China Miéville counts among the most successful contemporary authors of fantastic fiction in the UK – and many of his striking stories deal with the very essence of our cities. In his novels, the urban environment constitutes more than a mere backdrop to the action: It becomes an acting agent itself. “It is not conscious,” Miéville argues, “but I suppose that is because I am a city creature. I find cities endlessly fecund and inspiring. Living in a city like London, you don’t just get on with your life in a place that happens to be called London. It is a specific thing: living in London. The city intrudes into your life and this, in turn, translates into fiction as a manifestation of character – it is how we experience it.”

(c) taretz / photocase.com
(c) taretz / photocase.com

Take all those cities with a darker side, with a tangible underbelly or alternative space that remains hidden from most regular citizens. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, for example, boasts a whole world that is out of reach to mere mortals, but offers shelter to an alternate populace of monsters and magical creatures. In Miéville’s own fiction, this notion finds an outlet in the world of Un-Lun-Dun, a sort of mirror world and darker sibling to ‘our’ London; a place where all things discarded gather. According to the writer, this is a fictional translation of the ‘urban uncanny.’ “Especially in really old cities there are less regimented and less planned aspects. There are parts of town where the city had centuries to breathe and grow like weeds in the cracks of the cement. It is this counter-city growing up in unexpected ways, giving form to the unclaimable nature of the city in general – a spirit of the unplanned.”

Sometimes, however, this counter-city can be quite physical. Science fiction loves to toy with the idea of cities split apart by ideology and opportunity: Recent examples include the twin cities at opposing ends of the gravitational elevator in Len Wiseman’s Total Recall (2012) or the vertically inverted cities of Juan Diego Solanas’ Upside Down (2012). Both movies depict a clear social dichotomy where one city supplies the exploited work force for its rich counterpart. Miéville’s novel The City & The City also explores a divided city, yet does not draw its boundaries across clear geography or physical space, but borders of ideology and the knack for psychologically “unseeing” the other part of town. “It is based on the absurd idea of borders – that infinitely thin line that can very realistically kill you. On one side of it, your actions are punishable by law, while a few centimeters over you are fine. It is wholly absurd.” Miéville conceptualized a city with permeable boundaries, each side bleeding into the other, to challenge the idea of social and political taboos. “In split cities, people become the vectors of state borders, individual citizens taking with them their statehood as if it encompasses them. The novel is an exaggeration of real-life politics; it is intended as an uncanny extrapolation of the political logic of borders.”

Cover of Embassytown, a novel about living in an alien environment and about our dependence on our surroundings. © Del Rey Books
Cover of Embassytown, a novel about living in an alien environment and about our dependence on our surroundings. © Del Rey Books

In his 2011 novel Embassytown, Miéville took the city to the next level, describing an alien Embassytown where buildings live and breathe in biomimetic unity with their residents. He is, however, wary of interpreting too much into such utopian visions of future cities. “I love those blue-sky utopian ideas, giant cities under the water, nanobots building little neighborhoods, cities on rails – love it. But when we really talk about the future of the city, we need to talk about the political, social, and economic future of people living in the city.” And futurology, he argues, is not the same as writing a science fiction story. “If we take a moment and ask: How do we get there? That’s when the real world intrudes.” And that’s when it all stops being science fiction.

Text: Lars Schmeink
Header image: The duality of The City & The City © Rene Fijten