The premise of China Mieville’s The City & The City is intriguing, but wasted. Basically, there are two cities, Beszel and Ul Qooma, that somehow exist in the same geographic space — they are “grosstopically coextensive,” to use the novel’s terminology. There is only one approved way to cross from one city to the other (through a government checkpoint), but in fact the loose boundary between the cities is breached thousands of times a day. A Beszel resident might see an Ul Qooman billboard; an Ul Qooman car might veer away from the sudden manifestation of a Beszel truck; or a restaurant patron in one city might try to summon a waiter before suddenly realizing that the waiter is not really “here.”
The idea of overlapping cities that are separate despite occupying the same space is a clever one because it seems absurd but is in fact commonplace. For example, bankers and busboys are often within touching distance but might as well live on different planets: they don’t know the same people, they don’t use the same transportation, they don’t eat the same food, they don’t consume the same entertainment. On trains, you can see the same phenomenon: riders ignore each other so completely that they might as well be living in different worlds. The root of the separation is emotional distance: we “know” that we will never have anything to do with certain people, and so the concerns that stress them are meaningless to us (and vice versa).
Mieville is, as far as I now, a dedicated Marxist, so at first I thought that he would take this literalizing of social separation in an interesting direction. But he doesn’t. Instead, he adds so many fillips to his idea that it becomes too remote from reality to serve as a plausible allegory. For example, not only are the two cities separated, but any “breaches” between them are forbidden (aside from the government-approved checkpoint). Breaches are policed by a mysterious force known, appropriately, as Breach, whose shadowy agents exercise occasionally superhuman powers, like making cars disappear. To avoid being caught by Breach, residents of both cities have developed a habit of “unseeing” — basically, ignoring any sight, sound, smell, or other sensation that they may get from the other city.
These are some colossally stupid ideas. Why would the most insignificant breaches between the cities be outlawed? What conceivable harm could come of it? And if breaching is in fact a serious concern, how could “unseeing” — basically, averting your eyes — help at all?
Also ridiculous: Mieville gives Breach awesome powers of intervention, as well as the intimidating social status that comes with such power, but in the end all that Breach does is police piddling transgressions of a rule against appearing to see. Seriously? You have a secret police force that can materialize out of thin air, paralyze people with stun guns, and move massive object seemingly without effort — and all it does is ensure proper etiquette?
And a final insult: to the extent that Mieville is trying to say something about the way in which different classes in this world are “grosstopically coextensive” but still separate, what do Breach and its odd rules signify, if they’re intended to signify anything at all?
Needless to say, my frustrations with The City & The City‘s main conceit sapped my enjoyment of the rest of the novel, which features a reasonably interesting murder mystery. Every time that mystery returned to a discussion of the odd relationship between the two cities (and believe me, it veers in that direction a lot), my inner implausibility alarm would begin to blare. Look, I’m willing to suspend disbelief. But The City & The City requires readers to suspend not just disbelief, but common sense.