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 a modern, ritzy, neon-lit metropolis with curved glass skyscrapers and buildings with onion-shaped domes. The citizens of Ul Qoma speak Illitan; 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. The two are sovereign nations, though, 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 on you 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 them is forbidden, nay blasphemous. The people of one city have been trained by eons of hard habit to “unsee” the sights and “unhear” the sounds of other as well as disregard 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’ve 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’s crosshatched, somewhat in Ul Qoma’s weight, the majority of buildings in our neighbor. In Ul Qoma, its topolganger is the historic, famous Ul Maidin Avenue, into which Copula Hall vents.
[Along] 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, [had] each bush unflowered at that time, emerg[ing] unkempt for one or two or three local buildings, which would then 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 and 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 “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 could 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’d 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’d never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen.
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’s one of very few places that has the same name in both cities—Copula Hall. That’s because it’s [neither] a crosshatched building, [nor] one of staccato totality-alterity, one floor or room in Beszél and the next in Ul Qoma. Externally, it’s in both cities; internally, much of it is in both or neither.
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’s. 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 investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, a foreign doctoral student, found dead in a housing project. The inquiry opens a can of worms.