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The City and the City

I’ve recently started working my way through the stack of China Miéville books that Dr A has been recommending to me for ages. I started on Railsea and moved on to the The City and the City.

Without intending to, I started with two of Miéville’s books to give a central role to archaeology. In Railsea (which I plan to blog about in the future) the archaeology is generally mostly viewed by people as salvage or treasure – to be dug up and traded or sold.

In The City and the City the archaeology is highly contentious – material evidence that can be used to challenge the delicate political situation between the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

The story centers on a murder case, in which the victim has been murdered in one city and dumped in another. Another author might have written a straight political crime thriller, but Miéville is a science fiction author. In this story the two cities do not sit side by side, but occupy the same physical space. The citizens of each city can see each other, but are taught to “unsee” anything across the boundary. To deliberately look or move across the boundary (unless through the official border) is to bring down punishment from the elusive, powerful and Kafka-esque organisation “Breach”. Check out this imagining of the cities here.

Miéville clearly knows or has encountered archaeologists. One character is said to be “more interested in Foucault and Baudrillard than in Gordon Childe or in trowels.”

He is good too, in both Railsea and The City and the City, at creating alternative past material culture that are a warped version of those that exist in our own world.

“The few Precursor artefacts in alarmed and guarded bell jars that punctuate the passages are… specific but opaque. I glanced at some as I left: a sag-breasted Venus with a ridge where gears or a lever might sit; a crude metal wasp discoloured by centuries; a basalt die. Below each one a caption offered guesses.”

I don’t want to give away too much about the story, as the twists and turns to the plot (in true noir style) are key to your enjoyment of the story. Miéville’s work is well worth exploring. Next on my list, Embassytown.

Finally, check out this wonderful Cover to Cover project by Jenny Volvovski who designs new covers for each book she reads:

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3 responses to “The City and the City

  1. Elizabeth

    The City and the City is a fascinating book!

  2. moxeyns

    Mieville is amazing – his descriptions are so detailed and vivid. Everything I’ve read of his, I’ve admired; but I hadn’t read Railsea, thanks for the recommendation! (Un Lun Dun has vague archaeological connotations, you might enjoy that too.)

  3. Dr H

    Thanks for the recommendation, I will put Un Lun Dun on my list. There is so much to write about Mieville, I can’t do him justice in a blog post. It’s no mean feat to make the invisible boundary/ cross cutting cities tangible to the reader. I love the complexity of his world view, too. There are no simple solutions for his characters.

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