In spite of a pretty fervent dislike of the idea of book groups, I recently decided to participate in one. In February, each of us read a different “elastic realism” book, and then we all got together to talk about the different books we read. It was great fun. My elastic realism choice was China Miéville’s The City and the City, which is essentially a murder mystery set in two fictitious cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma.
These two cities occupy the same geographical space, but are very separate and distinct places: to live in Besźel is to speak Besź, to see only Besźel, and to unsee and unhear everything and everyone living in Ul Qoma, who might be passing by on the street. Besź people dress differently than Ul Qomans, they have different postures, they walk differently, and they speak different languages. The separation between the cities is maintained by this strict code of unseeing, and for those who violate? Breach is watching, and waiting.
For a Besź citizen to visit an Ul Qoman neighbor – who might even live in the same apartment building – he would have to travel to the center of Besźel, seeing only Besź people and buildings and speaking only Besź, all the way to Copula Hall, the only official border crossing between the cities. After passing through the border into Ul Qoma, he would return over many of the same streets, differently named, seeing only Ul Qoman people, all the way back to perhaps the same building he was in before leaving Besźel to visit his neighbor. Of course, such a visit would be highly unlikely, given the tension between the two cities.
While reading this book, I found myself driving home from work and trying to “unsee” someone passing on the street, because the whole idea was so curious to me. (It didn’t really work out. The amount of thought that went into the process served rather to cement the image in my mind.) (I also found myself thinking how great it was that there were Zs and Qs on practically every page!)
When a body is found, disfigured and abandoned, on an estate in the outer reaches of Besźel, the investigating officer, Tyador, can’t find a single lead in Besźel. One day an anonymous phone call leads the investigation to Ul Qoma, and Tyador must cross into Ul Qoma to assist their police. What begins as a murder investigation soon becomes an investigation into the urban myths surrounding the beginnings of Besźel and Ul Qoma, and into the places that fall between the city and the city.
One of the things I love most about fantasy and science fiction is that it gives us a way of examining parts of our world outside the boundaries of what’s accepted and taken for granted, so expertly described in this article from the Guardian.
So, in the whole of my reading of Mr. Miéville’s book, I was thinking about what he was trying to say. I always think readers’ guides at the backs of book are kind of dorky – like you’re being told what to think about something. But I skimmed through the readers’ guide for this book to see if there were any clues, and the interviewer asked Mr. Miéville whether or not he intended the novel as an allegory. And, essentially, Miéville said no.
But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think it must be, at least partly, about the power we give to others – whether governments, or invisible cities living in the interstice, the space between; and also why we do – whether out of fear, or from an innate need for order, we sacrifice freedom.
The wonderful and generous leader of our book group, who I greatly admire, gets to interview Mr. Miéville about his new book (Embassytown, coming out in May), and she said she would ask him about this allegory question.
In the meantime, I’m still pondering.