When A Fantasy Is Not A Fantasy

Charles N Brown, March Locus:

Of the newest books, I loved The City & The City by China Mieville (Del Rey — June), a total departure from his earlier books. The language is much more spare, the story very tight, and the mystery involved very satisfying. There is no magic at all, and I would catalog it as an alternate world or Graustarkian fantasy since the only element that ties it to our field is the very strange central European country it’s set in.


Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other. It is a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen, a journey to Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma.

First review I’ve seen:

What makes this book fascinating is that the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma exist in the same space, sitting one atop the other, and residents of each city have been trained since birth not to notice the other for fear of ‘breach’, the movement or acknowledgement of the other city that is punishable by the folks known only as ‘Breach’ who investigate and severely punish transgressors. Functionally each city is different. They have different architecture, different currency, they work completely independently but they have to avoid collisions while driving in the same space and avoid noticing each other as they walk the same streets; it’s this setting that makes The City And The City such a compelling read.

The book itself:

“You know that area: is there any chance we’re looking at breach?”
There were seconds of silence.
“Doesn’t seem likely. That area’s mostly pretty total. And Pocost Village, that whole project, certainly is.”
“Some of GunterStrasz, though …”
“Yeah but. The closest crosshatching is hundreds of metres away. They couldn’t have …” (16)

“This morning I found a few of the locals I used to talk to,” Corwi said. “Asked if they’d heard anything.” She took us through a darkened place where the balance of crosshatch shifted and we were silent until the streetlamps around us became again taller and familiarly deco-angled. Under those lights — the street we were on visible in a perspective curve away from us — women stood by the walls selling sex. They watched our approach guardedly. “I didn’t have much luck,” Corwi said. (21)

I lived east and south a bit of the old town, the top-but-one flat in a six-storey towerlet on VulkovStrasz. It is a heavily crosshatched street — clutch by clutch of architecture broken by alterity, even in a few spots house by house. The local buildings are taller by a floor or three than the others, so Besz juts up semi-regularly and the roofscape is almost a machiocolation. (28)

I have to admit, so far I’m a bit sceptical: the metaphor is clear enough, but as framed at this point in the book, if it’s not fantastic in some way, then it seems too improbable to believe. (I’m also not entirely convinced that Inspector Borlu’s narrative voice can accomodate words like “alterity”, or elsewhere, “polysemic” and “effaced”, as casually as Mieville seems to want it to, but that’s a separate issue.)

17 thoughts on “When A Fantasy Is Not A Fantasy

  1. Sorry, is there any way that could be read as other than fantastic? Or do you mean you’re going to complain if Miéville never explains the mechanism?

  2. My impression, from Charles Brown’s comments and from that review, is that it’s not intended to be literally fantastic, at least in the sense that I would usually use that term: that it’s intended to be collective denial of the existence of the other city (that’s the metaphor I was thinking of, anyway) rather than anything outside the known laws of physical reality. If that is the case, my problem is that I don’t think the on-the-surface realistic and logical idiom is meshing well with that sort of surreal/fabulist underpinning. This is, I should emphasize, based entirely on the first 40 or so pages — and most comments are being cagey about how the book works. I can imagine ways in which the styles could be integrated so as to satisfy me. It just hasn’t happened yet.

  3. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to reduce the central conceit to metaphor. Miéville clearly wants to use it to prod at the deep structures of intl. law, but it seems to me the cities resist a reductive reading.

    Overall my thoughts are very much in line with Brown’s.

    For what it’s worth, I’d call the book squarely speculative but not fantastic.

  4. Eric, I guess I could rephrase my problem as being that so far, it’s hard for me to see it as anything other than a metaphor.

  5. Hmm. Niall, this seems like a narrow approach to fantasy to me. What you seem to be saying here is that you won’t accept a violation of psychological reality as “fantastic” without an accompanying, explanatory violation of physical reality. Without (hopefully) getting into genre-definitional arguments about what is and is not fantasy, do (say) Kafka and George Saunders also strike you as “not fantastic”? If so, is that a problem with the book or just a marker of a different (perhaps not well described) genre?

    (I find something weirdly reminiscent of hard SF in this approach — hard SF being the genre where you can completely butcher psychological reality and still be praised for your realism, so long as you get physical reality correct to three significant digits.)

  6. Ah, thanks for the clarification. Like I said, I found the setting persuasive enough to resist reduction, but I’ll be very interested to see if your reaction is different.

  7. David, first thing to say is that I’m comfortable with the idea it’s not necessarily a problem with the book. I think what I’m reacting against is how the situation is being presented. Saunders and Kafka (to the extent that I’ve read them) present as much more surrealist: this is supposed to feel disconcerting, this is not a representation of consensus reality. Mieville isn’t, yet, doing that; if anything he’s doing the opposite. Part of that comes from the choice to use a first-person narrator, who obviously thinks what he’s thinking is normal and coherent. But because the mass denial is being presented as a logical, integrated and sustainable part of the world (rather than as something that is just to be accepted as part of the terms of the story) I also can’t help feeling that, in the absence of an explanatory violation of physical reality, a violation of psychological reality of this magnitude should be having greater consequences than are (so far) visible.

    Of course, there’s also the issue that one person’s violation of psychological reality is another person’s completely believable response to a given situation — though I think that plays more strongly into your parenthetical about hard sf than The City & The City.

    Eric: I read on …

  8. I think it explains itself more effectively through the novel, since the fantastical elements are bound to psycho-geography. But thems some pretty big spoilers in that Sci Fi London review. You might want to add a warning there. (One of the problems in reviewing this might be that every write-up will give away the central premise.)

  9. To be honest, I’m inclined to say that a book that can be spoiled by the level of information in that review is not a very good book. (The review linked in the automatically generated “related posts” links, however, does seem to give away rather more.)

    I think the frustrating thing is that what you’re saying about psycho-geography should be something I love. On paper, as it were, it’s exactly the sort of urban fantasy I want. And yet.

  10. Kafka (to the extent that I’ve read them) present as much more surrealist

    How much of that is conditioning from reading about Kafka, the use of words like Kafkaesque to describe surrealist situations undsoweiter?

    One day Gregor Samsa woke up to find himself a cockroach.

    Howw much more matter of fact can you get?

  11. How much of that is conditioning from reading about Kafka

    Some, I’m sure. But equally, I don’t think that first line compares to the quotes from Mieville above. For one thing it is a first line, and an unambiguously fantastical one at that. (The first line of The City & The City is “I could not see the street or much of the estate.” Which signals a concern with what is seen and unseen, but isn’t blatant about what it is that is being seen or unseen.

  12. “I’m inclined to say that a book that can be spoiled by the level of information in that review is not a very good book.”

    An interesting point. Would you mind clarifying what you mean by this? At a casual glance, it implies that good books should be able to be discussed to a certain level of information without spoilers being an issue… If a novel’s central premise is better for new readers if kept under wraps, does that make it worse? Or is it because it’s the “setting” that’s the spoiler, and not character or plot?

    It raises a fascinating discussion.

  13. It is indeed an interesting discussion, and I’m aware that many people draw a different line than I do.

    In general, I find there’s something oxymoronic about the idea of spoiling a good book; good books are by definition more than just “what happens”. But it does depend.

    I think the gradual process by which the nature of the setting of, say, Anathem is revealed is integral to the reading experience, and I’d try not to give it away without warning. But in the case of The City & The City, the nature of the setting seems broadly clear from quite early on. Certainly there’s nothing in the Sci-Fi London review that strikes me as revelatory in the way that a similar review of Anathem could be.

    I’m working on a review of Far North by Marcel Theroux at the moment. There’s a revelation about 20 pages in which is clearly meant to be a surprise — it’s deliberately not mentioned in the blurb, for instance — and I know that by mentioning it in a review, I’m going to remove the possibility of surprise about that element for some potential readers. But since I don’t think it’s possible to discuss the novel in any sort of full sense without revealing it, I’m going to spoil; and since I think that ultimately it’s how the novel handles what is revealed later in the book that is really most memorable, I’m going to do so with a relatively clear conscience.

  14. Speaking of Theroux, one rather hopes he does sf better than his father did. Though I fear that, given Cormac McCarthy covered broadly similar territory in the Road last year, he may have missed the boat with this book.

  15. I’ve not read O-Zone, but having read a couple of old reviews of it, I would say that Far North does not fall into the same traps. I think it also manages to be more different to The Road than you might suspect.

  16. Since Eric asked:

    I found the setting persuasive enough to resist reduction, but I’ll be very interested to see if your reaction is different.

    I was going to write up a full post about the book. In fact, I have written such a post, but looking at it now I’m not sure it’s worth posting, because it basically boils down to: I don’t believe in the cities. I think that by the end of the book I’m meant to be able to choose to believe in them, or at the very least to be able to see why their inhabitants might choose to believe in them (because it’s what we do with the cities we live in every day, isn’t it? isn’t it? Blah blah metaphor-cakes), but unfortunately I can’t. Partly this is because I remained unconvinced by the voice — in addition to the tendency to jarring five-dollar words noted in the original post, there’s a very odd smattering of very British slang — but mostly it’s because the book is specifically not fantasy or allegory. The cities are bound into our world, and they have to be for the book to make the arguments it does with any sort of force. So we’re meant to be able to go there as tourists, and we’re meant to believe that if our children were raised there, they could believe in the cities. Mieville makes a point of showing how tenuous and contingent this belief is, but what he handwaves as temporary, resolvable confusions or mistakes I think would quickly become catastrophic.

    However, even more than usual when it comes to books, I am conscious of how subjective my opinion is, and I’m resigned to being in a distinct minority! I do find The City & The City fascinating intellectually; I just don’t buy it on any other level.

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