We didn’t cross the border, information pills
The border crossed us!
-old chicano proverb
China Mieville’s The City and The City superimposes ambitious spatial and political ideas onto a plot that pays homage to classic detective stories like those of Raymond Chandler. His book is set in a fictional eastern European city, this
a binary, healing
bifurcated city. Two cities co-exist on the same territory, superimposed, creating an inter-dimensional space. Imagine two cities on overlapping planes and the complexities of co-existing. The only thing that makes this overlap work is the idea of unseeing one another, pretending the other city and its citizens do not exist.
This unseeing is enforced both by social protocol and a spectral police force called Breach. Unseeing is taught to the residents of Bezel and Ul Qouma from birth. This process allows for the cities to gross-topically exist in the same space. Cross-hatching, refers to the spaces in the city where there is an overlapping and vigilant unseeing is required for the citizens. To stand in one city and look into the other city, even though they are in the same physical space is considered Breach—a violation of the unspoken rules of the doppelganger city, feared due to the presence of Breach and the disappearance of all who make Breach. Certain exceptions of Breach are made for small children and tourists, both of which are trained either from birth or for several weeks to unsee.
The novel follows the death of a woman with an unknown identity that shows up in a skate park in a shady part of Bezel. Detective Tyador is put on the case, with his assistant Corwi. They try to chase down the killer and realize that the unknown woman is a foreign exchange student from Canada working on an archeological dig in Ul Qouma. Soon detective Tyador is on the other side of the border trying to unravel the death of this young woman. As the story winds on it becomes clear that The City in the City is a mystery in the classic noir style, ending up very much where it started, and murder as a central theme provides a perfect excuse for Mieville to explore the complicated nature of trans-border cooperation and governance.
One of the central themes is the mythos of the creation of the city itself. The artifacts at the dig are very old, Pre-Cleavage age, supposedly before either Bezel or Ul Qouma existed as they do now—the interwoven spaces, with Breach as the enforcement agency. Mahalia, the dead woman, was researching the mythos of a city called Orciny, a third city that may exist in the interstitial zones of the doppelganger city. It is unclear as to whether Breach is Orciny or if Orciny is in fact a fourth zone of the city.
Soon we find out that it’s all a farce created by a mad professor that wrote a book about Orciny early in his career that basically ruined his future. In an effort to make some money from his paltry teaching career, he convinces Mahalia that Orciny was real and that the members of Orciny were telling them to rescue the Pre-Cleavage artifacts from the archeological dig. Unfortunately, Mahalia realizes that professor Dowden was lying, or not lying, about the existence of Orciny and that he was working with a multi-national corporation to smuggle artifacts out of the Ul Qouma dig site. Several dead bodies later, with a revolutionary Unification twist, the book comes to a close.
The idea of twin or binary cities is not unique or limited to the realm of fantasy. Most every town and city has its wrong side of the tracks, its divisions based on race or class or both. These boundaries are in place via historical habit and social protocol but also by things like real estate sales and law enforcement. Mieville’s cities are not explicitly split by race or class, he implies cultural division and hints that one city once had economic advantage and that the pendulum had swung the other way.
Just like in our real life, the world of Bezel and Ul Qouma has spaces that are neither in one city or the other. These spaces of exception are where a number of interesting things can occur. First there are autonomous zones—places that are not claimed by anyone and are free for squatters to occupy. In the over-lapping inter-dimensional cities, occupying liminal space is quite the task. It involves recognizing neither spatial authority, refusing territorial integrity and walking into the void.
The world of Bezel and Qouma has areas that are cross-hatched. These are danger zones where the threat of contact or interaction (ie Breaching) is higher. All it takes is one sideways glance and you’ve violated the agreed systems of the inter-spatial city. By acknowledging the Other, order is threatened and these spaces are zones of heavier surveillance and enforcement.
Breach itself is a sovereign power. These quasi-law enforcers may move freely between the cities and “disappear,” border-crosser as necessary. Breach exists to perpetuate both itself and the myth of the autonomous existences of the two neighboring cities. If Breach fails and local law enforcement fails the whole system is threatened. Breach (the authority) occupies the interstitial zone between the cities which is also referred to as Breach (place) Breach is also a verb meaning to transgress between the two cities. This tripartite relationship makes for an interesting and problematic relationship for the citizens of Ul Quoma and Bezel.
Mieville brings in politics into the mix creating a variety of parties; some of the lefty Unificationist type-crafty kids living in squats flirting with breach and revolution and living in soiled hovels hoping to bring Bezel and Ul Qouma together through their actions. He also involves the political machinations of Nationalists and their proto-fascist thugs. He does present a surprisingly savvy analysis of the ineffectiveness of the political activists. These elements are not prominent enough to really make it a “political thriller” but help further the story along.
There are many parallels to contemporary politics in Mieville’s book, which is no surprise, since most of his books have this element. His commentary on leftist political activists and right-wing thugs are witty and insightful, as the book explodes into a revolutionary situation while Tyador is working on the detective case of his own case in Breach—after shooting the gunman that killed Yolanda and her boy toy. The Unificationists stage orchestrated bus accidents throughout the city, the buses, carrying people who are going to refugee camps and are not accustomed to unseeing, start tearing through the carefully constructed environments of Bezel and Ul Qouma. All hell breaks loose as Breach starts trying to control the situation. For 48 hours or so, the cities are united and people on both sides are interacting with each other, the media is in a frenzy, and the whole world is watching. Then, like any good revolution, it’s over and life is back to normal—with a couple more people Breached.