This I Know I Think
Life on the verge of understanding
May 2, 2018 Categories: books. No Comments on Current reading

I’ve recently discovered the Jackson Lamb novels written by Mick Herron. So far there are five in the series, and I’m devouring them at a rate of knots. I’ve just finished number three, Real Tigers and will start on the fourth soon. I’m taking a break to read The City & The City by the delightfully named China Miéville, who I understand wrote the novel as an example of the “police procedural” genre for his dying mother, who was a fan of that particular style. It has a really interesting and unusual setting at its heart. From Wikipedia:

The City & the City takes place in the fictional European cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. The precise location of these cities is not described. These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens (and the threat of the secret power known as Breach), they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully “unsee” (that is, consciously erase from their mind or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city – even if they are an inch away. This separation is emphasised by the style of clothing, architecture, gait, and the way denizens of each city generally carry themselves. Residents of the cities are taught from childhood to recognise things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is called “breaching” – a terrible crime for the citizens of the two cities, even worse than murder. The origin of this odd situation is unclear, as it started at an uncertain time in the past, perhaps before recorded European history. Residents of the cities speak different languages that use distinct alphabets, but that nonetheless have a common root and share a degree of mutual intelligibility.

This idea of a single city being perceived quite differently by the inhabitants of each virtual environment is new to me, although I guess the concept is universally true in that we all will have a different sense of the place we live. But The City & The City goes further than that. From Wikipedia again:

The twin cities are composed of crosshatched, alter, and total areas. Total areas are entirely in one city, the city in which the observer currently resides.

Alter areas are completely in the other city, and so must be completely avoided and ignored. Between these are areas of crosshatch. These might be streets, parks or squares where denizens of both cities walk alongside one another, albeit “unseen”. Areas that exist in both cities usually go under different names in each one. There is also Copula Hall, “one of the very few” buildings which exists in both cities under the same name. Rather than being cross-hatched, it essentially functions as a border. It is the only way in which one can legally and officially pass from one city to another. Passing through the border passage takes travellers, geographically (or “grosstopically”), to the exact place they started from – only in a different city.

Whilst it’s helpful to have this explanation of the novel’s setting, the reader is pretty well left to her own devices to work it out. That’s a new one on me, and adds to the interest in reading the book.

The City & The City was made into a serial by the BBC. F and I have recorded it to watch, but only after I’ve finished reading the book!

Back to Jackson Lamb. The essence of the series is that JL is a British MI5 officer who, along with a number of other spooks, has been assigned to Slough House, which is effectively a home for officers who have messed up in the past but, for one reason or another, can’t be sacked. The name of the building gives rise to an epithet used by the “real” spies to describe the “failures: “slow horses”, which is also the title of the first book in the series. The books are well written and, for me at least, pretty well unputdownable. Although I’m very happy to be reading The City & The City in a sense it’s also helping to spin out my reading of the Jackson Lamb series, and so deferring the day when I will have come to the end of the current set. That’s another sign of a good read, I think.

Both highly recommended.

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