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.]
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.
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)