Omni Podcast: China Mieville on "The City & The City"

Tom on June 16, 2009

After a busy few days of talking to authors at BookExpo America and a couple of weeks editing the results, it's time to start sharing the more than a dozen interviews Daphne and I did with a pretty spectacular group of writers there. And this week's overdetermined opener is China Mieville. As you may have noticed, it's China Week on Omni, with a superbly provocative set of guest posts from China himself (more to come!) and some great related pieces from Jeff. And it's also my turn to write about one of my Best of June picks, which happens to be ... The City & The City, Mr. Mieville's latest.

I'd usually preface an interview by introducing the author, but Jeff and China have more than taken care of that this week. So I will just say (as I immediately declare in the interview below) that I adored The City & The City--it's easily one of my favorite books of the year so far. I have to admit that, though I'd been wanting to check him out for years, this was my first Mieville. (I have Perdido Street Station lined up next when I can get a chance, though I'm open to other opinions about where to go back to first...) But I've passed this one along to many other Mieville neophytes in our offices, and they're all with me: this is shaping up to be one of those books that I'd put in front of almost any reader, whatever their usual genre loyalties. The two cities he creates--and the relationship between them, which becomes apparent fairly quickly in the book but in a way whose elegant revelation I don't want to spoil for future readers--are both fantastic and utterly convincing and familiar, and even as the details of the actual mystery at the heart of the story fade in my mind, the sense memory of what it's like to live in Beszel and Ul Qoma--and to cross the border between them--feels as vivid as when I was first finding my way through their fictional streets. I highly recommend the experience.

You can listen to our talk about cities, detectives, and readers below, or read a transcript after the jump:


Amazon: I'm just going to confess  I love this book. I did as I read it, but I think even more so in the time since, partially because you wrap things up in such a satisfying way, but I think more so just because of the world you created, that's still very vivid in my mind, and I want to talk a little bit about that world. The title is The City & The City, and it refers to two cities that maybe you could tell us a little bit about.

Miéville: Well, the novel--it's an investigation that crosses the border between two cities, starting in a city called Beszel, which is a rather economically depressed, decaying city somewhere at the edge of eastern or middle Europe in the modern day. Just slightly around the corner from anything anyone knows, closely familiar but also not quite familiar. And it exists in a very peculiar, conflictual but close relationship with another city, which is called Ul Qoma, which is economically very advanced, is doing much better, has a very different traditional culture and political system. They're completely independent states and city states.

But what emerges over the beginning of the book is that the relationship between the two is a much more unusual relationship than might initially appear to be the case. And the investigation is both a murder investigation and also a kind of uncovering of the specificities of those cities and the relationships between the two  which we can talk about but that mean inevitably getting into spoiler territory.

Amazon: It doesn't take you very long in the book to realize the relationship between the cities, but I enjoyed the way that you revealed that so much that I want to leave that for readers. You [as a reader] discover it on your own through the mind of the people who live there and the way they have to live in those cities. But let's talk about your detective. He lives in Beszel, but he spends the book going back and forth between Beszel and Ul Qoma.

He's a very classic figure, to be honest, because I wanted the book to be extremely faithful to the protocols of classic noir police procedural. So to that extent, he is your classic sort of good but flawed hero. He's sardonic, he's intelligent, he's a little bit alienated, a little bit tired and deracinated. But, you know, a basically good man in an imperfect world. None of these, I know, win any prizes for originality. I think what you hope if you're trying to write something which is very much a homage to a particular tradition is that you can be faithful to that tradition, but at the same time maybe bring some of your own stuff to it, and do something that's both respectful but also new enough that it carries it.

I'm actually talking to a few people this morning who bring fantastical elements into their stories--Jonathan Lethem, Lev Grossman--but they also also embrace tradition and their influences, and they're quite open about them and I think very comfortable. I'm not sure if those two, the fantastic and the traditions, if those work together for you as well.

I think those of us who grew up around science fiction and fantasy and the fantastic in literature tend to be obsessive archivists. We have a very, very strong sense of the history of the literature that we love, the movements, and where it comes from, and what begat what, and what begat what, and so on. Now occasionally that can be taken in such a way that it makes us very solipsistic and insular and boring. But I think at its best it's about a location within tradition. And I think for me, the traditions in which I work and write are very, very important. And it's about showing respect to those traditions and it's about not reinventing the wheel. So it's always a question of fidelity to a tradition but not fawning fidelity. This is the idea.

And in the case of this book, there was this cross-fertilization, because I was also wanting to be very faithful, as I say, to the crime protocols, the paradigm. And that's not a genre in which I have a track record as a writer. It's a genre I've read a fair bit in, and I read a great deal for this book to steep myself. My mother was a huge reader of this kind of fiction, and so I grew up around it. And I have a sense of the rules and the very strong sense of rectitude that crime readers have. For example, they get angry with a book because it cheats, introduces evidence that the reader hadn't seen, that kind of thing.

One of the things that gets me very frustrated is when I read a book, in any field, and I feel the writer has no love or respect for that field. And so whatever the tradition is I'm writing in, whether it's westerns for Iron Council or crime for this book, I try and read a lot within that field and be sort of respectful--although hopefully also bring in some new stuff.

Amazon: You're known for writing about cities, and the hard boiled, noir tradition is very much a city tradition. Is that part of what drew you to it for this book?

Miéville: It was, very much. Basically, the setting, the two cities Beszel and Ul Qoma, was a setting I had knocking around in my head for a couple of years, and I had been thinking of ways I could investigate it. I liked the idea of cross fertilizing it with a thriller of some sort. And I decided that I wanted to write a book that was a present to my mum, and that's why it's a crime book. And so the setting definitely came first. But you're right, because crime novels and noir in particular have such a strong tradition of a kind of urban--a kind of dream of the dark city, it cross-fertilized very well.

So what did your mom think of her present?

Well, unfortunately I was writing it because she was very ill. Unfortunately she died before I was able to finish it. So there is a certain... I mean the book is dedicated to her. I think she would have really loved it.

Amazon: Speaking of those influences, in the acknowledgments you mentioned a few explicitly: Chandler, Kafka. I think some of them are quite evident. And there was one name I didn't know. Alfred Kubin--is that right? Could you tell me about him a little bit?

Miéville: He was a writer and an artist who wrote a very interesting book called The Other Side, which is about an investigation of a strange, plausible, but unreal city called Pearl. And he illustrated his own work--he was kind of Expressionist. Very interesting writer. I'm by no means a specialist, but I've read and loved The Other Side. And there's that strange sort of dreamlike Mitteleuropean darkness to it. [See Jeff's post earlier today on Kubin.]

6305779635.01._MZZZZZZZ_ And there are other names one could add to that list. Paul Leppin, a Prague writer, is someone who comes to mind very much. And then also some of the films that come out of these areas. J an Svankmajer, the Prague of Svankmajer, and so on. The trouble with naming influences is that you can always add more. So you have to know where to draw the line in the list.

Amazon: Well, tell us a little bit about the mystery at the heart of the story, because I think you can talk about it without revealing too much.

Miéville: Again, it's very classic. A woman's body is found. It looks like a routine case. And then guess what? It's not a routine case. What looks like a fairly straightforward murder ends up becoming a rather byzantine investigation into various political subcultures--first within the city of Beszel, and then with a growing realization, crossing over into the city of Ul Qoma, that there are these groups and these tensions within Ul Qoma too. And the realization that this is going to have to become an international investigation means that Tyador Borlu, the detective, has to cross the border, which is more complicated than many borders, into Ul Qoma to continue the investigation. And the investigation itself ends up having ramifications for the two cities and their relationship with each other. And so it's both about that, but it's also it's a morality question. Who killed this young woman?

Amazon: And it has great effects on the detective, perhaps the person most affected by the investigation.

Miéville: I think in any kind of noir, you have this peculiar sort of--there's a double movement, whereby on the one hand, the detective often seems to have quite a kind of carapace and to almost be sort of hermetic against this corrupt world that surrounds him or her. But of course, inevitably, actually we're all porous. Simply on the human level, it matters to him that he finds who killed the young woman, and also on the political level, the ramifications start to lead him to question a lot of things that he thought of as givens, basically.

Amazon: And his knowledge redefines who he can be in that society.

Miéville: There's an interesting thing that happens any time you write a book, which is that readers will essentially argue with the characters and believe, or imply, that they are arguing with you, you the writer. I should say that the character of Tyador Borlu is a character I like very much. I think he's a decent man, and I enjoyed writing him. I enjoyed writing in his voice. But that doesn't necessarily mean that I endorse all his decisions. And it sounds like an incredibly straightforward point, but it is worth reiterating because you do sometimes have readers who will tell you how much they disagree with you and how wrong you are because of a decision a character made. You know, I'm not Tyador Borlu.

Amazon: That brings up a good question. What's your relationship with your readers? In the fantasy tradition there is a very strong reader-writer relationship. As someone who moves genres very activity and self consciously, do your readers follow you from genre to genre?

Miéville: It's a good question. I don't really know, simply. When I wrote the YA book Un Lun Dun, lots of the fantasy readers stayed with me and I hope I got some new readers. I would never distinguish myself from the fantastic tradition, so even a book like this which is the least overtly fantastic book I've written, still to me is completely steeped in the tradition I come from, although, it is--unlike the other books--a book that I would be happy to give someone who finds it very difficult to read straight SF or fantasy. (Not necessarily snobbishly, it's just that some people can't deal with the overtly fantastic. Fair enough.) Whereas I would put this book in front of anyone and say, "You might like it."

I have seen some reviewers from within the fantasy tradition sort of taking me to task for feeling that this book is not fantastic enough. That having it be set in the real world, or very, very, very nearly in the real world, hamstrings it, and that it is too quotidian. Now, obviously, I have to treat any of these--these are legitimate opinions, and I sort of respectfully listen to them and stuff. Now equally, I disagree. For me, this would have been a much less interesting book had it been set on an asteroid in space or in a magic kingdom. But I think it's quite important not to get defensive when readers--I mean, obviously if you feel you're being massively misrepresented or libeled or whatever, that's a different matter. But if people are saying this book is really rubbish, and here's why, then of course you're going to be crestfallen. You want people to like your book.

But these are all legitimate opinions. So what I would hope is that the fantasy readers would like this book. Because one's trying to do something slightly different with each book, and that inevitably means that people who really, really liked the earlier books  they may not like this because it's not the same. That's kind of the point. And you have no right to expect that people will follow you. None at all. If we sit there and we complain because "Aww, everyone wants me to do the same thing," it's like, "Of course they do. They liked the earlier stuff."

So I suppose what I would say is that I would ask the people who've been reading me for a while, all I can do is ask them for a favor. I can ask a boon. I can say, "Look, I have no right to expect you to read this or to like it." But I would really say, "Please let me try and convince you. I hope that you'll give it a chance." And maybe even if you don't like it as much, you might say, "At least he's trying to do something new. At least it's more interesting over the long term."

And then the people that come out of a crime tradition, and that wouldn't be able to read Perdido or The Scar with any great pleasure, hopefully they will like this. And then if I write another one set in the same world, or whatever, I might say, "Honestly I don't really think this one's for you. But by all means give it a go." I don't know.

Amazon: I loved the quotidian side of it. One thing that I find so evocative about it is that as preposterous as the premise might be, it actually seems no less preposterous than some cities we know, that we've just become accustomed to living under certain conditions. I think that's one of the strongest things about it.

Miéville: Well, that's very nice to hear. The idea is that the logic of the distinction and the logic of the boundaries between the two cities is, as you say, preposterous. It is exaggerated. But it's not of a fundamentally different kind to the borders we have all around us. The idea is to take the logic of exclusion and absurdity, a sort of an illusion--all borders are an illusion. They're arbitrary. But they're also very true, and not just true but they'll kill you if you get on the wrong side of them. They're murderous illusions, murderous arbitrarinesses.

And to take that logic, that is, the logic of all borders I think, and to very, very slightly exaggerate it and push it, but not to change it. It's not a different logic. It's just a little bit exaggerated. And then to think about qualities with a slightly exaggerated logic of borders and how they would operate together. It is very nice to hear that it was both absurd but also plausible. That's kind of the hope, I think.


Lists + Reviews

Best Books Literature + Fiction Nonfiction Kids + Young Adult Mystery, Thriller + Suspense Science Fiction + Fantasy Comics + Graphic Novels Romance Eating + Drinking


Interviews Guest Essays Celebrity Picks

News + Features

News Features Awards Podcast


Omnivoracious, The Amazon Book Review

Feeds Facebook Twitter YouTube