I first read Mieville last year. I had picked up Perdido Street Station, one book in a trilogy of novels set in a world of the author’s own creation. New Crobuzon, the cerebrum-shaped city in Perdido, is depicted as an expansive cluster of disparate architecture and neighborhoods, inhabited by a menagerie of imaginative characters. There are arcane garudas that dwell on the rooves of buildings, giant trance-inducing moths that menace the city and subsist on dreams, a massive multi-dimensional spider with human hands hanging from its abdomen, bio-engineered people with grotesque mechanical adaptations, and a powerful neural network comprising discarded electronics in a city dump.
There’s really a lot of ideas in this book. Perdido, at times, reads as an excursion into the fantastic, only partially regulated by a concern for plot. As a writer, Mieville takes on the role of a world-builder, creating a place where all his insane creations can exist and interact. With the story confined to a city, New Crobuzon develops its facets and reveals its layers around the events throughout the book. The story is in place to satisfy the author’s passion for the characters, rather than the other way around, and the imagined world and its inhabitants take precedence over the traditional virtues of the novel. He even admits to this tendency, stating in his Believer interview, “I’m in this fucking business for the monsters. The monsters are the main thing I love about the fantastic. And unfortunately you can’t really sell books of monsters to publishers. They insist on stories linking them.”
Mieville’s work has been described as “baroque urban fantasy“, those three words being some of the most heavily used designations in conversations surrounding his work. Reading The City and The City, it’s noticeable early on that the author eased up on his baroque leanings to write what is essentially a crime noir novel, a combination of “weird fiction” and the “police procedural“. Though more contained in its chimerical qualities, it’s still a science-fiction story. The elements of fantasy are seen in the inner-workings of two made-up cities–Beszel and Ul Quoma: separate cities in the same space.
The City and The City is mythologies, murder, and politics set in a unique reality, a nuanced cadre of peripheries. An anomalous circumstance sets the stage for the particular rules of engagement in the city/cities. Movement through space is marked as much by seeing as “unseeing”; “unseeing” being a propensity of the residents of Beszel and Ul Quoma: two different cities, sharing the same physical territory in isolation from one another. A “breach” between the separate cities can happen on either a physical level or, more abstruse, on a perceptual one.
An example of the intricacies of Beszel and Ul Quoma in a passage where the narrator is moving from one city to the other:
…[I] had the driver take us, to his raised eyebrows, a long way round to Beszel entrance on a route that took us on KarnStrasz. In Bezel it is an unremarkable shopping street in the Old Town, but it is crosshatched, somewhat in Ul Quoma’s weight, the majority of buildings in our neighbour, and in Ul Quoma its topolganger is the historic, famous Ul Maidin Avenue, into which Copula Hall vents. We drove as if coincidentally by the Copula Hall exit into Ul Quoma.
I had unseen it as we took KarnStrasz, at least ostensibly, but of course grosstopically present near us were the liens of Ul Quomans entering, the trickle of vistor-badge wearing Besz emering into the same physical space they may have walked an hour previously, but now looking around in astonishment at the architecture of Ul Quoma it would have been breach to see before.
I’m interested in the spatial precepts conceived here. In describing an area that is at once one place and yet another, the narrator defines proximity ““crudely physically, grosstopically, to use the term unique to Beszel and Ul Guoma, unnecessary anywhere else.”
My intent with The City and The City was…to derive something hyperbolic and fictional through an exaggeration of the logic of borders, rather than to invent my own magical logic of how borders could be. It was an extrapolation of really quite everyday, quite quotidian, juridical and social aspects of nation-state borders: I combined that with a politicized social filtering, and extrapolated out and exaggerated further on a sociologically plausible basis, eventually taking it to a ridiculous extreme.
A grosstopical understanding of spatial dimensions is a basic comprehension of an area, controlled by separate governing bodies, removed from the definitive dueling politics. Geography becomes awkward when it loses its ability to be depoliticized. Simple terms of physicality aren’t sufficient in addressing how we deal with space. A map, while composed of different masses of land and bodies of water, is more-often-than-not defined by the borders and territories imposed upon it. It’s an interesting challenge to imagine reading geography in alternate ways, overlaying new meanings onto standard interpretations. Complicate the matter with the idea of a space, simultaneously singular and seperate, and you’ve arrived somewhere around where the “grosstopical” notion could have derived from.