As I attempt to shorten my TBR during 2011, I will be asking the blogosphere to pick out some reads for me. From a selection of books that were chosen on blogs in my google reader as the best of 2010, you picked an initial batch of 4. This is my review of book 1.
The City and The City won the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2010 Hugo Award, and 2010 World Fantasy Award, but more importantly it was a best of 2010 on Chasing Bawa’s blog!
I don’t read much science fiction, so what was this doing in my TBR? It has invaded my conscious by means of a drip feed of positive reviews throughout the year. Curiosity awakened, I purchased the book following Miéville’s television appearance on the panel discussing the 2010 Booker shortlist. He was such a perceptive and eloquent critic, I had to read some of his fiction.
The opening page of The City and The City places me in familiar territory. It’s a crime novel, I’m going to love it. Yet by the end of chapter one the ground has shifted beneath my feet. I’m in the city of Besźel, which is occupying the same geographical space as the city of Ul Qoma. Some areas of the space are crosshatched (belong to both), other areas are total (belong to just one area). The two cities have their own buildings, infrastructure and laws and the citizens of each must learn to “unsee” each other. It is illegal to cross from one city to the other. The penalty for “breaching” is enforced by a mysterious force known as “Breach”. People disappear, never to be heard of again.
Children amuse themselves with original games. Throwing a stone from a street in Besźel through an area of Ul Qoma to land in another street in Besźel . Technically it’s breach, but no harm is done and Breach turn a blind eye. However, if a valuable article is placed on a street in Besźel and picked up by someone in Ul Qoma, that is theft and Breach would be all over it like a rash. Yet when a woman is murdered in Ul Qoma and her body dumped in Besźel, they do not intervene. Inspector Tyador Borlú faces a difficult case. How is he going to be able to investigate a murder in a city he’s not even allowed to see?
Having accepted Miéville’s conceit, effectively “unseeing” my own spatial awareness (and I admit it took me a good few chapters to do this), the novel became utterly absorbing. Clever plotting and movement of the action from Besźel to Ul Qoma in part two and onto Breach in part three ensures thorough acquaintance with all aspects of this new world. The versatility of the allegory is thought-provoking. Are Miéville’s fictional cities founded on the experience of cities like Berlin, Belfast, Jerusalem? Who is complicit is maintaining the status quo? Or is the allegory to be applied more personally – how easily do we as individuals choose to ”unsee” the minority groups in our midst?
All in all, an original, brilliant and unforgettable piece of fiction. Like many others, I recommend it too!