China Miéville’s “The City and the City” is a tale of two intricately entwined “city-states.” Besźel is a European city, with an Old World charm of rattling trams; cobblestones; a skyline dotted with spires and copulas. Ul Qoma, its neighbor, is modern, ritzy, neon-lit, with curved glass skyscrapers and buildings with onion-shaped domes. The citizens of Ul Qoma speak Illitan, and Beszél, Besz. They have different international dialing codes, airports, sartorial fashion, architecture, cuisine, even cop cars.
That wouldn’t come across as remotely strange, if it weren’t for their bizarre geography. Beszél occupies the same physical territory as Ul Qoma. However, they’re two sovereign nations, each with its own legal jurisdiction, government, and social mores.
What could they possibly look like at the cartographic level, on a map? What would their topography be like? Could they be adjacent to each other? Parallel to each other? Is one an inversion of the other?
It’s quite a puzzler, really, till it dawns that it takes place in an urban setting, which takes off the notion of parallel universes—the concept that more than one object can occupy the same space.
These are “overlapping cities,” one layered on top of another like a deck of cards, with three kinds of locations: “total” (that lie within the same city), “alter” (that falls entirely in the other city), and “crosshatched” (areas that exist in both cities.) In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute defines a crosshatched region as one that’s simultaneously inhabited by two or more worlds.
Coterminous as Beszél and Ul Qoma are, movement between the two is prohibited, nay blasphemous, and a severely punishable offence. The people of one city have been trained by eons of hard habit to “unsee” the sights, and “unhear” the sounds of other city, even its scents. But how hard is that to do in a space, where the two communities are jammed cheek by jowl? Picture the difficulty of not stepping into a hostile foreign country when that foreign country happens to be the next sidewalk or the house next door.
In the morning trains ran on a raised line, meters from my window. They were not in my city. I did not, of course, but I could have stared into their carriages—they were that close—and caught the eyes of foreign travelers.
A description of localities that straddle both cities:
In Besźel, [KarnStrasz] is an unremarkable shopping street in the Old Town, but it is crosshatched, somewhat in Ul Qoma’s weight, the majority of buildings in our neighbor; and in Ul Qoma, its topolganger is the historic, famous Ul Maidin Avenue, into which Copula Hall vents.
The length of BudapestStrasz, patches of winter buddleia frothed out from old buildings. It’s a traditional urban weed in Besźel, but not in Ul Qoma, where they trim it as it intrudes, so BudapestStrasz being the Besźel part of a crosshatched area, each bush unflowered at that time, emerged unkempt for one or two or three local buildings, then would end up in a sharp vertical plane at the edge of Besźel.
I walked by the brick arches: where the lines were, they were elsewhere, but not all of them were foreign at their bases.
If, inadvertently, one caught a glimpse of the other, they’re charged with a crime worse than homicide, known as “breach,” which is both a noun and a verb. It’s also a transgression as well as the name of a secret organization.
The book has been compared to a combination of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s oeuvre. While it has flavors of both, it’s like neither. “Breach” is a shadowy entity, with an all-seeing eye, much like the “Big Brother,” and operates as a Kafkaesque agency, but it exists in an abstract zone that’s neither in Besźel, nor in Ul Qoma, but from which it can watch both.
The only legal passage between Beszél and Ul Qoma is through Copula Hall. One might think of it as the Berlin Wall, a divider. A border, yes, but it’s more like a portal to another dimension.
[…] pass through Copula Hall and she or he might leave Besźel and at the end of the hall, come back exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, but in another country, a tourist, a marveling visitor, to a street that shared the latitude-longitude of their own address; a street they had never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen; to the Ul Qoman house sitting next to and a whole city away from their own building […]
Copula Hall, like the waist of an hourglass, the point of ingress and egress, the navel between the cities. The whole edifice, a funnel, letting visitors from one city into the other, and the other into the one.
[It’s a] giant, baroque, concrete-patched coliseum in the center of Besźel, Old Town and of Ul Qoma Old Town. It is one of very few places that has the same name in both cities—Copula Hall. That is because it is not a crosshatched building, not one of staccato totality-alterity, one floor or room in Beszél, and the next in Ul Qoma: externally, it is in both cities; internally, much of it is in both or neither.
It sat across a considerable chunk of land in both cities. Its inside was complicated—corridors might start out mostly total, Besźel or Ul Qoma, become progressively crosshatched along their length, with rooms in one or other city along them, and numbers also of those strange rooms that were in neither or both cities, that were in Copula Hall only, and of which the Oversight Committee and its bodies were its only government.
Existing in the interstices of these two cities is an invisible, third city.
Orciny’s the third city. It’s between the other two. It’s in the dissensi, disputed zones, places that Besźel thinks are Ul Qoma’s, and Ul Qoma Besźel. When the old commune split, it didn’t split into two, it split into three. Orciny’s the secret city. It runs things.
Barring this science-fictional element, it’s a crime story. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, a foreign doctoral student, found dead in a housing project. The inquiry opens a can of worms.