Power, Space and Identity in China Miéville’s The City and the City
From New Corbuzon to UnLondon, China Miéville’s works show a preoccupation with the city which transcends the function of setting and
serves as a subtext to the plot. As one of the most prominent representatives of weird fiction Miéville constructs cityscapes that fascinate the reader with their eccentricity and strangeness, but also with their social, historical and architectural complexity. In Perdido Street Station the eponymous landmark in New Corbuzon is essential forthe denouement of the plot rather than merely a backdrop. The city is a character in its own right. This is also and especially true for Miéville’s 2009 novel The City and the City. Here, the city seems at first normal, then alien and in conclusion utterly quotidian. The way the literary space and place is built permeates everything in the novel: the way the characters act, the crime plot, the philosophy and mood. At the core, The City and The City captures the everyday creation and maintenance of social space and illustrates the human capacity to deal with conflicting, layered realities of communal life and the human condition.
The City and the Cityis set in the twin city states of Besźel and Ul Qoma that occupy much of the same geographical space, but are perceivedas two very different cities. The borders between the cities are invisible and intangible, but reinforced by citizens by ‘unseeing’ and ‘unsensing’ the other one. Meaning: someone in Besźel must ignore everything Ul Qoman even what is right next to them. Some parts of the cityscape are totally in one city but quite a few are ‘cross-hatched’, meaning in either city depending on what is unseen. Unsight is an acquired habit, but one that is performed unconsciously. To unsee the other city is an integral part of being a citizen and important in the socialiation of children. Acknowledging the other city even accidentally is a serious crime called breaching punished by an all-seeing, all-powerful agency named Breach. Why and how the state of separation between the cities came topass is unknown: an event ambiguously called ‘cleavage’ split or united the cities.
The City and the Citywon several awards for fantasy writing, although it is fantastic only in one aspect and – plotwise –the novel is crime fiction: a police procedural with noir and hard-boiled touches – genres that lay claim on gritty realism. It is precisely this uncertainty of genre that allows a subversive reading of the text and contributes to the social criticism therein. In the novel Inspector Tyador Borlú from Besźel investigates the murder of foreign student Mahalia Greary across the cities and uncovers a conspiracy to exploit the cities’ cultural heritage for profit.