China Miéville, 2009
the twelfth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Michael Fessler
Okay, this one's really good. Good enough that I thought about hiding what follows behind a spoiler link. But then I decided that, while I am about to give away the premise, this paragraph should serve as sufficient warning to bail out now if you think you might like to read this knowing nothing about it, as I did. Usually when I resort to a spoiler link, it's because I'm hiding an illustration that gives away something crucial at a glance. But for this article I'll stick to text, lest your eyes flick to something you wish you could unsee.
The library where I picked up The City & The City shelved it in the science fiction section, but I'm not sure I would class it that way. It isn't set in the future and isn't about the implications of scientific advances. Really, if you had to pigeonhole it into a genre, mystery might be more appropriate: the story is about a police inspector trying to crack a convoluted murder case. Still, I can see why the librarians made the call they did. The City & The City shares the weaknesses I've found in the other SF I've read, chief among them that the characterization is not particularly deep. But its strength is that of the best SF: it has an absolutely killer premise whose implications are inexhaustibly rich. I mean goddamn.
All right, here it is: somewhere in eastern Europe there are two city-states along the lines of Singapore or San Marino. One is the somewhat depressed Slavic city-state of Besźel. The other is Ul Qoma, now a secular state but clearly a product of the Muslim world, that was once affiliated with the Eastern Bloc and is still subject to a U.S. embargo. These two cities are in the same place. They're not simply divided by a wall like Cold War Berlin, nor merely of a disputed status like Jerusalem. They are two cities, each trying to get on with the business of being a whole, functioning city while inscribed on top of another city belonging to an unfriendly power. Here's an example of how this works in practice. The protagonist, Tyador Borlú, lives in in a house on RosidStrász in Besźel. On Ioy Street in Ul Qoma is a liquor store. RosidStrász and Ioy Street share the same physical space — that is, they are the same physical piece of asphalt. The liquor store is two doors down from Borlú's house. But it is not in Besźel. So Borlú, who is in Besźel, is not permitted to notice it. Say he's walking down RosidStrász and sees someone coming the other direction. He must subconsciously glance at her and determine what city she's in. Is she dressed in Besź blue? Is she walking like a Besź? Then he can let her enter his conscious awareness, perhaps nod a hello. But if she smells like Ul Qoman spices — if she's talking on her cell phone in the Ul Qoman language of Illitan — then he cannot acknowledge her in any way, even to himself, for she isn't walking on the same street he is. She is on Ioy Street, in a different country. All he can do (and this is mandatory) is get out of her way, lest he become an impermissible protuberance of Besźel into Ul Qoma. And if he were to do anything to betray a conscious recognition of the existence of Ul Qoma all around him — if he were to walk into the liquor store, or even look at it a fraction of a second longer than it took to determine that it was not in Besźel — he would be in breach, and would be taken away forever.
Pattern 14 says that one of the best things a storyteller can do is thoroughly think through the premise, and The City & The City is a huge success on this score. Though the murder plot isn't the most interesting thing in the world, its main function is to serve as a framework for teasing out the fascinating minutiae of how the coexistence between Besźel and Ul Qoma would actually work. What the book doesn't spend much ink on is why this story might be about anything other than itself — that is, Inspector Borlú doesn't reflect on why the situation in which he finds himself might have any resonance for readers who don't live in his fictional crazytown. But I was actually kind of grateful for that, because it let me do my own thinking, and I've been thinking about these themes for years.
For instance, the idea that you could filter seemingly unmissable stimuli out of your conscious awareness might seem fantastical, or at best metaphorical… but everything I've studied about human perception suggests that this absolutely happens, and it jibes with my own experience. I remember that when I first moved into my place in San Leandro I was horrified to discover that there were train tracks nearby, with trains blasting their whistles as they clattered by at three and four in the morning. I worried that I'd never be able to get more than a couple of hours of sleep — but before the first week was out, I just stopped hearing them, even when I was awake. And it wasn't until a couple of years after I moved in that I discovered that there was a McDonald's around the corner from my house — not because I'd never been around the corner, but because the McDonald's never registered. Now I live twenty miles up the road in Albany, and have lived here for two years, and I'm sure there must be a McDonald's nearby, and that it is in my field of vision almost every day… but again, I have no idea where it is. Ask me to pinpoint every independent taqueria within a three-mile radius, though, and I'll get almost all of them. Why? It hadn't occurred to me to put it this way before, but I think you can make a good case that the reason is this: the Bay Area is my home, and I consider these taquerias part of the Bay Area. But McDonald's is part of America — it's what Borlú would call a "protuberance" of a country that makes me feel like an alien. So, like a Besź looking at an Ul Qoman skyscraper, I just don't see it.
I suppose a less freighted interpretation is that because I'm never looking for a McDonald's, I don't bother to slot the ones that I see into my mental map. We see this sort of mental mapping in the novel, as Borlú, who as a police officer has a very detailed mental map of Besźel, finds that upon going through customs and crossing the border into Ul Qoma, he doesn't know how to get anywhere. And again, this seemed very true to life. When I moved to New York City, I left my car in California, figuring that it would be more of a hindrance than an asset; I spent the subsequent year getting around town by subway and by foot, and thought I got to know the city pretty well. Then I fetched my car to help with the move to Massachusetts, and discovered that I had no idea how to drive around New York. My sense of where things were was oriented to the subway map. I thought my favorite pizza place was far from my apartment, because I lived along the F line and the pizza place was on the Q, and getting there meant a long horseshoe trip through downtown Brooklyn. It turned out that it was a five-minute drive away, in the opposite direction from the train. And when I went there I felt like I was driving through some city I'd never been to before, because even though I recognized most of the locales I passed through, they weren't coming in the right order.
This wasn't the first time I'd had such an experience. I grew up in Anaheim Hills, California, in the northeastern corner of Orange County. As far as I was aware, it was the edge of the world. Nowadays you can go on the Internet and pull up a map and see that if you drive a few minutes east from my old house you end up in Corona, and if you drive a few minutes north you end up in Chino Hills. But when I lived there? I had no idea. We only ever went west and, occasionally, south. Our road maps all stopped at the county line. Coming home eastbound on the 91, the last exits I could name were Imperial Highway (our exit), Weir Canyon Road, Gypsum Canyon Road, and HERE BE DRAGONS. Now, being a kid, I obviously couldn't drive, but I got to know the OC freeway system pretty well just from riding places. Usually our destination was a mall, but eventually I wound up riding the freeway to my magnet high school twelve miles away: the route was the 91 west to the 57 north to Nutwood. But starting my junior year, I took OCTD buses. These buses didn't travel along the freeways, nor along the suburban surface streets I was also familiar with; they catered to their ridership, which consisted overwhelmingly of Latino agricultural and industrial workers too poor to afford a car. I got on at the Mall of Orange, and from there the bus would wend its way down streets I had crossed thousands of times but had never ridden down until now, stopping at the strawberry fields and scrapyards and Bargain Basket Markets to drop off passengers, until I had the bus to myself for the final leg of its journey to Cal State Fullerton. That was 1988, the same year as the publication of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast, set in an Orange County of the near future. There's a bit in which one character describes a Santa Ana neighborhood by saying that "it's as close to slums as we've got," to which another character responds, "As close to slums? Man, they're there." But I found that, in reality, the impoverished Orange County wasn't confined to some Santa Ana barrio; it and the affluent Orange County were interwoven. The Alan Pinkard clones I went to high school with drove the BMWs their daddies bought for them right through the intersections where migrant workers were waiting for the bus, and neither registered the existence of the other even as they shared the same space.
And, really, you didn't even need to look beyond the high school campus to see this sort of thing in action. This was a theme I originally intended to work into Ready, Okay!, but other than a few mentions of "the vague people," it didn't really take. So in 2000 I started writing another high school book, and whenever people asked me what it was about, my answer was two words: social palimpsest. See, one thing that had always rung false to me about a lot of the high school stories I'd encountered was that they posited a world in which members of different cliques were, like, aware of each other's existence. Whereas when I was in high school, I had pretty much the same people in all my classes. To be more precise: there were generally two honors classes in any given subject, making for a pool of sixty people I might have as classmates; I'd have thirty of them in any given class, but see most of the sixty at some point over the course of the day. And then a few classes might have a few people from a grade ahead of me or a grade behind me, so call it maybe a hundred people total. But still, that meant that while I might be physically on campus with 1200 people, I was actually going to school with only a hundred of them. I had this idea for a scene — not an important scene, just a throwaway moment, but one that encapsulated this theme — in which K., a geek, gets to know some non-geeks, and has something like the following exchange with a fellow geek:
|K.:||Who do you consider, you know, the "big man on campus"?|
|D.:||Hmm. Well… I guess I am!|
|K.:||(in disbelief) What?|
|D.:||Well, I cleaned up at the awards ceremony, and I kind of have the run of the place — the assistant principal gave me a master key so I can get into the computer lab on the weekends and stuff… and I'm dating the smartest girl, and I'm friends with everyone in my classes, so I guess I'm pretty popular…|
|K.:||But what about people who are really popular? Like B.?|
|K.:||He's the captain of the football team!|
|D.:||(in all seriousness) We have a football team?|
Anyway, as this project evolved it started to look like it'd wind up checking in at a thousand pages or more, so I put it on the back burner… but I was still very interested in the idea of the social palimpsest. In 2006 I thought I'd take another run at the same theme in a very different milieu — and then that one got pre-empted by another project that evolved into the thing I'm working on now. So, to be honest, what most struck me about The City & The City was that it picked up this theme that I've been interested in for ages, took it to an extreme that made for a fascinating read, and did it in a way that bore no resemblance to my own attempts, meaning that I don't have to slash my wrists for failing to finish them before they got scooped. It's a win & a win!