The cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy non-congruent, partially overlapping physical space within the same geographic area, but their governments, cultures, and societies have been distinct for many centuries leading up to the early 21st-century setting of this novel. When “in” one city, there is a complete taboo on interacting with or even perceiving the residents and objects of the other. The ability to “unsee” the “alter” is cultivated in natives from childhood, and carefully trained in immigrants. Failure to maintain the distinction is the infraction of “breach,” which is punitively corrected by a mysterious agency called Breach. This unusual premise forms the setting for a noir-styled police procedural story in the voice of Inspector Tyador Borlú, a Besź detective investigating a murder that seems to have crossed the boundary between the cities.
Besides the psychological and cultural conundrums involved in the story, there is a focus on archaeology, both in the conventional paleological sense and in the theoretical Foucauldian one. The history that led to the intertwined situation of the cities is obscure, and the cleaving of one to the other or the cleavage of one from the other is an open question, as is the relationship of each to the “precursors” revealed in archaelogical investigation.
As the tale progresses, characters are given to suspect wheels within wheels made possible by the confinement of perception that the cities require of their denizens. Borlú is in a particular quandary as he seeks to solve the evident crime, but to remain himself free of breach. The pace of the novel is very fast, with three major divisions each characterized by Borlú’s orientation to the peculiar geography of the cities, and each with a different investigative partner for him.
The Ballantine Books edition I read included a Random House “Reader’s Guide” appended to the text, made up of an interview with the author and a set of topics and questions for reading group discussions. The interview was sound enough, but the discussion questions seemed to replicate the concerns of the interview a little closely for my taste. Miéville denies any intention to have written a reducible allegory in this book, but he does allow for its varying figurative significance, with metaphors which touch on politics, philosophy, and psychology.
My copy of the book was a used one, in which the previous reader had done a little highlighting and marginal annotation. As I tried to have an unmediated encounter with the novel, I was at first making an attempt to “unsee” these marks. Later, I discovered that they supplied a recursive adornment to the story, as one of Borlú’s key investigative leads took him to marginalia inscribed by the murder victim. This circumstance gave my reading an eeriness and a strange feeling of over-determination.
I gather that a BBC television miniseries was adapted from this novel, and I can’t for the life of me imagine how they pulled it off. I guess I’ll just have to see at some point.