Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sulzer SF/F: The City & The City

The Sulzer SF/F club recently discussed China Miéville's "The City & The City" (2009).

My goodness, what a fine book: everyone should read it.

I should probably gush on Miéville just to get that out of the way: he's amazing; he's close to a genre unto himself. He's credited with starting (or at least being the center of) the "New Weird" movement, much as Gibson was/is for Cyberpunk. But Miéville jumps around too much to worry over-much about finding a genre for him--a few science fictional works, more in a kind of complicated fantasy/horror setting that inspired the "New Weird" moniker. What unites his work is brilliant language, a diverse array of influences, and keen (though rarely axe-grindy) political/social critique.

And, whatever the setting, real skill for ideas that are just gigantic and weird and thought-provoking.

"The City & The City" is a noirish crime story, a bit Chandler-esque, intentionally so. Compared to much of his other work, Miéville's prose here is quite straightforward, matter-of-fact, and that combines nicely with familiar tropes of the police procedural to pull us through a setting that would otherwise overwhelm.

The setting here, of course, are the titular cities, Beszel & Ul Qoma, the former rather East-European feeling (we mentioned Vienna, Prague, & Budapest as possible influences), while Ul Qoma has a secularized near-Eastern or north-African feel, perhaps a bit akin to Istanbul or Algiers. The hook of the novel, the crazy idea that Miéville plays completely straight, is that Beszel & Ul Qoma occupy the same geographical space, a map broken into a patchwork of one or the other, with many areas that are "crosshatched"--in both; citizens of one city aren't allowed to see or otherwise interact with anything from the other city without first officially crossing the border.

So much to talk about with this book! We talked for a while about somewhat-parallel "divided cities", like Berlin & Jerusalem, although noting that Miéville makes a point of saying that those aren't like Beszel/Ul Qoma--"The City & The City" is not, or is not simply, an analogy for that kind of actual circumstance.  We also talked about possible architectural & political inspirations or similarities, including the Balkans and post-war Vienna.

Speaking of Vienna, a few folks at group strongly recommended & compared the film "The Third Man" (1949, dir. Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene).

We liked the small pop-culture references--"Star Wars" (1977), "Terminator" (1984)--and particularly the explicit use of "The Great Escape" (1963) dirt- (or in this case artifact-) smuggling technique. Along with a few of the global political references, they grounded the story in our world, roughly contemporary, when otherwise the sheer weirdness might have placed it an alternate reality or some total non-Earth fantasy world.

Liked the way this used police procedural conventions without belaboring them--the senior detective and the enthusiastic rookie, the grizzled sarcastic desk-sergeant, the sudden move to a new precinct and new partner (Tyador & Dhatt never devolve into a buddy-cop movie, but the format is used to good effect). Besides Chandler and noir/crime influences, we also talked about the shift from detective story to bureaucrat/spy/cold-war-ish thriller, which brought to mind Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park" (1981) and the works of John Le Carré.

We dug the use of language here--neologisms that were by turns amusing and sinister to describe the double-city life, like "topolganger", "grostopic", and, most Orwellian, "unsee".  We were also reminded a lot of Kafka, particularly the latter parts of the book, dealing with Breach. Perhaps a bit of Philip K. Dick as well.

Another thing we liked about the book was the presence of the murder victim throughout, with Inspector Tyador in many ways just recapitulating the mystery-solving that she had already accomplished. It brought to mind "Twin Peaks" (1990) and Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" (1938), and their use of a dead/departed character as still very much present and affecting the story.

Du Maurier, by the way, should I think be named the patron saint or something of Sulzer SF/F, we often seem to reference her work.

And all this above were just other works we brought up in reference to "The City & The City". Much of our discussion just revolved around the ideas themselves, the importance/non-importance of borders, and of seeing/unseeing others as part of what we do every day. We brought up the need to be able to "not see" others as part of preserving privacy and being able to get through the day (reminds me of the blasé discussed by George Simmel & other sociologists). There's also all this rich stuff going on with borders--both how arbitrary/silly they are, but also how important. There's this theme here of how only the border preserves Beszel & Ul Qoma, and also (possibly) the threat of border-disregarding global capital.

We also talked a lot about Miéville's other work. All great stuff, I highly recommend "Embassytown" (2011) for the more SF-minded, particularly if the phrase "lingusitic thriller" makes your ears perk up; "The Scar" (2002) is probably the most approachable of the very weird and awesome Bas-Lag books. Think pirate-city w/vampires and biopunk scientists and that's a tiny glimpse of it. Miéville also has a collection of short stories that just came out this month, "Three Moments of an Explosion".

Also also, I strongly suggest reading/listening to some interviews with him--they're great. Try BLDGBLOG's discussion with him specifically about "The City & The City", where Miéville makes an off-hand mention to Cherryh's "Wave Without a Shore" (1981), which has a few striking similarities to his novel (and is also maybe my favorite SF novel ever, so, there's that). Jeff VanderMeer also has an insightful rambling talk with him about the Weird, appropriately via Weird Tales. Geek's Guide to the Galaxy has a good talk with him, as well.

Good discussion! Sulzer SF/F's next meeting will be September 29th, to discuss Kim Harrison's "Dead Witch Walking" (2004).

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