You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The City & The City

China Mieville's The City & The City is a novel about two cities that occupy the same space. Beszel and Ul Qoma have evolved into an uneasy coexistence. Their customs and language are different. They have a history of conflict. Their architecture and economy are recognizably different. Yet the citizens of each city must not have any direct contact with those of the other. In order to protect the cities' separate identity, any failure to respect the boundaries is punishable by Breach, a mysterious group with total powers over boundary breaches. Citizens must make themselves "unsee" people in the other city, even those walking down a neighboring street. It is a trick that natives learn as they grow up.

Inspector Borlu is a detective on the Beszel police force who is called to investigate the murder of a young woman. He gets a mysterious call from someone he suspects to be from Ul Qoma, leading him to discover that the young woman was a student there. He goes to the joint council to attempt to invoke Breach, but a video surfaces of the van carrying the woman across the only legal checkpoint between the city, so there was no violation.

Eventually Borlu must travel to Ul Qoma to work with a detective named Dhatt on the Ul Qoman police force. This transition means he must reverse his lifelong habit of seeing his own city and unseeing the other. Now the familiar is strange and the strange familiar.

Borlu and Dhatt interview a professor Bowden who was made famous for a book claiming there was a third city between the two, but has long ago disavowed those claims. It appears that the murdered student has become a true believer and has gotten into trouble with fringe groups who want to unify the cities. The detectives also investigate other radical groups who are ultra-nationalist in favor of each city. The story gets deeper as Borlu examines the implications of Bowden's theories, as well as the role of Breach.

The concept plays out beautifully with the plot. Borlu moves from one city to the other and must grapple with his own discomfort, the concepts of two cities and Breach, and the details of the murder case. It all gets mixed up as he gets closer to Breach himself. The cities are sort of mirrors of each other, and a sort of split brain. Each side's identity is related to the other, though most won't admit it. And then there's Breach, the unknown factor that rules so much yet is still a controlling force in each city. In the cities where discussion of a single city or walking across the street to a foreign building is a violation, the idea of a third city is even more dangerous. I enjoyed how the cities worked and played with each other, how they fed on each other even as they were ignored. It is an illuminating look at all split cities around the world. A-

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