Hi, I'm Odile, a historical linguist from the Netherlands who also likes to write about music, games, and history. Check out my longer blog posts and other writings on Sub Specie.
After being on my to-check-out authors list for quite a while, I finally decided to pick up this book during my London book shopping spree.
Despite being shoved into the sci-fi department at the bookstore, 'The City & The City' is more of a detective/thriller novel with some thought-provoking ideas on the urban landscape, nationalism, and identity in general.
The plot revolves around the murder of a young woman archaeologist working on a dig in the dual-layered city of Besźel/Ul-Qoma. It's tough to explain, but the two cities are geographically mostly in the same location, but conceptually separate, as are their inhabitants, which are trained from birth to 'unsee' everything belonging to the 'other' city.
The protagonist, a Besz police investigator, quickly discovers that the background of the murder spans both cities, including its murky conceptual liminal zones, and has consequences that are tied in with the entire worldview of the inhabitants of the two cities.
The storyline of the book never loses its pace, and as the investigation progresses, so does the reader's understanding of what has happened in these unique cities, and how their conceptual worlds are constructed.
The result is an exciting novel that somehow manages not to try to tackle too many philosophical topics at once. For some reason this both disappoints and satisfies me. On the one hand, I feel there is much more to these two cities than what Miéville shows in this one novel, but it does keep the story running along nicely, and it never gets bogged down in its own cleverness. What's left is an exciting murder mystery that at the same time engages a lot of relevant topics. What is nationalism built on? How do we view 'foreigners', even if they're living in the same city as we are? What is the role of science and archaeology in constituting (national) identity? 'The City & The City' doesn't give any easy answers, but does invite us to think about the questions a little more, and that's worth a lot, and precisely what I desire in good fiction.