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The City and the City - full review - John C. Kirk

Jun. 25th, 2011

02:48 am - The City and the City - full review

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In my previous post I was partway through The City and the City (by China Miéville), and I didn't like it. I've now finished it, and it didn't get any better. I've certainly read worse stuff, e.g. fanfic stories that are full of typos and just serve as the writer's self-insertion fantasy. However, I can't remember the last time I read a book that made me this angry.

On the plus side, it's an original premise for a book, and Miéville makes an effort to explore the consequences of that idea, i.e. what it would be like to live in that world. I also like the new terminology that he introduces, e.g. "grosstopically". On the downside, he never explains why anyone would go along with this idea, since it makes life more difficult for everyone involved without offering any benefits in return.

There's an episode of South Park ("All about the Mormons?"), where they tell a story in song, and the chorus is a bit like humming: "dum de dum de dum". As the episode progresses, it becomes more obvious that this is actually an editorial comment: "Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb." I think that this book would benefit from a similar soundtrack.

When I was little, I saw a cartoon about cars in two towns: one of them only used curves, and the other one only used straight lines. In the curvy town, the cars all had round wheels but they spent all their time going up and downhill; the landscape looked like a sine wave. In the straight line town, the roads were flat but the wheels were square, so it was a bit of a bumpy ride. The visitor (Mr Ben?) suggested that the two towns should pool their resources, so they wound up with round wheels on flat roads, and everyone lived happily ever after. Watching this as a 5 year old, this made perfect sense to me, which basically means that my younger self was smarter than everyone in this book put together.

I mentioned the basic premise in my last post; in this post, I'm going to give major spoilers for the whole thing, including the ending.

To recap, the idea is that there are two cities merged together (Ul Qoma and Beszel): some buildings belong to one city, some belong to the other. It's been like that for 2000 years, and nobody knows how it originally happened. That's fair enough, so I have no problem with that. It sounds a bit like a university that's mixed in with the local town rather than being on a separate campus, so you have several buildings dotted around.

As well as being two cities, they are apparently countries. The book never says exactly how big the combined city is, but presumably it's no bigger than London, which is effectively a county by itself. So, these two cities are city states, with their own currency. There used to be a lot of city states around (e.g. Athens) but most of them merged together to form countries; as far as I know, the Vatican is the only one left. Still, I'm willing to accept that premise.

In the real world, there are debates about Scottish devolution and whether the UK should adopt the Euro. These debates often involve national identity, so in the book it makes sense that some people would favour merging the two cities while other people would prefer to keep them separate. So far, so good.

The weird idea is that people in one city aren't allowed to take any notice of the other: they have to pretend it's not there. Whether you're talking about cities or countries, there's no equivalent to that in the real world. For instance, I've cycled over bridges that separate England from Wales. You can stand in England and look at Wales, or vice-versa, and nobody objects to that. So, why aren't the citizens of Ul Qoma and Beszel allowed to look at each other? The book never explains this.

If someone does react to people/buildings/whatever in the other city, this is called "breaching", and they will be taken away by an organisation called the Breach. So, that gives a pragmatic explanation for people to stay in line. However, why do the Breach enforce this? At the end of the book, it turns out that everyone in the Breach was recruited after they had breached. After they'd got used to wandering around and looking at the whole city, they wouldn't willingly go back to "unseeing" half of it, so the Breach is the only organisation that they could work for. If anything, though, that should make them sympathetic to other people who breach.

For that matter, who's in charge, and who's paying the bill? Early in the book, Borlu (a detective from Beszel) is investigating a murder. It appears that the murderer breached, i.e. he killed someone in Ul Qoma and dumped the body in Beszel, so Borlu wants to hand the case over to the Breach. He appeals to a committee formed of representatives from both cities, and they're reluctant to go along with it, because they fear losing sovereignty. This all suggests that the Breach are basically a police state, who can swoop in and do whatever they like, answerable to nobody. However, if the two cities are footing the bill then they could shut Breach down whenever they like. If Breach is self-funded, where does the money come from?

As I said before, I'm happy to accept A Wizard Did It as an explanation, but apparently this book is trying to avoid any magic/SF aspects. Fine. If you want to do it that way then you need to provide a plausible real-world explanation for this, otherwise it's just a half-arsed job.

I can understand that the average person might be a bit superstitious, and just do things a particular way because that's the way it's always been done. However, the authorities take it to a ridiculous extent as a matter of policy. For instance, if a building that spans both cities is on fire, and the fire brigade from one city turn up, they will only extinguish the fire that's in their city; the other city will need to provide their own fire engine. Similarly, if the police in one city spot someone getting mugged in the other city then they won't intervene, or even acknowledge that they've seen it, because breaching is considered to be a worse crime than mugging. I'm not extrapolating; those examples come straight from the text. There's another situation where some refugees (new to one city) are involved in a bus crash, so they stagger around injured, covered in blood, and inadvertently breach. The people in the other city do their best to ignore them, rather than offering any help. The book doesn't specifically mention what the ambulance service would do in this situation, but presumably they would leave people to die rather than offering medical assistance.

In the real world, the emergency services have certain exemptions. For instance, they're allowed to drive through red lights in certain circumstances. In the context of the book, it would seem reasonable for them to get a breach exemption. Apparently, though, the people in charge of the emergency services decided that it's far better to just stand by and do nothing. Again, why? Why is breaching considered so bad that it takes precedence over human life? As far as I can tell, either Miéville couldn't think of an explanation, or he simply didn't deign to share it with us. However, if there are any subtle clues that I've missed, please let me know.

If this was a time travel story, I can understand why the characters would be forbidden to interfere, for fear of creating a paradox. The Guardian review talks about string theory, and I think they've completely missed the point of the book. If there was an explanation about collapsing waveforms by observing events then I'd be willing to accept that. But there isn't.

One of the characters even points out that it's impossible to avoid breaching. For instance, suppose that you hear a loud bang, and it makes you jump. If that noise came from the other city, you should have ignored it, but the nature of a surprise is that you can't. When the characters are pointing out the failures in the book's premise, that should be a warning sign that it needs more work.

Early in the book, The Breach are established as some kind of uber police force, possibly with superpowers. If there's an accidental breach, e.g. two cars colliding from different cities, The Breach will show up immediately and surround the area, then get the local police from each city to handle their respective citizens. Here's a description of a tourist being caught breaching (p78):

"Geary kind of lurches in and passes out. The hotel security go at them, and they just look at this shape, someone behind Geary in the hallway, and the guards stop and wait. I hear this voice: 'You know what I represent. Mr. Geary breached. Remove him.'

Ceczoria shook his head, helpless. "Then, and I still can't see anything properly, whoever's speaking's gone."

"How...?"

"Inspector, I don't fucking know."


Ceczoria is a police officer, and he can't even see the person's face or track their movements. Later on, Borlu gets captured by the Breach. Here's an excerpt from p186:

I held my face in my hands, looked over my fingertips. It looked as if the man and woman in the doorway weren't paying attention. I ran hard at them, I thought without any warning. One - I do not know which - hooked me in midair and sent me across the room into the wall and down. Someone hit me, the woman it must be, because my head was tugged up and the man stood leaning still in the doorway.


If there's nothing special about the Breach, i.e. they're normal humans without any kind of advanced technology, how do they move so fast and avoid being seen? When they confront someone from another country, he basically laughs at them, saying that he's not intimidated by them. If they were just relying on their reputation then that would be fair enough; it's similar to the way that Batman operates. However, it doesn't match what's been portrayed elsewhere in the novel as fact.

There's a scene near the end where Borlu is trying to hunt someone down in a crosshatched area, i.e. a street that's shared by both cities. Nobody is sure which city the fugitive is actually in, which means that neither police force can arrest him without the risk of breaching. Borlu's solution is to phone allies in both cities, then guide them to the relevant place so that they can back him up when the fugitive commits to one city. I liked that, but it turned out to be completely pointless. If you want to see a similar concept handled better, watch the Star Trek Voyager episode "Shattered".

Coming back to the world building aspects, I'll accept that the two cities have different currencies and different cuisines. However, I think that Miéville is pushing his luck when he talks about different TV channels. When Borlu visits Ul Qoma, he watches TV (pp111-112). "There were more feature films than on Besz TV, it seemed, and more and louder game shows, all a channel-hop or two from newsreaders listing the successes of President Ul Mak and the New Reform packages". How big are these cities supposed to be? In the real world, we get some regional variations (e.g. local news) but the vast majority of programs are the same across the whole country. Does each city really have its own TV studios producing game shows? For that matter, here's a quote from p183: "Roofs spread out below me. The slates, satellite dishes, flat concrete, ajut girders and antennae". If they have satellite dishes, presumably both cities will get exactly the same channels (e.g. Sky TV). This isn't really critical to the plot, but there's no point coming up with a unique premise for a book unless you're actually going to think through all the implications.

Coming back to the issue of breach, it's perfectly legal for people to make phone calls between the two cities. (These count as international calls.) Also, the book mentions the internet a few times. So, is it ok to swap emails with people who live next door in a different city? How about video conferencing on Skype? Online gaming? I can't see why any of those things would logically be forbidden, but if they're all allowed then it makes the "no contact" concept even more ridiculous. The book doesn't offer any answers, so this is another example of failure to follow through.

All in all, this is a book that starts with a stupid concept and then fails to do anything interesting with it.

I've now starting reading Temeraire (by Naomi Novik). I couldn't remember offhand why I bought this one, and ebooks don't have a back cover. However, the first few pages were enough to jog my memory, and it's off to a good start, so I'm looking forward to the rest of it.

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Comments:

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From:gaspodog
Date:June 25th, 2011 10:30 am (UTC)
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The Temeraire books are good fun and well written (I thought the latest one wasn't quite as good). If you like the Vorkosigan saga and that sort of thing, then I think you'll like these.
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From:johnckirk
Date:June 27th, 2011 05:17 pm (UTC)
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Thanks - I'm really enjoying it so far, e.g. last night I still wanted to keep reading even when I was struggling to keep my eyes open. My favourite line so far (p189): "Roland went on, still in that appallingly practical tone."

My only nitpick concerned language. I'll accept that a dragon can speak as soon as it's hatched, but it seemed odd that a Chinese dragon from a French ship would speak English. I assumed that this was just a "don't think about it" handwaving issue, like all the aliens speaking English in Stargate, but it turned out that there was actually an explanation, so I'm suitably impressed :)
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From:gaspodog
Date:June 27th, 2011 05:25 pm (UTC)
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I found the first few books in the series pretty hard to put down too. I felt the standard started to drop a little by the 5th one, but it's worth continuing the series.

Stargate had Daniel Jackson, the magical universal translator in human form! Surely that's excuse enough? :-)
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From:karne_k
Date:June 25th, 2011 01:07 pm (UTC)
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Playing the devil's advocate...

One of the things I try and get my students to understand while writing their reports can be described as follows.

--
You wrote 'all green dragons are happy dragons'.

Do you mean:

a) As a statement of universal fact, all green dragons are happy
b) It is generally accepted (by dragonologists) that nearly all green dragons are happy (save presumably, the dead ones)
c) It is my personal opinion that most green dragons are happy (although others, less enlightened, will disagree)
d) All three dragons I've seen were both green and extremely happy
--

These meanings are not identical but from the given statement, I (as the reader) can't tell which is meant. This indicates unclear thinking and makes for a poor argument.

I've not read CatC (although I'll have to buy it now - damn you ;) ) but given that it's won 5 major awards it would appear that at least some people like it. Hence:

'All in all, this is a book that starts with a stupid concept and then fails to do anything interesting with it.'

probably had meaning c). Unfortunately, from the statement I can't be sure.

I guess it depends what you want your reviews to be - if they're for venting (and I can certainly understand the need to rant about things that appear stupid :) ) then fine, I'll shut up :) But if they're intended to educate other potential readers then perhaps a more considered bias would be valuable?
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From:johnckirk
Date:June 25th, 2011 02:14 pm (UTC)
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Fair point - this was mainly a way for me to vent my spleen, since I try not to upset fellow train passengers by shouting at the books I'm reading :) I'm also amused that you and shuripentu have both decided to read this book because I hated it so much; I'm not sure what that says about my tastes!

I think it's fair to say that "stupid concept" is objectively true. The concept of breaching costs time/money (e.g. training people to "unsee"), it has definite downsides (e.g. leaving people to die painfully when the emergency services are within arm's reach), and there are no advantages or explanation (I can't think of any and the book doesn't list any).

Whether it's interesting is more subjective. I came across a mini-review at Penny Arcade: I got about half way through this book and gave up. I just don't understand these fucking cities. His next book should be called "I'm Smarter Than You" and he can just take a shit inside it. So, some people seem to struggle with the concept. Other people may find that the mental exercise of getting their head round it is rewarding in itself; that's the way I've felt about some of Greg Egan's books, e.g. Quarantine. Personally, I want more.

Looking at the film Cars, it took me a while to get into that, because I had trouble suspending my disbelief. For instance, who makes the cars? However, that's not really what the film is about: I'd say that the point of the film is to show Lightning McQueen's character development, as his priorities change. There's no equivalent to that in CatC: the only changes are directly related to the central concept.

I think the book would work better as a short story, if you had an anthology full of weird ideas for cities. E.g. the city where everyone must be blindfolded all the time, or the city where everyone has to hop on one foot rather than walking. Coming back to Pixar, this would be the equivalent of their short films, which take a simple idea and then run with it as far as they can. That way, readers wouldn't expect it to be plausible, and they could just focus on the implications.
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