China Mieville’s The City & The City : Crime Cliches and Urban Prose

So this has very rapidly turned into a China Mieville jerk-off fest. I promise you, I honestly did not mean for this blog to turn into that but, during an incredibly busy time of my life (an exam season that’s stretching on for two months), I’m beginning to turn more than ever to literature for comfort. I’m reading two big works of nonfiction right now, both vaguely history related and I’m hoping to touch on both of them when I finish them.

But the main comfort reads for me during this time, the stories I turn to for rest and succour, just happen to be the entire bibliography of China Mieville which I’m working through in no discernible order in the middle of Marginal Utility, JavaScript and the Cold War. So why not blog about it as I go along?

Today’s blog is going to be about The City & The City, one of the later books of China’s career. This could broadly fit into his ‘middle period’ (at least as far as the works he’s published already. according to him, he’s just moving into his middle period now). It’s place just after the Bas Lag trilogy and Looking For Jake is important, I think because it jumps off from a lot of the obsessions the Bas Lag stories revel in.

The idea of obsessions is something that’s always attracted me to Mieville. Some of his obsessions include octopuses, trains, garbage, forbidding landscapes, urbanity and language. The City & The City is Mieville’s penultimate city book (duh) but a lot of the other things he’s interested in, particularly language and squalor play a pretty major role in the novel.

It is set in two cities, Besz  and Ul-Qoma, both of which occupy the same geographic space. Yeah, that sentence means exactly what it says. Both cities are literally in the same location with the inhabitants of one city not interacting with those of the other. But the division is not watertight. There are some areas where both cities crosshatch and the inhabitants of one can see, hear or smell those of the other. Only they’re not allowed to see. So they unsee. And if they don’t unsee, Breach, the mysterious force that polices the division between the city and the city, will prosecute lethally and suddenly.

That is merely the set-up, though. The story is, for the most part, a police-procedural following Tyador Borlu of the Besel Extreme Crime Squad as he tries to investigate the death of a mysterious young woman who was found in Beszel but doesn’t quite belong there.

During my second reading of this story, a few things struck me. The first is the prose. It is almost entirely devoid of the delightful baroqueness that so characterises most of Mieville’s oeuvre.

A lot of it has to do with the first person narration, I imagine. There’s something similar in Embassytown. The prose does occasionally indulge in Mieville’s word games but for the most part, it is sparse, stripped down and very direct. But that just means that his usual ruminations on language are divorced from their direct prose congruities rather than be an additional representation of them. The language is tackled entirely on its own terms.

One of the concepts I’ve mentioned before is unseeing and unhearing. When the residents of Besel see those of Ul-Qoma and vice versa, they are legally, socially and to an extent, prudentially obliged not only to disregard them but to unregard them. To undo the act of ever regarding them in the first place. That is the concept of unseeing. This translates to language as well. Bes and Illitan are distinct languages used by those from Beszel and those from Ul-Qoma respectively and despite the fact that they share the same linguistic roots, both sides are obliged to unhear them. However, people from both sides are commonly versed in both languages. That concept of forbidden or accidentally learned language is something that fascinates me about this book.

And then there’s the crime/police-procedural base to the speculative elements. Within that base, Mieville maintains a lot of fidelity to the genre, playing around with the tropes that genre provides in his weird environment. The story opens as a sort of buddy-cop rookie and pro style narrative. From the second act, it shifts to a different buddy-cop narrative with initial dislike growing to grudging mutual respect. And then finally, it becomes a straight up political conspiracy thriller.

So, very surreptitiously, it does something Mieville absolutely adores but in a very subtle way. It explores as many subgenres within the genre as it can. The thing with Mieville is that the line between cliche and genre is often very hazy. Genre is in itself just a collection of cliches under which people reiterate. Mieville never consciously smashes that axiom but plays around with it, mixing and matching as he sees fit. So with Iron Council you have a strong political thriller about the nature of society juxtaposed with a western with some romance elements in it. You can say the same about most of his books (and if I really stick with this, I’ll probably talk about all those other books in later posts so lucky you).

But the thing with The City & The City is that all those elements are handled so subtly that you’d never really realise they were there till you’ve read it a little more watchfully the second time through. It is Mieville at his most discreet and understated.

You can buy The City & The City here.

 

Kraken by China Mieville – Faith Under a Microscope

China Mieville’s fiction has always had this strong but rather conflicted undercurrent of morbid interest in and yet derision of organised faith. This is something I think he’s very aware of and uses to his own advantage to create some interesting ideas.

From the very beginning with King Rat, this idea of music and worship is shown in a relatively negative light with the Pied Piper metaphor. But, at the same time, you have this numinous sense of joy with creating samples and discovering music. This sort of stuff carries forward throughout the Bas-Lag series and the rest of his work: the idea of the numinous divorced from any worshipful context other than sheer, primal wonder. Another thing he usually brews is a sense of the anti-numinous. Or, as he’d probably like to put it, the abnuminous. The idea of beauty and wonder in filth, muck, rust, urban degradation, decay, so on.

In Kraken, the religious themes are pretty much worn on it’s sleeve. A preserved specimen of the Architeuthis Dux gets stolen from the Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum in London. Billy Harrow, the curator, gets sucked into a world of crazy cults, magic, metropolitan police jurisdiction, heartless mercenaries and plenty more of Mievillesque madness. But what this whole thing is about is really worship and a justification for worship outside any sort of ritual or spiritual context. A lot of it may very well be autobiographical. The cephalopod has had a strange appeal to Mieville for most of his career and stands historically as a sort of symbol for the weird.

Mieville’s writing usually makes any writer jealous of not coming close to ever having an idea as cool as a peripheral one he just uses on the fly. That is more than usually true for this book. You have something new and strange and wonderful with every page.

The thing is, anti-religion in popular fiction is something I’ve come to accept. I see past it almost always, because my beliefs are my beliefs and I’d hate to only read stories that are congruent with my worldview. But this is probably my favourite book I totally ethically and morally disagree with and still love (of which there are a lot, including ones by the same author). The reason is simple. It may fundamentally disagree with in a higher power but it understands it and identifies with it. That sort of thing is not common with left-wing writers writing normal fiction and even genre fiction (the distinctions are real blurry nowadays and I’ll get a post up about the loss of wonder in modern spec-fic and genre-fic sometime this aeon) these days.

A lot of the beauty in Mieville’s fiction stems from a very formal, very academic form of the introspection most of us do on a regular basis. He’s perfectly aware of these games he plays with religion because he’s perfectly aware that science-fiction often swoops in to take the place of religion. Look at the sort of fan communities that develop around sci-fi/fantasy shows. How different is Comic-Con from a Pentecostal Revival minus some weird costumes. How much of fandom is underpinned by worship?

Whatever you believe, you should probably give Kraken a look.

You can buy Kraken by China Mieville here

The Weird and Structure

If you sort of grub about with critical analyses of science fiction and speculative fiction in general (as I have done, in a very elementary, baby-steps sort of way) you’ll come across a concept called cognitive estrangement soon enough. This comes from Darko Suvin, a Croatian-born academic who has written what many consider to be the seminal work of critical theory in science fiction: The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction.

Cognitive Estrangement revolves around a concept called the novum, something we haven’t encountered or seen in life as it revolves around us.

When it comes to the weird, cognitive estrangement is definitely something we should be interested in because we are usually dealing with multiple nova at the same time at a rate significantly higher than regular spec-fic. Or, we may be dealing with a novum that fundamentally challenges the entire basis of our existence. A novum exceptionally wide in its reach.

Once we’ve established that, the next challenge is to find out the ideal way to present that to the reader. Lovecraft, more often than not, played it straight and gave us a form of gradual discovery. The protagonist would be introduced to the nova as the story progresses and in the end, comprehension of the cosmic terror that underpins our universe would drive him mad. Which is fun but not weird enough, I think.

The next approach is more modern, a lot more experimental and can definitely lead to a dip in your sales. But, it is worth attempting precisely because it highlights the ideas of estrangement so well. It totally subverts your expectations. It is a lot of fun to experience. This revolves around the concept that the narrator takes the nova for granted. This is accepted. We don’t really like infodumps and we rarely let writers get away with it. But the scale to which it is practiced separates the weird from traditional spec-fic.

In weird fiction, you find narrators taking very peculiar nova entirely for granted at the risk of alienating, or shall we say estranging the reader. And it is precisely for that reason that we return again and again to stories like these. It is difficult fiction to grapple with. We have to be on our toes always as readers for the writer will not go out of his way to explain something to you that you have never encountered before.

The City & The City is a prime example of this. If your concept is that two cities somehow occupy the same physical space and you use concepts like unsee and crosshatch, you should probably explain it to us, right? Well what if you don’t? That’s where the weird comes in. This concept transforms a police procedural set in East Europe into something that can definitely be shelved in the weird section of your library. Because the story lets us find out for ourselves that the universe is fundamentally different from anything we’ve ever seen before.

So where does that distinction lie? In the prose? Perhaps. But to a much greater extent, I think it lies in the structure of the story being told.

Unstructured narratives don’t work very well in the weird. You can tell immediately that the author has a lot of ideas but you can also tell that he’s just riffing between them. His excuse that he was trying to be outre and rococo is unacceptable.

Structured narratives that play games with the way that structure is presented to us, on the other hand, do very well in the weirder side of things. Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching is a very good example of something like this. The prose (despite a few games with person and tense) remains relatively straightforward. It is the games with structure that really set it apart. There must be an inciting incident. There must be a climax. There must be a denoument.

But it is delightfully creepy when we aren’t quite sure when those things happen. So jump around with time. Play with the format of your text. The sky is your limit. But remember, make sure there is a structure underpinning everything.