Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 2006-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE CITY & THE CITY by China Miéville:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/02/2009]

THE CITY & THE CITY by China Miéville (ISBN-13 978-0-345-49751-2) is all about identity and duality in a very Borgesian way. (Actually, the title is "THE CITY & YTIC EHT"--but with "YTIC EHT" printed in mirror image as well, more like "THE CITY & YTI) 3HT".) I am going to try to write this review without too many spoilers. I cannot even say outright what the book is really about, for fear of spoiling some of the point.

The premise is that we have two "sister" cities, Beszel (with an accent on the 'z') and Ul Qoma. Beszel is a cross between Budapest and Prague; the accented 'z' is Hungarian; and "beszel" is actually Hungarian for "to speak". But some of Beszel's neighborhood and suburbs, such as Lestov, have more Czech (Slavic) names. However, "feld" (which is Besz for "cat") is not "cat" in either language, or any other language in my CONCISE DICTIONARY OF 26 LANGUAGES. Illitan, the language of Ul Qoma, is written in the Roman alphabet, while Besz is written in a Cyrillic-like alphabet. (Shades of Borgesian mirrors!) One is reminded of the old Yugoslavia, with Serbian in Cyrillic alphabet and Croatian in Roman alphabet, although in Miéville has the Cyrillic in the more Western-seeming city, and the Roman in the more Eastern, because there was a follower of Ataturk there who converted the alphabet to Roman, just as happened in Turkey. (Ul Qoma also uses dinari, just as Yugoslavia did.)

The pairing is not just of the two cities, or of the two languages/cultures Miéville used for Beszel. For example, in Beszel "ébru" is a collective term for both Jews and Muslims. (The narrator, Tyador Borlú, says, "[Our] tradition of jokes about the foolishness of the middle child derives from a centuries-old dialogue between Beszel's head rabbi and its chief imam about the intemperance of the Beszel Orthodox Church.") And there is the Besz traditional DöplirCaffé: "one Muslim and one Jewish coffee house, rented side by side, each with its own counter and kitchen, halal and kosher, sharing a single name, sign, and sprawl of tables. ... Whether the DöpplirCaffé was one establishment or two depended on who was asking: to a property tax collector, it was always one."

Another aspect I liked was that while reading the book, I thought I knew were it was going. To some extent, it did follow the expected path, with Inspector Borlú of Besz teaming up with Senior Detective Quissim Dhatt of Ul Qoma to solve a murder with connections in both cities. Because of this, they are constantly concerned about Breach, which apparently patrols the connections between the two, and Orciny, a shadow city which may or may not exist in the gaps between Besz and Ul Qoma. The two detectives find clues that there is something much bigger and far-reaching than a simple murder here. But at some point, Miéville has his plot take a different turn than what most mysteries would, with a resolution that is both unexpected and satisfying.

All this is fascinating from a literary standpoint, and Miéville has invented some lovely words for it: grosstopical, topolganger, insiles, dissensi. And there are marvelous descriptions: "It was, not surprisingly that day perhaps, hard to observe borders, to see and unsee only what I should, on my way home. I was hemmed in by people not in my city, walking slowly through areas crowded but not crowded in Beszel."

But there is another level. Miéville is a British Socialist, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the two cities, each "unseeing" the other, are representative of the "haves" and the "have-nots" in our own world, living intermingled, yet neither really seeing the other. There are many other examples of unseeing in our world. For example, in a hospital, one "unsees" a person whose nightgown is open in back. (In New York, many claim, residents tend to "unsee" everything. :-) ) On a different level, consider the Jim Crow laws in the South: that is your water fountain, this one next to it is mine, those are your bus seats, these are mine, each existing among the other. And one is reminded of the Robert Silverberg story "To See the Invisible Man" in which a criminal's sentence might be for a period of "invisibility", during which everyone was ordered to "unsee" him. And, yes, there is a lot of THE CITY & THE CITY about nationalism, cultural identity, borders, and so on. (For an earlier intimation of Miéville's idea by Mark, see http://leepers.us/ireland.htm#31--but only after you've read THE CITY & THE CITY.)

Miéville's previous book, UN LUN DUN, was in some sense a trial-run for this. The idea is that there is a parallel world with Un Lun Dun, Parisn't. Lost Angeles, the River Smeath, and so on. But Un Lun Dun is not in our world, while Ul Qoma is in Beszel's.

In a sense, this book is uncategorizable. It is not science fiction in a strict sense, but it is not fantasy either, at least not in any normal sense. One might argue that it is alternate history, but it is impossible to see how it might come about. It is also impossible to see how it might be sustained without some assumptions that are simply unsupportable in our world, Like Borges's Library of Babel, or his Babylon of the Lottery, the world of Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in their own inexplicable space. They are what they are, and have to be accepted without rational analysis.

As you might guess, I highly recommend this book. It will be on the top of my Hugo nomination list for this year.

(After I wrote of the Borgesian nature of the story, I came across the fact that Miéville said that two major influences on him for the novel were Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick.)

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/30/2010]

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

Do not read the rest of this article unless you have already read Miíville's THE CITY & THE CITY.

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The one section of STRANGE MAPS: AN ATLAS OF CARTOGRAPHIC CURIOSITIES by Frank Jacobs (ISBN-13 978-0-14-200525-5) I found that had unexpected fantastical content was "Enclaves and Exclaves", and in particular "Enclaves, Counterenclaves and a Dead Body: The Borders of Baarle". If you've read China Miéville's THE CITY & THE CITY, you'll understand why. One wonders, in fact, if Miéville was aware of Baarle before he wrote the book.

And the similarities are strong enough that I'd like to talk about them. The following comes from (Jacobs's original blog entry), , and .

Baarle consists of two "administrative units": the Dutch Baarle-Nassau and the Belgian Baarle-Hertog. These occupy 5732 parcels of land which are completely surrounded by the Netherlands, but are allocated to either Belgium or the Netherlands. Baarle is described as having 22 Belgian enclaves in the Netherlands and 5 Dutch ones in Belgium.

One result of this is that, because taxes on a building are paid to the country in which the front door is located, front doors are sometimes moved to gain tax benefits. Because of differing closing times, people in bars can get drinks longer by moving their tables across the room. And so on.

But there are even more striking similarities to Beszel and Ul Qoma:

I know--you think I'm making the last one up. But I'm not. The body of a non-resident of Baarle was found in a building that had parts in both administrative units, which made it even more confusing.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/12/2014]

Re-reading THE CITY & THE CITY by China Mieville (ISBN 978-0-345-49752-9) I was struck by his descriptions of tourism in Besz and Ul Qoma. It seems inspired by seeing (and reading about) amazingly clueless tourists around the world, people who seem to think that because they are tourists, the laws and customs of another country (or even the same country) do not apply to them. (I say the same country because there are plenty of American tourists who see signs saying not to approach the bison, or not to let their children stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but seem to think they are somehow exempt. And in other countries it is even worse. They do not see why they should take their shoes off in a mosque, or not sit next to a woman on the bus, or not chew gum, or whatever.

So Mieville has written about tourism in Besz and Ul Qoma. For these city-states, there is mandatory two-week training course and an entrance exam, both as a written test and a "role-playing" section. They need to learn--not just maybe read about, but learn--"architecture, clothing, alphabet and manner, outlaw colours and gestures." Even if they pass the tes, any violation of the laws and customs they have learned will get them instantly deported or worse.

Is Mieville suggesting this for all tourists? No, no more than he is suggesting the "fractured city" method as a solution for any of the world's problems. (Amazingly, someone has apparently suggested this "solution" for Jerusalem! Mieville thinks that is "seriously demented!")

One thing that does date the book is that someone's friends think that something has happened to her because she hasn't updated her MySpace account.

(Oh, and Random House apparently decided to take no chances, and so bought and kept fracturedcity.org, the domain name mentioned in the book. There are no .uq or .zb suffixes, though.)

To order The City & the City from amazon.com, click here.


EMBASSYTOWN by China Miéville:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/27/2012]

EMBASSYTOWN by China Miéville (ISBN 978-0-345-52449-2) is another stand-alone novel from Miéville, which is (in my opinion) a good thing. His Bas-Lag novels are very popular, and under these circumstances many authors would have decided to write more in that world. But Miéville marches to a different drummer in many ways, and not looking for the easy buck is one of them. (The fact is that most writers used to be this way.)

To me, EMBASSYTOWN seems similar in style to THE CITY & THE CITY, though I am not sure I can explain why. Both start with an unlikely premise which is not immediately revealed to the reader, and which is not simply "there is faster-than-light travel" or "aliens have landed." In THE CITY & THE CITY the premise is geographical, here it is linguistic. The fantastical in both of these is found in a state of mind, not in technology.

In THE CITY & THE CITY, the premise may be obscure at first, but the language is relatively straightforward. Here one finds oneself looking (futilely) at the back of the book for a glossary. One page 20 alone, one finds "immer", "miab", "the out", "shiftfriends", "locomotor", "saft", "immer-stained", "enginarii", "biorigged", "exots", "automa", and "turingware". The meanings of some can be deduced (e.g. "turingware") while others need to be further elaborated. (And not all of them are.)

Of course, this is not made any easier by the fact that Miéville uses plenty of real words that most people have not heard of: moot (as a noun), eisteddfod, encomia, nous. (Well, okay, people who have read Tolkien will know "moot".)

At one point the plot seemed to turn into a Ricky Gervais movie (without the humor), and I was sure I knew where it was going, but then it took yet another turn and became something else entirely.

EMBASSYTOWN has echoes of the Borgesian idea of the language of Tlon which has no verbs, only adjectives and nouns, or for that matter of any number of human languages that follow very different rules than English. It will appeal to all those who love languages and words. s Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/22/2012]

I have already reviewed EMBASSYTOWN (ISBN 978-0-345-52449-2) by China Miéville. It has an interesting premise that has not been seen in countless other novels. It is similar to Miéville's THE CITY & THE CITY in that the fantastical in both of these is found in a state of mind, not in technology. In THE CITY & THE CITY the premise is geographical, here it is linguistic. I find the differences among languages (even just human languages) fascinating and so I enjoyed this a lot.

To order Embassytown from amazon.com, click here.


KRAKEN by China Miéville:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/25/2011]

KRAKEN by China Miéville (ISBN 978-0-345-49749-9) was a disappointment. I loved Miévlle's THE CITY & THE CITY, and a book about a giant sea monster by him seemed really promising, but somehow it never came together for me. The writing style is probably more reminiscent of his "New Weird" books (PERDIDO STREET STATION, KING RAT, and such) than the noir style of THE CITY & THE CITY, or the more varied styles of his shorter fiction. It was supposed to be funny--at least according to the blurb--but it never achieved that for me. I suspect those who liked Miéville's earlier work will like this.

To order Kraken from amazon.com, click here.


LOOKING FOR JAKE by China Miéville:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/17/2006]

LOOKING FOR JAKE by China Miéville (ISBN 0-345-47607-7) is a collection of fourteen of his shorter works. I had hoped to find these more accessible than his novels, but I found almost all of them just as impenetrable. I can, however, recommend "'Tis the Season". In this short story (which appeared in "The Socialist Review"!), the worst fears of the Religious Right have come to pass, and the celebration of Christmas is prohibited. No parties, no holly, no mistletoe, no trees, .... But it is not political correctness gone wild. And it has nothing to do with the First Amendment and the separation of church and state (in part because Miéville is British, writing for a British audience). No, it's because all of these things have been trademarked and so you can't have a Christmas tree, you must have a Christmas Tree(tm) and pay a license fee for it. The same with Holly(tm), Mistletoe(tm), and so on. "It felt so forlorn, putting my newspaper-wrapped presents next to the aspidistra, but ever since YuleCo bought the right to coloured paper and under-tree storage, the inspectors had clamped down on Subarboreal Giftery." Frankly, Miéville's "nightmare future" seems far more likely to me than the nightmare future of Christmas being forbidden because of political correctness. After all, one cannot now sing "Happy Birthday to You" in public without owing royalties on it! Speaking of which, a good companion piece for this would be Frederik Pohl's "Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus" (written a half century ago and depressingly prescient). Both of these stories get added to "Newton's Mass" by Timothy Esaias in my mental list of stories that I would put in a Christmas anthology, were I ever to undertake such an unlikely task.

To order Looking for Jake from amazon.com, click here.


THIS CENSUS TAKER by China Miéville:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/23/2017]

THIS CENSUS-TAKER by China Miéville (ISBN 978-1-101-96734-8): I have read this twice (once when it came out, and again for this ranking, and it just does not do anything for me. This is odd in that I really love some of Miéville's works (e.g., THE CITY & THE CITY), but I guess that is just because he has a wide range of styles.

To order This Census Taker from amazon.com, click here.


UN LUN DUN by China Miéville:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/21/2007]

UN LUN DUN is China Miéville's first YA (young adult) novel (ISBN-13 978-0-345-49516-7, ISBN-10 0-345-49516-0), and it is on my list of novels to nominate for the Hugo. Miéville takes the conventions and tropes of fantasy, and of literature, and turns them on their head. For example, reading this I got to a point where I suddenly decided that Miéville had been strongly influenced by the opening line of Charles Dickens's DAVID COPPERFIELD ("Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."). And it also seems as though he used Diana Wynne Jones's A TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND as a cautionary work. In addition to these elements, there is a lot of wordplay--in addition to Un Lun Dun, we have Parisn't and Lost Angeles, and the river in Un Lun Dun is the Smeath. If the threat in the novel is a bit more topical than the usual evil wizard sort of stuff, well, that's okay too.

To order Un Lun Dun from amazon.com, click here.


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