BY NICO VREELAND
WARNING: This post contains medium-grade spoilers about The City & The City. These spoilers will limit your potential enjoyment of the book, but the post will limit your desire to read it, so it cancels out.]
I hate it when people energetically recommend fatally flawed books. Possibly the most egregious example from 2009 is China Miéville’s cross-genre novel, The City & The City, which just last week co-won a Hugo award for science fiction, capping off a year of rave after rave after undeserved rave.
City is half-decent sci-fi—imaginative if utterly ludicrous—but it unfortunately attempts to be detective fiction also, and as such, it is woefully inadequate. In fact, it’s been the most overhyped, overpraised mystery novel since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In the interest of stemming the whitewater tide of critical effusion, let’s take a closer look.
Reading City frustrated me more than any other book last year (even this one), because of the way Miéville seems to think his premise is his plot. In fact, he asked reviewers not to reveal the twist of the novel so that the experience of figuring it out would be fresh for his readers—but the “twist” is actually the premise, the basic information about the setting that Miéville unsatisfyingly conceals from us readers for much of the book. Well, brace yourself because the premise embargo has been lifted.
City concerns two neighboring city-states, Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are so close they share a number of roads, and their territory actually intertwines in places (called “topolgangers”). Due to … something … the citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma are forbidden to interact with, or even look at, buildings, objects or people from the other city. Which means they have to “unsee” things like cars coming in the other direction on shared roads. It sounds like an interesting idea, except it falls apart if you think about it for 20 seconds (presumably the real reason Miéville didn’t want critics discussing the premise).
Here’s the question that shatters City‘s imaginative foundation: why? Why do the citizens obey these weird laws, especially when nobody enforces them? Why did the government do this in the first place? Why why why? Miéville obviously isn’t interested in exploring the territory he lays out, only in coming up with a “weird” idea to serve as the lynchpin of a weak mystery. He never explains why these people do anything, only how they do it, which makes the novel essentially a juvenile thought experiment instead of any shade of compelling.
Fans of the book have argued that the “unseeing” echoes the way we ignore much of what happens around us. This is, of course, a terrible explanation thought up by robots from another planet. Real human beings ignore stuff because they want to ignore it, because they’re afraid of it or it’s easier not to see it, or simply because there’s a whole lot of stuff out there, and we have to ignore most of it. Real human beings do not ignore stuff because there are secret shadow police (called Breach in City) who will supposedly arrest you if you look at forbidden stuff. If there were such laws and such police, real human beings would look at the forbidden stuff all the time, probably while masturbating.
In City, Breach never even arrests people, because it would be impossibly hard to enforce those laws. Later on, we learn Breach operates in secret by looking a little bit like Ul Qoma citizens and a little like Besźel citizens, so everybody “unsees” them. It’s a cute idea, but it’s founded on the notion that every single citizen obeys every single law, even the unenforced ones, every single minute of every single day.
Here’s the biggest problem here: mysteries revolve around human nature. Motive is always the engine; it’s what detectives try to figure out and it’s what suspects try to conceal. Without the why, you might as well read an episode of CSI, where microscopes flip coins to determine guilt. All the other, more minor flaws of City stem not from Miéville’s undeniably shallow understanding of human nature, but from his complete lack of curiosity. He doesn’t care enough to explain, or even figure out, why his characters live in such a ridiculous world, and so there’s no engine in the car.
As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also the issue of Miéville’s lack of respect for his characters. The main character, a humorless detective, knows all about the laws, of course. But since Miéville conceals them from the reader, the big reveal doesn’t even involve the detective. His job is to dutifully drop obtuse hints for 100 pages, finally revealing what you’ve already figured out, but he doesn’t even know that he’s revealed it. So it’s a moment between the author and the reader, which circumvents the character, and therefore circumvents the point of writing a novel, instead of, say, a blog post.
This is a symptom of an author trying to be clever for his reader. There’s a difference between creating a world for a story—weird or not—and creating the story. A world is not in itself a story. But, as Miéville proves with City, you can fool a lot of people into liking your book if you take a world, add a bunch of obtuse weirdness, and tell critics not to discuss its hopelessly flawed core concepts. If you want a proper mystery, though with solid construction, you need to use motive as your foundation, and you need to respect your characters and your readers more than your silly ideas.