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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

The City and the City

The City and the City - China Miéville You don’t have to be crazy to read this book, but it helps.

Nah, I jest. The basic idea of this book is not hard to understand, but it is a springboard to an extraordinary level of weirdness. The book is set in two cities that occupy the same geographical space. Imagine two cities existing side by side and then whisk them so that they are all jumbled up. That is one way of looking at the setting. The citizens of Besel* and Ul Qoma are not permitted to interact with the citizens, objects, or ground space of the other city. They are not even allowed to sense them except to avoid a collision. Of course actual seeing and hearing cannot be helped but they have to “unsee”, “unhear”, “unsmell” etc., a kind of mandatory constant denial.

The main story is basically a murder mystery where a body of a “Jane Doe” is found and it is the job of a police detective to find her killer. It turns out that both cities are involved and maybe even a third secret city also occupying the same location. The world of The City & The City is actually Earth apparently in the present day with references to the internet, MS Windows and Tom Hanks movies to vaguely indicate the time period. The two city-states are located in what appears to be Eastern Europe.

Usually, I try to avoid reading a book’s synopsis before I start reading it. I enjoy discovering the plot, the setting and characters as I read, but as far as The City & The City is concerned this may not be such a good idea, Miéville does not start the narrative with any kind of exposition to set the scene. The readers are pretty much left to immediately fend for themselves from the first page. This is not really a problem if you already have a little prior knowledge of the very odd setting from a summary.

Reading this book is not a walk in the park, China Miéville made an effort to create such a bizarre world and culture for you to explore and some exertion is expected from the reader. As can be expected of any China Miéville book the writing is excellent, the characters are interesting (though take a little getting used to) and a little dry humour is scattered in several places. The climax is mind bendingly imaginative and the ending is rather poignant.

The City & The City defies simple categorization though “speculative fiction” is the most suitable as it is a very broad term that encompasses both science fiction and fantasy, and anything else that falls in between (maybe the fiction & the fiction?). This review is of a reread and it made me realize that the major disadvantage of rereading a whodunit is that I already know who did it as soon as the character’s name is mentioned in the book, fortunately, the why of it, in this case, is fairly complicated and has to be rediscovered. More importantly The City & The City has much more to offer than a conventional crime fiction novel. This is not a breezy read, but it is a book that I would like to recommend to everybody; give the ol’ little grey cells a nice workout, and while it is challenging it is not overly formidable and certainly an enriching experience for the mind.

*The name of the Besel city seems to be spelled differently in some editions.
I just realised that I have to do some "unseeing" all the time when I am typing on my English/Thai keyboard:
When I am typing in one language I have to "unsee" the alphabets of the other language. It is very disorienting when I switch from typing in one language to another. Living in either Besel or Ul Qoma would quickly drive me insane.