Lasting Fiction: China Miéville’s The City and the City by Karen Bovenmyer

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Lasting fiction teaches the reader something, demands hyper reality, and is populated with realistic and believable characters.  

Lasting Fiction: China Miéville’s
The City and the City

by Karen Bovenmyer

China Miéville fulfills my MFA professor Liz Hand’s observation that bestselling and award-winning fiction “teaches” the reader. Miéville, in addition to being a lifelong native of London, studied anthropology in Zimbabwe and Egypt. His Ph.D. in International Relations was earned in 2005 with the publication of Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law: He’s a socialist who has run for office. I mention these points because they’re all relevant to The City and the City, an intensely realized and vivid setting that explores two cities existing in the same place at the same time—with layers and levels on top of and interwoven between each other. As a Londoner, Miéville is intimate with the socio-cultural atmosphere of cities, as a traveler in Europe and Africa, he encountered first-hand how different and yet similar these can be. In The City and the City, we see two cities of mixed peoples with distinct cultures interlaced. We might guess Miéville has noticed similar interlacing in the very real cities of his experience and internalized these observations. It is said “write what you know” and in Miéville’s masterful hands the reader can share Miéville’s experience.

Cultures, customs, and society are lovingly depicted in this otherwise straightforward crime novel. It is Miéville’s other interests in fantasy and global politics that make this novel more than its chosen genre. Miéville has said, “I want to at least write one book in every genre I can. I’ve already written a sort of western and a sort of romance, so I wanted to write a sort of ‘police procedural’.” We, the reader, find easy access to Miéville’s setting through the familiarity of crime drama. However, it immediately deviates from the standard episode of Castle in the first chapter. Miéville’s character must “unsee” someone who is there, yet isn’t there at all, thus introducing the fantasy element of this setting. Miéville states murder mystery novels are often set in the “real world”. If we examine one of the fathers of this genre, fellow London native Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, certainly Watson’s retellings of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were set in his own modern world. I have recently re-read Doyle’s work in preparation for viewing Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, a modern-setting remake on BBC. These, like other widely popular crime dramas such as CSI, not only entertain, but also instruct. In the lasting case of Doyle’s Holmes stories, I’ve noticed these instruct on the various deviations of human nature, and also on those deviations in an international aspect. America (“A Study in Scarlet” and “Five Orange Pips”), Australia (“The Boscome Valley Mystery”), Bohemia (“A Scandal in Bohemia”), and India (“The Sign of the Four” and “The Speckled Band”) in particular. It is too early for us to guess if this same kind of internationality will mix with Miéville’s other talents to lend The City and the City the immortality the Sherlock Holmes stories enjoy, but exploring these connections between nations and a city’s placement in an international context is also present in the future Bangkok, Thailand presented by fellow writer/traveler/award-winner Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl). Could it be said that our shrinking world interlaced by the Internet and global media bears a resemblance to late empire/turn-of-the-century fiction? Thus partially explaining the recent interest in “steampunk” style fiction? So much information was coming in from previously unexplored portions of the globe—perhaps not only do all of these novels teach us about other places far away with different social structures—perhaps they also instruct us on our changing place in the world and how we fit into this global social tapestry.

Intense reality is another trait presented by the eastern European setting of Miéville’s two interlaced cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma. The way the two governments interact with each other, the differences between the office politics of the police forces, the complex race relations in each city, especially between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, all lend a sense of fully rendered reality. Add to this: modes of speech, different cultural phrases, even the kind of tea served in different cultural restaurants, and Miéville’s unlikely mystical setting exists with startling clarity and plausibility. Racism, conflict, and resource pressure are just as present in Miéville’s cities as they were in Bacigalupi’s (The Windup Girl), and we can again draw the conclusion that modern speculative fiction must engage a globally savvy reader and create for them a new setting that is utterly believable.

Miéville uses past rather than present tense and tells the story from a traditional first-person point of view (similar to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories). However, despite this familiarity, Miéville’s dense self-referential slang-and-foreign-word-packed descriptions and dialogue demand a slower reading pace. Readers appreciate and trust Miéville’s narrator to guide them through the strange new world—which he does beautifully. The characters in Miéville’s City are likeable, heroic, and honorable. As police officers, the principal characters (our point of view narrator Borlu and his Besźel [Corwi], Ul Qoman [Dhatt], and, eventually, Breach [Ashil] partners) work hard to solve the murder of a young woman, Mahalia Geary. Mahalia is not characterized as a victim, but is rather a smart, driven, troublesome American Ph.D. student who has gotten in too deep with dangerous people through her research. Even the victim character of this narrative, the murdered woman’s best friend Yolanda, has personality and personal agency. This is a human story—about how people twist the law and beliefs of others to their advantage. For most this is for a noble purpose—the others, the “bad guys,” do it for personal gain. The friendships the narrator Borlu forms with other characters (Corwi and Dhatt in particular) in this book spreads a message of hope. In Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, yes, many “bad guys” are evil or self interested. But once in awhile they too have complex personal stories that provide justification for their crimes (especially in “A Study in Scarlet”). While the reader can’t condone how they broke the law, she can understand why they did it. Such are many of Miéville’s characters—flawed and utterly believable humans trying, for the most part, to do their best.

Karen Bovenmyer graduated from the University of Southern Maine in 2013 with an MFA in Popular Fiction. She’s published science fiction, fantasy, and horror poems, short stories, and novellas. She teaches, advises, and mentors writing students at Iowa State University and serves as Mothership Zeta’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor.

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