When I finished up this book I turned to Scott and said, “What a weird book.” His response: “I thought you said you liked it.” Me: “I do. But that doesn’t mean it’s not weird.”
The City and the City is a mystery novel but also a bit of… not science fiction, per se, but maybe “weird situation” fiction? I’m not sure what to call it. Basically, a girl is found murdered in a city called Besźel. Inspector Tyador Borlú is called in to investigate. For some reason, however, no one in Besźel seems to know what’s going on or who this mystery girl is. Borlú gets an anonymous phone call sort of identifying the girl but also making his job harder — she’s an American who was living in Ul Qoma, a… “neighboring” city that doesn’t quite play nice with Besźel. After an attempt to pass the case to a higher authority fails, Borlú goes over to Ul Qoma to help their police with the investigation and finds out rather more than he wanted to about the histories of the two cities and the higher authority that presides over them.
So that was good! But it’s that “neighboring” thing that makes this book so weird. Besźel and Ul Qoma don’t really neighbor. Rather, they share the same geographical and sometimes physical space. I know. Imagine your town. Now imagine that your neighborhood/development is in Your Town A, but the next neighborhood over is in Your Town B. Also imagine that there is another neighborhood wherein two next-door neighbors live in Your Town A and Your Town B, respectively. Now also imagine that these towns are actually different countries and for those next-door neighbors to call each other would cost a pretty penny. Now, finally, imagine that those next-door neighbors would never actually call each other because if they met outside their front doors they would have to actively not see each other. That is Besźel and Ul Qoma, and it’s baffling! Miéville does a lot of explaining about how the city and the city (see it now?) work, or don’t work, with each other, but in the end you’re still like, “But how could that happen? Who would do that?” So go ahead and start suspending your disbelief now, you won’t need it for a while.
Of course, the separation of the cities is what really drives the true mystery of the novel, which is not who the murdered girl is or who killed her (though those are important), but why someone would want her dead. What does she know? What has she shared with others? And, of course, how on Earth did she put up with such crazy rules?? (That one’s mine, obviously, not the novel’s.)