Two weeks ago I hadn’t read any books written by China Miéville. Now, after finishing The City & The City, I want to read them all. The story is a grimly noir tale set in a fictional Eastern-European city. However, the city, Besźel, occupies much of the same space as another city, Ul Qoma. That is, the two cities occupy the same physical area, split only by its citizens unseeing and unsensing the other city. Since their historical separation, the cities developed different architecture, clothing, food, and language. Citizens grow up learning to avoid crossing the road onto a street that, for them, is international. Even to look and acknowledge the architecture of the other city is illegal - a crime worse than murder. This is the international premise of the detective drama that unfolds.
China’s writing is fantastic. Between diegetic neologisms such as grosstopical and the otherworldly suggestion of Breach, struggles of a crosshatched city become vivid. The characters employ a range of different languages and accents, as well as different fashions and gaits; it’s a meticulously portrayed world, down to the detail of Besźel’s frothy mock-Ul Qoman tea. Alternatively, the prose becomes far more esoteric when describing the forces of Breach, with Detective Borlú unable to understand or describe how they move. And many of these questions remain unanswered. It serves to well balance the murder mystery realism and science-fiction fantasy.
I was prompted to read China’s books when I saw his name mentioned in a list of science-fiction writers. Other contemporary sci-fi writers, the article read, such as VanderMeer, Miéville , and Atwood. Being familiar and a fan of the other two writers (both have trilogies I highly recommend, Annihilation and Maddaddam respectively) I felt obligated to seek him out. The first book I found was his recently released, non-fiction tome on the Russian revolution, October . It threw me off. China is not only an established and award-winning sci-fi author, but has also written on the subject of Marxism, Russia, released comic books, and even a children’s book. It’s undeniably impressive.
The narrative of The City & The City is ignited by the discovery of a body, found in one city but killed in another. It’s a now, perhaps, familiar premise of jurisdiction conflict but the novel delivers far more than the bravado of competing crime divisions. Ul Qoma and Besźel struggle to deal with the incident whilst trying to deter the omnipresent force of Breach. As the narrative progresses, and without giving much away, the rumour of a third city, one hidden between the two, changes the dynamic of the investigation. It’s completely fascinating to consider and read. Breach as an organisation or force aren’t wild, they’re lawful. Some of the story’s finest points, for me, came from the understanding that Breach don’t care if someone smuggles contraband across the border as long as they cross that border legally. That’s a police issue. But if someone shakes hands with a person in the street, Ul Qoman with Besź, that’s breaching, and they’ll be taken.
Now, I’m in the wonderful situation whereby I have newly discovered a writer. I get to look forward to finding and reading each of his books. Alongside that, The City & The City has been adapted into a four-part drama for BBC 2. Set to be released this year, it has been adapted by the fantastic Tony Gisoni who, besides a great history with Terry Gilliam, helped create Red Riding as well as the adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s novels, Electric Sheep. Tom Shankland, who has directed episodes of House of Cards and The Punisher is set to direct the show. I haven’t seen his film WΔZ but seeing other projects he has been involved in, I think it’s a good match. I am curious to see how they deal with unseeing. Perhaps it will employ a technique similar to Dunkirk whereby the German soldiers seldom (if ever) come into full focus.
In hindsight, I think The City & The City is a perfect novel to be adapted. China’s world felt so visual on the page and so readily imagined. It felt similar to VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the trilogy that’s about to get an even grander adaptation through the vision of Alex Garland. Both stories are enigmatic and otherworldly, narrated with drive and adrenaline. I hope both are translated well. I, now, excitedly look forward to reading China’s The Last Days of New Paris that sits on my desk. The synopsis tells me it’s a wartime, alternate-reality story that deals with surrealist artists in conflict with nazis. Not only does the premise make me eager to discover this new world but it is another reason I am very interested to see what China writes next. In both cases, I have no idea what to expect.
Words: Leon Frey