The release of the Nebula Award shortlist has set the literary SF & F world a-buzz with talk. Rarely have so many novels of such high calibre been included on its prestigious Best Novel ballot, from Paolo Bacigalupi’s tightly written and deftly plotted The Windup Girl to the searing, evocative and poignant effort from Christopher Barzak with The Love We Share Without Knowing. For me, however, the only novel on this list that I would give the prize to would be China Miéville’s The City And The City.
I don’t say this lightly, either. The other novels on the list are, as is to be expected from the Nebula, among the very best of this year. In Flesh And Fire, Laura Anne Gilman takes a dubious premise for a fantasy novel – one where everything seems to revolve and predicate on the production of wine, and turns it into a compelling narrative that turns much of the traditional literary conventions regarding wizards, magic and other such mainstays of the genre on their heads. It’s both affecting and addictive, a blend of complex characterisation and original thought that keeps the interest of the reader through even an in-depth examination of the fermentation of grapes.
In Boneshaker, Cherie Priest defies what is rapidly becoming a feature of steampunk literature – that it focuses on the descriptive visuals and hinges its plot upon image rather than invention (creating more than a few resigned sighs whenever the latest release from this particular genre lands on my desk) – and turns it into something that keeps the literary aesthetic but invests it with heart and soul.
I’ve already expressed, briefly, my admiration for Paolo Bacigalupi’s release as well as Christopher Barzak’s beautiful paean to love and futility, and of course, Jeff VanderMeer hasn’t disappointed with Finch. Displaying elements of noir and fantasy, once the difficult sentence structure is cracked, it then becomes a wonderful story of the calibre you’d expect from an author of his reputation. His city drips with grimy, world-worn vividness from the ink on the page, while his hardboiled character appeals on so many levels that it’s hard to codify briefly.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for these authors and their sometimes fantastic, sometimes mournful, sometimes inspiring and always creative works. But for me, none of them can trump Miéville’s novel, which I personally regard to be one of the most important releases in science-fiction and fantasy of 2009.
In this, perhaps, I’m set against my own magazine, which awarded it the criminally low rating of three stars. I believe this is incorrect and that it should have easily been given a rare five rating, but I can understand why it has divided some opinion. The book is, after all, an expression of Miéville’s emerging mastery of the Weird. If you skip over sentences then you can miss vital inflections, seemingly innocuous descriptions and inner ruminations of the characters that prove inestimably crucial to understanding the bizarre duality of Beszel and Ul Qoma’s existence, the fractured city and the city of the title. Miéville seems to delight in confusing his readers, while being so absorbed within his created world that it’s all but impossible not to allow yourself to be carried by his wake, drawn along through this exploration of authority, personality and human will.
His characters, too, echo in many ways with a Lynchian dichotomy – the hardboiled Borlu being a prime example. He is a man repressed not by the strict, autodidactical state in which he lives, but by his own supposition that he simply has to follow the conventions laid down by the society he has grown up in, no matter how utterly absurd they may seem. The device of the pseudo-mystical Breach is little more than a metaphor for the forces that drive systems of control in our life – unseen but feared, invisible but omnipresent nevertheless. In many ways, the story isn’t about the murder of Mahalia Geary, but of Borlu learning how to absolve himself of socio-political shackles. Orciny, the mythical and taboo third city, can be seen as the nirvana that this state will eventually reach, but in a typically wry manner it’s revealed to be a fallacy. All that remains once you strip away what it commonly regarded as hierarchical rule is often more of the same, and once you understand that it’s impossible to go back, as Borlu finds to his considerable malaise.
Despite somewhat erroneous inferences of Kafka by those analysing the novel, its true power is in the consummate skill that Miéville demonstrates throughout its page count. A lesser writer would never have been able to keep pace with an idea this complex, or one this unnaturally difficult to project and depict without it slipping into confusion and absurdity. Miéville sometimes treads the line when the action becomes fast-paced, as obviously the slower progression of the vast majority of the novel is better suited to serving the précis. However, he never loses his focus, never jars the reader out of Beszel/Ul Qoma with inconsistencies. It’s a considerable feat and a remarkable achievement for a writer of any field.
Science-fiction as a genre is best served by evolution, as it is an amorphorous beast, one that should never have a defined and fixed structure but one that should constantly adapt and grow. Novels that truly push its boundaries are hard to find, which is why we often end up navel gazing with ill-disguised nostalgia at the heady days of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Anderson, Dick, Ballard, Pohl and Wyndham, stretching further back to Huxley, Zamyatin, Bulgakov, Wells and Verne. Rarely, if ever, do you hear modern authors referred to with the reverence that these names command, but I suspect and I fear that it is because they have become the definition of science-fiction. We need authors like Miéville, the genre is built on books like The City And The City, ones that reach deep within the innermost recesses of the human psyche and don’t just glance, but stare long and hard into the centre of our existential sun. It is an important novel for the SF & F genre, and one that deserves the highest accolades that we can bestow upon it.
Next: The Nebula Awards 2009 Final Ballot in full.