There’s a long history of overlap between crime fiction and science fiction. Numerous authors – from Ray Bradbury to Reginald Hill – have tried their hands at both, though there’ve been surprisingly few successful attempts to combine the two genres, the great Philip K Dick always excepted. I’ve always been fascinated by the hinterland between the tw0. I don’t read much science fiction these days, but it was the genre that first really ignited my imagination and made me want to write myself. As a teenager, I was fortunate enough to catch the tail end of the ‘new wave’ of speculative fiction that blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s – Americans such as the extraordinary Samuel Delany and Harlan Ellison, and Brits like Michael Moorcock, J G Ballard, M John Harrison and countless others who seemed to be exploring worlds and ideas that most contemporary fiction had ignored.
The best of these writers have always resisted easy pigeon-holing (hence that rather unhelpful term ‘speculative fiction – is fiction ever not speculative?), and I’m not sure that China Miéville, one of the most interesting of the current younger contingent, really writes science fiction. But then he doesn’t really write fantasy, either. Perhaps he just takes a rather skewed perspective on realism. I was drawn to his most recent book, The City & The City, because it is, in essence, a crime novel set in a world that isn’t quite ours. It’s based on a remarkable conceit, the notion of two cities which occupy the same geographical space, but whose populations must remain forever separated. The respective citizens pass by one another, but learn to ‘unsee’ the people and places that belong to the other metropolis. One of the book’s achievements is that Miéville manages to sustain this idea effectively and convincingly, taking us into its bizarre logic and allowing us to understand and feel the demands it places on those living in this strange but oddly familiar world.
The publishers, predictably enough, invoke the name of Kafka, though the philosophical implications of the setting are perhaps more reminiscent of Borges (or, for that matter, Philip K Dick). It’s difficult not to read the book as a metaphor, perhaps for a Europe which is still coming to terms with post-Soviet reunification, perhaps just for the way that cities always work, with different communities living cheek-by-jowl often oblivious to one another. Certainly, in reading the book, I found myself constantly recalling moments in other, ‘real’ cities – living in East London, walking at night through the former boundary between East and West Berlin, seeing the ger camps clustered round the outskirts of Ulaan Bataar.
As it happens, the ‘crime’ elements of the book are probably its least interesting aspect and the denouement feels a little perfunctory, though Miéville handles the dynamics of the plotting efficiently enough. His real interest seems to be elsewhere, in creating a fictional world which reflects and explores our psychological experiences of city life. The crime element is important, not so much for the McGuffins of the plotting, but because it opens up a further dimension of city life – of enforcement, surveillance and control, and the sense that the city is bigger than any supposed authority. It’s a fascinating book – perhaps not always successful but always ambitious and constantly thought-provoking.