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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What I'm Reading: The City and the City

by China Mieville The City & The City
Please note: this is the first of 2 final reports on book I finished reading in 2010.

During the 2010 award season, China Mieville's The City and the City (which came out in 2009) pretty much swept the SF awards.  I had it on my to-read list because I enjoy Mieville's genre-crossing speculative fiction.  He has an extraordinary imagination, and is one of the most original writers of thought-provoking and fun genre fiction.

Enough with the praise though, because I have to say, despite my general positive opinion about Mieville, I found The City and the City only so-so.  The premise is fascinating.  The setting is a near-future city-state of Beszel in Eastern Europe.  Our narrator is Borlu, a police detective who is assigned to solve the murder of an unidentified young woman who was dumped in a park.

As Borlu begins to investigate, Mieville consciously obscures a few big facts of life in Beszel which have to do with its neighboring city-state of Ul Qoma.  I don't want to give away too many spoilers here because unravelling the relationship between the two countries is most of the fun in reading this book.  Once that is unravelled however, the book loses steam.

I think it boils down to the fact that the dystopian science fiction parts of the book are awesome.  The ideas and situations are unique, complicated, and just fun to wrap your brain around (again, I don't want to ruin the fun, so I am being purposely vague).  But, the mystery parts of the book are lacking.  I am not a huge mystery reader, but I read enough to know that this is the weakest part of the book, and since it begins with a murder, this is a glaring problem.  It might not have helped that I had also recently finished an amazing crime novel.

Basically, the book has serious third act issues.  Once the Bezel-Ul Qoma connection/relationship is fully comprehended solving the mystery is a bit cliche.  It might only be cliche though in comparison to the brilliance of the set-up.  I am not sure.  All I know is that I loved the process of reading The City and the City for 2/3 of the book, and dutifully finished the last 1/3.  Which is sad to me, because I finished feeling unsatisfied, even though I over-the-top loved the first 2/3.

Appeal: This novel is for fans of dystopian science fiction who are also not fans of a tight mystery.  It is extremely thought-provoking, original, eye opening, and satirical.  The main character is strong and well developed while the rest are more sketches or even stereotypes.  This is a first person point of view story.  Borlu is our only eyes, but his movements allow us to see all facets of this complicated story.  The setting is intriguing; it is exotic yet familiar at the same  time.  By taking the issue of nationality and country borders to an absurd degree, this novel makes the reader contemplate our geopolitical system of countries and borders.  I LOVED this aspect of the novel.  The City and the City has a very complex plot that slowly unravels.  If the reader is willing to put in the work, Mieville will lay it all out by the end.  As a result, the pace is steady, but requires patience.

Three "Words" That Describe This Book: thought-provoking, slowly unravelling plot, dystopian sf

Readalikes:  As I was reading The City and the City, I kept thinking of another dystopian sf title I read in 2010 which I thought did a better job of tackling very similar issues; in fact, that title made my year end top 10 list.  It is Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey.  Use the link I provided to read more about that book.

A few other dystopian sf titles that I would also suggest are Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and 1984 by George Orwell.

Another less well known dystopian sf title that I would highly suggest is We by Yevgeny Zamyatin,  This Russian title has been reissued by Modern Library Classics.

Readers may also be interested in learning more about international borders, managing relations in inter-border regions, and even international criminal investigations.  This link can get you started there.


Neil Hollands said...

Becky, I'm glad to finally find someone else I respect who thought this was fair-to-middling. I gave it a so-so review in one of the journals and have been feeling like I should eat crow ever since. And I've read other Mieville before and loved it. But I agree, the mystery is not very well done, and ultimately, I didn't feel like there was a great payoff for the interesting setup of the overlapping worlds either. Do try other books by Mieville if you haven't. I felt like all the awards this book got were somewhat of a lifetime achievement award for an author who had not been given any prizes previously. But then again, I know others who think The City and the City was the best thing he's ever done, so what do I know?

Becky said...

Thanks for your input Neil. I have read Mieville before and loved him. I was also surprised when I did not enjoy the book, but I happened to be with Joyce Saricks soon after I finished the book and ran my opinion buy her. She also agrees with us. So there awards people. :p