Book Review – The City and The City

The City and The City is the first book by China Mieville I have read. I got myself a Kindle copy when it got the Hugo Award. It is an awesome novel, and as usual, it is a great source for sociological analysis. At its most basic, The City and The City is a murder mystery coupled with a touch of conspiracy theory. But, as usual for sociologist me, the most interesting part of the book is the social context underpinning the story.

The story takes place in an unusual urban context of two city-states, Besźel and Ul-Qoma, that occupy the same physical space somewhere in Eastern Europe. The cities are divided between areas that are total (totally in one), alter (totally in the other) or crosshatched (in either). In areas that the cities share, citizens of either city have been socialized to unsense the other: to unsee, unhear, unsmell everything from the other city. And at the center is Copula Hall, the official border between the city and the city.

What this means is that when one is walking – or driving through – the streets of Besźel, for instance, one must NOT see, hear or smell anything from Ul-Qoma (and vice-versa). People from either city practice this constant act of dramaturgy of not sensing the other city that exists in the same physical space. Goffman would have had a field day with all the studied non-0bservance that takes place as people, more or less automatically and immediately unsee things happening in the other city. In fact, the entire social structure of both cities is based on that unsensing so much so that when things happen that make that almost impossible, social order is on the verge of collapse and extreme measures are taken.

So, this common space has two social structures, one for Besźel and one for Ul-Qoma, two different cultures, languages, food, clothing, etc. And it looks like Ul-Qoma (a vaguely communist country, boycotted by the US) is the more economically dynamic of the two.

In this context, people are expected to thoroughly respect the division between the city and the city. If they violate the separations, they breach. They are then spirited away by Breach, the mysterious force in charge of enforcing the division. No one knows what happens to people who have been taken by Breach. In this society, breaching is the most serious offense that deserves the most serious punishment (although what that is remains a mystery, for most part of the book). It is a given that, at some point, someone will breach and we, readers, will get to figure out what Breach really is and what it really does. Breach is perceived as a kind of omniscient Big Brother with the power to detect any breach and swing into action when that happens. Not breaching is a major fear for all the citizens of the city and the city.

Needless to say, the city and the city are themselves marked by social conflicts: each city has its own nationalist movement, strict supporters of the Cleavage (the separation between the city and the city) as well as its Unifs, the unificators, the movements promoting the reunification of the city and the city.

Throughout the book, we follow the detective in charge of solving the murder as he navigates the complexities of this intricate structure in the course of his investigation. He is from Besźel, but at some point is assigned to Ul-Qoma so that we get to compare the two cultures.

Ultimately, his own breach is what gives us an insight into the way Breach works and to the conclusion of the book, which one could read as a perfect manifesto for the social construction of reality or ethnomethodology as his Breach avatar explains to him:

“Nowhere else works like the cities,” he said. “It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time … you can’t come back from that.”” (5664)

“Doing” the city and the city is a matter of minutiae of social interaction (accomplished and denied at the same time) and constitutes an enormous amount of interactive collaboration (also as necessary as it is denied). It is this architecture of interaction that sustains the dual social structure and collective underpinning of the city and the city.

A fascinating read.

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