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Posted by Matt | August 20th, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch. Underland Press, 2009 (US); Corvus, 2010 (UK).

There has always been an awareness of the sequence of history in Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction, an understanding that for any given place and time there will have been someone there before and will be someone there after. An early series of short stories dealt with this explicitly: “Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac” (1989, expanded 2000), “The Emperor’s Reply” (1993), and “The Compass of His Bones” (2004) were tales of the end of the Inca empire at the hands of Spanish Conquistadors. Veniss Underground (2003), a novel, derived much of its pervasive low-level dread from the uplifted meerkats who saw themselves as the next evolutionary step up from humanity, the heirs of the world in waiting. And most notably, historicity is deeply ingrained in VanderMeer’s best-known fiction, his Ambergris cycle. “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris” in the City of Saints and Madmen mosaic novel (2001, expanded 2002, further expanded UK 2004, revised US 2006) established the basics: the seizure of the strange city of Cinsorium on the River Moth by a band of whaler-pirates fleeing from an empire’s collapse; the driving underground of the city’s mysterious inhabitants, the gray caps, by the new settlers; the razing of the old city and its reconstruction as Ambergris; the subsequent territorial battles with neighboring tribes and nation-states in its rise as a center of art and commerce. The cycle’s second volume, Shriek: An Afterword (2006), conveys more subtly by its very title that this is a tale that follows another story; the book’s narrative conceit is that one character, the historian Duncan Shriek, is making notes and commentary over a core text written by Duncan’s sister Janice as an {auto}biographical afterword to one of Duncan’s own historical works.

And so we come to Finch, the third and perhaps final book of the Ambergris cycle. We’re a hundred years after Shriek, and Ambergris is a blitzed mockery of its former decadence. The gray caps have risen, long preparation during their exile in the city’s cavernous underground resulting in a swift takeover of the surface. Most humans in the city now live a shell-shocked existence, ameliorated by hallucinogenic mushrooms provided by the gray caps that remind the inhabitants of better times. Rebels exist outside the city, but are under constant threat of discovery and banishment to work camps–or more mysterious forms of disappearance. And a few humans hover in-between, trying to find meaning in a world turned downside-up. Among them is the titular John Finch, one of the pool of human police that the largely-nocturnal gray caps rely on for daytime legwork in criminal investigations.

Finch-the-character is the first of several areas where Finch-the-novel shines. There’s the natural tendency to see Finch as a traitor to his species, a collaborator. The book as a whole serves as an irreducible response to this first impression, an answer to the question of why he is working for the gray caps. As Finch conducts his investigation into a dead human and a bisected gray cap who seem to have materialized together in a deserted apartment as though fallen from a great height, the case more and more requires Finch to revisit his past and the reasons for his present situation. What VanderMeer does effectively over the course of the novel is develop our understanding of Finch as someone trapped by both personal history and cultural zeitgeist, a decent enough man doing the best he can in a world without clear-cut answers. He’s somewhat akin, on the surface level at least, to a hardboiled version of Gene Wolfe’s Severian the Torturer, engaged in a quest to fight a future that he does not fully comprehend at the behest of those whose agenda he does not fully know.

Which is to say, while guns and blood (and other fluids) are involved–copiously–in the tale, Finch is no action hero, and Finch is no fantasy of political agency. While there is plenty of action, it’s generally taken at the behest of the either the gray caps or one or another group of rebels. Finch is a character, to suggest another unlikely but I think useful comparison, in the vein of Yeine Darr from N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: someone in an environment of complex constraints, physical and cultural, whose actions must be parsed in light of these constraints. What does it mean to live in occupied territory, to have one’s life (and even body) colonized? It’s a question that runs through the novel. Finch, mind you, is by no means perfect in this regard–that is, he’s very human. But he’s someone VanderMeer invites us to consider on several different axes: what is his hierarchy of loyalties to family, loves, friends, and city; how sympathetic is Finch; how likable is he; how worthy is he of respect?

VanderMeer is among the most versatile contemporary shapers of narrative, combining a sense of the right story to tell for any given place and time, with a willingness to experiment–and borrow from the best–in determining the right narrative style for that story. So it’s no surprise that another highlight of Finch is the manner in which this shattered tale is told. We are deep in hardboiled crime territory here, echoes of the staccato, “telegraphic” neo-noir of James Ellroy:

[Finch] shouldn’t even have been on this case. [...] Never do police work anywhere near your own area. Never let the people where you lived know your job. And yet, 239 Manzikert Avenue was only a mile from the hotel [where he lived]. Why had Heretic put him in charge? Didn’t trust Wyte anymore? Or was there some other reason? Leaned forward in his chair. Had to make some progess.

This fragmented prose isn’t an affectation: the noir stylings carry with them a host of characteristics and connotations that perform important work for VanderMeer. The chopped up sentences continue to emphasize that idea of sequence: it’s almost always one distinct, singular action or perception following another. There’s an individualistic quality and an immediacy to this style, the sensation that we’re experiencing the story at street level through Finch’s eyes, with no narrative pauses to see what comes next and then report back later in more complex sentences. It emphasizes that Finch is on his own, and is quite different from the narratives of previous Ambergris novels that were layered in time and voice. At the same time, VanderMeer often uses Finch’s sentence fragments to break the narrative chain of causation, to separate the actions of characters from their results–which all conveys something of the dissociative mood and mindset of the citizenry of Ambergris. The Ambergrisians have experienced events they do not understand, whose cause and ultimate results are unknown to them. As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the rules of the world have been broken, and the broken grammar reflects the sense of uncanny dread that results. But this is also a textbook example of the dissociation of torture, which becomes clear when the story moves to a scene of torture and the style does not change.

Couldn’t feel his feet or hands. A kind of mercy. Because early on the Partial had cut off one of Finch’s toes. Had busted up his knee again. Cut a slit in his right cheek that bled into his mouth.

“Confess,” the Partial kept saying. “Confess.”


Finch laughed. An unhinged laugh that ended on too high a note. [...] The Partial crept behind him. Felt a soft sawing around his numb hand. A sudden flowing release. [...] The Partial placed Finch’s bloody pinkie finger on the table. It looked like a white worm.

Indeed, as we realize that the whole novel is interspersed with a recording of this interrogation and torture of Finch, the prose style becomes that much more appropriate. If the textbook definition of a sentence is a completed thought, VanderMeer’s noir-serrated writing conveys a populace–and a character–unwilling to complete a thought for fear of what that thought might be, what it might confess.

As I noted when discussing China Miéville’s The City & The City, however, VanderMeer’s noir takes a somewhat different shape and is put to a very different use than most of the other fantasy-crime hybrids published in recent years–Miéville’s novel, Jedediah Berry’s Manual of Detection, Zoran Živkovic’s The Last Book. These other works adopted noir as a retro-styling, a conception of the world-as-failure dating from the era between the World Wars that, the implicit message is, we’ve never quite been able to overcome. The classic noir they reference was an outgrowth of industrialization and urbanization, combined with subsequent economic downturn, combined with the lesson of Prohibition that trying to legislate morality only makes everyone a criminal. This original noir was an expression of dazed despair over the failure of our dreams, at a world we had created and then seemed to become stuck in. VanderMeer’s noir feels more modern, millennial. His achievement with Finch is to recreate urban noir based on contemporary concepts of post-colonial religious and ethnic conflict, drug culture, the panoptic state, and the post-9/11 (mis)understanding of the world not as something we helped bring about, but as something done to us. Common contemporary fears are more organic than technological–chemical and biological weaponry, disease like swine and bird flu, ecological issues like global warming–or more based in ideology: underground cells rising to unleash horrors, the intersection of terrorism and Lovecraft. Meanwhile, the questions of the day surround a Western world awakened to its colonialist past and now wondering how we would have reacted if what we did to others had been done to us, how then to co-exist with those whose worldview seems truly alien–and so the uncertain tenuousness of hope, of relying on unproven, unprovable narratives that communication, understanding, and living together might be possible; wondering how much miscommunication and conflict are inevitable. Finch reads as if VanderMeer took all these key components of contemporary politics, scrambled the subjects and actions and objects beyond allegorical recognition, laid them out in their new form as a series of fragments very much akin to the novel’s prose, and seeing that they still made sense in their scrambled form and still told a believable story, challenged the reader to decide for themselves what exactly this means.

Finch can nominally be read as a stand-alone story, but it seems important to me to read it as part of the whole Ambergris cycle for reasons not least that it is only in the previous volumes that the falsity of the impression of current circumstances as something done to the Ambergrisians is fully revealed. And a key reason to read the cycle in order–beyond an appreciation for how much groundwork was laid early on, and a greater understanding of various characters, historical events, and mysteries solved and unsolved–is to experience the visceral transformation of the city that VanderMeer has wrought. For as the prose style is different in Finch than in VanderMeer’s previous Ambergris novels, so too the city of Ambergris has been transformed.

Six years and I can’t recognize a goddamn thing from before.

Harsh blue sprawl of the bay, bled from the River Moth. Carved from nothing. The first thing the gray caps did when they Rose, flooding Ambergris and killing thousands. Now the city, riddled through with canals, is like a body that was once drowned. Parts bleached, parts bloated. Metal and stone for flesh. Places that stick out and places that barely touch the surface.


Beyond the Spit, the silhouette of the two living domes covering the detention camps. Broken by the smoke, hidden by debris. Built over a valley of homes. Built atop the remains of the military factories that had allowed the two great mercantile companies, House Hoegbotton and the invading House Frankwrithe & Lewden, to dream of empire, to destroy each other. And the city with them. Finch had fought for Hoegbotton. Once upon a time.

Between the domes, the fiery green glitter and minarets of the Religious Quarter, occupied by the remnants of native tribes. Adapting. Struggling. Destined to someday be wiped out. He can see the exposed crater at the top of the Truffidian Cathedral. Cracked. All the prayers let out.

We’re again seeing the march of history in VanderMeer’s work, transformation and change. What the quote above also illustrates is how Finch ramps up the intensity across a wide spectrum of urban life: political-economic, military-industrial, racial, spiritual, science fictional. Many horror-tinged works rely on keeping their horror concealed, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks. When the horror is finally revealed, its very corporeality can render it trivial compared to what we imagined. But because Finch distributes its alienation across so many spheres of life, the changes the gray caps have wrought feel unrelenting and powerful.

Here it is also useful to stop talking about thematics and give appreciation for the breadth of visceral, sensorial imagination on display: fungal memory bulbs that extract the last memories of the deceased and replay them when consumed by the living; the gray cap’s pet skery, which seems like a small domesticated black hole; Partials, humans converted by gray caps into walking organic surveillance cameras; and innumerable other uses for mushrooms, spores, and mold. My favorite may be the method by which the underground gray caps communicate with their above-ground human assistants:

A soft, wet, sucking sound came from the memory hole beside his desk. Finch shuddered, put aside his notes.


Exhaled sharply. Peered around the left edge of the desk. Glanced down at the glistening hole. It was about twice the size of a man’s fist. Lamprey-like teeth. Gasping, pink-tinged maw. Foul. The green tendrils lining the gullet had pushed up the dirty black spherical pod until it lay atop the mouth.


Finch leaned over. Grabbed the pod. Slimy feel. Sticky.

Tossed the pod onto his desk. Pulled out a hammer from the same drawer where he kept his limited supply of dormant pods. Split Heretic’s pod wide open.


In amongst the fragments: a few copies of a photograph of the dead man, compliments of the Partial.

And a message.

In this vein, it is also worth mentioning VanderMeer’s rare accomplishment in giving us fully-realized iterations of a fantasy setting at such different times and in such different conditions. It speaks to the excellence of Ambergris as a venue for possibility, a setting open to story–as opposed to many fantasy worlds that seem to exist, as critic Gary K. Wolfe has noted, only to tell a single intended story. It’s one of the good aspects of Tolkien that the Tolkien clone factory always forgets (or like Peter Jackson, can’t bear) to steal. Among recent fantasy, Daniel Abraham takes this long view somewhat in his Long Price quartet; Martha Wells does it, too, in her Ile Rien novels, which begin in a fairly stock medieval setting, progress through the dwindling of magic and beginnings of an industrial age, and ends with her city under siege much like the London Blitz–which makes me wonder what it is about the WWII era that makes it so often a terminal point that fantasy cannot pass through; perhaps it’s the time when it becomes impossible for fantasy to progress any further and still be fantasy.

The few issues I had with Finch were when the imaginative and thematic thrusts seemed to get in each other’s way, where it feels like VanderMeer is trying too hard to enforce a certain reading of the text. “Everyone’s a collaborator. Everyone’s a rebel” is a hard-hitting line to hit readers with on the first page, but its somewhat random insertion on later consideration comes to feel forced; so too does a later line about Finch being a good man in impossible times.

Similarly: roles, the peril of becoming the roles we act out, and our tendency to be fooled by the appearances of roles are concerns throughout the Ambergris cycle. This is true in terms of jobs, in terms of the humanity or inhumanity of the gray caps, and it is true in terms of nearly all of the series’s female characters. From the short story “Dradin, in Love,” in which a newcomer to Ambergris falls in love with a woman seen only through a window, to the triangle in Shriek: An Afterword between Duncan Shriek, his sister Janice, and his lover Mary Sabon, the alientating quality of the male gaze, the difficulty men have of seeing women as individuals (and vice versa) is a recurring pattern. Finch’s lover Sintra is fully a piece with this pattern; what feels conflicted here is when the imagination displayed by the rest of the novel meets the fact that there’s not a word Sintra utters that she didn’t learn in Femme Fatale 101. While VanderMeer isn’t unaware of this and allows Sintra a biting last say, her character is too undeveloped for this to bite as much as it should–instead it is again rather over-blunt and forced, important thematically but dull on a sentence-by-sentence level in a way that the rest of the novel is not. It would be nice to give Sintra the benefit of the doubt as a complex character, to see her as someone who perhaps bought into her assigned role too much and started to become it in her own mind, or used it to justify her actions–I’m not sure her criticism of how Finch saw their relationship was warranted, for example–but she’s too thin a character, her interactions with Finch too limited, to make that reading supportable. This is all exacerbated because the novel’s other female character [edit, see comments: who Finch has any normal interactions with], Finch’s neighbor Rathven, is likewise potentially interesting but never becomes more than a device to keep the story moving.

Of course the inevitability of the story moving forward is, in a sense, what Finch is all about. We return again to VanderMeer’s use of noir. Classic noir tells a tale of entrapment in a cycle of behavior, a fly quixotically bumping against the cage of a screened door, yearning for the unreachable outdoors beyond. Finch suggests that sometimes the door can open–sometimes as the result of our actions, sometimes through the actions of those we choose to act for us, sometimes because of historical pressures we may not always fully understand, or be comfortable with. But openings happen, and they bring change. We cannot change the massive past accumulation of history, but we can choose who we are as individuals in the present: it’s perhaps the only way individuals can interact with the mass of history, ignoring it but at the same time shaping it. In this Finch reads like a plea for engagement with the world.

And it is with this understanding that the dual components of the novel’s conclusion form a perfect summation of all that has gone before, in Finch and in VanderMeer’s Ambergris cycle overall. As the text of Finch is framed by an interrogation, so the novel ends with, quite explicitly, a confession. Yet this has the quality of a religious, or at least spiritual, confession: a true and honest communication between two people that is freely offered and cleansing, rather than the forced result of torture. And this is interesting because the other half of the book’s conclusion is one that has been deployed frequently by more explicitly religious fantasies. There is a leave-taking by boat. There is a sense that, for better or worse, a choice has been made, that history has advanced and some measure of possibility removed from the world. And there is an awareness of the inevitability of this, of change; that history never ends–in the world of fiction at least–and so every ending is really just a new chance to take part in the always-contentious shared decision of what happens next.

Posted by Matt | July 28th, 2010

China Miéville, The City & The City. Del Rey, 2009 (US); Macmillan, 2009 (UK).

I have written at least four different introductions to this piece on China Miéville’s The City & The City, each focusing on a different aspect of the novel. There is an embarrassment of riches, so much to write about. Which perhaps is itself the best place to begin. There are novels published in any given year over which much is made at the time, but that swiftly fade from memory. In 2009, Lev Grossman’s quite decent The Magicians received nearly equal attention and praise upon release as Miéville’s book; at the end of the year, I don’t recall seeing the Grossman mentioned in any “year’s best” discussions (sorry, Lev). The City & The City, in contrast, is a novel that people have kept talking about, have kept finding new ways and new places to apply its language of and to the world. It’s one of the rare literary works that I feel (not without irony) has added a new lens to the array by which I can see the world.

A personal example:

I am an American; I live in the state named Massachusetts. For most of the first decade of the new millennium, the popular image of the United States of America-as-a-totality, here and abroad, has been various incarnations of the infamous electoral map of red and blue states (see below). I did not much mind this. Whenever I traveled abroad one of the first sentences I invariably uttered to any new acquaintance, immediately after identifying myself as American, was “I didn’t vote for Bush.” It was as if there were two types of Americans, those who did vote for Bush and those who didn’t, and the only way I could feel comfortable identifying myself as an American was with that qualifier. When I traveled within the country, meanwhile, all I needed to say was “I’m from Massachusetts” and people rightly assumed that I was relatively liberal–Massachusetts being long considered the bluest of blue states.

Then more recently Massachusetts held a Special Election to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the late Ted Kennedy; it was an election for a local representative, but it had greater than usual significance across America because of the national health care debate. And amazingly, the liberal Democratic candidate lost. My local friends and I couldn’t understand how this could have happened in our so-very-blue state; we were devastated.

Red and blue electoral map from 2008 US Presidential election
Red and blue city map from 2010 Massachusetts special election
Top: 2008 US Presidential Election.
Bottom: 2010 Massachusetts Special Election.

Watching the Special Election results come in, we saw a map of Massachusetts broken down by county, and it was showing red counties and blue counties. Going online, I found results broken down even further, by city; I was reassured, as much as I could be, by the fact that at least the city I live in had voted 70% for the Democratic candidate. We were blue, even if some of the surrounding cities were red. Watching the results come in, I felt more solidarity with other blue cities further away than I did with neighboring red cities. And it occurs to me that, because of the way we hold our elections in the US, the Democratic and Republican National Committees must have digital maps that can track the red vs. blue voting patterns deeper than state, district, county, city; down to the level of neighborhoods, households, to individual people within households. Which makes me very conscious that I’m living in this shared space called America that in many ways could be seen–is seen, going back to that popular national map–as two different countries, blue-state America and red-state America. Except that unlike that popular conception, the two are densely intermingled at the street level. And frustrating times like the Special Election make me very conscious of the allure of disowning red-state/red-city/red-household/red-pedestrian America; times when I fantasize that if I could, I would.

Red and blue people walking in city
Us & Them: And who knows which is which and who is who.

* * *

There has, to be sure, been some interesting writing on and discussion of The City & The City already. In particular, I plan on referencing a cross-site discussion that took place between Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland here and here, continuing down into the comments of Dan’s post with contributions from Adam Roberts, and culminating in this review by Roberts. I should also note that I gave a rather hurried summation of what I’m writing here at a book club discussion of The City & The City at 2009’s Readercon; on the presiding panel were, among others, Graham Sleight and John Clute, whose names appear below.

(I wrote the above paragraph in July 2009–yes, I am a slow writer. Since then several other reviews of interest have appeared–Matthew Cheney, Abigail Nussbaum, Jonathan McCalmont, Shigekuni. Good and insightful as these are, none really offers what I’d consider a 360-degree view of the book, and in particular the means and ends of its blending of fantasy and mystery. So I persevere, and the original discussion linked above remains my touchstone….)

In the Harrison/Hartland/Roberts discussion–and echoed by Sleight at the Readercon panel–is the suggestion that The City & The City can be read as containing essentially two layers: the surface level story, and the subtextual layer of the applicability of the story’s ideas to the wider world. Such a dualistic reading is pleasingly apt, given the title of the book. What I’d like to suggest here, however, is that the novel can most appropriately and profitably be read as containing three essential layers:

  1. The surface story, the mystery to be solved: the characters and their motivations and actions as characters, that form a plot, enacted in a setting, etc.
  2. The way that genre mystery tropes are used to reveal something deeper about the fictional world that is also relevant to our real world. Which is to say, unseeing and all that goes with it.
  3. The way that, conversely, the fictional world–designed to mimic our real world in so many details–also deliberately echoes and illuminates genre mystery tropes, and thus the mystery genre overall.

The excellence of The City & The City, to my mind, is the way all three layers are interwoven. I aim to pull some of this weaving apart for ease of examination, but with the awareness that in doing so I’m not merely reducing the novel but transforming it into something it isn’t; representing it as more allegorical than it is, turning it into a purely logical construction rather than an aesthetic one.

All of the following, I should note, presumes that you’ve read the book already–this isn’t so much a review as an investigation.

1. The Scene of the Crime

Miéville’s previous novels have tended to deconstruct genre tropes via subversions of point of view, and to a lesser extent plot. Un Lun Dun worked against the usual hero-and-sidekick roles and their associated plotting. The Scar flipped the standard retrieve-the-stolen-object fantasy quest narrative on its head by being told from the side of the thieves rather than the pursuers, and by backing away from the quest objective at the last moment.

In contrast to these books, The City & The City works its genre deconstruction largely via setting, not character or plot. Indeed, what’s notable about the plot of Miéville’s novel is how true its movement is to the very story of noir, the recirculating interplay between individuals and systems: how individuals take on the characteristics of the systems they live by, and in doing so become complicit in those systems; how individuals are absorbed by systems whose qualities mirror their own self-absorbtions. The prototypical noir character is streetwise precisely because they mirror their environment, because with absorption and loss of self can come knowledge and the ability to work within the grid of the system–if never to actually change it. Yet in many recent noir hybrids with fantasy and science fiction, noir is used precisely to present something for the individual to triumph over, to change or escape: Jedediah Berry’s Manual of Detection, Zoran Živković’s The Last Book, going back to the film Bladerunner. (I could perhaps add Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch to this list as well, but I don’t think VanderMeer is aiming for the pure crime noir in the way someone like Berry is–which may be another post for another time.) It stands out, then, that with The City & The City, Miéville has created a story that is so thoroughly noir, that ends with our protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlú co-opted by the system in exactly the way we’d expect–and yet still has something interesting to say about what this all means.

For such a classic noir story to work, we generally need to care about this co-option, this absorption. And so the classic noir story is typically a novel of character. Well, and so. Our Inspector Borlú is, like any good noir protagonist, very much a product of his system–indeed I think there is a tendency to under-appreciate Borlú as a product of his society. When Borlú declares that the situation between Besźel and Ul Qoma is entirely unlike those in Berlin, or Jerusalem; when he declares that it cannot be understood allegorically: the easy interpretation is that this is Miéville speaking to us, and not what someone of Borlú’s character and in his position would say, authorial agreement or no. And yet, a similar sense of character comes through in many of Borlú’s actions: his behavior at the cities conference, his dual lovers, his patronage of Ul Qoman bakeries in Besźel. It is easy to regard these details as thematic–and of course they are, that’s part of what makes the book so good. But the details he provides–choices, actions, patterns of speech–are not only thematic, not when we consider the reaction of others to these attributes of Borlú, which make it clear they are very much unique to him. This gets at the issue with Borlú-as-protagonist, though: it isn’t that he’s not a believable character, but his matter-of-fact acceptance of the system doesn’t incorporate many of the tensions that we see in others throughout the novel. He is a patriot, but recognizing that his country depends on the system, he is a patriot for the system first and foremost. Borlú begins co-opted in all but name, and so there’s little real drama in his personal transition. The dramatic tension in the system, and the true star protagonist of the novel, is instead found in the setting. Fortunately, the setting makes the strong and complex impression that Borlú does not.

While The City & The City is not, by most definitions, a New Weird novel, its setting has about it something of what M. John Harrison labeled the “pick-and-choose” aesthetic of The New Weird. It is quite conspicuously an assemblage of elements designed to convey an impression–in this case, to build a mystery–and make an argument as much as it is an attempt to construct a plausible real-world location. The very vagueness of the location and history of the cities emphasize this. The text suggests that the two nearest neighbors of the cities are Bosnia and Romania–with Greece and Turkey slightly further away. This would likely put the cities on the border of the Balkans, perhaps in, perhaps out…the uncertain dualism seen so often in the novel. Practically, this general location carries with it a mesh of associations: the borderlands, too, between Central and Eastern Europe, and Europe and the Middle East; the concept of “balkanization”; recent countries with names such as “Bosnia and Herzegovina,” “Serbia and Montenegro” that have the meter of our book’s title.

The question of where the cities are naturally leads to other questions about them, which the novel encourages–it’s another mystery, in addition to the foreground crime, a greater one. It has the air of a puzzle to be solved. There’s a sense, then, in which The City & The City represents a very classic type of mystery fiction, the puzzle story where whodunit and how and when are the most important aspects, Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom with the Candlestick. Over the past several decades, however, the mystery genre as a whole has become more character-driven: not so much puzzling out whodunit as examining the character of those who did do it and those who try to prove what was done. Paralleling the growth of forensics, surveillance, and computer networks, the model for the new crime novel is The Wire: a story where everybody already knows who’s done it, and it’s the construction of proof, and the impact of that construction, that creates the drama. Hartland and Roberts in particular criticize the book for missing the sailing of this ship, but I’m not sure they’re appreciating just how Miéville is twining the two types of story, crime and puzzle, together. The “crime” in crime fiction implies laws, which imply a state, which implies borders and jurisdictions; at least in Western societies, a crime carries with it the premonition of alibis, of dueling stories. Miéville, I think, is trying to get at these core elements that define the genre, the mysteries at the heart of crime, and do to this he needs to do a bit of genre archaeology–and to use a dash of fantasy.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider how the language of the story presents a clue that things will be rather meta: crosshatch, equipoise, alterity, interstitial. Unseeing.

2. Unseeing, Unbelieving

The example everybody uses: the way that more economically fortunate people will often unsee the homeless as they pass by. Expanding on this, John Clute in the 2009 Readercon panel mentioned that the rich, the upper class, perpetually unsee the poor as a class: because to see the poor would force the rich to see their complicity in the systems of poverty. That’s true enough, but I’d suggest that–especially for a Marxist like Miéville–there is also a reciprocal unseeing Western society demands of the poor. If poor saw truly, saw fully, the truth would demand revolution. What is false consciousness but a form of unseeing?

There isn’t a judgment passed on unseeing in the novel, however. Miéville is too sympathetic to condemn, too astute an observer of the world. Unseeing is limiting, restricting; it may also be, in at least some cases, necessary. Certainly preferable to many alternatives. The Besźel/Ul Qoma divide is in many ways profoundly silly, yet it does enable two different cultures to survive, two sets of people to peaceably occupy the same space while making different choices. This is in many ways the very ideal that modern multicultural nations strive for. Indeed it gets at the crisis of contemporary society, the conflict between ideals of integration and ideals of pluralism.

The term “unseeing,” though, seems apt to generate misunderstandings. It sounds like magic. I’ve seen readers criticize the book because they can’t believe that people could truly blind themselves to so much of the world around them. What the text shows us, though, is that unseeing is not an act of ignoring based in ignorance or blindness; it is rather based in recognition and understanding. Borlú is constantly seeing Ul Qoma: his unseeing demands that he be able to recognize exactly what he must pretend not to see, as Miéville makes clear right from the start:

An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.

Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. I raised my head, towards an aircraft on its final descent. When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away…

One indeed suspects that, due to the demands of unseeing, the average citizen of Besźel would know a great deal more about the citizenry of Ul Qoma than the average American knows about our contiguous neighbors. But the seeing of unseeing is not literal sight, but rather acknowledgment and all that goes with it.

Which is not to say that unseeing is completely believable, but that its power as a concept stems from existing just beyond the horizon of belief. It is the summation of much that we have seen before. Consider what we know of how people see, the neurology of how people perceive and can be conditioned to ignore significant elements of the world. Consider the tradition of utopian and dystopian novels, and include in that tradition not just the usual dystopias, but also novels of more utopian social conditioning like Skinner’s Walden Two. Consider the quasi-mystical way people have regarded real-life enforcement organizations such as the KGB: all-seeing, pervasive, prone to making people disappear. Consider the power of Foulcault’s panopticon as a method of enforcement. Consider Václav Havel’s famous essay “The Power of the Powerless,” an explication of the post-totalitarian state that is created by individuals following everyday norms. Consider the way individuals from outside the most privileged groups often find themselves unheard, unseen–consider a novel like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a story like James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Women Men Don’t See.”

The beauty of unseeing as a concept, then, is that it captures a certain curve of the world–it is a tangent that approaches that curve. The two may never formally touch, but to read The City & The City is to experience the difference between them becoming smaller. And as the final facet of the novel makes clear, this curve of unseeing describes not only quotidian interactions, but also the larger narratives that we live by.

3. Building a Mystery

In his review of The City & The City, Adam Roberts suggested that the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma represented the duality between fiction and the truth of real life. A core problem Roberts had with the novel was that these are two things of different types, not co-equal, and so cannot properly be represented by Besźel and Ul Qoma. But I think it’s fairly clear that this conception of the cities is awry.

The superposition of Besźel and Ul Qoma mirrors the superposition of possible solutions to an unsolved mystery. They are both suspects. Until a mystery is solved, the possible solutions are co-equal inhabitants of the same space in the story. Besźel and Ul Qoma are then both equally fictions, stories: competing, mutually exclusive narratives to describe the past and present of a space. Truth would be the lifting of such narratives. According to the internal metaphysics of the book, then, truth can only be Breach. Consistently in Miéville’s descriptions, Breach is not so much a story as the absence of story:

It was gray, without adornment. [...] Someone stood in the doorway. Light behind him, he was a cutout of darkness, a lack. [...] Their faces were without anything approaching expressions. They looked like people-shaped clay in the moments before God breathed out.

Breach reveals itself as anathema to story in several ways. It has an unparalleled access to raw data, but it cannot make sense of that data, cannot see connections, without Borlú’s assistance. Breach cannot even give a coherent account of itself. There’s a telling narrative shift that occurs whenever it tries to, whereupon Borlú switches from reporting verbatim what those in Breach say to offering his own summary of what was said–his own narrative, because he alone is capable of creating one.

If Breach was not Orciny, what would it be but a mockery of itself, to have let [Orciny's transgressions] go for centuries? That was why my questioner, when he asked me Does Orciny exist?, put it like this, “So, are we at war?”

And later:

I’m an avatar of Breach, Ashil said. Where breach has occurred I can do whatever. But he made me run through it a long time. His manner ossified, that opacity, the glimmerlessness of any sense of what he thought—it was hard to tell if he even heard me. He did not argue nor agree. He stood, while I told him what I claimed.

Committing Breach is, to return to the idea of unseeing, to disbelieve a story; it is a literalization of suspension of disbelief, a rejection of a fiction. Breach can go anywhere, see anything, if only it is invoked: you need only speak it. Once you see it, you cannot go back. But on its own Breach is profoundly empty, unable to generate anything new within itself. This is again very much the essence of noir: the sense that if you pull back the skin of the world, the truth is that there’s nothing meaningful there, just amoral systems to maintain the status quo. Breach contains only pale copies of what exists outside it, needing a constant infusion of new blood in order to do its job, to provide solutions, construct stories.

To solve a crime, in other words, is not to choose between truth and fiction. It is to construct an explanatory narrative, to choose between fictions.

Solution-narratives have scope: to present something as a solution is to delineate what we are willing to accept in a solution, how much truth (or at least, explanation) we need. In this case, when Besźel and Ul Qoma are presented as the two initial leads in the case, the suspects, it’s worth remembering that the two are not just cities but also nations; investigations bring us a further suspect, Orciny, also (potentially, in some narratives) a nation. But like many good mysteries, the suspect most responsible for the crime turns out to be the one that was mentioned briefly and seemingly inconsequentially early in the story, the one that we may have even forgotten was present: the United States.

It is mete that Miéville’s crime novel operates at this level of nations, because the notion of crime is tied up in nations. Crimes are violations of laws; laws are enacted by nations. And nations, in turn, are based on narratives of justice. Nations are fictions that are, as Borlú says, “the skin that keeps law in place.” This gets at one of the thorny issues with crime, of causes. Causes often lie as far back in the past as we’re willing to look; they often do expand to the level of nations, cultures, social systems (one suspects religion, implausibly minimized in both cities, is so because it operates in parallel on the same principles). At a certain point we always have to accept that there are causal elements we won’t be able to know.

There’s a great deal of clever paralleling throughout The City & The City between the old-school puzzle of the cities, that is operating at this meta level of nations and concepts, and the investigation of Mahalia’s murder that’s representative of street-level crime noir. The excavations, of course, the digging into the past; more subtly, the linkage of the individual members of the nationalist groups of both cities as suspects, or the fact that Bowden commits the murder because of a story of a city, a nation, Orciny. There’s again the realization that noir is a mirroring of character and environment. And there’s the overall movement of the methodologies employed as we progress in the book from the classic procedural tone of Borlú’s initial investigations in Besźel, which wouldn’t have felt out of place in a crime novel from the 1930s, through to Breach’s system of networks and surveillance and informers, the technolologizing of the apparatus of truth, the new crime fiction. (My crime fiction guru and colleague in genrethink, Brian Lindenmuth of Spinetingler Magazine, mentioned to me that he experienced the movement to Ul Qoma and the character of Dhatt as an intermediary step in this metahistory of crime fiction, albeit one he was disinclined to credit as consciously intended on Miéville’s behalf.)

An interesting question to ask, given all this, is when exactly do we consider the mystery to be solved? I would posit that for most readers it will be when Borlú apprehends Bowden, a type of final confrontation ubiquitous within the mystery genre. Here is Borlú speaking to Bowden:

“You told Mahalia she was the only one you’d tell the truth. That when you turned your back on your book, that was just you playing politics? Or did you tell her it was cowardice? That would be pretty winning. I bet you did that.” I approached him. His expression shifted. “‘It’s my shame, Mahalia, the pressure was too much. You’re braver than me, keep on; you’re so close, you’ll find it…’ Your shit messed up your whole career, and you can’t have that time back. So the next best thing, make it have been true all along.


“Did she think you were fooled too? Or did she realise you were behind it? [...] I think she didn’t know. It wasn’t her character to taunt you. I think she thought she was protecting you. I think she arranged to meet you, to protect you.”

What’s fascinating is that here Borlú is again called upon to be a storyteller. Bowden barely says a word, remains equivocal–and so we don’t even know if the story Borlú tells is true. But we accept it as truth, as a solution, because it looks like what we expect a solution to look like. To solve a mystery, even the truth needs a story. Which is why Breach needs Borlú. And Borlú, having seen, can no longer unsee. He is indeed no longer Tyador Borlú, as an avatar of Breach he becomes simply Tye. And I wonder (even though the pronunciation is probably not right) if this isn’t another of the kind of pun that Miéville seems to relish: Borlú is now the Tye that binds the two cities together, and also the Tye that denies ultimate victory to either.

In having Borlú become this avatar of Breach, Miéville achieves a final synthesis of noir and fantasy that makes a worthy finale to the novel’s conceptual fireworks. Borlú has been reduced; he has lost his name, his personhood, become subsumed as an enforcer of the system. This is the very essence of the tragic inevitability of noir. And in the grammar of fantasy, Borlú’s transformation into an avatar is also a movement of becoming. Borlú is moving towards a doppelganger of the fullness of view that the equivocations of his character always strained towards, a sense of his place in the fictional sense–acknowledgment that he is a participant in, and engulfed by, narrative. By the book’s end, the fantasy and the noir have fused into the same understanding. At the very point Borlú is reduced to an avatar within the story, he solidifies into what he always was to the reader outside the story.

Posted by Matt | June 1st, 2010

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, photo courtesy Wikipedia because I didn't think to bring my camera.

This weekend I was doing some housecleaning and came across notes I had jotted down almost a year ago, before Lingua Fantastika existed, from a discussion between novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón and journalist Chris Lydon to mark the English publication of Zafón’s The Angel’s Game.  With The Angel’s Game just recently appearing in a paperback edition, this discovery seemed too serendipitous to ignore. The event that these notes are from took place on June 22, 2009 at local independent fave the Harvard Book Store. The discussion was broadly focused on Zafón’s career history and goals–which means that a lot of what Zafón said then is still relevant now.  To whit:

  • Echoing past interviews, Zafón reiterated the esteem in which he holds Dickens.  Zafón said that he has tried very consciously to figure out what made the classic 19th century novels that he enjoys so good (not, he added, that he is deliberately aiming to write “classics” or bestsellers, but just because he enjoys those works). Part of his answer is that those books tended to include a bit of everything, that they were pre-genre. Another part of the answer is that Dickens and other 19th century authors invented many narrative techniques, which were gradually abandoned by novelists over the 20th century as other forms of media (film, etc.) took prominence. Zafón sees himself as bringing some of these techniques back into literature while tweaking them for a contemporary audience–an audience that if anything is a more cultivated readership than someone like Dickens enjoyed.  Dickens’s readers were seeing many prose techniques used for the first time, as they were invented.
  • One narrative technique he used as an example was characterization through dialogue.  Zafón noted that in the 20th century it became more and more typical for prose authors to tell characterization through exposition rather than showing it via dialogue. Yet you generally can’t tell characterization in film, or theatre–and Dickens and other good novelists don’t do it in their novels–and so likewise Zafón tries to show character through dialogue in his own works.  Which is indeed typically considered a mark of good writing; what I found interesting is Zafón’s perception of the historical route this ideal took into his own writing, the positive influence of popular cinema.
  • While The Angel’s Game chronologically comes before The Shadow of the Wind and the idea is that the novels can be read in any order, Zafón sees the quartet he is planning as comprising a classical series of acts, and the new novel is very much the prototypical dark second act. The first book introduced the world; the new book deepens the conflicts which will drive the plot through towards the “light at the end of the tunnel” which will be glimpsed in subsequent books.
  • There was some discussion of the difference between Zafón’s success in the United States versus in other countries. He made the point that The Shadow of the Wind had sold between 1-2 million copies in the USA, which by the standards of literary novels here, a country with 300 million people, made it a big success.  Yet in the Netherlands, a country of 16 million people, the book sold 800,000 copies–proportionally far more. He talked about how he thinks the US doesn’t do enough to foster reading as a habit, how many people are proud they do not read. He thinks there is a growing disconnect between European countries which are increasingly open, and the US which is increasingly diverging and going its own route.
  • He is very fluent in English (having lived in Los Angeles for 11 years); he said that while he had some schooling in the language he was primarily self-taught, by buying and reading cheap paperbacks sold in the Barcelona market for tourists. He said Stephen King’s books did a lot to help him learn English, because they use so much colloquial dialect. He writes in Spanish because he believes that one should write in the language that one learned to read in.
  • He had not (as of June 2009) started the third book in the quartet. He planned to take the summer off from writing, then in the fall he would determine whether his next project would be the third book in the quartet or something separate.

Posted by Matt | March 24th, 2010

Geoff Ryman (ed.), When It Changed: Science Into Fiction. Comma Press, 2009 (UK): trade paperback.

My review of When It Changed: Science Into Fiction, edited by Geoff Ryman, is now online at the Strange Horizons website.  I’m reasonably happy with this review as a piece of analysis, at not just stopping at judging whether the book does what it attempts to do but considering what in fact it does do.  As a piece of writing, it was an experiment to be a bit more personal: I’m not sure if that worked.  So be it.  While I think I did justice to the book overall, it may be that I didn’t do justice to the individual stories as stories, as worthy of consideration in their own right and not just in terms of how they fit into my argument.  Let me say here, then, that they were all at a minimum competently written: Gwyneth Jones’s “Collision” and Geoff Ryman’s own “You” struck me as the highpoints; Paul Cornell’s “Global Collider Generation: an Idyll” grew on me; and Sara Maitland’s “Moss Witch” was a clever concept deftly executed.

Selected past reviews at other venues:

Posted by Matt | March 1st, 2010

Steven Wilson, “Harmony Korine” from his 2009 album Insurgentes. Video shot, edited, and directed by Lasse Hoile.

I love how deftly this straddles the border of narrative.  When I watch this, it feels like story.  When it’s over, I’m not so sure: it’s like waking up from a dream.  The sensation of story seems to come not simply from it being a piece of sequential art, having characters and movement, but because of certain key interactions, certain familiar scenes and movements.  Of this, genres are made.