The City and the City

by Henry Farrell on April 11, 2011

A piece I wrote on China Miéville’s _The City and the City._ has “come out”: in the _Boston Review_. The nub of my argument:

bq. Miéville brings these quotidian practices into stark perspective. He uses slips of perception and movement back and forth between cities to highlight the contingency of many of the social aspects of the real world. The City & the City draws no hard distinction between the world of fantasy and our own. Instead, Miéville seems to suggest, the real world is composed of consensual fantasies of varying degrees of power. The slippage isn’t between the real world and the fantastic, but between different, equally valid, versions of the real. As the title makes explicit, neither city has ontological priority over the other—Besźel is not a simple reflection of Ul Qoma, or vice versa.

I mentioned Farah Mendlesohn’s “Rhetorics of Fantasy”: in the piece, but I wasn’t able to make clear how great a debt I owe to it (since Farah is an occasional CT reader, I hope this post can serve as both thanks and public acknowledgment). _Rhetorics of Fantasy_ allowed me to figure out what I thought about the book (some have “suggested”: that it’s indeed one of the texts behind TCATC. Its argument – brutally simplified – is that the different modes in which fantasy authors represent the relationship between the world they have created and the real world has important rhetorical consequences. Thinking about fantasy in this way highlights just what is most interesting about TCTATC – that it is a fantasy of superimposed worlds, none of which is entirely fantastic (the genuinely fantastic elements of the book are extremely limited, and are a kind of macguffin), and each of which is just as rooted (or unrooted) in reality as the other. This allows Miéville to make the familiar strange – to treat something (or somethings) that closely resembles real life as if it was fantastical in the same way that your imagined-world-of-choice is fantastical. It is a very interesting shift in perception, and one which I do not think I would have been able to decode, at least to my own satisfaction, had I not read Farah’s book.



JamesP 04.11.11 at 6:31 pm

I assumed, by the end of TCATC, that there were no fantastic (in a strictly supernatural sense) elements as such at all – the distinction between the two cities was simply a care of learned (or, in most cases, assumed) perception.


TheSophist 04.11.11 at 6:37 pm

Dr. Farrell,
A comment and a question, if I may be so bold. First the comment – there’s a moment in TCATC when a character identifies as an anthropologist and is asked (probably don’t have the quote exact, as I don’t have the book with me) “Oh, are you the type who reads a lot of Foucault and Zizek?” This line seems to hint at something very similar to what you’re saying in your article, that anthropology can be about the ways in which we choose (not) to see things, ways of (not) seeing things being (to my unsophisticated mind at least) a recurrent theme in Zizek and (especially) Foucault.

Second, the question: I read TCATC as implying some unexplained “anomaly in the space-time continuum” (yes, I know), which allowed the two cities to exist in the same physical location, despite being different places, and that there was occasional leakage, if you will, that necessitated the “unseeing”. You seem to be saying that there’s no anomaly, and that the two cities are literally the same place (that a truly independent observer would see only one city.)

Am I a) misunderstanding what you mean when you say “Throughout the book, the other city “elsewhere” is not a different place, but all the things that are deliberately unseen. They are separated from the protagonist not by physical distance, but by an intricate set of social protocols.”
b) misunderstanding Mieville with my interpretation above, or
c) Your and my interpretations are both acceptable readings?


Matt McIrvin 04.11.11 at 8:14 pm

My reading was similar to JamesP’s: nothing in the book requires that anything physically anomalous or supernatural is happening (except that this is a world that has a couple of fictional European states). The only seemingly fantastic element in the foreground had to do with the site artifacts, and that was probably just crackpot theory, though it was important to the plot that some people thought otherwise.

What makes it ambiguous is mostly that Mieville never reveals how the cities got that way, and there seems to be a general air of uncanniness surrounding their origin. But it’s never more than hints.


Henry 04.11.11 at 8:23 pm

I think that there is at least a strong flavor of the fantastic around the city’s origins – but this is not, obviously, essential to the plot or argument. It reminded me a little of the Vheissu segment in Pynchon’s V – a fantastical story which gives some readers a tantalizing hint of what they are expecting, but deliberately never delivers on it. Again, Mendlesohn’s book is good on this – there is what she terms a liminal fantasy lurking around the edges of the cities, but the book is written so that it does not have to be read as a liminal fantasy to be effective. Its payload is in the vexed relationship between the cities rather than their origins.

TheSophist – I am pretty sure from some conversation or another with China that this is deliberate, and in part a cheerful piss-take – but more of Agamben and the idea of the exception than of Foucault as such. I should add in case there is any ambiguity that while I talked via email with China while writing this piece, it shouldn’t be taken at all as having his imprimatur – he is quite careful to avoid imposing readings on his texts once they have escaped into the wild (although happy to clear up questions of whether this or that thing is intentional when asked).


Bill Gardner 04.11.11 at 8:54 pm


just what is most interesting about TCTATC – that it is a fantasy of superimposed worlds, none of which is entirely fantastic (the genuinely fantastic elements of the book are extremely limited, and are a kind of macguffin), and each of which is just as rooted (or unrooted) in reality as the other.

Very, very well put. So, what are some other examples of books like this? Does Mendelsohn identify a genre?


Henry 04.11.11 at 9:00 pm

No, not really. I think that TCATC is the kind of book that someone might write after reading Mendlesohn and thinking ‘OK – I can do a kind of fantasy that plays with these ideas but doesn’t fit under any of these headings.’ Not that this _is_ the origin of TCATC (at least, not that I know) – but there is at the least a very interesting possible conversation there.


Pat 04.11.11 at 9:09 pm

Part of the fun, I thought, in reading it was slowly discovering that it wasn’t really science fiction. Contrast this to, say, Triplet, which has three clomping feet of nerdism.

Parallel to this was a slow trial and rejection of fitting it into a cubbyhole of sorts: at first it seemed like a Neverwhere knock-off, and then Eastern European political commentary, and then religious commentary, and then finally it just was.


Theophylact 04.11.11 at 9:26 pm

For me it was the slow dawning that there were no necessarily fantastic elements at all. But then, I live in a city — Washington, DC — where a [white] person can spend a great deal of time without noticing that a mainly black parallel city exists in the same space and appears only rarely in the newspapers except on the second page of the Metro section.


Stephen Judd 04.12.11 at 5:55 am

I may be the only person who reads both Crooked Timber and Penny Arcade, so I must bring to your attention Gabe’s verdict:

I got about half way through this book and gave up. I just don’t understand these fucking cities. His next book should be called “I’m Smarter Than You” and he can just take a shit inside it.


yeliabmit 04.12.11 at 6:35 am

Gabe’s verdict seems more like an admission.


shah8 04.12.11 at 8:41 am

I do not think the story genuinely works if read as straight. Some of the plot elements do not work without the speculative fiction elements, specifically because those elements provide the urgency to conform (to the drastic, and often immoral, ends) and the means to enforce those norms. If you tried to read it straight, it’s like going to a black jazz bar in the 1920’s and thinking you have an awareness of black people, when you were only a tourist for the moment. One has to allow the suspension of beliefs for the X-Files elements to appreciate the solidness (to the point of asphyxiation) of sensual conformism that the novel makes reference to in the real world.


Sam Dodsworth 04.12.11 at 8:43 am

Bear in mind that Gabe’s usual taste in reading runs heavily to Star Trek novels. I kind of wonder if Tycho gave him “The City and the City” as a joke.


Gareth Rees 04.12.11 at 9:11 am

A different reading: it’s a metaphor for totalitarianism. There’s a whole other world that’s in plain sight, but if you so much as acknowledge its existence the secret police disappear you. A grim dystopia indeed: I mean can you imagine the anxiety of being, say, a parent with a young child who’s saying “daddy, daddy, why can’t I point at the men in grey?” while all the time you’re wondering when you are going to be kidnapped and tortured?


Latro 04.12.11 at 9:36 am

Not really. The secret police dont seem to work at anything but keep the boundary between the cities. Yes, in a very unfair manner, but they dont rule the cities and the cities themselves have their own political systems – Ul Quoma doesnt seem very democratic, but not totalitarian either, and … seems rich and burgeoing, while Beszel seems your average rotting Balkan city.

The novel seems to not want to settle into a clear message or a clear metaphor, but it is clearly more about boundaries and how much we invest in our identities being defined by ignoring what surrounds us and constructing them from the bits we/somebody decided were “us” while forgetting about the details that are in our face but are “theirs”.


Jack M 04.12.11 at 10:43 am

I think of the situation in TCATC (which I don’t think is supernatural, though perhaps impossible) as an extension of the the concept of ‘internal emigration’ in pre-1989 Eastern Europe, in which some people who did not accept the regime psychologically withdrew from the world around them, and tried to associate only with others who did the same. (which in turn could be seen as a more extreme version of what many free-worlders do)


Warbo 04.12.11 at 11:00 am

Others have mentioned here the dawning realisation as they read the book that there’s no metaphysical, supernatural or magical separation between the cities: they really do occupy exactly the same place and time and their distinction is simply a social construct.

The extent to which Mieville maintains and gradually removes that ambiguity requires an extremely delicate balancing act, one that he performs brilliantly.


Gareth Rees 04.12.11 at 11:19 am

Not really.

I see you’re trying to police the boundary of how I read this book, but it’s too late to prevent breach…

The secret police dont seem to work at anything but keep the boundary between the cities.

Indeed; similarly the East German border guards didn’t seem to work at anything but keeping the boundary between East and West Berlin.


Latro 04.12.11 at 11:40 am

Heh :-P

No, what I mean is that the systems Beszel and Ul Qoma run are not totalitarian. They seem … well, run of the mill pseudodemocratic, Ul Qoma a bit more nationalistic-army-big party (but we dont see much of its political process) . And as long as everybody accepts the “border”, the “system” doesnt have any desire to rule the lives of anybody inside the cities.

Breach is not a “border patrol” of a totalitarian state enforcing no escape from it. If you go from one city to the other via the accepted frontiers, well, thats a problem for both cities authorities, they dont care. Is the border patrol of the mental border – totally uncaring about what the hell Beszel economy is or Ul Qoma freedom of speech situation is, as long as you never act as aware of the fact that the bakery in front of you is not in your city.

As long as you ignore that, you can be a Beszel nationalist or communist or whatever – that is Beszel “problem”, not Breach.


BJN 04.12.11 at 5:50 pm


I think that the amount of effort that people put into unseeing the other city sort of gives up the ghost of there being an actual difference. If there is some sort of weird space-time thing going on, then why jump through all the hoops of it? Why not just say “oh, thats the physically coterminal but distinct city over there, sorry”? The whole book, from Breach to the nationalisms to the bureaucracy is about people forcefully, obsessively restating a social fact that is on its face absurd. Look at the first time in the book Borlu has to unsee a woman in Ul Qoma and the absolute panic that goes along with it.

And isn’t this the state of all nation-states? They are what they are because that’s how it already is. When something breaches these niceties, we go into hysterics (is the CIA torturing a citizen, or a foreign combatant, or a something else? Is Kashmir a natural and obvious part of one country or another which is only 60 years old?Where is the birth certificate???).

Looking from our outside perspective, the obvious question is why doesn’t everyone just say “isn’t all of this, you know, stupid?” But how many times a day do we not acknowledge something is stupid because that’s just the way things are.

Anyway, all of that might be overstated, but it sounds more interesting to me than “the cities are magic.”


bianca steele 04.12.11 at 11:03 pm

So what are you saying? Fantasy novels are a waste of time and people should read books on political theory instead?


bianca steele 04.13.11 at 12:04 am

More abstractly, I don’t think the only point of Mieville’s books is to teach how to think about society (I don’t think Henry implied it was), as if we needed to rely on fantasy (and SF) writers to do our thinking for us. I doubt the fantasy elements are really just a “McGuffin” in that way. Yes, they’re there because they’re what a particular audience expects or likes (and what the author expects or likes), but there is presumably a reason why they like their political theory (or other allegory) tied up in this particular package–whether or not other readers agree that “magic” is interesting.

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