In which Netty gets a little hot under the collar about China Mieville …January 2, 2013
A few years ago, Andy dragged me along to a Melbourne Writer’s Festival event featuring British sci-fi authors Alastair Reynolds and China Mieville. (You can read what Andy had to say about it right here: https://wellreadweare.wordpress.com/tag/china-mieville/) At the time, I wasn’t much of a sci-fi aficionado – indeed, I’m still not – but I tagged along anyway, thinking I could at least get a couple of drinks out of it afterwards. So I was pleasantly surprised to find it as engaging as I did; from both authors, but particularly Mieville, who is – let’s not mince words about it – hot. Even for a bald guy. He’s also intelligent and funny and political (left-wing, of course) and he has ridiculously buffed arms. Andy tells me he gets a bit narky when people want to talk about his arms. Then quit pumping so much iron at the gym, dude …
So, it’s no surprise to find that Andy (who I think secretly admires China’s arms as much as I do) has read pretty much all of Mieville’s output (10 novels, a bunch of short stories, a couple of comic books and a raft of academic essays), while I have read, uh, none. Until now, that is. I chose The City & The City primarily because it has been on my bookshelf for a couple of years, and it’s been there because it’s not a true science-fiction, as such. Mieville is largely considered a sci-fi/fantasy writer, but that does his broad and eclectic oeuvre something of a disservice; the man himself has described his work as “weird fiction”.
And City is certainly a real melange – it’s a detective noir, a crime procedural; it’s speculative fiction; it has historical and dystopian elements. The many blurbs on my copy compare Mieville’s writing to that of Kafka, Orwell and Borges – and yes, he treads in their footsteps with ease. Most importantly, it is an engaging and engrossing read; it is smart without ever shooting itself in the foot, with a complex, but not over-complicated, storyline. And the (invented) languages that permeate the text are a clever touch, but also easy to follow. In short, there’s not much going wrong here at all. (There’s also a rather lovely picture of the author on the inside back of my copy, his guns a-blazin’ under that tight, black T-shirt – of which I make note purely for interest’s sake. Errr …)
The book gets its title from the dual cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma (channelling echoes of pre-1990s Berlin and East Berlin), which are located somewhere in southeastern Europe. The two cities are situated next to one another, even sharing some of the same geographical space – but, as Rudyard Kipling once mused, never the twain shall meet. The cities’ respective citizens are schooled from birth to “unsee” the other’s people, places and architecture, whilst still being aware of their existence (particularly crucial in the “crosshatched” areas). Any transgression of these rules is considered “breach”, with a shady, much-feared organisation of the same name that oversees both cities coming down hard on offenders.
As the novel opens, Inspector Tyador Borlu, of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad, is investigating the murder of a young woman who has been brutally beaten and dumped at a run-down estate. Her body is discovered by a group of drugged-out teens who witness a beat-up van dropping off the woman’s body. With the investigation hitting a series of dead ends, Borlu receives an anonymous phone call from Ul Qoma suggesting the woman – an American archaeology student named Mahalia Geary who was attending university there – was killed as a result of her involvement in underground political groups. Quickly realising it is a matter over the heads of the local constabulory, Borlu takes the case to the Oversight Committee in an attempt to invoke Breach, only to be knocked back.
Forced to continue the investigation himself, Borlu is sent to Ul Qoma to work alongside Senior Detective Quissim Dhatt. Together they discover Geary had made enemies in both cities after publicly championing Orciny, a supposed mythical third city that is said to exist between Beszel and Ul Qoma. But as Borlu and Dhatt dig deeper – and as Geary’s best friend Yolanda Rodriguez, and then academic David Bowden, author of a banned book on Orciny called Between The City And The City, go missing – the investigation becomes a race against time.
The City And The City is certainly the most enjoyable read I’ve had for a while – I reckon since Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, and probably a lot of what I had to say in favour of that book would apply here, too, even though they are very, very different beasts. Like Myra, it’s just a great read. And for a non-sci-fi head like myself, this was an excellent introduction to Mieville’s work; I am very keen to read more and soon (and possibly spend some more time gazing upon the splendid vision of the best guns in literature … damn, I keep getting sidetracked by those bloody arms!) Keeping in mind my limitations with the sci-fi genre, Andy has recommended Kraken for me to tackle next; I am certainly keen on the very sci-fi Perdido Street Station (and its companions in the Bas-Lag trilogy), but at 800 pages, that’s gonna have to go on to the backburner for some time.
So if you’re looking for a book to take to the beach with you this summer (or if you’re curling up in front of a roaring fire, dear, wintry northern hemisphere readers), you could do a lot worse than The City And The City – or indeed Mieville’s other offerings, depending on your genre bent. And did I happen to mention the … OK, I’ll shut up now …