China Mieville: The City and the City

This has been fairly low down on my ‘to read’ list for a long time, and I’ve kind of been putting it off. I think I was vaguely intimidated by it, because I’d read so many reviews saying how great it was. I was worried it was going to be either too clever or too grim for me. the city and the city

It is neither of those things. It is extremely clever, but it’s also very readable. It’s similar to ‘1984’ or ‘Farenheit 451’ in that the complexities of world-building are conveyed entirely through the plot, which is gripping in its own right; and it’s absolutely as well-written and as original as either of those.

I recently read an article – of course I can’t now find it, and might give an actual reward to anyone who unearths it for me – which commented that one of the distinguishing features of human beings is our ability to believe in and commit to a shared fantasy. Religion and money were two examples given. Maybe government. Possibly gender – it’s fairly likely that I would be reading something critical about gender.

‘The City and the City’ is about that – about the amazing ability of people to believe in what they’re told to believe, to frame the world in a specific way which suits the needs of their society. There are shades of the Thought Police here, but this goes beyond re-hashing Orwell; and comparisons with the Berlin Wall are explicitly debunked early on.

There are frequent comments about foreigners’ inability to understand, to fully absorb the thought patterns which are needed to live safely in Beszel (my keyboard won’t produce the proper spelling!) or in Ul Qoma. While this enhances the weirdness of the split between the two cities, it also reflects a universal truth about the dangers of attempting to study and explain a culture that is not our own. At the same time, it means that the very mindset needed to separate the two cities brings them closer than ever in their separation from the rest of the world.

‘The City and the City’ is a story about taboos, about the lengths which societies will go to to maintain the fantasies which sustain them, and about what it takes to break them. Unlike most of the books I enjoy, it is not character driven: even the first-person narrator is sketchily drawn, and few of the other characters are fleshed out in any detail. But it is driven by psychology, and that held my attention all the way through.


2 thoughts on “China Mieville: The City and the City

  1. pdcawley

    It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking read. I kept thinking ‘But how did Besźel get like that?’ Answers like “It just is, and always has been” seem like such a cop out, no matter how fascinating the thing is.


    1. I didn’t read it like that, more ‘there’s a long and fascinating story there which there isn’t time to explain here’. I think there are a lot of hints and a lot of opportunities to form one’s own head-canon, including definite suggestions that there was a Time Before and it wasn’t very nice.

      I do appreciate that not everybody reads it in the same way, though. My partner found it immensely frustrating that there was never a scientific explanation of how it all works – which would have spoilt the magic for me completely.


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