book review: the city & the city

I’ve already talked a bit about China Mieville’s The City & The City, but here’s the review. Wow. Not that it was mind-blowing in the story. I mean, it was a detective story, there was a mystery and a detective trying to solve it. All right. Cool. In the end the mystery gets solved and we find out who did what and how. Great. If that was all it was I would not be nearly so jazzed about it, but even taken just on that level it’s a good mystery story. I didn’t feel let down when the pieces fell into place (and with this book it’s important that those pieces didn’t “come together”) and the tale was about smart people doing smart things. No idiocy required.

Except.

The world Mieville creates here is a piece of inspired idiotic madness that I hated and loved to fucking pieces. I hated the idiocy of people living right next to each other being forced to “unsee” the things that were right there. But I loved that we’re seeing these cities through the eyes of a person who believes in the boundaries and their importance. It would have been so much easier to do this story from the point of view of a character like the reader, someone who doesn’t get the boundaries between the two cities, who would have to have it explained. But that would have been so unsatisfying in comparison. The way the book is written, you’re gradually introduced to the idea of the two cities because it’s normal. The narrator doesn’t say “This is so weird!” because that’s our role as the reader. By the time we get a tourist character who behaves the way you or I would in this mad city, we’re on the narrator’s side, but we can see ourselves in these interlopers.

This is a book I feel like I’m going to need to take apart to see how he did it so beautifully. Through the whole reading I was thinking “how could this possibly have happened?” and the book stays resolutely away from giving us an answer. Even though archaeologist characters abound. Speculation about the nature of the Cities fuels the whole thing, and even though it couldn’t possibly work in real life, the book states as fact how it does. And he does it in such a way you believe it. So fucking good.

Even though I read it in 2010, this was probably my favourite SF novel from 2009. Although looking at my shelves a bit more closely it was probably only the second SF novel I read published in 2009. (The other was Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, see my review here, which was very good in plausible worldbuilding kind of way but lacked The City & the City’s compelling story.)

book review: the caryatids

Interestingly enough, a Caryatid is not some Cicada-like insect. I did not know this until I told people it was, then thought “Wait. Am I just making things up?” I looked it up and found I was just making it up. It’s a carving of a female figure designed as a pillar. Now you know.

Bruce Sterling’s book The Caryatids is about a future, less about characters. There are these women (the titular caryatids) who are clones of a war-criminal and they hate each other and have scattered among the political factions of the globe. There are three main parts to the book, each with a different one of these clones. But there is no real story here beyond “How people deal with this future.” Which is fascinating, but without a point. I’ve had a hard time describing this book to people. There is no problem to be solved. You know how in Neal Stephenson books the characters are all hypercompetent and there’s no feeling of danger as the problems get solved? This takes that even further by making the problems almost irrelevant too. A satisfying page-turner yarn this book is not.

Yet. I liked it. I liked it for its exploration of this future. It was abstract or conceptual most of the time. Lots of stuff happens off-camera between sections. But there was a feeling that this is how life actually is. Without all of the story arcs or solutions to anything. There are some action sequences, which are pretty good, but generally it felt like a book by someone explaining his homebrew D&D setting (set in 2060 with ubiquitous computing). Now, I love that kind of stuff, but this probably isn’t a book for everyone. Or anyone who wants a story.