The City in The City and The City

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.

Subjectivity and The Garden of Forking Paths

[Spoilers for The Garden of Forking Paths]

Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths ends in a tragedy. The death of Stephen Albert seems at once fated, yet coincidental. His death was due to an unfortunate coincidence in names, yet it seemed that fate brought the killer to him. Our protagonist Yu Tsun’s arrival was expected and anticipated. The garden they spoke of was a creation of his ancestor. These are not the hallmarks of coincidence.

A surface reading might suggest that this is an arbitrary framing device for the real subject of interest: the concepts underlying the Garden of Forking Paths. The story, however, is constructed with purpose. It traces lines through the philosophies of fate and luck, through the history of wars and cities, through the lives and deaths of figures real and imagined, interpreting them through the lens of the titular garden. If our universe is the garden, then fate and luck are but illusions – interpretations of the consequences of the forks in the path that we have witnessed. Albert had to die. Albert did not have to die. War was avoidable. War was unavoidable. There is no contradiction. There are many paths, but we can bear witness only to one.

For Ts’ui Pen, the garden is non-Newtonian. It rejects determinism and the ever-fixed causality of the Principia Mathematica. It embodies and foreshadows the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that would be conceived years after Borges’ authoring of this story.

Despite the implications of the garden, Borges’ story remains a singular narrative. This may seem to be a constraint of its medium, but it is really a constraint of human consciousness. We are not capable of simultaneity or omniscience. This remains true even for interactive narratives. The interaction merely implies choice. It does not mean all narratives are simultaneously canonical to the reader or simultaneously experienced by the reader. In a moment of meditativeness, Yu Tsun almost feels the presence of the ‘multiverse’, the many forms of himself and Albert in conversations veering off in different directions. However, he is pulled back into his own world by the shadow of Captain Madden. Our own identities, fears and motivations, veil us from the many forks in the garden.

Miegakure is the Japanese garden design philosophy where no single location reveals the entire garden. The Garden of Forking Paths is non-Newtonian, but it is also Miegakure.

This is the inherent contradiction of interactive narratives. They set out to construct multiple trajectories of a fictional future, each trajectory revealing new truths and ideas, but we are frequently only capable of witnessing one path through the narrative. Are multiple ‘play-throughs’ a requisite for an interactive narrative to have a truly complete dialogue with the audience? Will all play-throughs be read as equally valid?

In late 2019, I finished the last episode in the episodic narrative adventure game Life Is Strange 2. The game features multiple endings dependent on choices you make throughout the game’s episodes. Upon concluding my play-through, I quickly went onto YouTube to search for videos depicting the other endings that I did not get.

While watching these endings do help somewhat in fleshing out the game’s themes and ideas, they do not have the same emotional impact on me. I am watching these endings play out in isolation. I did not make the choices that led to them. I did not experience the journeys of these parallel worlds. Even if I played the game again, the subsequent play-through would not have the same importance and subjective canonicity as my first play-through.  I experienced one journey that I can call my own. There are others like it, but this one is mine.

Does this not hinder the ability of the interactive narrative to fully deliver its themes and messages? Is the expectation of multiple play-throughs or continued engagement with the text perhaps unreasonable in an age of over-saturation in media? How can the branches in the narrative be given appropriate weight and importance if readers will all form their own subjective canon? These are pertinent questions, and the answers not simple or obvious.

The Real Monster in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki

[Spoilers for Junji Ito’s Uzumaki]

Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, on first encounter, seems like a body horror manga. It tells the story of a town seemingly cursed by the geometric form of a spiral. Inhabitants become obsessed with the shape to the point of insanity. As chapter unfolds after chapter, they find their bodies twisted and distorted into horrifying spiral shapes or spiral-derived forms. Uzumaki bewitches you. Your desire, or lack thereof, to flip the page is entirely in Ito’s control. On one hand, you are transfixed. What the fuck is going on!? What curse has befouled this town and its denizens? But on the other hand, your crawling skin says stop, you cannot bear to see the horrifying misfortunes wrought upon the characters. You are pulled between twin instincts.  Pulled until your form is twisted. Pulled until you are elongated. Pulled into a spiral.

Unlike other works of body horror, this bodily dysmorphia is not utilized to express the alienness of organic forms. Its obsession is with a shape, and what the shape can mean. It is at one level psychological. The shape itself focuses. It twists and turns into a point of focus, at once terminating at its center but continuing infinitely inwards. Its shape is itself mesmerizing.

As Uzumaki draws to its conclusion, we learn that this cursed town is built on top of a subterranean city, built of ancient spiral structures. Spirals into spirals into spirals. A dizzying infinite fractal that refuses to allow the viewer a sense of balance and control.

This geometric form has existed before you. It has existed as long as the universe. It exists because the universe does – a consequence of the rules of the cosmos. It twists you, distorts you, stretches you, not out of malice. It simply does not care for you. It mesmerizes you because you were built to be mesmerized by it. You are beholden to it.

Uzumaki isn’t really a body horror. Body horror is the symptom. Its disease is something deeper. Its roots extend deep down below. Uzumaki is a cosmic horror. The obsession with and mesmerism of mathematical forms are inevitable to being alive in this universe. To be human is to wonder about the universe, no matter how deep the terror goes. In Uzumaki, as in this universe, you are not free.