One of the central stories of the twentieth century is the drawing (and redrawing) of borders. As empires rose and fell over the course of the first two world wars (the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, the British, the Soviet, etc.) borders kept changing, countries were partitioned, and we got immigration debates, ethnic cleansing, and global terrorism as a result. So, it’s an immensely important issue, but one that sf has not delved into often.
China Miéville’s The City & The City is all about the fictions and realities of borders, which are always arbitrary on some level. The Eastern European (maybe Balkan?) cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma not only border each other, they share the same space and are almost everywhere entagled. Therefore, just walking or driving down the street, citizens must always watch not to violate the border by seeing into the other city or even accidentally stepping into it. The novel is full of rich cultural details that explain how much the border defines the everyday lives of the people in this “divided city;” Miéville highlights the fact that borders are human constructions by creating a situation in which people must constantly construct one. Anyone who does violate this border falls into the grasp of a secret police force that bridges the cities called Breach. I would’ve liked a little more history as to how this came about, but I see why Mieville avoided the question (what would be believable?). Still, it would be nice to hear more about how these cities existed on the contentious borders of the Ottoman Empire or the Warsaw Pact.
The actual plot unfolds as a noir mystery. Tyador Borlú is a police detective in Besźel who is to solve the death of a young woman with ties to Ul Qoma. As the mystery unfolds, it raises all sorts of questions about the border, the cities’ twinned histories, and Breach. These genre conventions keep the novel moving at a brisk pace and they make it imminently readable. They also provide some of the novel’s few problems. It is, by necessity, somewhat formulaic, and parts of this novel will feel very familiar if you know the genre at all (it’s very reminiscent of Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, either through direct inspiration or the shared inspirations). It’s very well done here, though, and the result makes for an engaging read that still leaves a lot to think about. I also personally prefer this concrete murder mystery approach to the dreamlike version of a similar idea in Valente’s Palimpsest. This was a fantastic novel, and it’s easy to see why it’s won so many sf awards this season.