The City & The City
Reviewed by Geoff Nelder
I could see, then unsee, why this is science fiction and yet not.
This book arrived on my shelves enveloped in controversy. It had just been awarded two science fiction awards, nominated for more, and yet journalists were asking if it was really science fiction or just a crime novel with added dimensions. If I thought it was akin to when Margaret Atwood is in denial of her obvious-to-most science fiction writing, then I’d be wrong: China insists that everything he writes is science fiction and that any discussion of such niceties is ‘silly’. But it isn’t silly when he wins awards set aside for science fiction works.
Reading the blurb, I was both pleased and gutted. Pleased anyway because I relish China’s love of the art of writing. I am not one who thinks the author should be invisible and there are phrases China uses that makes me stop and admire his skill. Pleased also because of the premise: two cities occupy the same physical space and yet the occupants of one city ‘cannot’ see those of the other; nor their buildings and vehicles. I was gutted because it seemed to me this is a story where parallel universes meet at a city-size intersection, and I wanted to write such a story. The two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, have different architecture, language and social mores yet share knowledge of the rest of the world. So they all know who Tom Hanks is, and can travel to the same Britain, Canada and the US. The notion of parallel universes and a possible intersection is certainly a concept within the bounds of Quantum Physics and hence science fiction. For an undeclared reason it is illegal for the citizens of either city to see each other. It appears that if this happens they commit a breach of protocol and a particularly powerful body called Breach punishes them. This becomes complicated because how can someone drive along a road that is in both cities but has to unsee vehicles and buildings belonging to the other city? Accidents happen and Breach swoops. To me there are many contradictions in this aspect of the plot – it is too easy for naughty children to throw stones at windows of either or both cities, committing Breach all over the place. CCTV is referred to but the logical consequences aren’t. That is: how can anyone view a photograph of the city without noticing cars, people and buildings from the other city?
But wait. First let’s praise where it is due.
Mostly, this is an extraordinarily well-crafted crime story with three main characters – police from the two cities – who are alive and credible. You can tell who is talking from their speech patterns and mannerisms, faultless. Love the idea that a policeman from one city is needed to help solve a murder that takes place in the other. The victim is crucial to unravelling the mystery of the two cities and it seems there are groups eager to keep the secret. China does a terrifically moving job of making the two detectives distrust then come to admire each other, in their own way. Brilliant. Generally, an author has his work cut out to describe one unique city so that the reader believes they are there, but here two cities are created in the same spot. Excellent and original. I would have liked more flesh on the character of the protagonist, Borlu. We are told he has two women, who don’t know each other but we feel more for his assistant. There are times when he should be scared stiff yet isn’t. When his Breach officer is shot, he should have been worried that the other Breach would suspect him but he seems to be unaware. I like his character though I think I made up more than was revealed in the novel.
You need to have a good imagination to appreciate The City & The City and to keep having one to the end. It isn’t a light read even though it is fast paced. I’d like to say that I walk about my own city (Chester) wondering if I am in another parallel city but hadn’t noticed before. Yes, we all go through life half blind to architectural niches in a too-familiar town, but it isn’t the same. The inhabitants of both cities in TC&TC have been indoctrinated from birth to unsee the other and know they have been. This is hard to take on – it lacks credibility in a modern society with TV and international travel even with a tough Breach enforcement.
If having two different cities occupying the same geographical space isn’t hard enough there may be another, Orciny, which was there before the two started. There is a hint that an alien force created the conditions for Beszel and Ul Qoma to develop separately and unseeing from the ancient original. If anyone discovers the truth there could be disastrous consequences – in my imagination and with Quantum Mechanics in mind, I thought perhaps the true knowledge of each other might snuff out one or both. Rather like a Schrödinger Cat experiment. Because of Breach and indoctrination, such thoughts are outlawed, but there are factions. Great geopolitics here, with groups wanting unification, others demanding either Beszel or Ul Qoma as the true city.
Before I say why the ending disappointed me, I have to praise the writing. Breach are specially trained security – they are expressionless, reinforced to make them different to the normal police of either city. “Their faces were without anything approaching expressions. They looked like people-shaped clay in the moments before God breathed out.”
Phrases I wished I’d written: “Silence went through the room, leaving itself behind.” “…was addressed to me, prisoner, condemned, consultant.” The juxtaposition of opposites there very well done, and when you read it in context, apt.
Maybe it is because I jumped to the parallel QM conclusion too early and eagerly waited for such an exposition, I was becoming anxious near the end. By half way I’d written it differently – I’d have had the messing with the seeing / unseeing of and by the citizens of each city create a sudden coming to a mathematical point, an elimination of one or both. In the end, nothing so exciting (for me) happened. It kind of fizzled out as if China didn’t know how to finish the novel – an outrageous point of view I know, and improbable. Right from the start, the QM aspects kept the book firmly as Science Fiction. Then, in the last few pages we find that it was all a con. No parallel dimensions, no QM, Breach and the indoctrination is all that keeps the two cities going. What? That to me is far too contrived. I cannot believe a dual system kept in place by force and culture like that. Fair enough, Apartheid kind of did, but in an obvious way, not with unseeing and all the contradictions that throws up. I am disappointed at the end, but I would struggle to say the novel isn’t Science Fiction. In many ways it is with the original concepts, alt history, and possibilities.
The City & The City is a great crime story for readers with intelligence and admiration of lateral thinking. Maybe it is worthy of the Clarke Award, but I hope it isn’t a sign that future Science Fiction will follow suit. Not that I want all my SF reading to have aliens and rockets, but I don’t want to watch a film of Raiders of the Lost Ark to end with a ‘sorry there was never an Ark in the first place’ either.