Science Fiction, By Any Other Name

When China Mieville’s The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl tied to win the Hugo in 2010, I was thrilled. I had read both, and I loved both. I would have had a difficult time picking between the two. If forced, I would probably have chosen The City & The City. By a hair, just because it is so different.

In The City & The City, Police Inspector Tyador Borlu investigates a murder in his city-state of Beszel. The course of his investigation takes him to the city-state of Ul Qoma, a city whose geographical space is largely the same space occupied by Beszel. Images of Berlin or Jerusalem come to mind, but this is not a divided city, as such. Nor is it shared territory, exactly. They are in the same place, but they live as if they are entirely separate places. For instance, I might be a resident of an apartment building in Beszel. Let’s say there’s a grocery story across the street, but that grocery store is in Ul Qoma. I may not patronize that store. I may not suggest, by word or gesture, that I am aware of the store. I may not meet the eyes of any Ul Qoman citizen entering or leaving the store. The extent of any consciousness I have of their presence extends only to what is necessary to avoid bumping in to them. I may walk by the store, because I have to; the city of Ul Qoma occupies the same territory as Beszel, but although it occupies the same territory, it is not here. It is elsewhere.

When Tyador travels to Ul Qoma, he does so by traveling to the “border” which is a structure that resembles a large stadium. He drives into the Beszel entrance, a tunnel, goes through customs and immigration somewhere in the middle, and emerges from another tunnel, into Ul Qoma. Once in Ul Qoma, he cannot visit his apartment, nor recognize friends and acquaintances on the street. He can, however, call them on the telephone, just as someone in New York City might call someone in Paris.

So what the heck kind of story is this? How should it be categorized? I have seen it labelled fantasy, although there is zero supernatural content. Wikipedia, for instance, calls it “fantasy/weird.” Weird, yes; fantasy, no. Some reviewers like “existential.” A review in Amazon calls it an “existential thriller.” An L.A. Times review calls it a detective story (it is), and also surreal and metaphysical. While some may notice there is no supernatural content, no one seems to want to call it “mainstream.” They shouldn’t, because it is way too weird to be mainstream. “Slipstream” is a tempting classification, because while there is no magic, the book is definitely Not Normal.

The reviewer who came closest to nailing it was Andrew McKie, in his review, “Unseeing Is Believing,” which appeared in The Spectator, and in which he points out that citizens of the cities learn from childhood not to see citizens of the other city, and that the separation of the populations is achieved by this and fear of punishment. No magic necessary.

The City and The City is a blend of two genres: Detective fiction, and science fiction. The sciences are the social sciences: psychology, sociology, and political science. The scientifictional question being asked is, “Given the human capacity for denial, self-deception, nationalism, and fear of authority, would it be possible for two separate cultures to be organized in such a way?” Mieville makes us believe it would.

I remember a couple scenes from the book that bring home beautifully the science-fictionalness of this tale. Offstage, a car crash occurs involving cars from the different cities. This becomes a bureaucratic nightmare, as any contact between the two cities is forbidden. Although inadvertent contact can be excused, it must be adjudicated by The Breach, the scary, absolute judge, jury, and execution-wielding organization that handles all matters of illegal contact. The authorities and rescue workers must respond from the two different cities as well, and must only tend to their own citizens. This nightmarish scene alone makes me believe Mieville wants us to understand there is no magic here, no surrealism, no magic realism, and no extra-dimensional hocus-pocus at work, only that dark and idiotic magic that can be accomplished by and in the human brain.

One plot thread concerns the American parents of the victim, who come over to insist on action and justice for their daughter. Visas to travel to Beszel or Ul Qoma are given sparingly, and are only issued after the traveller has gone through a class on the history, customs, and laws of the cities, until he or she can be trusted to pretend not to see what the citizens have thoroughly hypnotized themselves not to. These American parents have some status that allows them to come over without the usual requirements. They are privileged, American, and beside themselves with grief. They have agreed to play by the rules, but of course they cannot, and they almost blow the pretense apart, because of what they can’t not see.

I read The City and The City when it came out and remember the slight confusion/disorientation I felt at the beginning, as we learn the setting. I looked for vapors or wisps of smoke that would tell me we were in fantasyland. I looked for fuzzy distortions and strange casts of light that would tell me were in physical science fiction land. At some point it dawned on me we were in the rare place of social science fiction land, the genre of 1984 (if it was set in 1948), and of Fahrenheit 451, but in new territory, a political and social turf we had not trod upon before.

It is one hell of a book, one of my all-time favorites. Please place it where it belongs, in the category of science fiction.

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