There’s something Borges-esque about China Mieville’s The City and They City. It’s a book about cities, but a dreamlike visage of them. The titular cities are Beszel and Ul Qoma, but they are not cities as we know them. What defines a city? What delineates it from the rest of civilisation? What defines its culture and spirit? Through Beszel and Ul Qoma, these questions are interrogated.
In Mieville’s world, these cities occupy the same geographical spaces, but as jurisdictions, as cultures, as societies, they are cleaved in two. Some spaces belong entirely to Ul Qoma, some entirely to Beszel, but some spaces are shared, and citizens and visitors alike are duty-bound to only acknowledge the presence of people and buildings in the city they are in. Those that belong to the other city are to be *unseen*. They can be perceived by the eye the way you can perceive these words, but in the mind they must be forgotten, erased, unacknowledged and ignored. Failure to do so is a ‘Breach’, an offense punishable by a shadowy organization, also called Breach. An offender is plucked from their existence and vanished.
As Beszel detective Tyador Borlu investigates a grisly murder, he begins to see how tenuous the separation of the two cities are. The differences in culture, class, fashion, history – these separations are constructs of the mind. They are edifices we put up so that we can be certain – of ourselves, our nationhood, our culture. We unsee those whose clothes are different, whose architecture is different, whose walking gait is different. They are not us.
Through The City and The City, we understand that the city as a whole *does not exist*. A city is but a smorgasbord of societal segments all blended together, yet separated. All cities are multiple cities, divided into our factions and communities despite one another, against one another. Ul Qomans unsee Beszel the way the rich unsee the homeless along the street. Beszelians unsee Ul Qoma the way the Chinese unsee the Indians. We are all guilty of unseeing, of fitting the city to an ideal we want it to be, rather than what it is.