Review of “The City and The City” by China Mieville

China Mieville is a very unusual writer. If you are familiar with any of his other books, such as Perdido Street Station or The Scar, you know that he has an incredibly fecund mind that creates complex alternative worlds in which to set his stories.

This latest book, his attempt at a “police procedural” (he has said he wants to write a book in every genre, but somehow I’m guessing he’ll skip “chick lit”) is very different from the average murder mystery (or even the non-average murder mystery). It seems that the whole rest of the world exists more or less as it does now, but two cities – somewhere on the edge of Europe – exist in a quantum state. That is, Mieville sets up his cities like Schroedinger’s famous cat.

[Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment, also called Schroedinger’s paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to illustrate a problem with quantum mechanics. Briefly, a cat, a flask of poison and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal Geiger counter detects radiation, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The odds are 50/50 each hour. Since the probability of each is equal, the cat is said to be simultaneously alive and dead, although clearly, if you look inside the box, you would see the cat either alive or dead but not both. Quantum theory has been successful in spite of the paradoxes however (success being defined as the ability to predict). But it’s definitely weird.]

Schrödinger's cat

Schrödinger’s cat

In Mieville’s book, the city and the city [sic] reflect this paradox. In the same space, you are either in Beszel city or Ul Qoma. Whichever one you grew up in, you have been trained to “unsee” the other one. If you seem to recognize or interact with anyone in the other city, you will be picked up by a mysterious force known as Breach. People who have breached disappear forever, and no one knows what happens to them. And yet, somehow connections between the two cities persist. [Another principle of quantum mechanics is that of quantum entanglement. This is an amazing phenomenon by which two or more objects seem to be entangled even if they are far apart, so that one object cannot be adequately described without knowing the properties of its counterpart. Mieville invokes this brilliant metaphor for the crime investigation portion of the book.]

So what’s the plot of the police procedural?

Inspector Tyador Borlu is a middle-aged career policeman with the Extreme Crime Squad of the city of Beszel. A young girl has been found dead in a seedy part of the city, and he discovers that she was from the (superimposed) city of Ul Qoma. Thus it appears that someone has killed her in one city, and dumped her body in the other. Crossing the border without passing through immigration and undergoing training is illegal and will invoke the Breach, the mysterious force that keeps the dual city workable. Yet the Breach has not been called into the matter, and Borlu and his colleagues realize there is something bigger going on than just the murder. Eventually, Borlu is forced to go to Ul Qoma himself, and work with his counterpart there, Senior Detective Qussim Dhatt. His partner in Beszel, Lizbyet Corwi, is not allowed to accompany him, but can help via “long distance” calls.

In the course of the investigation, the detectives confront an unexpected possibility: is there yet a third city, somewhere in the spaces between the city and the city?

Discussion: Mieville has many fans for his books that, as the UK Guardian writes, are “packed with grotesque characters, gorgeous imagery, amazing monsters, political parables and intricate plotting.” This doesn’t make for light or easy reading. In fact, Mieville makes other noir look blanc. (This concept was explored by Alexander McCall Smith, writing tongue in cheek in The New York Times):

“Perhaps we need a new literary tradition – the opposite of the noir. And what would that be? Blanc fiction, I suppose. Blanc would be about good deeds and acts of kindness, rather than about crime. And even crime writers would have their place in this tradition. But rather than writing about murder – which seems to obsess them – they would write about minor crimes, such as parking offences.”

With Mieville’s deep noir in mind you can see I was delighted to find that The City & The City is much easier than Mieville’s other books. It is set in a recognizable time and place, and there are even a number of humorous references to current popular culture.

Borlu is on the phone to Corwi, describing for her what he found on the dead girl’s computer:

“Borlu: Lots of Hi Mom love you emails, a few essays. She probably used proxies and a cleaner-upper online too, because there was bugger-all of interest in her cache.

Corwi: You have no idea what you’re saying, do you, boss?

Borlu: None at all. I had the techies write it all out phonetically for me.”

The resolution of the crime itself is clearly of secondary interest to Mieville, to whom “ambience” if you will, is everything. Even when Mieville is not explaining how the two superimposed cities work, he is skilled at evoking atmosphere:

(on approaching a gang of thugs)

“They were milling as we approached, lounging, smoking, drinking, laughing loud. Their efforts to claim the street were so overt they might as well have been pissing musk.

Why, you might ask, has Mieville written a “whodunit” that is more like, as he says, a “doesitreallymatterwhodunnit?” In an interview, Mieville had this to say about the genre:

“Reviews of crime novels repeatedly refer to this or that book’s slightly disappointing conclusion. This is the case even where reviewers are otherwise hugely admiring.

… The reason, I think, is that crime novels are impossible. Specifically, impossible to end. …

[D]etective novels are not novels of detection, still less of revelation, still less of solution. Those are all necessary, but not only are they insufficient, but they are in certain ways regrettable. These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows. Until that final chapter, each of those is as real and true as all the others, jostling realities all dreamed up by the crime, none trapped in vulgar facticity. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is…’ – which no matter how necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative winnowing – but is the snarled expostulation halfway through: ‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down. How can it not be? We’ve been banished from an Eden of oscillation.

Here is where you can see just how creative Mieville is as a writer. He has created a quantum setting for a quantum narrative, as if he is saying to other crime authors, “anything you can do, I can do meta!”

Evaluation: This noir-like mystery steeped in fantastical elements is not for every mystery fan, or fan of science fiction, even though the author won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel of 2009 for this book. (This is the third time Mieville has won the award, having previously won in 2005 for Iron Council and in 2001 for Perdido Street Station.) But if you want to experience this author, this book is a “friendlier” way to do so than most of his others.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Del Rey, 2009


Hugo Award for Best Novel (2010)
Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009)
Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (2010)
Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel (2010)
World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (2010)
British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel (2009)
John W. Campbell Memorial Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2010)
Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for Roman étranger (2012)

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17 Responses to Review of “The City and The City” by China Mieville

  1. Julie P. says:

    Great review. I’m not sure it’s for me, but thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

  2. farmlanebooks says:

    I love the thought of someone dying their hair purple just to read Perdidio!

    I loved The City & the City – it stretched my imagination to the limit.

    I really hope that Mieville decides to write some chick-lit – I’d be first in the queue to read it!

  3. Marie says:

    Yay! 🙂 I loved this book. Just a great, unusual read for lots of different kinds of readers who are open to something off the beaten path! 🙂

  4. Steph says:

    I really want to try some Mieville, and I think the premise of this one sounds completely fascinating. I also think it’s pretty cool that Mieville wants to write a book from every genre!

  5. Alyce says:

    Wonderful review! I still haven’t gotten to a place where I’m ready to try his writing, but maybe someday. And I loved the play on words with “meta.” 🙂

  6. Sandy says:

    I think you and Jackie have me convinced. I’ve not read anything else by this author (not sure I’m ready to dye my hair purple!) but this seems like a good place to start. Love crime thrillers and I like something that is just a little off the beaten path.

  7. Staci says:

    All of it went right over my head!!! LOL!! 😀

  8. bermudaonion says:

    You’ve got me very curious about this author’s work. If I try it, I guess it will have to be this book, because I won’t want any piercings or tattoos!

  9. Jenners says:

    First of all, I gotta give you applause for “anything you can do, I can do meta.” Good one!!!

    Second, I didn’t understand this when Jackie at Farm Lane Book Blogs wrote about it … and I only barely understand it a little more when you wrote about it. I don’t know if I could handle this book or not.

  10. Nymeth says:

    Mieville is a very unique author, yes. I’ve enjoyed every book of his that I’ve read so far and have a feeling I’ll like this one too, especially as it’s friendlier. Have you heard of his new one, Kraken? It sounds SO GOOD it’s not even funny.

  11. JoV says:

    My interest is piqued. I have to read this. Anything that make Noir look blanc is good for me!

  12. Barbara says:

    Schroedinger’s cat has always made my head spin. As crazy as I already am, this book is all I need to force me right off the edge. No thanks!

  13. Margot says:

    I do love detective stories that focus on issues bigger than the murder but I don’t think this one is for me. Most of it went way over my head. Sorry.

    P.S. I see an advantage in missing a day in posting. It’s for people like me who are so slow in commenting that we don’t feel so bad when we’re a day late but there’s only one post.

    P.S.S. Thanks for the new word (fecund).

  14. EL Fay says:

    Thank you for FINALLY explaining Schrödinger’s cat to me. I never got it.

    This book has been on my TBR list for awhile. It totally reminds me of another book I read by a Czech writer named Michal Ajvaz called The Other City. I mean, they sound exactly alike, except this one is a murder mystery.

  15. Amy says:

    I’m in the middle of this one right now and loving it. It’s not my normal fare but so fascinating.

  16. Aarti says:

    I’ve never read Mieville before and I must admit that until very recently, I thought this author was female (EEK!). BUT I want to read him so badly- I feel he is one I would savor and thoroughly enjoy and have on my keeper shelf. Just have to get around to it first 🙂

  17. Belle says:

    So glad you enjoyed this book – it’s a book that I can so easily recommend heartily to people, whether they like mysteries, sci-fi or really good, evocative writing. I must admit, though, I haven’t dared yet to read another Mieville, because I’m not fond of noir and from the sounds of it, his other works are definitely on the dark side!

    Loved the McCall Smith article – thanks for the link!

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