Hugo Best Novel Nominee Review: The City & The City, by China Miéville

I’ve come to be of two minds about China Miéville. On the one hand, he is a powerful writer with a strong, if dark, vision. He does have a fanatical following, including a number of bright people over at Crooked Timber, who have devoted a number breathless group discussions to Miéville’s work. Miéville has the kind of dark world view, and writes a gutsy prose, that seem to appeal to philosophers and other academics, apparently. On the other hand, after a number of books whose outcomes was just unremitting bleakness and despair, I sort of gave up. I never did read Un Lun Dun, or the recent short story collection. Plus he’s written a number of books in dire need of some serious editing (The Scar in particular). So I approached our final Hugo nominee, The City and the City, with some hesitation. And it’s a pleasant surprise, in that it avoids many of the excesses I associate with much of Miéville’s earlier work. In fact, it’s a good, tight, noir murder mystery—that takes place in a city that’s actually a divided city, where the two cities overlap in space and time, but the residents of each have learned to avoid and ignore each other.

It’s a clever concept, and Miéville pulls it off nicely. We learn what the narrator—Police Detective Tyodor Borlú —learns about the case of a murdered archeology student, and as he learns, we also learn about the interactions between the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. It’s all vaguely Balkan, and in some ways reminiscent of Olen Steinhauer’s excellent series of police procedurals in an un-named Eastern European country. Miéville does a fine job of describing the political spheres of each city, and, more importantly, the characteristics of each place—since Borlú has to spend time in each. And it’s complicated. Citizens of each city, including the police forces, have to “unlearn” seeing each other, and interacting with each other. Because violating the borders between the two cities—acknowledging seeing the other city or its residents brings about a “breach,” punishable by a secret force that enforces the duality of the two cities (and are called, coincidentally, the Breach). I like how Miéville integrates the archeology theme very cleverly into the main story.

In fact, I liked the whole book—it’s the most satisfying book by Miéville I’ve read. This is possibly because it’s less ambitious in some ways—by confining himself to the mystery genre, Miéville has had to curb what is an extraordinarily prolific imagination, and it has actually resulted in a tighter, more focused novel than his earlier efforts. It’s not that I didn’t like them—but they were entirely too sprawling. Here, Miéville engages us in a tense story that unfolds with sufficient surprises to keep us guessing. It’s all very satisfying.

So how would I vote on the six nominees this year (voting has closed), if I could still vote? Well, we can dismiss Sawyer’s Wake immediately—how it got here is a bit baffling. Miéville has written an interesting (and manageable) book, but it’s not quite Hugo caliber, although Miéville is hugely popular, with a loyal fan base that might pull this off. He’s also the only British writer nominated. Ditto for Boneshaker, which I admit I quite liked—a very good read. Wilson is one of my favorite authors, but really, this is just a well crafted historical novel in the guise of a future history. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but again, does this make it Hugo caliber? Well, I suspect that’s a possibility, and Hugo voters do like their history, alternative, future or otherwise. Which leaves me with two candidates, one of which is a surprise to me—Palimsest. It’s a totally different kind of book from the others, but that’s certainly not a handicap. And in some ways, it’s the most ambitious concept of all these novels, and I will always give points for ambition. As I said last week, though, I would be very much surprised if Palimpsest does win. Rather, I expect The Windup Girl to be this year’s Hugo best novel winner. Bacigalupi has created a convincing future, populated it with sometimes unpleasant but undeniably interesting and complex characters, written an exciting and complex tale, and left us waiting for the sequel. It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed novel, and would be a worthy winner.

So what should have been nominated, but wasn’t? Well, it’s interesting that Miéville is the only nominee from outside North America, and he’s been nominated several times previously. Sawyer (who has won before) is Canadian, and the others are American. So there are some baffling omissions from Britain. Notable among these are Ken Macleod’s The Restoration Game, Ian Banks’s Transition, and Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit. Any of the above would be comparably compelling nominees. In fact, I have to say I enjoyed reading these three more than pretty much anything on the nominated list, except perhaps for The Windup Girl. It may be that since these were published late in 2009, they didn’t garner enough readers by the time nominations were put forward.

And there are some baffling omissions from America as well. The most noteworthy is Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch, the concluding novel of his Ambergris trilogy (the first two being Cities of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword). This trilogy is a major achievement, and I’m baffled at its being passed over. So my personal list of nominees would have only one of the six that actually were nominated—The Windup Girl. The others would be the four mentioned above.

Hugo voters are an odd lot, and that’s particularly true in the best novel category There have been some odd winners over the years, the most recent being Michael Chabon in 2008 for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Michael Chabon is a science fiction writer? Well, why not? But it’s worth noting that some of the best novelists, and most creative and intelligent thinkers, in the Sci-Fi universe have not fared well here. Ian McDonald has never won a Best Novel Hugo, nor has Charles Stross, nor has Greg Bear, nor has Nancy Kress, nor has Ken Macleod, nor has Ian M. Banks, nor has Bruce Sterling. At least they’ve been nominated for Best Novel, something so far denied Gwyneth Jones, Tim Powers, Elizabeth Hand, Justina Robson, Jeff Vandermeer and Robert Reed, among current writers. There are times when the Hugo nominees leave some of us baffled. So in that respect they’re kind of like the Oscars. At least with the Hugo award, however, you have to have actually accomplished something, which apparently is no longer true of the Oscars.

Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday

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5 replies »

  1. Thanks for this series of reviews; I’ve really enjoyed them. Thanks also for your list of omissions. I’m going to have to add the Ambergris trilogy and Gwyneth Jones’ work to my ever-expanding sf-to-read list.

    I also have been trying to get a handle on the dynamics of Hugo voting. Some of the selections are truly bizarre (it amazes me that the same nominating process could come up with Sawyer’s Wake and Valente’s Palimpsest). And yet, the list of winners is much stronger than I’d expect from such an open voting process that delivers such strange nominations.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. I agree with you about the nominating process–sometimes it makes no sense. Although i do understand how Palimpsest could get nominated–there’s a large contingent of fantasy voters out there. Look how many times Lois Bujold has won Hugos the past decade. (and I admit I did enjoy Palimpsest, although I probably wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been nominated).

    yes, you absolutely have to add Jeff Vandermeer and Gwyneth Jones to the reading list. Jones has been writing great stuff for years. ironically, the stuff she’s best known for, the rock and roll saga or whatever people call it, I think is her weakest. Interesting premise, but preposterous characters.But Spirit was fantastic. The Aleutian trilogy is magnificent too.

  3. Sam’s right. Amazon is usually the best bet for those that are still in print, and places like Abebooks for the ones that aren’t (and even some that are). For chain stores. Borders generally has a superior SF section, for some odd reason, but this will be current stuff, not the older stuff. People always rave about Powell’s, but I’ve never used them.

    Another route, though, is through the author’s website. Some (but not all) authors do this–sell their own books, especially older books. They get a bigger profit, such as it is, when they do this.

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