Payoff

Mon Aug 8, 2011

It might be naive to expect your genre fiction to explain itself. Literary, sophisticated genre fiction, especially, will be placed in that category many times by not giving the reader the expected level of information dumping, or payoff, to be found in lowlier and more typical specimens. And I’m ok with this, in general, as a reader.

But China Mieville’s The City and the City, which I have only recently read, did not live up to its failure to pay off. The only thing legitimately interesting about the conceit of the book is its history. The estrangement device is used to tantalize the reader, and there is a built-in level of unspecified political allegory. There are, after all, several real-world examples of cities divided by complex political circumstances; but none in which the schism has been institutionalized. The existence of these two cities would constitute the most salient fact imaginable in our world, even if the technology involved is more naturalistic than it at first seems. The implications for perceptual psychology and the ability of governments to manipulate and control their citizenry would go far beyond the dreams of the most utopian counterinsurgency planner. But the interest of world governments in the divided city seems to be restricted to archaeological smuggling.

The nature of the archaeology seems to warrant comparisons with the hrönir from Borges, and there’s all-too-expected twist in which a guru of liberation and reunion turns out to be a controlling psychopath. The plot tricks you into sympathizing, to a certain extent, with the most authoritarian state apparatus imaginable, and Mieville is a very theory-aware writer. So many of the more obvious readings are built-in.

But it still is a failure in my eyes for the lack of back story. I wanted a specific “as you know, Bob” chapter. I did not want this in Roadside Picnic or even Lem’s The Investigation.