Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reading the Hugo Nominees: The City & The City

I've found my vote.

After getting my Hugo Voters pack and the free eBooks of the nominees, I swore to myself I'd try to read all of them before I voted. I did. I tried. But the only one I made it through was this one...and that's good enough for me.

You see, if book isn't good enough to hold my attention after the first couple of chapters, I couldn't in good conscience vote for it for an award, and most of the Nominees couldn't hold my attention for the first ten pages.

But The City & The City? I'm planning to read this one at least two more times.

I like China Mieville's work. I've read his three New Crobuzon novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council) and enjoyed them all quite a lot, so I was already planning to buy this one. And now, having gotten through my free copy, I'm going to buy it anyway--because it deserves my money.

China has a flair for the fantastic, for introducing amazing ideas with little fanfare and letting you figure out for yourself how new, how exciting this thing is...and The City & The City is a constant rise of fascination and thrill, a slow drop of the jaw as you penetrate deeper into the mystery of the story.

I think the cover blurbs do little justice to this one. Basically, this story is a murder mystery/political thriller--if you have to genre-fy it, that is. It's not actually that fantasy-ish, in the traditional sense of the word. Nothing, NOTHING, in this book, is impossible. There's no magic, not amazing technology (except for rumors about ancient artifacts with unexplained powers, which are left as just that--rumors).

The amazing thing about this story, this wonderful, enthralling story, is that it skirts so very closely to the real world.

The two cities of the title are Bes'z and Ul Qoma. These places have different cultures, languages, and histories. Bes'z is vaguely Austro-Hungarian/Eastern European in feel, with street names like "GunterStrasz" and characters named "Lizbyet Corwi" or "Vilyem Barichi." Ul Qoma suggests a more Middle Eastern feel (as the name might imply), and in addition it apparently had a Socialist revolution--it is being blockaded by the US, keeping out such worldly things as Coca-Cola.

So there are two cities. Different in so many ways...and yet, and yet, the fascinating thing is these two cites share something vital. The same physical space.

"Aha!" I hear you say. We've moved into science fiction/fantasy territory--there's some kind of dimensional rift, or a wizard did it, or...quantum...stuff!"

Nope. These two city-states, with utterly distinct cultures, languages and political situations--and some amount of antagonism--are literally in the same place. They are interlaced, weaving together physically to make a place where neighborhoods abut another country, where a single street can pass between two cities as it meanders from building to building (a phenomenon called "crosshatching"). And because these cities are in different countries, with non-cooperative governments and some level of animosity, the citizens can, legally, only be in ONE place at a time.

Let's back up here...and let's get spoilery (I'm not going to really discuss details of the story, but more my interpretation--which might ruin it if you want to make your own, unsullied, as it were, by mine.)

I used to live in Post-unification Berlin (a city specifically mentioned in the book, and dismissed as "not at all the same"). In fact, I lived within spitting distance of the remains of the wall. That wall used to mark the border between two cities that were one--two countries that shared a name, a history, and a culture but had been cut in two for political reasons. The wall fell, eventually, and the city started to heal, but the marks are still there. People dressed a little differently, spoke a little differently, thought a little differently. That wall was in place for less than 30 years, but the differences on each side were real.

Now imagine that the division between East and West hadn't lasted for 30 years, but 300. Or 1000. How different would each side be? And how resistant to unification the two halves would become...the individual identity of each side would have been defined by separation. And imagine how that would be expressed in the minds of the people--over the years, the decades, it would be utterly and completely natural to accept the way of things. It would become ingrained...and this is what happened in the Cities of Mieville's novel.

Some untold number of years ago, thousands perhaps? The cities split, or grew together, or SOMETHING, and there were two cities in one place. They resisted unification, for whatever reason, and as time passed the cities reached a status quo with each other. The established reasonably solid borders, though those borders might claim every other building on a particular street, or they might miss a certain space, and in order to protect the integrity of the split, they erected barriers. Not physical barriers, but psychological ones.

The people of each city are trained from childhood, and from all sides, to not see or sense the other city in any way. They are trained in a kind of pointed ignoring that comes near to pathological blindness. What this means is, people--real live people--who live in the two cities can be walking down the same street, next to each other, but if one is in Bes'z and the other is in Ul Qoman, they can not see each other. They must, in the words of the book, "unsee." There are cues to help with this, luckily. Differences in dress and mannerism, and of course language help mark people as in one city or the other, and architecture and even colors differ enough that mistakes are largely absent. But that's it. No walls, no barricades. Just ingrained willful ignoring of the spaces around you which aren't yours.

In the book, it is shown time and again that there is no real physical prevention of seeing, but the indoctrination of each child trains them to not pay any attention to the inhabitants of the other city. In fact, the rift is so vital, so strong, that there is a specific law and a specific organization that pertains to just this thing. Any failure to maintain your presence in JUST ONE city, any paying of attention to events in the other, results in "Breach", and the infractor becomes subject of a near mythical, seemingly all powerful organization called just that: "Breach".

It sounds mad. It sounds like something utterly impossible...until you look a little more closely at the realities of national, linguistic and cultural borders.

If we return to Germany, think about this passage from Wikipedia:

When the Wall was erected, Berlin's complex public transit networks, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, were divided with it. Some lines were cut in half; many stations were shut down. Three western lines traveled through brief sections of East Berlin territory, passing through eastern stations (called Geisterbahnh├Âfe, or ghost stations) without stopping. Both the eastern and western networks converged at Friedrichstra├če, which became a major crossing point for those (mostly Westerners) with permission to cross.

Think about that--the trains crossed into another country, where you would be SHOT if you got off...then back into yours. You could look out the windows of your train on the way to work and see another country, where you had no hope of going, where you might have family or friends that you could never meet...and get off the train, still in your own nation, and go about your day.

Or take a look at this:

See that? That little spot there? That was a little village called Steinstuecken, that for some weird political reason was added to West Berlin in the big kerfluffle that arbitrarily divided a city into two enemy states. And so it was completely isolated, an area of a few square kilometers, for vague political reasons, and if you tried to leave for ANY REASON, you would be shot on sight.

So, no, I don't think the story is that out of touch with reality. I wish it were. It's just an extreme extension of things that we all known are true about politics, people, and psychology. In fact, the extreme isn't that far off...just look at Yugoslavia.

Of course, the madness of the politics and the cities is only part of the story. Add in some corporate greed, the natural tendencies of young people to resist the status quo, and some weirded out foreigners and the book becomes a real-live story. And a GOOD one.

This was a FANTASTIC book. On top of all the craziness with the politics and the cities themselves, the meat of the story is an exciting page turner of a mystery, with likable, believable characters and a satisfying ending. So you get it all--mind-bending weirdness, police procedural and a murder mystery, all in one.

Seriously, go and read it.


Ashley said...

Ah, yes. The City & The City is awesome, isn't it? Got my vote, too. Have you read Kraken yet?

Hi, from another new GFTW columnist!


Big Jim said...

Hi Ashley! Thanks for reading.

I'm debating whether to get the Kindle version of Kraken or the Sub Press hardback...I know, it's an odd dichotomy.