Sci-Fi Book Club: The City & The City

Earlier this week, Manchester Sci-fi Book Club gathered to discuss China Mieville’s contemporary crime novel The City and The City and it didn’t take much prompting to trigger a heated, energetic debate as, once again, the group was split three ways; liked, disliked and undecided. This proved apt considering the premise of the book which uses a police procedural narrative to explore the central concept of two cities that occupy the same area whose divided existence is perpetuated by the ideology of maintaining strict borders and opposing citizens ‘unseeing’ each other.

The City & The City - China Mieville

The City & The City - China Mieville

This was an immediate area of contention for many. While everyone seemed to agree that the essential concept of a dual-city is an intriguing and enjoyable one, many struggled to grasp the truth of the concept in the opening chapters and, for some, this was off-putting. We discussed how the slow reveal of information about the dual-city meant that many found their minds changing frequently from science-fiction concepts of two places physically overlapped in time and space, to the more socio-political angle of a city in full view and normal reality that remains only truly divided in the minds and psychologies of its citizens.

As the discussion expanded the group divide became more clearly marked out as those who felt frustrated with the author for not giving an adequate explanation of the full history of the dual-city and those who preferred to read the concept as a metaphor or thought experiment and therefore considered an explanation to be irrelevant.

Curiously, it became clear that a key factor of our appreciation of the novel was the fact that we had approached it from the point of view of science fiction, and yet there were some strong arguments to suggest that the book does not fall within that category. Inevitably, this led to grander debates of how to define the ‘science fiction’ genre which is a discussion which could take two years, never mind two hours. For some, what begins as a sci-fi concept instead becomes a socio-political one therefore removing the scientific element and disappointing those who expected more sci-fi. This was countered by others who consider the explorations of society and psychology as the ‘science’ required to validate the tag. Indeed, it fell to me as advocator to explain why I had brought it to the group. The City and The City is the winner of two prestigious science fiction awards (so far) and I felt China Mieville is an author that deserves our attention. The genre contention makes for an interesting debate as to what is and what isn’t considered science fiction by readers, authors and judging panels, and continues to rage on.

As for the novel’s other genre – crime – the group were more forgiving. Many enjoyed the police procedural narrative driven by the likeable protagonist Inspector Borlu, drawing comparisons to hard-boiled pulp noir. The descriptions of the Eastern European setting were generally well received and many enjoyed the quirks of the dual-city culture that Mieville drops in. When the discussion moved on to the author’s socialist views we were able to identify a strong reflection on the theme of class difference especially in the concept of ‘unseeing’ which finds purchase in real life when a master may ’unsee’ their servants, or when an individual ‘unsees’ a homeless person in the street.

After two hours of segwaying back into the genre debate, not many conclusions were reached. However we had maintained a full and healthy debate with all opinions expressed gallantly and defended with vigour. ‘Breach’ was invoked and we departed with a novel that has turned out to be as frustrating as it is illuminating.

We next meet on the 20th July to discuss Aurthur C Clarke’s Sci-Fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, as usual any new members are welcome to pick up a copy and join us.

-Guest writer Dave Hartley