Review: The City and the City

May contain spoilers.

China Miéville is one of those authors whose works I see mentioned frequently but have never gotten around to reading. He's a heavy hitter in the "New Weird" genre, which has roots in the pulp horror published in magazines like Weird Tales. Turns out New Weird isn't strictly horror, but incorporates elements from science fiction, fantasy, and horror in an effort to subvert and unsettle.

The City and the City is low on horror and written in the style of a hard-boiled, noir detective story. A perfect introduction for a scaredy cat like me, in other words. It starts with a murder, and through the eyes of Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad, we get to explore two neighbouring cities that co-exist in a bizarre kind of geographical superposition.

Set in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the titular cities feel incredibly real, once I got to grips with Miéville's neologisms. Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in a world that's a perfect replica of ours, as far as I can tell. There are references to Microsoft Windows, Chuck Palahniuk, and Michel Foucault. The vivid and sensual imagery evokes memories of the sprawling city of Budapest. There's also a relentless sense of paranoia, of being watched by forces unknown, that I've rarely encountered in other books.

The ubiquitous descriptions of "unseeing" in the story represent fairly obvious social commentary, but they are never preachy or ham-fisted. It really drives home how this kind of psychic blindness—for want of a better phrase—is deeply ingrained in us. There is a tendency to ignore, or avoid engaging, people and things that don't directly affect our daily lives. This is a timely reminder for me to pay closer attention to the things happening around me, and to overcome apathy and resignation. There is a fine balance to be struck between maintaining a healthy distance from news cycles, and being a responsible member of civil society.

I definitely felt some echoes of George Orwell's 1984. While we don't see the Orwellian abuse of language here, there is a similar kind of cognitive dissonance going on. Even as they share the same topography, all citizens have to "unsee" and "unsense" anything that doesn't belong in their own city. Anyone who fails to do so is in breach, and end up at the mercy of the sinister deep state known as Breach. I was struck by how plausible it all seems, how no fancy magic or technology is really needed to recreate such a society. We also see how individual mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, rather than principles and values, form an integral part of national identity. Besz and Ul Qomans can spot outsiders by their attire, belongings—even by the way they walk.

This story is predominantly about the setting, but everything else is excellent. The plot is well-paced, requiring some attention while still being easy to follow. The prose is crisp and punchy without being skeletal, and really emphasises the "noir"-ness of the setting and genre. The characters, while fairly one-dimensional, are nicely written and keep the spotlight firmly on the intriguing setting. We're able to inhabit Borlú's character and really experience the cities. The dialogue feels remarkably natural. The storytelling is organic, free of clumsy exposition and info dumps.

Overall, The City and the City is an incredible read that deserves every bit of hype it gets. I'm looking forward to exploring more of Miéville's work, once I manage to steel myself for the purported grotesque and stomach-churning stuff.

Day 10 of #100DaysToOffload

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