The City & the City Review: Beszel

Look! The BBC put a China Mieville thing on television!

I mean, I don’t like The City & the City very much; to me it falls into the group of Mieville’s work that I find dour and affectless (also in this category are Kraken and The Last Days of New Paris).

But! The BBC put a China Mieville thing on television!

It makes sense that it would be The City & the City. Its brand of noir detective story, a cynical investigator struggling against an indifferent and grey-hued world, is common to practically every new TV show that the BBC makes these days. So the familiarity of protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlu is doing, investigating the death of a young woman in possibly tawdry circumstances, offers viewers a way into the strangeness of Mieville’s premise.

Said premise is this: there are two cities, shiny, neoliberal, rich Ul Qoma; and shabby, poor, vaguely Central European Beszel. They occupy the same geographical space – some streets are in Ul Qoma, others in Beszel, and there are some dangerous “crosshatched” areas that are both. Their separateness as cities is maintained by the culturally specific practice of unseeing: there is a powerful taboo against the inhabitants of either city seeing or acknowledging the physical presence of the other city. To break this taboo is to bring down the fearsome and unaccountable organisation that is Breach on the heads of everyone in the vicinity.

One of the things this first episode does very well (I thought so, anyway) is establishing the force of this taboo, the centrality of it to the cultures and the lives of the cities, and how unthinkable it is to most inhabitants of the cities to break it. There’s a great scene near the beginning where an Ul Qoman car swerves into the path of the car of our protagonists, who are in Beszel:

“Did you see that?!”

“That Ul Qoman red car? No, I didn’t!”

Let me qualify that “very well”, actually: I think the dialogue is more effective than the camera work, which signifies the practice of unseeing by blurring out whichever city our inhabitants happen not to be in. This is fine. It does the job. But, and this I think is generally my problem with the whole episode, it flattens the conceptual complexity of Mieville’s unseeing. It does all the work for us, which is very much the opposite of what Mieville’s fiction is generally aiming for. It has all the content and none of the style.

Perhaps necessarily. This is television, after all, and exciting as it is in theory to contemplate Mieville on screen, I’m not sure it’s the right place for him to be: so much of his work is specifically about challenging our reading strategies, about wordplay, about genre conventions. There’s no way for a visual medium to recreate the conceptual richness of novels like Perdido Street Station, or even Railsea.

Perhaps, also, it’s unfair to compare the TV show with the novel, given the differences between the two media. I can’t escape that comparison, though, when the only reason I’m watching The City & the City is because I happen to think the novel’s author is one of the best SFF writers (and writers of the radical left) around today.

So maybe my response is predictable. It’s the same response I have to every first episode of every gritty crime drama I’ve ever watched.

I didn’t mind it. I’m not sure I can be bothered with the rest.

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