Review: The City and The City

Summary: I’m in awe of this book, and I like to think that I don’t awe easily. It has stuck with me since I finished it; the surest sign of an effective story. I give it a 4.8/5, the highest rating I’ve given since I started this decimal point thing.

What I liked least:

  1. The quotes and reviews on the cover and at the front. That may seem an odd complaint, but this book was given to me as a gift a couple of years ago and I put off reading it because everyone made it sound so depressing. Anything billed as a Kafka-meets-noir-crime-novel doesn’t go to the beach with me, yet this book could have and should have. I wish I’d read it years ago.
  2. The end. I might as well get it out here at the start. I’ll say no more about it, but there were so many ways for this story to go and while I can think of much worse endings, the one that happened wasn’t one of the possibilities I wanted. So it goes.
Author China Mielville

What I liked best:

  1. Everything else, but I’ll try to be more specific.
  2. The author takes an absolutely ridiculous premise, answers your every objection to it while telling the story, and leaves you accepting an alternate history wherein two independent city states exist in the same geographical place, each refusing to see the other.
  3. Once you make that leap, you start to realize how believable the premise is because it touches on ways real humans behave. Then you start to find examples of unseeing all around you and I don’t know how long that goes on for because it’s been a week now and I’m still doing it. I may never stop.
  4. The book is not depressing, at least to me. The reason is that many if not most of the characters have a shred of human decency in them and the main ones hide kind hearts under their tough and expletive laden exteriors. Yes, the overall style is crime novel noir, with a touch of cold war spy and splashes of absurdity, but any time we actually get good guys and gals trying to do what’s right, I’m willing to stand up and cheer.
  5. Main characters are well fleshed out given the author’s sparse strokes. Inspector Tyador Borlu of the City of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad, the book’s protagonist and narrator, won my sympathy during the opening scene as he looks out for the young drug dealers who come forward when they find a body. He cemented my high regard when he met the dead girl’s parents and noted how “Grief made them look stupid. It was cruel.”
  6. When Borlu is forced to meet and work with his counterpart, senior detective Qussim Dhatt of the ignored city Ul Qoma, one sees through Borlu’s eyes and is lead to think the man is a jerk. We discover, along with Borlu, how much the two detectives have in common.
  7. I’m female, and I judge how a writer handles his or her women characters. Mr. Mieville treats them all as people, a refreshing delight. In particular, constable Lizbyet Corwi is a tough capable detective, no less female for not being some man’s love interest.
  8. The book is a mix of ingredients one would never expect to work as well together as they do. There is humor, as residents of each city joke about how their weather is better and visit their local Starbucks, which of course has shops in both cities. There is mystery and suspense, some of which surrounds a 2000 year old archaeological dig that may hold the secret to the origin of this bizarre arrangement. Some things are never solved or explained, others reach a satisfying conclusion.
  9. Finally, this author won me over with his dedication. It’s to his mother, which is common enough, but he adds that he “wanted to write a book that my mother would have loved.” Wow. I wish I could have met his mother.

I often get asked to name the writers who inspired me as an author, and I have trouble coming up with a list. Part of the reason is I tend to be inspired by specific books, rather than bodies of work, and the other is the degree to which the list has morphed as I’ve aged.

My approach is to keep a short list of books I can point to and say “I’m trying to write that well.” The City and the City has placed itself at the top of my list.

A radio wave is that long?

emsRadioWavesOne of the things about writing magical realism, at least the way that I do it, is that you are always trying to explain mystical, magical things in terms of believable science.  I am fascinated by this fuzzy boundary between the astonishment of the enchanted and the astonishment of what modern science tells us.

I had great fun learning more about the simple radio waves that keep me so entertained while I drive, and then tying this information into my theory of how precognition works. Enjoy the excerpt below, taken from a conversation held when my prescient hero Ariel first meets the Inuit Siarnaq, who shares her gift.

Then when you are done reading, let NASA tell you a few surprising things about radio waves.. 

“So we must be tuned to different frequencies!” Siarnaq continued on, pleased with his discovery. “You understand science. You understand radios.”

“I studied them in school, don’t remember much.”

“Well, I work a lot with radios. They are an important part of communication here in my world. Do you know how long a radio wave is?”

“Long. Like maybe feet long.” Ariel was pretty sure of that.

“You people still know what AM radio is?”

Ariel rolled here eyes. “Yeah. It’s the stations you turn to for sports.”

“Okay,” Siarnaq agreed. He pointed out the window. “The waves for AM radio are like from here to that building down the road.”

“Really? That big?”

“Your FM radio waves?” he went on. “More like just from me to you.”

Ariel got the analogy. “So I’m an FM radio seeing things more closely and you’re an AM radio seeing things further away. How cool is this? What are other waves? Microwaves? Longwave radio? Are there other kinds like us, but in other frequencies?”

“I don’t know,” Siarnaq shrugged. “Lots of other Inuit tell the future, but they all use tools for their fortune-telling, and no one seems as sure about their predictions as I am.”

If you could see the future, would you want to?

It’s a big choice. Move in together? Go back to school? Retire early, have a child, take the trip of lifetime, marry, divorce, or quit your job? All of our lives have a dozen or so of these pivotal decisions. We often aren’t sure which path to take, but we do know that whatever choice we make, it will effect us for as long as we live.

good sign 3So here’s the question. If you could see the future, would you want to? Let’s not go as far as having you see it every day. We’ll keep it simple. How about supposing that you have the option of being granted precognition only for each of your life’s major decisions. Say yes to my gift and you will be given premonitions for each remaining big choice you have to make. Do you want that?

Before you answer with that quick yes or no, consider. How does precognition work? (For the purposes of this discussion you do have to agree that it does work, at least in the imaginary world we are discussing.) What you probably want to know in each case is what decision will make me happiest.  Hmm. That’s complicated. Happiest when? At first? Overall, averaged over your entire life? Or would you rather go for comparing the single happiest moment along each path? Or how about the fewest miserable moments?

While you are reflecting on that, consider that your choices also have consequences for others. Would you like to know which decision results in the greatest happiness for the most people? Or maybe you’d just like to know what choice brings more joy into the lives of the the people you care about a lot.  By the way, can you even define that group? How about the ones you haven’t met yet?

Lucky for you, the make-believe premonitions I am trying to grant you are not so dependable. You don’t get statistical results. You get something akin to snippets of enhanced videos. You’ll experience a few seconds of the sights, sounds, smells and emotions you are going to encounter if you go down that path, along with a little knowledge about your situation at the time. I’ll make this easier by giving you an example.

You’ve quit your job and you are moving to a new location of your choosing. You’ve narrowed it down to three places. People, climate, opportunities and ambiance all interweave into different advantages for each.

If you take my gift, you’ll see yourself in one location, standing miserable in the rain. You did like the idea of Seattle, remember? The scene shifts. There’s you, surrounded by friends laughing. You don’t care that it is raining outside. You have a sense that this is a celebration, and one of something important. Oh no. Now your alone on your couch crying. Does it have anything to do with what you were celebrating? Maybe not. Wait. Your holding a bloody knife in your hand. What? You glance down and see that you are cleaning a fish. Good grief. You take up fishing in Seattle? Forget that.

What about Sante Fe? Charleston South Carolina? The images and feelings that go with them march through your brain. Is that baby your child? Your grandchild? Does this little person make you happy? Or does it matter if they do? Does this little person cure cancer? Is curing cancer really a good idea? Your head is starting to hurt and you’re thinking that this seeing the future was not such a good idea.

IMG_1105That’s because the future is what you always knew it was. A mess of events and emotions that will take you through highs and lows and all the boring stuff in between as you love and live and make the best of things wherever you are.  It is true that maybe Seattle or Sante Fe or Charleston would have brought you something particularly special or awful and maybe that would have been good to know.  However, odds are much greater that all three choices will bring some good, some bad and whole a lot of whatever you make of it.

So take my gift or not. The secret is in knowing that it doesn’t much matter whether you do or not.

(For more thoughts on how my characters’ superpowers might affect their lives see my post Not writing books about shallow people leading exciting lives.)