The City & The City (2009) by China Mieville

Don't miss out on other works by China Mieville:
Perdido Street Station (2000) Book Review
Available works by China Mieville


The City & the City takes place in the fictional Eastern European twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, two cities superimposed on one another, occupying the same temporal space, sharing the same terrain. China Mievile lets the separation of two cities be the stating point of an investigation into how an oppressive system of government justifies totalitarian rule of law by perverting ideas of The Other. The result in The City & The City is a truly weird and irrational social reality. It won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel (2009), the Hugo award for Best Novel (2010), the Arthur C. Clarke award for Best Science Fiction Novel (2010), and the Locus award for Best Fantasy Novel (2010).

The story follows Detective Inspector Tyador Borlú’s investigation into the death of Mahalia Geary, a graduate student working on an archaeological dig in the city of Ul Qoma. As Geary’s body is found in the city Beszel, pointing in the direction of the possibility of an illegal border crossing (a breach), it attracts the attention of the Breach, the cities’ authorities responsible for breach crimes. It soon becomes clear that Geary harboured politically dangerous views about the cities’ foundation – the subject of her archaeological work – and the existence of third city, known as Orciny, and rumoured to exist within the same indeterminate space of Besźel and Ul Qoma. As the investigation progresses the truth behind her murder and the city threatens to undermine the political status quo of the authoritarian powers that be.

The result of an unexplained past event, referred to only as the Cleavage, Besźel and Ul Qoma are split into two different planes. The cities are subject to draconian laws of forced segregation: traffic between the two overlapping cities is highly regulated, and most areas are strictly reserved for either one or the other city’s inhabitants. There are certain streets, parks or squares where citizens of both cities are allowed to walk alongside one another. However, they are not allowed even to acknowledge the presence of the ‘other’. Residents of the two cities are taught from early childhood to recognise and ignore people, buildings and means of transportation belonging to the other city, an Orwellian concept known as ‘unsee’. Any transgression, even if it is by accident, is severely punished by the secretive organisation of the Breach. This hasn’t stopped both cities from developing covert counter-political movements though, such as the left-wing unionists who fight for assimilation between the two cities though.

Mieville refuses to provide hard scientific evidence as to why this split occurred or how two realities can exist simultaneously in the same space. They simply do, just as the multi-dimensional beings in Mieville’s earlier work Perdido Street Station (2000) simply exist. In many ways, Mieville’s weird spaces resemble the dimensional distortions in M. John Harrison’s Kefanuchi Tract Trilogy (2002-2012) and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014). And String Theory’s eleven-dimensional universe (and multiverse) would have to be invoked if we were to insist on a hard sf reading of the novel. Either way, Mievile has become something of a champion of liminal, urban spaces, letting the lives of his often marginalised protagonists – undesirables, hybrids and resistors – play out in the interstices of an urban landscape, whether it is sewage systems, train tracks and dark alleyways, or, as is the case in The City & The City, the literal in-between space of two cities.

Mieville adopts the format of hard-boiled detective fiction – plentiful in secretive organisations, corrupt politicians and government conspiracies – to investigate the notion of The Other in a totalitarian setting. The City & The City thus belongs to the dystopian literary tradition that include works such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Whether it is the authorities’ attempt to villainise The Other, transmuting the irrationality of xenophobia into entirely artificial constructs of nationalism, or the fabrication of a new language to develop difference, the neologism of ‘unsee’ a case in point, Mieville manages to infect every aspect of life in the two cities with fear and terror. The fact that no reason is provided for the separation of the two cities makes the irrationality of daily life all the more powerful.