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Gosh, I found this book disappointing. In theory, it should have been right up my street (whether that be total, alter or cross-hatched). It is speculative fiction about cities, majoring especially in boundaries. Man, I'm so into that shit that I've just finished the peer-review edits to one paper on urban boundaries, am starting to research another, and will be going on a walk about it on Monday. And I could swear friends have been waxing lyrical about this particular book on the periphery of my attention-sphere pretty much ever since it came out. Except that maybe I didn't listen properly to what they were saying. Because while I entirely recognise that its world-building is superb, and its plot is certainly perfectly competent, the fact is that it offers almost no characterisation or indeed human emotional colour whatsoever. And that doesn't half make for dull fiction.

Actually, I found even the world-building a little bit disappointing, because although it is certainly an outstanding example of what it is trying to do, that wasn't quite what I expected, or what tends to appeal to my tastes. Knowing in advance that the book dealt with two cities which physically occupy the same space, but whose residents are unable to see one another, I expected the relationship between the two to be supernatural - as for example between London Above and London Below in Neverwhere, the muggle and magical worlds in Harry Potter, or the parallel worlds in His Dark Materials. In fact, though, the division is legal and social. The relationship between the two cities, named Besźel and Ul Qoma, is like a more extreme version of that between the divided communities of Belfast, Jerusalem, pre-1989 Berlin, vel sim.. Here is a passage which captures it nicely, within which the only thing you need to understand that I haven't already explained is that Copula Hall (in addition to being the seat of the civic authorities for both cities) is essentially their Checkpoint Charlie - i.e. the one place where you can legally cross over from one into the other:
If someone needed to go to a house physically next door to their own but in the neighbouring city, it was in a different road in an unfriendly power. That is what foreigners rarely understood. A Besź dweller cannot walk a few paces next door into an alter house without breach.

But pass through Copula Hall and she or he might leave Besźel, and at the end of the hall come back to exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, but in another country, a tourist, a marvelling visitor, to a street that shared the latitude-longitude of their own address, a street they had never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen, to the Ul Qoman house sitting next to and a whole city away from their own building, unvisible there now they had come through, all the way across Breach, back home.
Basically the whole of the two cities is like that - incredibly complex legally-defined territories inter-twined with one another, sometimes wholly either Besźel or Ul Qoma, but often 'cross-hatched' (i.e. belonging equally to both) - especially the streets, which citizens of both walk or even drive down while carefully not registering each other's existence at all at any conscious level. Meanwhile, Breach is both the concept of breaching the boundaries - even by allowing yourself to fully see something in the other city - and the shadowy authority which punishes those who do so.

In all fairness, that is a brilliant concept, and Miéville builds it up beautifully from the first chapter onwards, dropping little hints of crumbs at how the city works into the narrative of his viewpoint character (a Besź police inspector) at just the right pace to intrigue without becoming tedious, and while also ensuring that his readers are entirely au fait with it all by the time it becomes crucial to the plot. But a) it isn't the magic I picked the book up hoping for (not at all Miéville's fault) and b) unfortunately the drab emotionless characters give us all too little sense of what a division like that would really mean to the people living it out every day (very definitely Miéville's fault).

The main viewpoint character I mentioned a moment ago, Inspector Tyador Borlú, came across to me as an avatar with no internal life. Some authors would have written deep inner conflicts into his psyche to mirror the divisions of the city which he inhabits, and explored them in depth, but as it was his entire function seemed to be to work his way through the plot like the sprite in a puzzle-based computer game. He learns some new things as the story goes along, of course, but does he experience any kind of emotional arc, or change in any fundamental way as a result? I don't think so. Since he ends the story becoming part of Breach, who are all shadowy and emotionless, it is just possible that Miéville wrote him that way from the start to set him up as well-suited to that lifestyle. But if that's the case, then almost any of the characters Borlú interacts with could equally well become Breach agents, because none of them seemed any more alive than him.

So, in short, I'm unlikely to read any more of Miéville's novels. But at least I've found that out now, and can thus target my meagre reading activities towards more satisfying objects in future.

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 21st, 2015 08:28 am (UTC)
I read this book -- completely lost the plot and didn't appreciate the craftsmanship (I am culturally unsophisticated) -- but I read it all the way through simply because I liked how the words were strung together.
Feb. 21st, 2015 08:08 pm (UTC)
Yes, it's perfectly well-written as far as the language goes. I guess I just needed that language to be telling me a bit more about what the characters were actually feeling.
Feb. 21st, 2015 12:48 pm (UTC)
I read this after reading King Rat (amazing, very sense-of-place in London, somewhat gory), and Un Lun Dun (young adult book, about London and about narrative expectations, and also really good).

By comparison, I didn't like this much and was pretty disappointed in it, and I think you put your finger on why. I haven't read any more by him; not actively avoiding but also not very motivated either.
Feb. 21st, 2015 08:11 pm (UTC)
OK, so you reckon there are other books by him which I might like better, then? Well, maybe I will give those two you've just mentioned a go sometimes - but I have to say after this one they are not going to be particularly high on my priority list!
Feb. 21st, 2015 08:59 pm (UTC)
I'm not surprised!

I think that *I* liked those books a great deal more, but I didn't mean to mention them in a "you should read these instead", more just to illustrate how disappointed I'd been in this book after setting my expectations by those two. (I mostly don't go around saying "you should read this"; I do go around saying I LOVED THIS and if possible why)

Actually, maybe that's why I've not been reading him since - I literally have no idea whether I'll like a book by him or not, based on data so far. So many more books to read that I am much more likely to enjoy.
Feb. 21st, 2015 09:20 pm (UTC)
So many more books to read that I am much more likely to enjoy.

Yes, this is a very wise principle.

And don't worry - I didn't interpret you as telling me what to read! I just extrapolated that from what you'd said.
Feb. 27th, 2015 02:05 am (UTC)
I love Un Lun Dun, and many of the stories in Looking For Jake are really awesome, I also like (but don't love) his Bas Lag sequence, Perdido Street Station blew me away when I read it but since then I've encountered more, better, Steampunky/"new weird" fantasy and much prefer, for example, Swainston from that movement.

But while I read City and the City I really didn't get on with it, almost certainly his worst book of those I've read.

Oh, actually, if you liked King Rat, Kraken is really cool, reread it a few months back, rather nice and also set in a weird London, a setting that suits him a lot better I think.

strange_complex, can lend you Kraken if you want, remind me next time we're going to the same thing, there's bound to be something next few months.

Edited at 2015-02-27 02:07 am (UTC)
Feb. 27th, 2015 10:09 am (UTC)
Well, I've just read the Wikipedia summary of Kraken, and actually it sounds pretty cool. So I guess I could give him one more try. In which case, yes please - I'd welcome a borrow of it.
Feb. 21st, 2015 01:36 pm (UTC)
As far as I can tell, for the past few years Mielville seems to be writing a series of experiments in style. At the moment I'm reading Railsea, which is riffing off Moby Dick; Embassytown was golden age SF; and The City is Kafka/gumshoe detective fiction, so a lot is going to depend on whether you get on whith those styles in the first place (Railsea isn't grabbing me precisely because of this).

As an author by himself, his style is more like political magical realism/horror, so imagery, wordplay and ideas are what drive the stories rather than characterisation - Kraken & Perdido St Station are good examples of this.

Feb. 21st, 2015 08:15 pm (UTC)
I can see that being fun for him as an author. But if he doesn't really do characterisation across any of his stories, whatever the genre, then I guess I am never really going to love any of his stuff.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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