The City & the City

The City & the City
China Miéville, 2009

Hugo Winner - 2010 (tie)

Premise: Borlú is a detective in the city-state of Besźel, a unique place to live and to keep the peace. One investigation leads him to the edge of what can be seen and understood.

My final takeaway on this book is that it's a cool premise that doesn't really go anywhere satisfying.

The two cities of the title occupy much of the same physical space, but the occupants of each train themselves not to see the other. Some streets and buildings are officially in one city, some in the other, and some are "crosshatched" or overlapping. The inhabitants are very careful only to "see" what is in the city they are currently in, and "unsee" anything in the other. Yes, this means people are avoiding traffic accidents with cars they can't admit that they notice and other bizarre behavior. 

Breaking this rule draws the attention of Breach - both the name of the crime (acting/perceiving across the city borders) and the name of the secret force that enforces the boundaries. 

The story starts out entirely in Besźel but grows to involve both cities, political and financial conspiracies, and various groups in each place pushing for either the supremacy of one city or the unification of both. 

But in the end, it's just a decent detective story in a weird setting. And Breach (the organization) isn't all that interesting once we learn more about it. There's no reveal about why these cities have developed in this way. 

For a while, I thought the book might be building some sort of metaphor about how subcultures or ethnic groups can live alongside each other and never interact, or about how people in most cities can ignore others. And you can read it that way, but the city separation is never interrogated or elaborated, so I'm not entirely sure what the point is, other than just saying, hey, you probably "unsee" things every day too.

The resolution of the story involves this consensually split reality, but in a rather mundane way. So I'm left with, as I said, an okay detective story in a weird setting, but not one weird enough for my personal taste. 

2 Stars - An Okay Book


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