First off, China Mieville is very brainy and gives good vocabulary. I can see why Ceridwen is dating him as a literary boyfriend.
The plot revolves aroFirst off, China Mieville is very brainy and gives good vocabulary. I can see why Ceridwen is dating him as a literary boyfriend.
The plot revolves around a detective investigating a murder in a city shared by two distinct nations. One society, Ul-Ooma, seems to be Turkish, Middle Eastern, Chinese, or North African. The other society, Besel, seems gray, depressive, and borrows words that are vaguely slavic. So, maybe Besel is council estate England and Bulgaria.
The two cultures share exactly the same space, but each culture deliberately, and under threat, pretends that it is a solo sovereign nation that does not share the same space. Does the threat come from aliens? Shadow societies? Invisible espionage operatives? Secret police? Giant squinty chickens? Read and find out.
The dual city concept is clever in its construction, and the reason I started this as my first Mieville. I liked his multi-use and multicultural spaces, and how the shared-but-not-shared sense of alienation & diversity in Mieville's city exaggerates the way diverse communities settle within an urban mosaic. Mieville writes as if Chinatown and Little Italy shared the exact same, cramped neighborhood, and the Chinese and Italians spend the bulk of their respective free-time studiously pretending the other culture does not exist under threat of disappearance.
However, the social mannerisms of both peoples having to "unsee the other" become tedious rather quickly. Unseeing becomes a game of manners that has to be replayed ad absurdum. Unseeing is supposed to seem tedious; but it happens so often, it bogs down the plot. Mieville could have shaved 50 pages with a short treatise on how tiresome unseeing is for these poor souls, instead of having them do it in each paragraph like an obsessive tic. I realize it was supposed to be an obsessive tic, but now I'm reading other books without a similar tic and their lack of needlessly ritualistic repetition bothers me. Like a faraway, all-day car alarm suddenly silenced BOTHERS me.
Mieville's larger point, if he has one, is that social and political boundaries can be taken too far, and often are, where national sovereignty and immigration are concerned, but the plot requires that this is proved often and heavily.
It is also clear where Mieville's political sympathy lies. He loves the Left, goths, academics, and clever nerds like himself. He tries to be objective, but despite his clever handling of some of the book's mysteries, he plays favorites and his polarized characters conform mostly to stereotype.
I admire the attempt to blend policier and sci-fi in a seamless and clever way (Blade Runner [director's cut], the crowning example of this blend, has been my favorite film since before I understood that the film was a genre blend).
The book is a policier, which is characterized by data collection, polarizations, and moral vacuums. Typically, a detective-protagonist (and readers) can't possibly put the data together into a coherent theory of the case, until the protagonist stumbles upon a key piece of data that reshuffles the detective's (and the readers') interpretation of the data and events.
This is where Mieville stumbles. Late in the book, on a single page, the detective posits a theory, pulls out several premises that do not exist apart from the detective speaking them outloud. Then he frantically runs through the last 35 pages of the book. BLAMMO! Case finished. There is no reinterpretation. The data fits, but my gripe is that the detective didn't stumble on new data; he just spoke "AHA! These things happened, because I just said them into the plot of the book!"
It reminded me of watching Sunshine by Danny Boyle. Theoretically, that should be a good film. Sunshine is high tech, big budget, pretty, Danny Boyle, sci-fi, and yet it sucks because the plotting takes a sharp genre turn and ends up lame.
Mieville gets 3 stars for the structure, the exploration of dual sovereignty, the absurdism of enforced customs, and for keeping me interested enough to finish. But he needs to work on his policier plotting. The obsessive unseeing tic plagued the entire book, but having the theory of the case portion flubbed felt like watching a ship in a sealed bottle spontaneously collapse.
The problem with this book is the chief problem with being clever. If you aren't clever, maybe you can still do one thing well. Your task well performed meets expectations and makes someone happy. If you are clever, and you attempt to do many things at once, people are only happy if you do each thing well. You up the ante by taking on more and still have to pull off each task well in order to satisfy people. Being clever only raises expectations to meet the same response. ...more