisation simply called "Breach"; enforcement officers who dress and behave in such a way that they are "unseen" by the inhabitants of both cities, until they suddenly emerge to arrest anyone guilty of breach. The two cities interact in only one place, Copula Hall, which is also the "virtual border" between them. Inhabitants of either city can obtain permission to visit the other, but they have to be trained first to "see" the city they are visiting; which means that for the duration of the visit, they "unsee" their own city.
This bizarre situation can make the life of a police officer like Borlú very complicated, so when a visiting American student, working on an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma, turns up dead in Besźel, he knows he's in for trouble. Working with his Ul Qoman opposite number he tries to get to the bottom of a complex and murky case, complicated by the apparent involvement of Orciny, a legendary third city "unseen" by the other two, and with the threat of Breach constantly hanging over him.
This novel is really unclassifiable and it may well not appeal to all SFF fans, but the extraordinary conception of the two cities gripped my imagination and I found the story fascinating on two levels: if this author ever tires of writing SFF, he could make a good living in crime fiction. For once, I was sorry when the book ended (it is quite short by Miéville's standards, at only 370 pages). It is rare to find something so completely different and it will undoubtedly prove to be one of the highlights of my reading year.