China Miéville's newest book, The City & the City, is a departure for him: Rather than like his earlier novels, which take place on worlds with different cultures and languages than ever existed on Earth, City takes place largely in the Eastern Europe of our own world—Chuck Palahniuk and Google both make cameo appearances in the novel. There's only one drastic difference: Inspector Tyador Borlú, the protagonist, lives in a city named Beszel that shares physical space with another city, Ul Qoma. The strict border between the two cities—the line that divides religious, legal, and cultural attributes—is an existential one, and the cities are only separated by perception, making the novel a crime story with a science-fiction twist. I met with Miéville at Book Expo America to discuss the influences on his book, his feelings about multiculturalism, and why geeks need to stop seeing bad films.
I detected a really heavy Philip K. Dick influence in this book. Did you read a lot of his work to prepare for The City & the City?
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I've always been a fan of his, and he's always loomed very big for me. But in this particular book, my influences were more Eastern European urban writing—depictions of Prague and Budapest and writers from Middle and Eastern Europe cross-fertilized with classic noir and post-noir writing. On a conscious level, I'd say that Dick was not a huge touchstone for this book. But that said, if you're a fan of his, he becomes so definitional to your mind that you never see outside him. He's like a pair of glasses. You don't notice him because you're seeing through him.
Did you read a lot of Cold War–era authors to develop the relationship between the cities?
Mostly I read authors like Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Alfred Kubin. More kind-of high-modernist stuff, a prewar up through the war sort of period.
I heard that you turned this book in at the same time that you turned in another book that was much more similar to your earlier work. Is that true?
I was writing a book that was a big fat urban fantasy much more closely flavored like Perdido, which was the book I was contracted for. At the same time I'd been writing [City] sort of on the down low. I'd been writing it as a present for my mum, because she was a crime reader. My mum was very ill—she was dying—and I wanted to write a book she would love. The stuff I normally wrote wasn't really her genre, so I wanted to write something that was completely faithful to her preferred protocols. So I hope it's a classic crime novel as well as the other things I bring to it.
Issues of multiculturalism always seem very present in your books, but perhaps because it takes place in a world like ours, they seemed extra important to this book. Did you explore European multiculturalism for this book?
I'm interested in the growing tendencies of multiculturalism in Eastern Europe. There are some fascinating issues like the growing, but still tiny, group of Poles of African heritage. There's always been the idea of, if not quite homogeneity, then the idea of hermeticism of culture. It was always a crass and ideological model, but it's not strictly a lie. It's like racism. Racism is bullshit, but it's very strong as a social logic, unfortunately. The projected monoculture is a very powerful piece of ideological social logic, and it's also a lie. So what I was interested in with the book was making these two cities that are very concerned with their own kind of cultural and political identity, and distinguish them from each other but treat them as realistic modern cities that do not have internally homogenous populations. With a book like this, there's a danger of getting into a narrowly allegorical reading where City A represents this and City B represents the other. I really didn't want to do that. There's a lot of metaphoric resonance, but they're not reducible by reference to some sort of master code. They are also themselves. The intent is to make them as realistic individual cities as possible, and that means including minorities. I blather but you get the idea.
This being a book about a cop in a fictional legal system, I was impressed at the structure of the laws—both cities seem as though every bylaw is somehow in your head, and each city's legal system is very different from the other. How did you devise these systems?
I find it more interesting to think in terms of laying out the parameters of your setting rather than subordinating your setting to the exigencies of the narrative. I did a lot of research into the shape of police forces in various Eastern European and European countries. It's very easy to treat research as a kind of bulwark against doing anything else, but I didn't want to make the nuts and bolts of either legal system unbelievable because these are supposed to be plausible modern states in the early 21st century with modern—if very different—police forces.
Do you think you'll be revisiting these cities in the future?
I might do it. I need to let the dust settle on this book a little bit. But this book has a secret subtitle. I wanted it to be called The City & the City: The Last Inspector Borlú Mystery. I was told by my publisher in no uncertain terms that I wasn't allowed to do this and it would've been confusing to reader. Fair enough. But I do perceive it as the last book in a series, and whether that means going back and doing prequels or doing whatever else, I like the places I create and I never close the door on going back to them.
I've heard that you were a Buffy fan, and I wanted to ask you how you felt about the announcement that they would be remaking the original Buffy movie.
Good lord! I hadn't heard about this.
It's not related to the TV show and Joss Whedon [the creator of Buffy] is not involved.
He isn't involved? What I suppose I would say is my alarm bells are ringing. Never underestimate the sheer crassness of Hollywood. It'll probably suck. But you know, how about we don't go to see it?
I don't think that will work in geek culture.
I know, but I'm trying to propagate this as a meme in geek culture. How about we don't go and see it and don't talk about it incessantly? Because it's just shit. How about we don't go see Transformers: Rise of the Fuckin' Whatevers and then complain about how Michael Bay fucked up our favorite franchise? Because you know what? He's Michael Bay! Of course he did! Let's not go there.
I think that's a great idea, but I don't know how it's gonna take off.
You gotta help me viral it. Let's Not Go. LNG.
I tried to start that with the new Terminator movie.
Don't see it! It was the Star Wars, the new three that did it for me. I saw the first one, and I said I'm not going to go to the others. There. It's done. I've stuck with it to this day. There's enough really, really good stuff out there to not waste your time on things that you know are going to be shit. Let's not go.
You should make a website.
Letsnotgo.com. That's a brilliant idea. You could have reviews by people who haven't seen it explaining why you shouldn't go, and the review could be simply based on the publicity machine.
An anti–Ain't It Cool News.
Yeah, exactly! Ah, that's genius! Okay. We'll talk, we'll talk. If we do nothing but propagate Let's Not Go, our work here is done.