One never knows exactly what you are going to get when you pick up a new novel from the genre-breaking China Miéville. His surreal urban stories have defied easy categorisation into straight SF or Fantasy, spawning the entirely distinct sub-genre of “new weird” in his ongoing rebellion against Tolkien-style fantasy. But more than this, Miéville is always looking to experiment with other literary genres and The City & The City is his homage to the classic police procedural.
Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad is investigating the murder of an unidentified woman, at first glance just another unlucky street walker in the decaying city of Beszel. But the more Borlu digs, the more he’s convinced that this woman is not where she’s supposed to be and that he has stumbled across a dangerous conspiracy that could cost him his own life.
And this is where it gets new weird.
Existing side-by-side, in the same physical space as Beszel is its twin city, Ul Qoma. Two cities separated not by geography but by social convention, enforced by the all powerful body known as ‘Breach’. So while one house on a street might be part of Beszel, its neighbour will have an Ul Qoma address. Not only this, but the inhabitants of both houses will go to great lengths to ignore, or ‘unsee’ each other, even as they share the same roads and public spaces. This social division is imprinted from a young age, with children learning to unhear, unsmell and unfeel everything not of their own city and enabled by city-specific colours for instant unrecognition.
Where most authors might reach for the standard SF or Fantasy tropes of parallel or magical worlds to tackle the idea of cultural segregation, Miéville uses the more difficult but exceedingly more powerful approach of an extended metaphor. The result is not only an intense and sustained commentary on self-imposed divisions in modern cities, but also a cracking murder mystery with the likeable and intelligent Inspector Tyador Borlu at its core.