Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Thursday, October 1, 2009


The City & The City
by China Miéville

A woman is found dead in an alleyway in Besźel, and the investigation into her murder leads directly to Besźel’s sister city of Ul Qoma. The lead investigator must cross into foreign lands and contend with a different language, a dissimilar culture, and taut political tension. One city thrives as the other falls into decay. This all sounds like a pretty standard set up for an international mystery, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the twist:

Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the exact same physical space.

China Miéville’s The City & The City is easily one of the most original books I have read... which probably helps to explain why it took me so long to really get into it. When I first heard the premise, I assumed the cities would be like parallel worlds, accessed via some manner of portals or rifts in space, similar to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. But that wasn’t it at all. It was actually something far more difficult for me to grasp.

Okay, say there are two people standing on the street in front of you, side by side. One of them could be in Besźel, the other in Ul Qoma. Or vice versa. Or, they could both be in the same city. It’s all a matter of perception. Citizens in each of the cities are taught from an early age to instantly recognize their nation’s style of clothing and architecture, their choice of vehicles, their mannerisms and accents, and “unsee” all those that are distinct to the other city. Thus, people have to ignore (or, unconsciously maneuver around) half of everything they see and hear outside, unless they happen to be on a street that is fully part of their own city. If they don’t unsee such things, they’ve committed a crime, and are at the mercy of Breach, the entity in charge of policing such violations. Add in the fact that the majority of the main characters have names like Tyador Borlú, Lizbyet Corwi, and Qussim Dhatt, and you may begin to realize why I initially had trouble getting into the story.

However, once I was finally able to get past all that and begin to understand the myriad of complexities involved, I began to enjoy it. For me, the mystery itself often played second fiddle to the peculiar world Miéville created. As for the characters, the majority of them were relegated to third fiddle.1 Few possessed enough personality to really stand out without being thrown into some unusual set of circumstances.

Also, I rarely, if ever, saw the twists in the narrative coming. This was partly a product of the unique world Miéville invented, but it was also because he provided little in the way of tangible clues. Inspector Borlú’s revelations come in clumps, rather than at a slow trickle, and seldom because evidence points him in that direction. Nevertheless, each twist exhibits Miéville’s inventiveness all the more, and messes with the reader’s perceptions of perception. Sure, some of my questions remain unanswered,2 but I like books that screw with your head a bit.

The City & The City isn’t your traditional mystery, and at times, that aspect of it may leave you wanting. Nor is it what you might expect from a sci-fi/fantasy novel. (It sure wasn’t what I expected.) But with a fair share of both genres, and a whole boatload of originality,3 it’s unquestionably an interesting read.


1 Barely a notch above viola.
2 How do you tell if a foreigner is in your city or the other? And what of casual photography? It’s not like you can Photoshop someone or something out of your picture if have to unsee them as you’re doing so...
3 Just don’t look at the boat. It may be in the other city.


  1. How dare you dis the viola! Meanie.

  2. I really enjoyed "The Scar," much more so than "Perdido Street Station," but those are the only two books of his that I've read so far. Now I've got a new book to put on my "to read" list!

  3. didn't china mieville also write "un lun dun"? first book i'd read by him and quite different from anything i'd read before, but quite in line with two cities occupying the same physical space and having to unsee things. is it easier to wrap your head around a mieville premise if you've been through a previous book?

  4. That's an interesting thought, Anonymous. Perhaps the specifics of the premise might have been easier for me to grasp if I'd read earlier Miéville. Or, maybe just reading more sci-fi/fantasy in general would have prepared me.

    Although, if we take the Occam's Razor way out, the reason I had trouble was simply that I came in expecting a different treatment and ended up all verklempt.