Thursday, June 29, 2023

Review: The City and the City by China Mieville

The setting of this otherwise fairly cliched police procedural is a pair of cities that share a geographical location but refuse to acknowledge that fact. Citizens of the two cities walk the same streets and breathe the air, but carefully ignore the people and buildings of the “other” city, learning from birth the architectural, ethnic and fashion traits that distinguish the two cities. Why are the two cities like this? The cleavage of the cities predates written history, and is never discovered. What keeps the two cities apart? A shadow court with absolute power might sick a SWAT team on you if you gaze for too long at the wrong building.

Given that the cop drama starts a little ho-hum (no-nonsense alcoholic cop, young woman shows up dead, the whodunnit turns into a matter of jurisdiction) while the setting is so unique, the book seems positioned to make a political critique. After all, we can live in the same location as others but experience the location wildly differently. Race, wealth, gender all shape how comfortable we are in a particular setting, what actions or locations are open to us, and what actions or locations are threatening. Glimpses of a political critique appear here and there throughout the novel: one city is embargoed by the United States and aligned with Mao and the Black Panthers and economically thriving, the other is on friendly terms with the US while its infrastructure decays. But beyond these symptoms of political differences between the two cities, there is no mention of actual political difference, discussion of how these differences arose, or how these differences impact the citizens. Indeed, the people of each city seem remarkably culturally similar: each city has its own language but the differences end there. The two cities hold no animosity towards each other; their relationship is more like two awkward strangers that would rather not have to sit next to each other on a bus. There’s nothing like what typically, historically, separates feuding states: religion, differing opinions on the role of private property in society, genocidal intent. This absence is made all the more stark by the explicit mention of “border cities” like Berlin and Jerusalem.

So the fact that there appears to be nothing preventing the unification of the two cities (even for the sheer convenience of being able to go to the coffee-shop next door without having to first cross the border 5 miles away) but an ethos that “it has always been this way” plus the fear of the shadowy mob accountable to no one appears to be the point of the book. It winds up feeling a little empty, like a night spent passing around a joint musing “isn’t it crazy that there’s unspoken social rules that you just, don’t, like, question, man?” The detective plot echoes this conclusion: for a moment, it seems like perhaps there is a third city unbeknownst to the other two, a new world to explore. But no, a faceless American corporation was just stealing things and murdering people for profit, like they do in countless far less unique locations around the world. “Isn’t it crazy how like, evil, corporations are, man?”

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