6/25/2016 - Reread for UC Book Club June 2016 selection.
For me the brilliance of this book isn't the plot or the characters, many of whom are types and trophes. It is the idea of two cities in the same place, because it is in many ways so true. Most cities have at least two faces. In this book, the face has two cities.
Mieville also seems to be drawing the Watch series (ie Night Watch) with a concept, but that also seems to be a debate about justice.
It is interesting to re-read this during the whole Brexit vote.
I had a lukewarm response to Mieville until I read Un Lun Dun. Prior to Un Lun Dun, I had read Perdido Street Station and The Scar. I enjoyed them, but they didn't really knock my socks off. Un Lun Dun I enjoyed more. I picked up this book on the strength of Un Lun Dun, and due to the fact that one of the groups I belong to is reading it.
Some people I know think that science fiction and fantasy are "pulp" fiction. Just stories that don't say much or comment on anything. Usually, the people I know who say things like this read Salman Rushdieor Atwood, Margaret, so I get confused by their statements. While it is true that some fantasy and SF is no more than escapist literature (and there is nothing wrong with that), much of it pushes boundaries or transcends escapist literature. It is no accident that some of the first real books that showcased homosexual relationships were in the fantasy and SF genre. Books like Benighted can make comments on race. Books like The City & The City can make comments one where and how we live.
It took me about 60 pages to really get into the story, 60 pages to realize consciously what I think I realized subconsciously. The conceit behind the book is that two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma share space. This isn't East and West Berlin, though there are references to such cities. But two different cities inhibiting the same space and time. Residents of each city are taught to "unsee", that is to not acknowledge when they see something or someone that is technically in the other city. To do so or to pass illegally between the cities is called a Breach and is punishable. The exact place of the cities isn't really clear. It is somewhere in Eastern Europe, maybe near or in Turkey. Both cities have harsh censorship codes, and one city (Beszel) is poorer and the other (Ul Qoma) is richer.
It seemed to me, 60 pages in, that Mieville is playing with an idea.
Isn't every city like Ul Qoma and Beszel? I live in Philadelphia, and a couple years back we had a very high murder rate in the city, more murders than days in the year. At one point, an idea was floated that the PA National Guard should come into the city to help the police. The section of the city where I live is relatively safe. If a murder happens, it is unusual for this neighborhood. Muggings, not unusual; but murder, yes. When the National Guard idea was mentioned, it became a topic of discussion among us morning dog walkers in the park. Most of the people, all of whom live in the neighborhood, were against the idea. It takes away city sovereignty, they said. Why do we need them, the dog walkers questioned. However, my students, many of whom live in an area of the city where there is a high murder rate and half of whom have lost family or friends to violence, thought much differently. My students were all for the National Guard coming into the city. They couldn't even let their children walk down the sidewalk or play outside.
Yet my students and my friendly dog walkers all live in the same city. In fact, some lived within ten blocks of each other. Residents in nice neighborhoods want to forget, or don't know, that outside the neighborhood things are different.
Every city has places, those "bad" places or that sub-culture the law abiding middle class citizens don't want to see. That place we "unsee" like the characters in The City & The City unsee. We only see such things when we are confronted with them on news, or even more commonly in works by people such as Elijah Andersonor David Simon. We see it when we watch THe Corner or The Wire, for instance. (And perhaps because The Wire forces us to see it that was why it was, undeservedly, the lowest rated show on HBO). We "unsee' the drug dealers in the park or the homeless person outside the Wawa, don't we?
In The City & The City one of the sub-plots is that a group of residents of both cities believe that the two cities should become one. Even that appears in real cities. In my section of Philadelphia, there is a "merry war" about whether to call it West Philly or University City. Stickers that read "University City is a marketing slogan" get put on telephone poles. Sometimes they get put on telephone poles located in Southwest Philly; something that annoys my friend who teaches Urban Studies. West Philly sees itself as being co-operated by the local Universities who have money. The same idea is one that Mieville touches upon.
This isn't to say that the novel is an allegory. It's not, or if it was intended to be one, it's badly done. In the course of solving a mystery that involves two slightly magical cities, Mieville touches on ideas and concerns that most big cities have. This is wonderful and brilliant. It's even timely.
It shows readers what good fantasy is all about. And that is, using fantasy to show us something about ourselves. Isn’t that, in part, why we read, so we can understand?