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A Political History of the Future: The City & The City


In this installment of A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction and fantasy construct the politics of their imagined settings, we discuss China Miéville, his 2009 novel The City & The City, and the BBC’s recent miniseries adaptation of it.

When I originally introduced this series, I was careful not to restrict it merely to discussions of science fiction. Fantasy (and less definable works in the interstices between the two modes) is no less fruitful a ground for imaginative, thought-through worldbuilding than science fiction. In fact, one might argue that fantasy worldbuilding more readily lends itself to a serious consideration of politics and economics. While the genre has a (not unearned) reputation for conservatism and a thoughtless embrace of heroic tropes, in the hands of the right writer there’s no reason why a fantasy setting shouldn’t be used to discuss topics like inequality, liberation movements, and labor rights.

The first name that ought to come to mind when looking for that right writer is, of course, China Miéville. For twenty years, this British writer has been pushing the boundaries of what fantasy can do and what it should be about, specifically in the direction of left-wing politics. His first novel, King Rat (1998) initially feels like a fairly conventional story of a young man who discovers that he is the lost prince of a secret fantasy realm that exists just to the side of ours, but that premise is quickly complicated. First, by the revelation that the hero’s noble heritage is actually rooted in horrific violence. But more importantly, by the way that his heroic journey eventually becomes a way for him to reconnect with the socialist principles taught to him by his adoptive father.

That same willingness to overturn the basic assumption of a classic fantasy structure recurs several more times in Miéville’s career, most notably in Un Lun Dun (2007) and Kraken (2010). It was in his follow-up to King Rat, however, that Miéville cemented his place as a major voice in modern fantasy. The Bas-Lag series—Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), and Iron Council (2004)—are three loosely-connected novels set in an overstuffed, overheated fantasy world. They all have at their heart the great city of New Crobuzon (though only Perdido Street Station takes place in it), and they all approach that city and their other settings with a combination of fleshy weirdness and hard-headed political realism.

It’s not just that things like strike-breaking, socialist movements, underground newspapers, and secret police departments crushing dissent on the behalf of the oligarchy exist in these books. It’s that they exist side-by-side with such weirdness as a race of all-powerful, barely-sane giant spiders, or people with insects for heads. Sometimes the two aspects end up inextricably mixed. One of the main characters in Perdido Street Station is a member of a bird-person species who live according to radical-anarchist principles which define all crimes by how they curtail the freedom of others. The main throughline of the three books is New Crobuzon’s descent into totalitarianism, but this happens in the background of stories about aliens who feed on people’s minds, or a hunt for a gargantuan sea creature.

It’s a monumental work, and one of the most essential examples of 21st century fantasy. But for the purposes of our discussions, it’s a little off to the side. It’s easy to miss this in the white-hot heat of Miéville’s intelligent, angry, paradigm-smashing approach to the genre, but the Bas-Lag books are actually much more interested in commenting on fantasy than they are in commenting on politics. On the contrary, introducing modern (and progressive) politics to their settings often feels more important as a way of pushing against the established (and, in themselves, politically fraught) conventions of the genre than as a way of propagating those political views. Presumably as a result of this, the Bas-Lag books don’t do much to develop their political ideas beyond their real-world counterparts. Miéville rarely takes advantage of the freedom of an invented, alien world to imagine new and different ways of ordering society. And when he does—the city made of roped-together boats in The Scar, the commune that grows around a runaway train engine, laying tracks before it and picking them up after it in Iron Council—they feel more metaphorical than concrete.

When Miéville announced, after the publication of Iron Council, that he wasn’t going to write another Bas-Lag book (in itself a substantial deviation from tradition, for a fantasy writer), genre fandom held its breath with anticipation of what he would do next. His two immediate follow-ups, the short story collection Looking for Jake (2005) and the YA novel Un Lun Dun, felt like maintaining a holding pattern. Then came the announcement of The City & The City, whose title felt like a deliberate nod to Miéville’s fascination with fantasy cities, but whose description suggested a bold new direction—not just a novel set in the real world, but one that revolved around a murder mystery, that quintessential delivery method for political observation and critique.

The City & The City (which won the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, World Fantasy, and BSFA Awards, as well as being nominated for several others) takes place in Besźel and Ul Qoma, two cities that are in fact one. At some point several centuries ago, the two cities agreed on a separation that exists purely in the mind. Citizens of Besźel “unsee” Ul Qoma, even when it’s right in front of them, and vice versa. Violators of this arrangement risk calling down Breach, a dimly-understood force that ruthlessly maintains the division. The story revolves around Besz police detective Tyador Borlú, who comes to suspect that the murder he’s investigating crosses the city boundaries, eventually discovering that the victim believed in the existence of a third city, Orciny, in the gaps between the two that are known.

There’s a saying you sometimes hear about certain books—and genre books in particular—that they teach you how to read them. The City & The City is a novel that teaches you how to unread it. You walk in with certain assumptions based on its author and genre, and initially the terms of the story seem to validate those assumptions. You hear “separation” and imagine walls, barriers, magic boundaries. The job of The City & The City is to slowly dismantle those assumptions, until it finally becomes clear that the only thing separating Besźel and Ul Qoma is their citizens’ conviction that they are separated. As I wrote in my review of the novel, shortly after its publication:

This masterfully executed disorientation is Miéville’s greatest achievement in The City & The City, and every time we become acclimated to it, he allows Borlú to see a little bit more of his world, and undermines the fragile understanding we had constructed of the novel’s universe. In the Besźel segment, this happens when Borlú leaves the ‘total’ area in which Mahalia’s body was found and moves into crosshatched streets, introducing us to the unique form the separation between the cities takes. But the disorientation is compounded even further when Borlú crosses into Ul Qoma. The deliberately limiting perspective of Borlú’s narrative forces us to rely on real-world associations, so that despite Borlú’s dismissal of comparisons between Besźel-Ul Qoma and separated cities such as East and West Berlin, it’s hard not to imagine Copula Hall as a stopping point on one’s journey from one geographic point to another. It is enormously wrong-footing, therefore, when Borlú, having made the crossing in Copula Hall, leaves by the same entrance through which he entered.

A lot of reviewers at the time The City & The City was published took it as a given that the purpose of this exercise had to be political. Unseeing, for example, could be taken as a metaphor for the way that we are trained not to see certain aspects of our environment—the homeless guy on our way to work, the protest against refugee deportation, the cops hassling someone of the wrong skin tone. The irrationality of the Besźel/Ul Qoma split seemed to some reviewers like an obvious comment on the similar irrationality of real-world ethnic and cultural divisions.

Inevitably, the result of this reading was disappointment, because despite a surface feeling of relevance, the premise of The City & The City doesn’t map to any real-world political situation. Unseeing isn’t a way of ignoring an inconvenient or ugly reality, but a hefty psychic burden that the citizens of the two cities undertake out of ingrained habit and fear of retaliation. And despite multiple attempts to read it as such by reviewers, it is impossible to compare the Besźel/Ul Qoma split to real-world instances of ethnic strife, because that strife doesn’t exist in the book—as, indeed, how could it, given that Besz and Ul Qoman citizens are rarely allowed to acknowledge each other’s existence. The City & The City‘s ability to comment on real instances of political division shading into geography is thus quite limited. More importantly, Miéville’s handling of his setting, once he’s established it, doesn’t push against any of the things we’ve been trained to read as “bad”. The critic Jonathan McCalmont even took Miéville to task for not taking his metaphor as far as he should have:

As the book’s impressive conceptual infrastructure slowly falls into place, you cannot help but wonder what target Miéville will unleash it against. Will The City & The City be an attack upon the pointlessness of xenophobia, or the middle classes’ refusal to acknowledge the existence of pressing social and economic problems? Perhaps it will serve to deconstruct all of the arbitrary social distinctions that are seen as ‘natural’ but only really serve to keep us apart? By the end of the first act, the novel is positively chomping at the bit… ready to be unleashed in the service of some grand political or social allegory. But Miéville never unleashes the intellectual energy he has captured in the creation of his twin cities. Instead, he allows the energy to ebb away from him resulting in a novel that hits an intellectual brick wall about a third of the way in. The problem is a lack of ambition.

I don’t actually disagree with many of the criticisms in this review—chiefly, that the murder mystery is fairly pedestrian—but I do think that it, and many other responses to The City & The City in the intervening near-decade since it was published, miss the point. The reason that The City & The City doesn’t seem to want to dismantle the Besźel/Ul Qoma split is that it does not actually see it as a bad thing. On the contrary, a point that Miéville makes and that almost every reviewer discussing the novel has missed is that the warped psychology required to live in the two cities acts as a sort of defense against globalization. That so long as Besźel and Ul Qoma are so irrational in how they order themselves, it will be difficult for corporations and foreign governments to turn them into a client state (though obviously not impossible—the murder that kickstarts the novel turns out to be linked to such a scheme, whose defeat is partial at best). When Borlú joins Breach at the end of the novel, he does so as a way of defending both cities against the outside world.

All of this might have made sense as a kind of thought exercise in 2009, but in 2018, it hits a little too close to home. Introducing a premise like The City & The City without tying it into current political issues feels like a much less tenable proposition right now. And yet this is what the BBC did in its recent miniseries adaptation of the book. As an adaptation, the miniseries is dutiful but not very exciting. It does a good job of transposing the book’s technique, of slowly revealing its setting until we finally realize that there is nothing going on except a mass delusion, to a more visual medium. In one particularly memorable scene, Borlú and his assistant, Lizbyet Corwi, speak on their cellphones, he from Ul Qoma and she in Besźel. The camera cuts between them as we’d expect from any TV series trying to convey that two characters are in different physical spaces. Then it pulls back to reveal that Borlú and Corwi are sitting on the same bench, which is half in one city and half in the other. The series also does a good job of beefing up the roles of women, giving Corwi more to do, changing the gender of Borlú’s Ul Qoman counterpart, and even giving her a wife. (A similar impetus might have been at the root of a new subplot involving the disappearance of Borlú’s wife, but it just ends up reading like the common trope of motivating a man by having a woman suffer.)

Still, one has to wonder why you’d even try to adapt this novel, at this moment in time, if you weren’t willing to change it enough so that it actually says something. Adapted by Tony Grisoni, the series tries to add a gloss of relevance to the proceedings. We learn, for example, that the more technologically advanced (but less democratic) Ul Qoma keeps would-be immigrants and refugees in camps, sometimes for years, before granting them the right to live and work in the city. A separationist group calling themselves the True Citizens, who believe in the superiority of Besźel over Ul Qoma and the need to destroy the latter, are depicted in terms so blatantly intended to recall Nazis that they verge on cliché. The benefits of peaceful coexistence are lauded in even the most unexpected places, such as a Besz restaurant that specializes in fusion Ashkenazi and Arabic food.

None of this, however, can get around the fact that the purpose of the story is not to dismantle, or even criticize, the separation between the two cities, but to reinforce it. Though the miniseries ends in the same way as the book, its confusion on this point means that it doesn’t make the argument that in the book validates Borlú’s decision to work for Breach. It muddles its villains, putting too much emphasis on a fascist leader that it then doesn’t know what to do with, and giving too much power to American corporations without seeming to realize that this should lead to a downer ending. And despite all of that, it can’t escape the simple truth that a story with this premise, told right now, by the BBC, that has nothing to say about Brexit, doesn’t really have a justification for existing.

The City & The City—book and show—end up falling within a small subset of genre fiction that I tend to think of as political-ish. Other examples include Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence (Europe in Autumn, 2014; Europe at Midnight, 2015, Europe in Winter, 2016; Europe at Dawn, coming later this year), or the Starz show Counterpart. They feel political. They clearly reference real-world politics and use its forms to build their world and stories. But they don’t actually have anything to say on the subject, and their relevance as either a reflection of the present or a depiction of a possible future is limited at best. The City & The City is worth reading for how it pushes against the conventions of the fantasy genre, and for its reminder that political concepts often exist purely in the mind. But you’d have to look elsewhere for stories that build meaningfully on those ideas.

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