Wednesday, July 07, 2010

a part-way through review: the city & the city

I've read two China Miéville books before, or at least most of two. I really like Perdido Street Station, but I never finished The Scar (the one about the floating city.) This new, shorter book reads pretty much like a police procedural, but it is set in the doppel-cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. It has interesting characters, of the detective sort, though not especially unique characters. The conceit of these two overlapping cities and their proscription of crossing over and seeing/unseeing is really interesting, but halfway through the book and I still don't quite get it. There are many descriptions of the elaborate training that tourists and newcomers must undergo in order to behave properly and understand the rules of Beszel and Ul Qoma, much of which have to do with not seeing what's in front of you, and watching that you don't go into places you're not supposed to see. Not surprisingly, there are lots of politics related to this situation, and a perfect setup for a murder, done in one place, discovered in another. So I'm enjoying the story, just as I might enjoy reading Ian Rankin, though Miéville just isn't as good with this genre as writers like Rankin and others. Though the touch of Calvino is intriguing. But still I feel like one of these tourists who doesn't quite understand where I am, and how things work. If I were critiquing this from a sci-fi point of view, I might say that the alternative world is not quite consistent in its operation, or that some aspect of its essential characteristic has not been clearly communicated. It's a little like Men in Black, I suppose, without the gizmo that cleans memories. Of course, I need to finish it and find out who done it and why.

1 comment:

DogRunningFree said...

So now I've finished the book and discovered that is was one of the finalists this year for the Hugo.

And while I still think there are some real problems with this story -- like most of the time, or even all the time, the less than satisfactorily explained relation between these "cleaved" cities is unnecessary. Pretty much all the same effects could be achieved in a more realistic setting, say Nicosia or Berlin a couple decades ago. In the end, the main character "breaches" the gap between the two (for very honorable reasons) and is thus forced to stay in-between forever because he can never re-learn how not to see across the boundaries.

Now that's a powerful metaphor, but creating an imaginary city in this case seems a short-cut to the fuller psychological analysis that might have been required to show how the Belfast Catholics learn how not to see the Belfast Protestants, and what effects that has. And the redemption and perdition arrives when someone learns to "see" everyone and everything for what they are, because they can't go back to their blindness.

Jose Saramango's Blindness is a much more satisfying fable along these lines. As is The Invisible Man. So much as I enjoyed reading this book, it wasn't all that, leading me to my conclusion about sci-fi, weirdness, fantasy, speculative, which is, the value-added components have to be more than ways of not fully imagining the "real."