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Dr Alistair Brown
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The Unscience Fiction of China Miéville's The City and The City


China Miéville's The City and the City is about two opposing city-states that coexist, not simply side by side but physically overlapping one another. Yet as well as the architectural blurring within the novel, The City and the City also embodies a generic blurring that means the novel relates uncertainly to our own reality. Drawing on cyberpunk, noir, postmodernism, and above all science fiction, the novel marks the maturity of a genre of dystopian science fiction that can be traced back to Nineteen Eighty Four. However, unlike Orwell's novel, but like other more recent fictions about state power such as Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, the absence of technology as an explanation for the events of The City and the City makes it an incisive political critique.


China Miéville's The City and the City is about two opposing city-states that coexist, not only side by side but also overlapping, the buildings of each blended indistinctly together. In order to maintain a coherent division between the two societies that cohabit this architectural warren, the citizens have adopted a peculiar behavioural code. Even when walking down ostensibly the same street, the Ul Quomans must pretend not to see or engage with the citizens of Beszel, and vice versa, a process labelled as "unseeing." Failure to unsee what is right in front of one's eyes leads to the invocation of Breach, a name given both to the act itself and to the sinister state force that punishes it. A Beszel citizen can stand in a space that also belongs to Ul Qoma, physically inhabiting territory belong to both cities simultaneously, but he or she must maintain the fiction that only their own city and people actually exist.

This is not, in the moment of reading the novel, as perplexing as it sounds in a quick summary. Yet what is most interesting about The City and the City is not the problematic coexistence of two cities that share the same geographical space, but the way in which the novel itself sits adjacent to, overlapping with, or imposed upon, our own reality.

The two cities seem to be loosely modelled on former Soviet states, mildly decrepit but gradually emerging from war to achieve economic growth. Anyone who has been to somewhere like Bratislava, an uncanny mixture of gleaming glass buildings of multinational companies, drab and monolithic concrete tower blocks, and medieval houses, will know the sort of landscape Miéville is trying to evoke. And it does not take much of a leap of the imagination to see the sort of allegorical connection that Ul Qoma and Beszel have to other divided cities and populations, such as East and West Berlin or the Gaza strip.

However, this cannot at any simple level be said to be a realist work. It is instead a pastiche compiled from multiple genres. There are traces of noir detective fiction (the plot involves a detective turning renegade), of cyberpunk (in the continual use of internet and mobile phones), of postmodern metafiction (in Miéville's word-play). Yet all these are echoes, the novel's reference points that are never explicitly acknowledged, somehow there but also never entirely visible, just as the citizens of each city know the presence of the other but must feign their absence.

Perhaps this is clearest in the novel's potential - but never quite sufficient - links to science fiction. With its fundamentally peculiar premise, one is prepared to categorise The City and the City as science fiction. In political reality, two cities cannot be passively superimposed upon each other; in real life, they would instead be overtly contested spaces belonging to one or the other side, but never both at once. In actual life, there is no way people could sustain an act like "unseeing" without some sort of mechanical control. So the world of The City and the City must be parallel to rather than existing within our own universe, an allegory of our own reality for sure but much like Gulliver's Travels or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, removed from it either by space or by time.

Certainly, there is plenty of that neologistic rhetoric that we associate with science fiction: the citizens are "unseeing"; where the cities blend together they are "crosshatched"; where two citizens from each city are physically close whilst remaining ostensibly in their own countries, they are "grosstopically" present. There is a strange third city called Orciny. There is an archaeological dig that drags up objects that have the tantalising aura of some strange power.

But none of this is quite enough to make this a definitively different world to our own. The archaeological relics never actually do anything physically impossible. The semantic strangeness is balanced by the fact that many of the linguistic markers of our own world are also there: Google, the United Nations, a Tom Hanks movie. The absence of a concrete signifier that could quite pin this down as science fiction is highlighted by a mention of World War Two. Coming fairly early in the novel, when we are still disorientated and getting our bearings in the novel's contexts, at first the eye trips over the reference. Perhaps that should say World War Three, which so often facilitates the post-atomic blank canvas on which the science fiction can paint its new social and technological premises. But, no, this seems to be good old World War Two, utterly conventional and locating the novel in our own historical continuum.

"Science fiction is, then, an absent imaginary"
Science fiction is, then, an absent imaginary - we know it could be there, that some technological or historical premise would very helpfully explain how we moved from a novel grounded in our own world, to the undoubtedly other universe of The City and the City. Yet such an imaginary possibility is never converted into a tangible presence. Oddly, this reminds very much of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, another allegory of state power and citizenship that uses our awareness of science fiction to deprive us of easy solutions to the political questions it raises.

In Never Let Me Know, it would be comforting if the organ-donating children were trapped by some technological apparatus. What is preventing them from rebelling against their fate, as we so desperately want them to do? Some mention of genetic modification, or spy cameras, or electronic tagging would be useful. These technologies would serve nicely to explain how and why the children refuse to run away (and indeed some of these clues are there in the less subtle film version).

Similarly, in The City and the City technology would offer easy explanations for its premises. Perhaps the citizens wear special glasses to help them to unsee; maybe there are invisible barriers between the cities; surely patrolling drones could monitor for Breach. Some commentators have suggested that this is Miéville's take on quantum string theory in which two objects can coexist in parallel universes. Yet none of these reference points are in the novel.

In both novels, all we get instead is a representation of the power of language to control, the ideological glue of society so powerful that it conditions behaviours that few can rebel against. In Never Let Me Go, the truth about what the children face is concealed by the description of death as a "completion," a destiny to be achieved rather than avoided once they have left school. Similarly, in The City and the City the idea of "breach," or the etiquette of "unseeing," are words that code the behaviours which keep the cities and citizens at once together and apart. There is no need for the technological explanation that simple science fiction would supply. Language alone suffices.

The two works therefore mark the maturity of a genre of dystopian writing that can be traced back to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. Orwell shows the power of language to corrode society and to erect ideological structures that keep citizens in place: "newspeak" is the memorable cipher for such conditioning. Yet he also includes a technological imaginary that further explains their reluctance to rebel: the all-seeing eye of Big Brother.

"Target the technology, and whilst the cameras are shut down, language sneaks in by the back door."
The danger of such technological imaginaries in dystopian science fiction is that they seduce us into believing that provided the technology does not come about, the political situation also will be avoided. Thus the term "Big Brother" has entered the repertoire of conservatives who are opposed to spying technologies like CCTV or speed cameras. Ironically, though, they attack the wrong target. Technology itself is not the problem, merely the symptom. Language and the ideology it supports is the main threat. One sees this in the failure of the tabloid press to realise that their own hyperbolic rhetoric against the likes of immigration, pedophilia and street crime serves to maintain the very surveillance society they simultaneously seek to deconstruct. Target the technology, and whilst the cameras are shut down, language sneaks in by the back door.

Both The City and the City and Never Let Me Go recognise that science fiction no longer possesses the power to criticise society through its technological, historical or spatial obliqueness. It is no longer enough to create a science fictional universe that highlights through its imaginary otherness the reality of our own. Such a reliance on some technological or historical rupture merely emphasises its fictional difference, rather than its allegorical similarity to our times. On the other hand, science fiction is now a sufficiently well-known genre that novelists can avoid using its traditional apparatus - new technologies, different words, hypothetical situations - because they know that we will fill the gaps for ourselves, recognising the genre through its notable absence. The City and the City or Never Let Me Go are unscience fictions, vehicles that use the lack of science to force us to confront our own actuality in order to explain the fictionality of their worlds, since technology does not seem to offer a sufficient explanadum.

As this post suggests, then, the more we struggle to explain their fictional difference to our own, the more it seems like this is actually a representation of our own situation after all: not some twenty-first century technological dystopia, not even Cold War Berlin or the Gaza strip, but right here and now. Though by no means of a superficially mimetic sort this is, after all, realism. Living our busy urban lives, we all willfully disregard the other citizens who share our space but not our social existence. When we diligently bypass a street beggar, when we carefully avoid eye contact on a crowded tube train, when we see a burgeoning argument but some invisible force prevents us crossing the street to do anything about it, we at once see others, and unsee them. We are all living in the city and the city.

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This page was published on 10th October 2012 | Keywords: China Mieville, The City and the City, science fiction, Never Let Me Go

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