Thoughts on life after the PhD
China Mieville had me at hello. Or, rather, he had me at the opening lines of The Scar:
“A mile below the lowest cloud, rock breaches water and the sea begins.
It has been given many names. Each inlet and bay and stream has been classified as if it were discrete. But it is one thing, where borders are absurd. It fills the spaces between stones and sand, curling around coastlines and filling trenches between the continents.
At the edges of the world the salt water is cold enough to burn. Huge slabs of frozen sea mimic the land, and break and crash and re-form, criss-crossed with tunnels, the homes of frost-crabs, philosophers with shells of living ice. In the southern shallows there are forests of pipe-worms and kelp and predatory corals. Sunfish move with idiot grace. Trilobites make nests in bones and dissolving iron.
The sea throngs.”
It is these spaces in which “borders are absurd” and yet tangibly real that seem to fascinate Mieville most. His novel The Scar imagined a floating city constructed of a thousand ships, his short story “Reports of Certain Events in London” was a tale of rogue streets that vanished only to pop up in another part of the world, and his award-winning Perdido Street Station was populated with creatures who moved between temporal and physical planes of reality. With The City and the City Mieville manages to tie together his love for bizarre urban landscapes with his expert knowledge of class systems and economics, telling a story of an impossible world that nonetheless sheds light on the very real divisions and borders that are central to modern urban life.
******SPOILER ALERT–read no further if you plan to read the book, which I obviously recommend********
The City and the City takes place in two Eastern European locales, Beszel and Ul Quoma. Their inhabitants speak different languages and worship different gods. Ul Quoma is known for being the wealthier of the two. One cannot cross from one into the other without proper documentation. Their relationship is tense–the cities have a history of violent conflicts that seem not to have been resolved.
The catch? They’re the same city.
Physically, that is. Beszel and Ul Quoma occupy the same physical (Mieville uses the word “grosstopical”) space. Instead of physical borders, their citizens rely on a variety of cues, learned from childhood, about physical appearance, smell, clothing style, architecture, and accent to tell them whether something belongs to Ul Quoma or Beszel. Citizens of one city are required to “unsee” anyone and anything that exists outside of their city, with serious consequences for those who don’t follow the rules. Tourists go through a lengthy training process before they’re allowed to enter either city. A person might live on a “crosshatched” street, one in which some of the houses are “in” Beszel and others are “in” Ul Quoma–the houses in the other city, of course, she is not allowed to enter or even notice. To go from one city to the other a person must drive across the border, turn around, and re-enter.
Things get complicated when the narrator, a Beszel police officer, investigates the murder of a woman who may have been killed in Ul Quoma but whose body was dumped in Beszel, thus requiring the cooperation of both Beszel and Ul Quoman police officers. The police officer’s investigation leads him into the underground worlds of both cities, where nationalist (cityist?) movements clash with Unificationists, who want the cities to merge. There are whispers of a third city that secretly controls the other two.
Mieville has always been adept at creating mind-bogglingly detailed worlds, rich alien landscapes with just enough resemblance to modern urban blight maintain human interest. Unfortunately this time around he loses sight of the strongest aspect of his book–the landscape and the bizarre customs that surround it–and becomes bogged down in plot details so complicated that they’re almost impossible to resolve. Until its last pages, though, The City and the City is mesmerizing. With the exception of the metaphysical border that separates them, Beszel and Ul Quoma are exact replicas of modern cities–their citizens use the Internet, drive cars, carry cell phones, attend college, and speak in slang-laced dialects. And then someone is arrested for letting their eyes linger too long on something they weren’t supposed to see, and we remember that we’re in the realm of science fiction, but only just.
Ursula K. LeGuin described science fiction as “descriptive, not predictive.” Its futures, she argued, were metaphors for the present, not an indication of what we would or should become. Mieville’s psychically divided city cannot help but remind us of the metaphysical separations that divide so many cities and countries, divisions stronger than any border. How often do we consciously “unsee” certain people and places in our own environment? How carefully do we use clothing and language to separate ourselves? Are there not serious consequences–emotional if not legal–for those who attempt to cross these borders?
China Mieville writes some of the best science fiction around, mostly because he lets the story speak first and the “sci-fi” element speak second–which isn’t to say that his science fiction worlds aren’t dazzling. His work doesn’t shine a light toward the future as much as it illuminates a present-day darkness we hadn’t noticed before, constructing his bizarre cities and their equally colorful characters in a way that reveals the truth of modern urban life. His books are like a rich, hearty meal, but one that you can’t help eating again and again.
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