Can a fantasy novel truly be a fantasy novel if it lacks traditional fantasy elements like magic, myth, and the supernatural? Does it matter?
The Hugo voters don’t seem to think so.
The City & The City by China Mieville takes readers to an imaginary eastern European urban landscape, at an unspecified (but likely modern or near future) era where a mysterious murder has just occurred. Written in familiar crime-noir style, it’s up to Inspector Tyador Borlu to solve the mystery, which quickly escalates into a touchy international incident.
So what about this qualifies as fantasy, you ask?
Nothing, yet everything.
The two international cities entwined in this murder are physically and geographically entwined upon each other. Not just adjacent to one another, but overlapping each other. (At first, I thought the two cities were inter-dimensionally overlapping, in some sort of parallel universe-type story, but, no, they physically overlap one another which, if you think about it, is actually more fantastical than a run-of-the-mill parallel universe plot.)
Seriously, try to imagine geographically overlapping, yet independent, city-states. Now, try to imagine the political and social ramifications of such an arrangement.
Two cities. Beszel and Ul Qoma. Separate cities with their own citizenry, cultures, and political and economic structures, but located on the same latitudinal/longitudinal coordinates somewhere in Europe. Some areas are strictly Besz, other areas are strictly Ul Qoman, while some areas are “grosstopical” or “crosshatched”– belonging both to Beszel and Ul Qoma. In many areas, there may be one street with two different names, resulting in next-door neighbors who live a nation apart, threatening an international incident if they so much as look at one another. And it’s all policed by an unseen, yet responsive power that enforces these geographically permeable, yet politically and socially impermeable borders.
Are you imagining the ramifications now?
The City & the City addresses social compliance to inexplicable, yet unquestioned taboos. It presents a border situation that seems so ridiculous, so fantastic, until it starts to sound a little too familiar. It also addresses the absurdity of disjointed urban life where, even without unreasonable, politically imposed borders, multiple cultures can share the same street, with the smells of their ethnic foods intermingling in the air, while the people themselves weave around, never raising their eyes to acknowledge one another. It’s a story about society– the ultimate law enforcement squad.
And it’s all wrapped up in a dark, shiny package of crime-noir drama.
And it’s pretty fantastic.
If you’ve shied away from China Mieville in the past, either because of his “weird fiction,” verbose language skills, or you prefer to read authors who don’t look like they could beat you up (seriously, this guy is probably no stranger to a fight), this might be a good place to give him a try. He stays true to the crime-noir genre, with pared down language and a distant, but active narrator, but injects social commentary and an imaginary, fantastic landscape. Some may say that The City & The City does not qualify as true SF/F, but I have to disagree. Any story that can capture my imagination, twist it into something unfamiliar, and introduce new and impossible possibilities meets my criteria for SF/F fiction.
Next read: the other 2010 Hugo best novel award winner, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.