If The City & The City is not my favorite China Miéville novel, that is only because I encountered Perdido Street Station at exactly the time I was ready for the riches it offered, and so the powerful, unforgettable experience of reading it will forever overshadow the experience of reading anything else Miéville writes. I think Iron Council possesses many virtues Perdido Street Station does not, but the latter is the novel that lives deep in my heart. It would simply be impossible for me to love a China Miéville novel more than Perdido Street unless I didn't think of it as a China Miéville novel.
And it is almost possible to think of The City & The City as not a China Miéville novel. For one thing, there are no monsters -- at least not in the sense that we are used to monsters from his previous books. This is a great surprise -- what Miéville fan, after all, doesn't know that China loves creating monsters? For another thing, the writing is lean and straightforward, with few of the meaty descriptive passages of earlier books.
But China Miéville is not only the writer of the three Bas-Lag books -- he is also the writer of the stories in Looking for Jake and the YA novel Un Lun Dun, and those works give a certain hints and glimpses toward The City & The City. (Full confession: I never finished Un Lun Dun -- just not my sort of book -- and have not yet read Miéville's first novel, King Rat.)
Writing about The City & The City in any depth will take more thought and readings than I have yet had time to give it. I also want to refresh my knowledge of the works of Bruno Schulz, one of the writers who was an influence on the novel and who provides an epigraph to it ("Deep inside the town there open up, so to speak, double streets, mendacious and delusive streets.") I first read Schulz right around the time I first read Miéville, but I read the stories as I was also first encountering the films of the Brothers Quay, and so my recollection of them is, for now, entwined with my memory of the films.
In any case, I'm also not sure how to say anything about The City & The City without giving away information that some first-time readers may not want to know. This is a problem when discussing any narrative, of course, but it is a particular problem with this book -- not only because it is, plotwise, a mystery novel, but because even revealing the basic premise could reveal more information than some readers would like -- and not just the readers who are particularly averse to "spoilers".
But saying anything meaningful about the book is impossible without giving away the premise, so in the rest of this post I am going to do so. I don't think such information lessens a first encounter with the book, but who knows. I have been surprised by people's reactions to such things before... Thus, you have been warned: Premise approacheth!
Here's the premise: The City & The City is a sort of alternate history novel in which there is a (modern, contemporary) city in what seems to be Eastern Europe that is actually two cities in one, and yet residents and even visitors are forced, through various means, to perceive only one at a time, even though everybody knows there are two (and maybe three). The cities are not separated through magical means -- this is not, as it may seem at first, a novel of alternate worlds imbricating. The two cities, Beszel (which has an accent over the z that my computer doesn't want to put there) and Ul Qoma, are separated by carefully cultivated and disciplined perceptions, and the cities have developed physically and culturally over a long time to meet those perceptions. How they have done so, and to some extent why, is beautifully and cleverly developed -- indeed, Miéville makes the premise as believable as I can imagine anybody ever making it; my brain kept trying to unsuspend its disbelief with lots of objections, but most of them were answered somewhere along the way. It's the most impressive bit of bizarre extrapolation I've encountered since I read Christopher Priest's Inverted World a year or two ago.
Some reviewers have pointed out that this premise is a kind of literalization of a metaphor (or series of metaphors) that will feel appropriate and even familiar to most city dwellers, and that's true, but I think there's more to it. The first half of the book constructs the premise; the second half deconstructs it, but it does so in a particular way. (Despite revealing the premise, I don't intend here to reveal the answers to some of the mysteries that are central to the novel's plot, so pardon any vagueness that ensues. If those mysteries were essential to what I want to say about the book, I wouldn't hesitate to discuss them, but they aren't.) What we get is not just a novel about the two-city premise, but a novel that is also about the effect of conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking. It overlapped well with another book I was reading along with it, David Neiwert's The Eliminationists, a journalistic look at fascism, parafascism, and certain types of extreme rhetoric.
Concepts can affect habits of perception, and those habits of perception can be manipulated in a wide variety of ways for a wide variety of purposes. Conspiracy theories can be a tool of misdirection and control -- used to divert attention from systems (and even conspiracies) that are more banal, insidious, and obvious than the baroque fantasies of the paranoid. I don't know of another novel that explores this idea more elegantly than The City & The City.
Ideas are, indeed, the engine of this novel. China Miéville's previous books prove that he is capable of creating complex and fascinating characters; that The City & The City's characters are not particularly fascinating is not, I think, a fault. This is a novel that exploits a different tradition, or, rather, series of traditions -- the tradition of such writers as Calvino and Borges (and Schulz) on one hand, and of police procedurals on the other. This mix brings ideas and plot to the foreground, and in this case the ideas are given life and expression through the setting in a way that is perhaps best conveyed through characters that are items within the mix rather than the focus of it. In other words, it seems to me that complaining about the lack of depth to the characters in The City & The City is kind of like complaining that "The Garden of Forking Paths" is not a Richard Ford novel.
In fact, the focus and structure of The City & The City solves a problem I have had as a reader with even the Miéville novels I most love -- at some point or another, their plot seemed to distract from their virtues. The mystery structure of The City & The City foregrounds the plot, but the second half of the book shows the mysteries to be directly related to the metaphors that are the core of the novel's philosophical explorations. The plot -- the step-by-step solving of the mystery, including shoot-outs and chases -- is itself a representation or perhaps even a manifestation of the novel's metaphysics. Thus, the pleasures of the novel's first half are the pleasures of exploring the basic premise (the double city) and of delving deeper into a murder mystery; the pleasures of the second half are the pleasures of seeing how the basic premise and the murder mystery combine to explode each other.
I am hardly the first or only person who has been known at times to state that weird fiction has a relationship to what might be perceived as metaphor that is different from the relationship mainstream or allegorical fiction has to what is necessarily perceived as metaphor -- in science fiction and fantasy, the monster is a monster first and foremost, not a representation of the id/ the evil at the heart of humanity/ the moral panic of the moment/ fathers-in-law/ whatever. This concept is fine as far as it goes, but the best SF makes it so simplistic as to be nearly meaningless, and The City & The City is the sort of book that does just that -- the basic premise is wonderful purely for its own sake and for the sake of the care with which it is conceived and explored, but the metaphors it suggests (for urban life, for certain historical and political realities, etc.) are just as important to what makes the novel work so well -- The City & The City starts with the literalization of a metaphor, but it doesn't end there, because ultimately it is not literalizing one metaphor but is, rather, literalizing an idea that is rich with metaphorical potential. It's the difference between writing a story based on the idea, "What if a guy woke up one morning and discovered he was a giant bug?" and writing the story that follows the opening sentence, "One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin."
One of the great joys of China Miéville's novels is their clear ambition to use popular literary forms for complex, intelligent entertainment, and to do so by bringing together disparate influences, sometimes purely for the fun of bringing together disparate influences, and sometimes to interrogate those influences and see what they reveal. Such an approach appeals to my own prejudices -- for instance, I love the fact that Borges was first brought to English-language readers in a translation by Anthony Boucher for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The City & The City is a cousin of that fact.
There is much more to be explored with this novel and the world within it -- the systems of authority and privilege; the representation of academia; the prose style; the suggestions it makes about how ideas of tradition and progress sculpt themselves into our streets and buildings; the relationship of Beszel and Ul Qoma to Berlin and the Balkans and so much else out here in consensual reality; the connections between texts and secrets; the etymologies and archaeologies; the allusions and suggestions. The elegance I noted before is a particular aesthetic quality -- the grace of a simple idea expressed in a way that is itself not complex, but that reveals complexity. The City & The City is an entertaining mystery novel with a setting built from a weird and evocative notion; The City & The City is a richly philosophical structure that uses the reader's imagination as a tool of inquiry. That the two sides of the previous sentence are not mutually exclusive is one of the pleasures of excellent fiction. The City & The City is an example of such excellence.