I have a sort of…rocky experience with China Miéville, and just like the last time I read one of his books, this one backed up my booklogging unreasonably. Unlike the last time, however, this book didn’t depress me to read! The City & The City is a mystery story with a strong flavor of police procedural in a close parallel to our modern day world, so close that it’s difficult to tell it apart from our own. In that world, however, there is a city-state in Europe that has existed since the days of ancient history as a city divided; half of its denizens claiming themselves to be in a city known currently as Beszel and the other half in a city called Ul Qoma.
Each has distinct governments, cultures, architecture, fashion, and languages, and they lay side-by-side, street-by-street, with some parts designated to one city and some to the other, overlapping only where absolutely necessary and intersecting only at the cities’ center. In maintaining this fiction of two cities occupying the same space, residents and even visitors to the city are required to only see and interact with people in Beszel when they are in Beszel and Ul Qomans when they are in Ul Qoma. Any violation of this mass mutual agreement to ignore one another is dealt with by a powerful supra-city enforcement organization known only as “Breach.”
Our protagonist is a homicide detective in Beszel, dealing with a murder victim whose origins are unclear. Every step along the way of his investigation brings him dancing closer and closer to Breach, and then steps away from it again, and Miéville represents that tension extraordinarily well. As a murder mystery, it holds its own, with the world-building supporting the tension of the story and the story supporting the frisson of suspension of disbelief…but in the end the latter failed for me. Miéville’s world leaves too many questions unanswered, and at the same time doesn’t push hard enough at the boundaries of “what will reality support” for me to feel like it’s really the best SF one could recommend. I have no problems with the tie result last year that gave this book the Hugo, it was definitely the second best on the ballot and a worthy choice, but it wasn’t mine. Still…recommended for people who like urban SF and maybe for people who like police procedurals and murder mysteries but don’t read a lot of SF, and definitely good enough to put Miéville back on my list of authors I’ll check in on again later.