I’m always delighted to approach books (and other works) with as little knowledge about them as reasonably possible. (If you’re the same, and you haven’t read The City and the City, then please forgo reading this post, which contains conceptual spoilers if not plot ones.) This novel, which sat vaguely on my reading list for some time until I received it as a Christmas present, occupied a middle ground: I vaguely knew the central conceit of its setting, but nothing beyond that.
How delightful, then, to discover that my understanding was wrong. I had The City and the City categorised as sci-fi; I thought its twin cities Besźel and Ul Qoma occupied the same physical space through some quirk of physics or magic. The novel doesn’t outright contradict this, but it certainly doesn’t require it: the two cities, and the skin between them, are seemingly constructed entirely in the minds of their citizens. The City and the City isn’t sci-fi: it’s polsci-fi.
And the real trick is that these two strange cities aren’t really all that strange. Detectives’ frustrations over jurisdictional issues are familiar from a thousand more conventional police procedurals. Citizens mark their belonging by dress and manner, as they do everywhere else on Earth. Their borders are imagined; so are ours. The difference is merely topological, but it is a difference that provides a valuable lens through which to view borders and nationality and citizenship. (And perhaps the topology isn’t so strange after all: the UK’s hostile environment shows us all too clearly that borders don’t stop at the border.)
The blurb of my copy tells the reader that the protagonist ‘must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other’. That’s the promise that gets the novel off the shelf: what makes it great is that the promise is a lie.
For misleading me in this way, I award The City and the City no stars. ☆☆☆☆☆