|20 July 2016|
Here’s a general rule: You can have science fiction thrillers, you can have science fiction crime stories. But science fiction cannot be detective fiction, because detective fiction has to have its roots in reality i.e. in the present or the past. Science fiction generally has its basis on the future.
Here’s the exception: China Miéville’s ‘The City and The City’.
I read a bit of fantasy and science fiction, and Miéville is my favourite writer (of weird fiction as he calls it). Like a few others that I have mentioned in these columns, Miéville is a literary fiction writer, who uses the vehicle of fantasy and science fiction to advance a story of human condition. While that might seem dreary to many regular detective / crime fiction readers, let me assure you that Miéville is never boring, and never a difficult read. Miéville had made his mark with the New Crobuzon / Steampunk novels, but has tried his hand at teen fiction (the excellent Un Lun Dun), and at hardboiled detective fiction – which is The City and The City.
I will explain the basic construct of the novel – this recommendation would not make sense otherwise.
Question: You know about twin cities. What will happens if a couple of Eastern-European twin cities have been standing for well-nigh two thousand years, and have developed independent cultures, behaviours and customs which are independent and completely different from each other? Like two different countries with borders and independent laws?
Now, imagine that the twin cities have not been standing next to each other, but within each other, in the same geographical space.
Whoa, hold on! How is that possible, you ask. Let’s assume that the citizens of each city have been accustomed to consciously ‘unsee’ the people from the other city for the last two thousand years. Not just the people, but the buildings, the road signs, even things that are happening in the other city, even if they are right next to oneself. And if anyone doesn’t consciously ‘unsee’, there is this shadowy and extremely powerful organization called ‘Breach’ that will penalize the person – basically it’s the watchdog that ensures the sanctity of the two separate cities. The cities are called Besźel and Ul Qoma.
What you have next is a hardboiled police procedural. Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad of Besźel, is a gruff, bitter man, yet is the archetypal straight arrow cop. He investigates the death of a girl, a foreigner to the twin cities, in a street in Besźel. We find that she, Mahalia Geary, was heavily involved with underground political agitations in both Besźel and Ul Qoma. Was she killed in Ul Qoma and dumped in Beszel? Why? Why are there so many disturbances to his investigation? And why is there this uncomfortable silence around the one theory that Geary seemed to be desperately interested in – that of a third city within the cities, the mythical Orciny? Does it exist?
The City and The City is a hardboiled mystery of the truest Chandler – Hammett tradition. Being a police procedural, it is thematically somewhat similar to Ian Rankin’s classic Inspector Rebus stories. Miéville’s clipped, classical writing style suits the genre perfectly. In fact, writing it any other way would have taken the story on flights of fantasy, but not this story. This is strongly rooted to the immediate.
The political connotations to the novel are evident – we are all at fault of unsee-ing so much of the world that does not affect us; there is big brother / breach as the unseen, unspoken-of power watching over the common people. But having discussed this novel with readers of political fiction, and of fantasy, I indeed feel that the mystery reader will be having the most enjoyment reading The City and The City.
I loved the novel. And I recommend it to everyone who would like to challenge themselves with an expertly written, masterfully plotted, genre-bending work, which is a page-turner, a genuine thriller nonetheless.