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The city and the city - John C. Kirk

Jun. 22nd, 2011

02:21 am - The city and the city

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Normally I wait until I've finished a book before I review it, so that I have an informed opinion. However, I'm making an exception for "The city and the city" (by China Mieville), simply because it's annoying me so much. I'm now about a third of the way through (just started chapter 9), and the author has completely failed to explain the basic premise. I assume that I'll have to wait until the end of the book to actually find out what's going on, and maybe it will be worth the wait. However, there are several other stories that have handled a similar concept so much better.

The rest of this post will involve minor spoilers, but I can't list the other books because that list would effectively act as a spoiler by itself. Still, nothing here should affect your enjoyment.

The key concept of this book is that there are two overlapping cities. Imagine that you had London 1 and London 2, and a given building would only belong to one of these cities. Some streets are also city-specific, while others are shared. If you live in London 1, you only interact with other people/architecture in London 1, so you will ignore everything in London 2, and vice-versa. People walk around and basically pretend that half of the city doesn't exist. If you live in London 1, and your next door neighbour lives in London 2, you can't simply knock on his door; instead, you have to drive to border control, show your passport to get into the other city, then drive back the way you came, now ignoring everything in London 1.

Why does all this happen? I don't know. The book said that even the characters aren't clear on the origins of the cities: it may have been one city that split in half, or it may have been two separate cities that merged together. Fair enough, I'll accept that, but I don't accept that people would put up with such a mind-bogglingly stupid arrangement unless they actually had a reason for it.

By contrast, look at Neverwhere (by Neil Gaiman). The idea there is that people in London do their best to pretend that homeless people don't exist, so eventually the homeless become invisible: they can still see everything around them, but people in London Above are oblivious to London Below. That's fine: it basically involves magic, and I don't think it's really plausible, but I'm happy to go along with the premise.

Or take Midnight Nation (by JMS). There's a similar concept, where people "fall through the cracks", so they're invisible to society. However, in this case it's symmetrical, i.e. the people who've fallen through can't see normal people either. In fact, they seem to be effectively intangible, so they can cross the road without getting squashed by invisible cars. This involves some religious/mystical ideas, e.g. that your soul can be removed from your body, and I'm happy with that.

This is similar to the sci-fi idea of people being "out of phase". Star Trek TNG did that in one episode (The Next Phase), and so did Sliders (Gillian of the Spirits). Again, there's an explanation for this, even if it's just technobabble, and there's a sensible motivation for everyone else to ignore particular characters (i.e. they can't see them), so I'm happy with that.

Stardust (Gaiman again) is a bit different, but it's a related idea: there's a particular field where our world overlaps with the Faerie world (next to the town of Wall), so people can meet there once a year to trade goods. Outside that field, each world has its own separate geography, so there could be two cities which effectively overlap but don't interact. Again, I'm happy with that.

The point is, I'm not picky. Give me something, anything, and I'll play along, but I'm not willing to accept an arrangement like this without any explanation, and I think it's unreasonable for the writer to expect me to.

I read another of Mieville's books a few years ago (King Rat), because he was a Guest of Honour at Picocon. I thought it was alright; it reminded me of stories by other people (possibly Gaiman), but he handled the themes in a less pleasant manner. Since I've paid for this book, I'll read the rest of it, but I don't recommend it to anyone else.

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From:nou
Date:June 22nd, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC)
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I think The City And The City is brilliant, and I've read it three times. Part of the reason I like it is precisely that it doesn't appeal to magic. In a way, it's kind of like SF but with the science being sociology. It's plausible in a way that e.g. Neverwhere (which I also love, though for different reasons) isn't. I can see why you don't like it, though — it's not a straightforward book by any means.

Do you want me to tell you whether or not there's a "big reveal" where the history of the cities and the reason(s) behind the Cleavage are explained?
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From:johnckirk
Date:June 22nd, 2011 02:43 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for your comment, and I'm glad that you liked the book.

I'm not too bothered about the Cleavage, so I'm happy to wait and see on that one. However, I would like to get the same basic knowledge as a tourist to the cities, which is hopefully a bit more detailed than "Do what you're told or the Breach will get you." So, could you tell me whether the book reveals that much?

I'd be happy with a sociological explanation for this, as long as I know what it is. For instance, in Cetaganda (by Bujold), there are two social classes: the Haut and the Ghem. Haut women normally roam around in opaque force bubbles, so nobody can see what they look like. If a Haut woman marries a Ghem lord, she loses the privilege of the bubble, but it's good manners for everyone else to act as if the bubble was still there, i.e. they don't look at her directly. In that novel, the protagonist is visiting that planet, so the reader gets the basic explanation at the same time as him. I think that's a good way to handle this; another method would be to publish an excerpt from a tourist handbook between chapters.
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From:nou
Date:June 22nd, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC)
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There are some passages in part two of the novel (chapter 12 onwards) that describe things like the orientation that a citizen of one of the cities would have to undergo before their first trip to the other city; and examples of ways that foreigners (from outside both cities) might behave when in one of the cities. That might give you some idea of what a tourist would be aware of.

But I'm not really sure what kind of reveal you're wondering about. Do you mean whether the author states plainly "OK, this is why people carry on keeping the cities separate"? He doesn't do that, because the situation isn't quite that simple.

Is there a deeper explanation in Cetaganda than "it's good manners"? To me, that's not really an explanation.
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From:johnckirk
Date:June 23rd, 2011 12:07 am (UTC)
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In terms of the reveal, if I was a tourist then I imagine the conversation would go like this.
Me: "That's an impressive building."
Local: "Don't look at it! Pretend it's not there."
Me: "Why?"
Local: "Because."
Me: "Because what?"
Local: "Just because."
I'm hoping that the book will provide some better explanation, but I'll read the rest of it and find out.

Regarding Cetaganda, here's the relevant section (pp142-143 of my paperback edition):

"Why were you wagging your eyebrows at me a while ago?" Miles asked.

"I was trying to warn you about a rare point of Cetagandan etiquette. How you are supposed to behave when you encounter a haut-woman outside of her bubble."

"It was ... the first time I'd ever seen one," he lied strategically. "Did I do all right?"

"Hmm, barely. You see, the haut women lose the privilege of the force-shields when they marry out of the genome into the ghem-rank. They become as ghem-women - sort of. But the loss of the shield is considered a great loss of face. So the polite thing to do is to behave as if the bubble were still there. You must never directly address a haut-wife, even if she's standing right in front of you. Put all inquiries through her ghem-husband, and wait for him to transmit the replies."

"I ... didn't say anything to them."

"Oh, good. And you must never stare directly at them, either, I'm afraid."

"I thought the men were being rude, to close the women out of the conversation."

"Absolutely not. They were being most polite, Cetagandan style."


I know that different real-world cultures have different rules about eye contact, e.g. some people would think you were shifty if you didn't make eye contact whereas other people would view it as a challenge to their authority if you did. So, that kind of fictional etiquette sounds plausible enough to me.
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From:nou
Date:June 23rd, 2011 11:56 am (UTC)
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In terms of the reveal, if I was a tourist then I imagine the conversation would go like this.

Before I say too much about the book, I just want to check that you do realise this hypothetical conversation is completely implausible? Because if you don't, then I think you may have fundamentally misunderstood what you've read so far.
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From:johnckirk
Date:June 23rd, 2011 01:02 pm (UTC)
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Yes, it would probably work better as a conversation between a parent and child, while the parent is teaching the child to go out in public without breaching.

I realise that tourists would go through the orientation process before they roam around the city. However, they would presumably be aware of the split city before they arrive, so they wouldn't ask the orientation trainer about this, and the book hasn't said anything about how the cities are viewed/reported in the rest of the world. So, I was trying to keep things simple in my example.
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From:nou
Date:June 23rd, 2011 04:54 pm (UTC)
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OK, I'm going to try to use your Cetaganda example to explain what the author of The City and the City does and doesn't make explicit. Hopefully this will tell you what you want to know.

There is no equivalent to this: the haut women lose the privilege of the force-shields when they marry out of the genome into the ghem-rank. They become as ghem-women - sort of. But the loss of the shield is considered a great loss of face. So the polite thing to do is to behave as if the bubble were still there.

However, there are subtle clues as to why people might go along with the continued separation of the cities. I don't think you're the kind of reader who's likely to pick up on these clues, so I'm happy to spell them out if you want me to.

I haven't read Cetaganda, so I don't know if it has the same sort of clues as to why people go along with the ignoring-haut-women thing. Personally I would like to know things like whether any of the haut-women see the loss of the bubble as a liberation rather than a loss, what would happen to one who decided she wanted to be spoken to directly, etc. That's what I mean by "it's polite" not being much of an explanation. I think the force-bubble explanation is really equivalent to an explanation of the Cleavage — i.e. it explains the starting conditions of the system but not the continued dynamics.

Also, I think you should have already come across the unifs (unificationists) in the book? So there is a sign that not everyone is in fact happy to go along with the separation.

Does any of that help?
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From:johnckirk
Date:June 23rd, 2011 08:38 pm (UTC)
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Thanks - it sounds as if I won't get what I'm looking for, but at least that means I can give up hope now rather than being disappointed later. I'll press on with it anyway, and I may ask you to spell out the clues once I've finished.

As for Cetaganda, the haut women control their own bubbles, so they can turn them off whenever they like, although it would be unusual to do so in public. That explains why Miles was lying when he said that he hadn't seen a haut woman outside her bubble before; she'd turned it off temporarily. I really enjoyed all of that series, so you might like to try one of her (Bujold's) novels.
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From:karne_k
Date:June 22nd, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC)
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China seems to provoke love or loath reactions. Personally I'm a fan but his work isn't easily approachable by any means and he seems to have a 'take no prisoners' attitude towards his readers' understanding of the plot. I can see why this puts some people off :)

I haven't read C&C but finished Embassytown a few weeks ago - I'd rank it as the best novel I've read this year. Last one that affected me as much was probably Adiga's The White Tiger.

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From:johnckirk
Date:June 22nd, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC)
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This reminds me of when I tried to read Dragonflight in 2003 (described here and here). McCaffrey kept referring to stuff without explaining it, which I found rather annoying, but most people liked. So, I agree that this is a "Marmite" situation rather than The city and the city being objectively bad. I haven't read the other two books that you mentioned; if I don't get on with this one, would you still recommend them?
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From:karne_k
Date:June 22nd, 2011 09:48 pm (UTC)
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Embassytown is good but tbh I'd read the books that it seems to be quietly thieving ideas from (if you haven't already). Hence:

C. J. Cherryh's 'Foreigner'
Ursula K. Le Guin's 'Left Hand of Darkness'
Mary Doria Russell's 'The Sparrow'

Dragonflight was popular exactly because it didn't over explain the world setting but 'The White Dragon' is a much better intro to the Pern series as it's a self contained novel.

The White Tiger isn't genre but it won the 2008 Man Booker so yeah, it's good :)
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From:johnckirk
Date:June 23rd, 2011 08:04 pm (UTC)
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Thanks - I haven't read any of them (or anything else by those authors), so I'll take a look.
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From:shuripentu
Date:June 23rd, 2011 12:09 pm (UTC)
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Not having read the book, or indeed anything about it other than the review and discussion here, I can only offer totally uninformed commentary, but then isn't that what the internet's for? ;P

Based on what you've said, I reckon the lack of any explicit explanation of why/how the cities are split is entirely intentional, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's never explained directly. My first guess as to the author's motive is that this is meant to implicitly comment on arbitrary social norms and divisions in the real world – ones which are, as in the book, near-universally accepted and predominantly unquestioned. Obviously I'd need to actually read the book to ascertain whether or not this is a likely reason, but it's one example of why an author might choose to create a fictional system like this and leave it unexplained; indeed, having an explanation to provide would destroy the reason for including it in the first place.

There's also the fact that not all readers are going to be put off by metaphorical elephants in the room; in fact, I actually enjoy that sort of thing – if it's done well – because I like being left with things to think about and puzzle over, and conversely dislike having everything spelled out to me all the time. Giving me, as a reader, something to do makes a book feel more interactive to me, and less like merely plodding alongside the author. (That said, I also enjoy books that consist of merely plodding alongside the author – if they're done well.) I'm actually rather interested in reading the book now, if I can find a gap in my schedule.

As one of my A-level English teachers once told us, you can dislike, even hate, a book, and it can still be a good book. (We then went on to study two books that definitely fit that description, so I guess it was fair warning. :P I didn't enjoy reading them, but I don't regret having done so either.) There are a couple authors I can't stand who are fairly highly regarded by many people I/we know, and I wouldn't be surprised if the reasons I dislike their work are among the reasons why others enjoy them.

Also, isn't feeling compelled to finish a book you're not enjoying just because you've paid for it another example of the sunk cost fallacy? If you're not getting anything out of it, you may as well put your reading time into something better for you. :)
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From:johnckirk
Date:June 23rd, 2011 08:13 pm (UTC)
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I did wonder whether this was similar to the war in Lilliput (over which end of an egg to open), so you may be right. I would lend you my copy of the book, but since it's an epub file rather than a paper copy that makes it a bit more fiddly.

I think you're also right about the sunk cost fallacy; I have abandoned other books before, e.g. Dragonflight. On the other hand, I've also read books that started out with things I objected to and then later the characters admitted that those things were mistakes. E.g. in The Forever War, fbyqvref ner nffvtarq orq cnegaref ba n ebgn, fb gurl'er boyvtrq gb unir frk jvgu jubrire gurve cnegare vf gung avtug. Yngre ba, guvf fpurzr vf nonaqbarq, orpnhfr zbfg crbcyr unir cnverq hc naq gurer jbhyq unir orra bcra eribyg vs gur bssvpref unq gevrq gb er-vagebqhpr vg. (ROT-13 spoiler protection.) Since I know other people who speak highly of this book, e.g. nou and billyabbott, I feel like I ought to give it a fair chance. I'm also vaguely curious to see how the murder mystery is resolved, so I'll grit my teeth when I keep stopping every 10 pages or so to say "No, that's just stupid!" I mainly read this on the train, and despite my criticisms I will at least say that it's better than reading the Metro :)
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From:nou
Date:June 23rd, 2011 10:43 pm (UTC)
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Since I know other people who speak highly of this book, e.g. nou and billyabbott, I feel like I ought to give it a fair chance.

Oh, don't take my praise of the book as meaning that I think you should carry on reading it. I think if you don't already like it by chapter 9 then you're never going to.
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