I read Between the City and the City for a while, but stalled. The combination of textual and historic minutiae and tendentious therefores was wearing. I watched Ul Qoman television. There were more feature films than on Besź TV, it seemed, and more and louder game shows, all a channel-hop or two from newsreaders listing the successes of President Ul Mak and the New Reform packages: visits to China and Turkey, trade missions to Europe, praise from some in the IMF, whatever Washington’s sulk. Ul Qomans were obsessed with economics. Who could blame them?
“Why not, Corwi?” I took a map and made sure all of my papers, my policzai ID, my passport and my visa were in my inside pocket. I pinned my visitor’s badge to my lapels and went into the cold.
Now there was the neon. All around me in knots and coils, effacing the weak lights of my far-off home. The animated yammering in Illitan. It was a busier city than Besźel at night: now I could look at the figures at business in the dark that had been unseeable shades until now. I could see the homeless dossing down in side streets, the Ul Qoman rough sleepers that we in Besźel had had to become used to as protubs to pick our unseeing ways over and around.
I crossed Wahid Bridge, trains passing to my left. I watched the river, that was here the Shach-Ein. Water — does it crosshatch with itself? If I were in Besźel, as these unseen passersby were, I would be looking at the River Colinin. It was quite a way from the Hilton to Bol Ye’an, an hour along Ban Yi Way. Aware that I was crisscrossing Besźel streets I knew well, streets mostly of very different character than their Ul Qoman topolgangers. I unsaw them but knew that the alleys off Ul Qoma’s Modrass Street were in Besźel only, and that the furtive men entering and emerging from them were customers of the cheapest Besź prostitutes, who if I failed to unsee them I might have made out as miniskirted phantoms in that Besźel darkness. Where were Ul Qoma’s brothels, near what Besźel neighbourhoods? I policed a music festival once, early in my career, in a crosshatched park, where the attendees got high in such numbers that there was much public fornication. My partner at the time and I had not been able to forebear amusement at the Ul Qoman passersby we tried not to see in their own iteration of the park, stepping daintily over fucking couples they assiduously unsaw.
I considered taking the subway, which I never had (there is nothing like it in Besźel), but it was a good thing to walk. I tested my Illitan on conversations I overheard; I saw the groups of Ul Qomans unsee me because of my clothes and the way I held myself, double-take and see my visitor’s mark, see me. There were groups of young Ul Qomans outside amusement arcades that rang with sound. I looked at, could see, gasrooms, small vertically oriented blimps contained within integuments of girders: once urban crow’s nests to guard against attack, for many decades now architectural nostalgias, kitsch, these days used to dangle advertisements.
There was a siren I quickly unheard, of a Besź policzai car, that passed. I focused instead on the locals moving quickly and without expression to get out of its way: that was the worst kind of protub. I had marked Bol Ye’an on my street map. Before coming to Ul Qoma I had considered travelling to its topolganger, the physically corresponding area of Besźel, to accidentally glimpse that unseen dig, but I would not risk it. I did not even travel to the edges where the ruins and park trip over tinily into Besźel itself. Unimpressive, people said, like most of our antique sites: the large majority of the great remnants were on Ul Qoman soil.
Past an old Ul Qoman edifice, though of European style, I — having planned this route — stared down a slope the length of Tyan Ulma Street, heard distantly (across a border, before I thought to un-hear) the bell of a tram crossing the street in Besźel a half mile in front of me in the country of my birth, and I saw filling the plateau at the street’s end under the half-moon the parkland, and ruins of Bol Ye’an.
Hoardings surrounded them, but I was above and could look down over those walls. An up-down treed and flowered landscape, some parts wilder, some coiffed. At the northern end of the park, where the ruins themselves were, what looked at first like a wasteland, was scrub punctuated with old stones of fallen temples, canvas-covered walkways linking marquees and prefab office buildings in some of which lights were still on. Ground showed the marks of digging: most of the excavation was hidden and protected by tough tents. Lights dotted and shone down at the winter-dying grass. Some were broken, and shed nothing but excess shadow. I saw figures walking. Security guards, keeping safe these forgotten then remembered memories.
In places the park and the site itself were edged right up to its rubble and boscage by the rear of buildings, most in Ul Qoma (some not) that seemed to jostle up against it, against history. The Bol Ye’an dig had about a year before the exigencies of city growth would smother it: money would breach the chipboard and corrugated iron boundary, and with official expressions of regret and necessity, another (Besźel-punctuated) block of offices would rise in Ul Qoma.
I traced on my map the proximity and route between Bol Ye’an and the offices of Ul Qoma University used by Prince of Wales Archaeology Department. “Hey.” It was amilitsya officer, his hand on the butt of his weapon. He had a partner a pace behind.
“What are you doing?” They peered at me. “Hey.” The officer at the rear pointed at my visitor’s sign.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m interested in archaeology.”
“The f*ck you are. Who are you?” Finger click for papers. The few unseeing Besź pedestrians crossed without probably being conscious that they did so to the other side of the street. There is little more unsettling than nearby foreign trouble. It was late, but there were some Ul Qomans close enough to hear the exchange, and they did not pretend not to listen. Some stopped to watch.
“I’m...” I gave them my papers.
“Tye Adder Borlo.”
“More or less.”
“Police?” They stared all confused at me.
“I’m here assisting the militsya with an international investigation. I suggest you contact Senior Detective Dhatt of the Murder Team.”
“Fuck.” They conferred out of my hearing. One radioed something through. It was too dark to take a shot of Bol Ye’an on my cheap cell phone camera. The smell of some heavy-scented street food reached me. This was increasingly the prime candidate for the smell of Ul Qoma.
“Alright, Inspector Borlú.” One of them returned my documents.
“Sorry about that,” his colleague said.
“It’s quite alright.” They looked annoyed, and waited. “I’m on my way back to the hotel anyway, officers.”
“We’ll escort you, Inspector.” They would not be deterred.
When Dhatt came to pick me up the next morning, he said nothing beyond pleasantries when he came into the dining hall to find me trying “Traditional Ul Qoman Tea,” which was flavoured with sweet cream and some unpleasant spice. He asked how the room was. Only when I had finally got into his car and he lurched away from the kerb faster and more violently than even his officer the previous day had done did he say to me finally, “I wish you hadn’t done that last night.”
China Miéville is a science fiction and fantasy writer. He was born in Norwich in 1972, studying Social Anthropology at Cambridge University and gaining a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics in 2001. His first novel was King Rat (1998), a dark fantasy relocating the Pied Piper to contemporary London. His second, Perdido Street Station (2000), is the first set in the city of New Crobuzon, and won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction and a 2001 British Fantasy Award. Two further books in this series are the British Fantasy award-winning The Scar (2002) and Iron Council, winner of a further Arthur C. Clarke Award. His other books include The City & The City (2009), an existential thriller, winner of a further Arthur C. Clarke Award, Hugo Prize and World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. It was followed by a further four works of fiction, including The Last Days of New Paris (2016). China Miéville is also Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Warwick University and an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College School of Law.
so-far reads is a companion column to so-far's current biannual Issue that presents extracts of recommended further reading. The City & the City by China Miéville is a science-fiction murder mystery that takes place in two separate cities that occupy the same space. It can be purchased on Amazon.