In his sixth novel, The City & The City, China Miéville writes a straight up mystery, observing most of the genre’s conventions while still managing to create a new world within the world we inhabit. Miéville constructs two cities-states (Beszel and Ul Qoma), somewhere on the west coast of continental Europe, whose claims to territory interlace with each other so closely that buildings in one city can abut building in the other. Streets can be shared (or not), but have different names. Parts of town are “total” (i.e., no part of the other city intrudes in that area) or crosshatched (a mix of both cities) or “alter” (all in the other city).
Whether the mixing of the cities is literal or operates in some mystical, parallel-dimensional way is not completely clear and it’s not important. What matters is that the two cities have developed two distinct cultures that share very little. Partly the differences are about two cultures living close to one another and distinguishing themselves sharply, even if the differences aren’t as great as the cultures pretend (e.g., “NoCal” culture is so very different from “SoCal’s”). But another big reason for the differences between Besze and Qomic cultures is so that everyone can tell which city they are seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, and tasting. The languages, architecture, dress, food, music, and every thing of human construction are different enough that people who grow up there can instantly “unsee” and “unhear” the actions of people in the other city, even though they may be literally walking and talking right next to each other. The taboo against acknowledging in any way the people living in the other city is very strong and enforced by a semi-mystical group of individuals living “between” the cities and operating beyond the ordinary laws, with apparently supernatural powers; no one wants to break the barrier and, worse, there’s the sense that you’ll be seen and disappeared if you do. Crossing the “border” between cities officially means you have to now ignore your friends and notice the neighbors you used to unsee: code-switching par excellence.
Like all good science fiction and fantasy writers (some call Miéville’s specialty “speculative fiction”), he uses the literary freedom of the created world to talk about something in our own world in a new way. In this case, Miéville uses the two cities to explore cultural difference. Not being seen or heard, despite occupying spaces next to each other is something people of color and other people marginalized by our culture experience all the time. People from dominant groups have the privilege of ignoring parts of reality that people in subordinate positions can ignore only at great psychic and physical risk. Miéville’s exploration of a culture that explicitly promotes and expects—even carefully trains visitors in the taboo before allowing them travel visas—such “blindness” is fascinating. He carefully follows the logic of the idea to powerful and thoughtful effect. In the end, the bad guy has studied the cultures enough to move and talk in a way that is so ambiguous that no one can tell which city he is in; therefore, no one can truly look at or notice him, let alone arrest him.
Miéville’s prose continues to improve and his pacing works most, if not quite all, the time. The moments it doesn’t work so well reflect the problem that many science fiction or speculative fiction writers have—the problem of explaining the world (which is essentially a boring activity), while still moving the story along and keeping our interest. Nevertheless, The City & The City is a good mystery with a well-executed conceit that helps us think about the world in which we live.