The City and the City

So, I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s novel The city and the city – the first novel I’ve actually made it through in quite some time.

Courtesy of Wikipedia, here is the low-down on the dual cities that are the main character/s of the book:

The City & The City takes place in the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens (and the threat of the secret power known as Breach), they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully ‘unsee’ (that is, ignore, or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city — even if they are an inch away. This separation is emphasized by the style of clothing, architecture, gait, and the way denizens of each city generally carry themselves. Residents of the cities are taught from childhood to recognise things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is called “breaching” – a terrible crime by the citizens of the two cities, worse than murder.

The twin cities are composed of crosshatched, alter, and total areas. Total areas are entirely in one city, the city in which the observer currently resides. Alter areas are completely in the other city, and so must be completely avoided and ignored. Between these are areas of crosshatch. These might be streets, parks or squares where denizens of both cities walk alongside one another, albeit unseen. Areas that exist in both cities usually go under different names in each one. There is also Copula Hall, “one of the very few” buildings which exists in both cities under the same name. Rather than being cross-hatched, it essentially functions as a border. It is the only way in which one can legally and officially pass from one city to another. Passing through the border passage takes travellers, geographically (or “grosstopically”), to the exact place they started from — only in a different city.

The book works because it taps into a well established genre – the detective thriller. It is for this reason that Life on Mars (both the BBC and the ABC versions – although the latter version was much less subtle and suffered for it) were also intriguingly believable – they tapped into the well established, and now ubiquitous, cops and robbers/CSI tv show genre to present us with ‘real’ situations that viewers are comfortable with suspending disbelief. The layer of supernatural/otherworldly phenomena could then be introduced within a ‘realistic’ setting.  NZ authors Elizabeth Knox and Nigel Cox have both variously and successfully  mined this trait in some astonishingly good novels (The Black Oxen, The Cowboy Dog).

And, this is where, imo, TV1’s new series This is not my life struggles – as we are dropped straight into an otherworld and are only slowly learning of its details and functions. There is no believable context for real action, as defined by an established genre, for the viewer to grasp, and thus the suspension of disbelief is made that much more difficult (not to mention the exacerbation of this effect via some quite appalling acting). The implausibility is, however, part of the nature of the show and its twee neomodernist suburban setting of Waimoana, and I do find the break with traditional genres to be quite invigorating – I suspect it won’t last long because of it though.

Back to the book. The latent film director in me is very enthusiastic about The city and the city, and I’d love to see it remade for the big screen – or even better, in order to take some time over accustomising viewers to the uniqueness of the urban setting, a full-length tv series (of not more than one season though). I am sure the folks at Weta could come up with appropriate visual effects to hint at the seen and unseen cities.

The city and the city, in the right hands, would have the potential to become the next architectural cult film in a way that Inception failed to pull off – despite some rather nice architectural eye-candy scenes. In that movie the action genre was the vehicle for establishing the audience’s viewing protocols. The problem is, that an action movie itself requires suspension of disbelief – hardly the right vehicle for grounding an otherworld that also requires quite substantial suspension of disbelief (again, the appalling acting exacerbated this – courtesy of some pretty thin characterisation and character development).

I know that architects don’t read, but until the film is made – you’re all missing out on an intriguing otherworld of architectural/urban possibilities…


13 responses to “The City and the City”

  1. PS – I was actually going to give my only-read-once-copy away as a prize for the best rebuttal of the “architects don’t read” jibe above, but I really want to keep this book – some measure of how much I enjoyed it I guess…

  2. Spencer Avatar

    Architects don’t read, they just look at the pictures and sketch in the margins

  3. Well – if they don’t know how to read they at least do know the visual value of a neatly arranged shelf of books, as the architect for the Kansas City Library clearly illustrates:

  4. Spencer – speak for yourself! Although, if you had said, Architects don’t read Novels, you may be more correct.

    and m-d – great post thanks – although, I disagree a little, as per usual…. “the suspension of disbelief is made that much more difficult” – well, its always difficult to portray a parallel and/or future existence, but i thought that their use of technology in particular was a nice play on the prevalence of all-things-Apple. Seriously: I want – I WANT one of those computers, and the phone was only just a step or two on from the current crop of iPhones.

    I’m right with you though on the pointlessness of Inception – the whole point of a movie normally being to try and suspend you in a world of disbelief, where reality doesn’t come out and bite you. Normally I can acquiesce, and obligingly suspend my disbelief for the duration of a movie, even if a zillion bullets are fired and none ever hits the hero. But in Inception we’re told from the beginning that nothing we see is real – its all in the imagination – so I really couldn’t give a fig of fear as to how much lead was being fired as they skied down the mountainside. Yawn, its all just a dream, so really: why worry?

  5. It is quite weird to me that architects don’t read novels, and I know that is a generalisation, but as with many, there is some element of truth in it. A novel provides the basis of a world that requires an imagination to fill in the visual details (one convenient factor that helped out miss architect in Inception). This is of course, unless you are reading Proust, who tends to supply all of those interminable details in print. A movie supplies all that for you and more.

    If anything, you might expect an architect to enjoy good novels more for this reason, but, perhaps having spent all day envisaging ‘real’ built environments, reading a novel is just too much like hard work…? Perhaps, therefore, architects are ‘lazy’ consumers of entertainment…

    Or, if I wanted to be more provocative, I might suggest that an architectural imagination is little more than cutting and pasting from other visions of other built environments – hence the enjoyment of movies (Bladerunner, Brazil, Gattaca, etc). The imagination required to create such a built environment without visual cues belongs to the writer and/or reader…?

    There’s gotta be a flaw in that logic somewhere…

  6. Ross Berryman Avatar
    Ross Berryman

    All of China Mievilles books are well worth a read…some a little creepy in a steam punk sorta way…and an interesting man if you delve into his background…The Scar is my favourite …and looking forward to reading this one…His architectural imagery would make a good student project…

  7. richard Avatar

    I’m not sure you’ve got “This is Not my Life” right. Doesn’t its lineage date from late 1960s “The Prisoner” (, with tinges of “The Truman Show” (1998), “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind” (2004), “Lost” (2004-2010), etc. and maybe even (though more of a stretch) “Memento” (2000)? “Life on Mars” is completely different. What I like about “This is Not my Life” is the way it touches on these, and shifts among the different (but related) genre.

  8. Dunno – Life on Mars is about a character who finds himself in a complete other world – just in the past rather than the future. He doesn’t know how or why he got there etc, but he does manage to get on with life with slightly less angst than our friend from This is not my Life.

    But anyway, I wasn’t trying to place them in the same genre, I was just pointing out that TISMY lacks the believability that LOM managed to achieve, despite its similarly fantastic story line (imo that is). The more I watch of it, the more I think it might be the acting though, because Guy is right – the technology is not too implausible. The single-mindedness of the plot development is also disappointing…

  9. Weird! That was actually me – not sure who last used this pc in WordPress…

  10. I just re-watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind last night – a great movie that plays with what might happen in the mind far better than Inception. The acting was far superior too, and this includes Jim Carry (whose acting, despite his awful comedies, seems to be able to put dear Leonardo to shame with great ease)…

  11. richard Avatar

    I completely agree with you re: Carry’s acting – ESotSM and the Truman Show are the only films that give him any credibility. ESotSM is much better than Memento too.

  12. I haven’t seen Man on the Moon, but have heard that is Carrey being watch-able as well…

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