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Thursday, 26 April 2018

The City and The City

Last night I finished watching the BBC adaptation of China Miéville's novel THE CITY AND THE CITY on BBC iPlayer and must admit that it left me feeling that I wanted to know more about the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. As to the story being a police procedural set in a semi-fantasy setting ... well I felt that it worked, but it did take a bit of mental effort to follow everything that was happening. (I happen to like dystopian stories, and this certainly fits into that genre.)


The concept of the populations of the twin cities not being able to 'see' each other did seem odd at first, but when I began to think about it, I realised that human beings can do that all the time. For example, in many totalitarian states the population seems to be able to 'not see' things that might be dangerous for them to 'see', and how many times have we each 'not seen' something that was unpleasant or difficult even though it might be blindingly obvious. One only has to consider some of the recent child protection cases that have taken place in the UK to realise that this can happen on a wide scale if the environment is conducive to 'not seeing' something that is inconvenient to acknowledge as existing.

The choice of the names of the twin cities (and the mythical third city) is interesting. As soon as I realised that the twin of Besźel was called Ul Qoma (pronounced Ulcoma), I was struck by the similarity to the word Glaucoma, which is a group of eye diseases that can result in damage to the optic nerve and loss of vision ... the later being something that the populations of both cities seem to collectively suffer from.

The name Besźel put me in mind of the word bezel, which besides being a grove that holds a jewel in place also refers to the facets on a gem and the frame of a TV, computer, or smartphone screen. In the latter case it 'contains' whatever we can see ... which is yet another oblique reference to restricted vision.

The mythical third city is called Orciny, and as soon as I realised how it was spelt, I saw the obvious reference to the word 'orc'. Thanks to the work of J R R Tolkien, I doubt if there are many people who don't have an idea what they are ... hideous humanoid creatures that are part of a fantasy race. Orcs are often portrayed as being underground-living (in THE CITY AND THE CITY to ways into Orciny seem to be through underground passages or tunnels), aggressive, cunning, and capable of working metals. The latter is interesting as part of the story's plot revolves around the discovery of unique metal objects fashioned from a previously unknown alloy.

This was not any easy TV series to watch, but I thoroughly enjoyed doing so. I understand that there might be a follow-up series based around the same characters and the setting, but as the author has not written any further novels as yet that are set in the twin cities, I suspect that this will not come to pass.

It is interesting to note that most of the location filming was done in Liverpool and Manchester. In the series Besźel is depicted as a run-down and dirty place, redolent of Communist-era Eastern Europe and with out-dated technology (the cars all looked like old Russian Ladas), whereas Ul Qoma is far more modern and clean-looking, with up-to-date technology, an almost universal smoking ban, and armed police and soldiers on every street corner.

Two different views of dystopia, both of which worked in their own contexts and in the context of the story.

8 comments:

  1. I'm still half-way through the series but I read the book earlier this year... I can highly recommend it.

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    1. Alastair,

      Having seen the series on TV, I have bought the book to read on my Kindle. I am looking forward to reading it in the near future.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  2. An orc is actually a cetacean we used to call a killer whale (Concise Oxford Dictionary). But of co9urse Tolkien's coinage has practically entered the language, although his precise meaning - orcs are goblins, without exception - hasn't quite taken on.

    Just as it is easy to 'overlook' things seen that one doesn't want to see (much less respond to), it is very easy to miss things as well. Do you REALLY know what goes on behind closed doors and curtained windows?

    That scream in the night - was that someone being stabbed, or did some bare foot land in the dark upon an unregarded LEGO brick? Uncertainty about what one is looking at (or hearing) is a deterrent to positive response, I think. You don't have to be a totalitarian government to exploit that fact.

    Check out the short story. Kurt Vonnegut, "Go Back To Your Precious Wife and Son" (1962) (from 'Welcome to the Monkey House').

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    1. Archduke Piccolo,

      Interestingly I thought that the Tolkien 'orc' was derived from the orcneas (evil spirits) mentioned in BEOWULF and that the Killer Whale was an 'orcinus orca', the only surviving member of the genus of oceanic dolphin known as the Orcinus. To confuse matters, Icelandic Norse - which is linguistically-related to Anglo-Saxon - uses the word 'orkn' for a sea monster, and the Anglo-Saxons referred to the Normans as orks!

      In truth I don't think that the derivation of the word will ever truly be definite, and that the Tolkien 'orc' is the one the general public will accept as correct.

      The concept of looking but not seeing is an interesting one, and one wonders if it is the result of learned rules of social interaction, self-preservation, or some other motive. It may even be the modern human manifestation of the disinterest shown by animals if one of their number is hunted down by a predator. Almost a sort of 'they got them and that means I am safe for now'.

      I'll check out the Vonnegut story. I enjoyed SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and I'm always on the lookout for something a bit different to read.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    1. Lee Hadley,

      I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  4. I must admit I found the first episode lacking, and didn't bother to watch the rest. But there again I'm a die-in-the-wool old school SF fan, and felt that this was an SF story for those who don't like SF.

    That may be me being a bit harsh.

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    1. Ashley,

      I've met several people who have read the book and felt that the TV series was not as good (as we all know, the images are better on radio and when written down) and others - like me - who are now reading the book because we were intrigued by the TV series.

      I suspect that some people - including my wife - who like traditional police procedurals were also disappointed, especially by the use of apparently random flash-backs ... although they weren't too difficult to identify as the main character didn't have a beard in them whilst he did in the 'present day'.

      I don't think that your judgement was harsh. At least you watched the first episode and decided that it wasn't for you. I am sure that there were loads of people who didn't watch just because it was going to be a bit different from the normal cop show.

      All the best,

      Bob

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