Monday, 14 June 2010

The spaces in between - The City and The City

The City & the CityHow does one review a book that is a mystery set in a city that is, at its heart, also a mystery? Where the author hides and obfuscates; only slowly revealing what a strange framework the characters walk in? As obligation demands that one does not reveal too much, the answer must be “carefully”.

Having previously read some of China Miéville’s writing, I was aware that anything might happen in this book. Borders and boundaries are his fascination and blurring bending breaking them his mission. Where is the boundary between science fiction and fantasy? Where is the boundary between Beszel and Ul Qoma? Where are we now?

The City and The City is a book that is ultimately about liminal spaces, of limits, of being in limbo or out on a limb, of life on the borders, standing on the shore neither on land nor at sea. Nature’s edges are rarely hard and fast but fluid; life does not come in chapters; morality is seldom black and white but gray. These two great cities are so entangled that visitors need extensive training before they are allowed to walk the streets without breaching, of moving from one city to the other illegally.

Miéville holds a mirror up to how our own cities feature coexistent yet hidden cultures. Who among us has not unseen a beggar? Turned a blind eye to poverty or playground politics? This unseeing of societies is a common theme in urban fantasies. Think of Neil Gaiman’s underground culture in Neverwhere – an idea that Miéville parallels more closely in his latest work “Kraken”, set in a London full of secrets and strangeness.

A small change in perspective can bring about a quantum leap of perception. Drive from Ilkley into the heart of Leeds and you will see almost constant urban development and sprawl. Take the same journey by train, which parallels the road, and see countryside and woodland all the way in. Which is the true picture? Miéville’s characters instead experience conscious myopia, refusing to see people and places outside their own windows, until they cross the border back into their own city that is not their city and see what was there all the time had they but let it.

Miéville also likes to transcend genres. Is The City and The City science fiction - speculation about a possible - or fantasy - speculation on the impossible? Much of his work falls into the sub-genre known as “New Weird”. Derived as a reanimation of the style of the 1930’s magazine Weird Tales, it mixes fantasy, science fiction and horror in equal measures. For a change Miéville leaves out the monsters, but I read the book constantly wondering if would fall into one or other of the remaining camps or remain in a cross-hatched area.

I am still wondering.

No comments: