A Political History of the Future: The City & The City at Lawyers, Guns & Money
My latest Political History of the Future column takes the opportunity of the BBC having released a miniseries adaptation of it to discuss China Miéville's The City & The City, a novel about two cities that exist side-by-side but have erected a convoluted mechanism of psychological self-deception to "unsee" one another. When I reread my 2009 review of the book, I was struck by how much it emphasized Miéville's poking at core fantasy tropes over what feels now like a blatantly political premise. But as both that review and the miniseries have reminded me, that imbalance exists in the book itself.
despite a surface feeling of relevance, the premise of The City & The City doesn’t map to any real-world political situation. Unseeing isn’t a way of ignoring an inconvenient or ugly reality, but a hefty psychic burden that the citizens of the two cities undertake out of ingrained habit and fear of retaliation. And despite multiple attempts to read it as such by reviewers, it is impossible to compare the Besźel/Ul Qoma split to real-world instances of ethnic strife, because that strife doesn’t exist in the book—as, indeed, how could it, given that Besz and Ul Qoman citizens are rarely allowed to acknowledge each other’s existence. The City & The City‘s ability to comment on real instances of political division shading into geography is thus quite limited. More importantly, Miéville’s handling of his setting, once he’s established it, doesn’t push against any of the things we’ve been trained to read as “bad”.
The miniseries seems to miss this fact. It gestures at relevance--though it has shockingly little to say about Brexit--but is ultimately undone by the fact that the ending of the novel takes the story in a direction that most political readings can't accommodate. It's a disappointing handling of a novel that is much more complex, but also much less immediate, than most readers assume.