Wednesday, March 25, 2015

THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville

China Mieville (he's a Brit; the name signifies French ancestry, hippie parents, and a guarantee that Americans will think of Moby Dick the moment they see his name on a dust jacket) possesses one of the most impressive imaginations in contemporary SF. Anyone who has sampled even a bit of his Bas-Lag trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council) will not soon forget his weird inventions and uncanny ability to leap inside the perceptions of nonhuman characters. In The City and the City--best pigeonholed as an SF police procedural, the subgenre that includes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Soylent Green ("It's PEOPLE!")--that imagination is wonderfully displayed in the central conceit, two mutually antagonistic cities occupy the same physical space and citizens of each are socialized to 'unsee' buildings and people in the other, even when those buildings abut their own or those people pass them on the sidewalk. It's a fantastically suggestive idea, worthy of Calvino or even Kafka, and Mieville milks it marvelously. This conceit is also by far the best thing about the novel, and therein lies the work's weakness. In sharp contrast to the originality of its setting, The City and the City's characters are flat, its plot formulaic (and as such, a bit too predictable), and its prose rarely rises above the average level for its genre(s). There were several sentences in which an obviously tortured syntax left me wondering if Mieville was writing deliberately 'badly' in order to defamiliarize the language of his text as a parallel to his defamiliarization of our world in his topolganger (his coinage, and a good one) cities. This may have been his intention, but my margin of readerly doubt measures the distance between intention and execution. If linguistic defamiliarization was his target, he didn't quite hit it here. But it's clear that Mieville is damn good, and his writerly craft is still on the up escalator. When he reaches the top, watch out.

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