“Man does not live by words alone; all ‘subjects’ are situated in a space in which they must either recognize themselves or lose themselves, a space which they may both enjoy and modify.”
– Henri Lefebvre
I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy (mostly the latter), thanks to Ed‘s massive book collection. We used to go to the mall just to visit Waldenbooks, and back in those days we could spend fifty dollars and come out of the store with an impressive stack of shiny, new paperbacks from Del Rey, Tor, and smaller, more obscure presses ($3.95 or $4.95 a book, can you imagine? If not, I’m over here waving my cane and screaming at you to get off my lawn.). My brother used to joke that I read more of his books than he did, and I was that annoying little sister that was always absconding with a promising read and pestering my sib to buy the latest sequels. In retrospect, I dread to think about how much money was spent on trite storylines involving horses, noble quests, and tomboy heroines, but I like to think that I earned myself a broad exposure to SF&F by discriminating little between very different authors: the pun-loving, pervy irreverence of Piers Anthony one month, the Arthurian reimaginings of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Stephen Lawhead another; series by Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, and Tad Williams forming a memorable core around which forgettable reads clustered, like the Dragonlance novels of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and books by Dennis L. McKiernan, R.A. Salvatore, and Julian May. To this day, I’m still a fan of Elizabeth Moon and Mercedes Lackey (and yes, even the horses… I mean, companions).
I’m admittedly not as well versed in science fiction, though I remember being quite dazzled by stories we read in high school astronomy, introducing concepts like dark matter and stellar parallax as well as theories like the one that the universe is expanding like a giant soap bubble. Meanwhile, a friend has been singing the praises of Perdido Street Station, and Brian has been making his way through this year’s John W. Campbell Award nominees, including Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and China Mieville’s The City & The City. So after my advisor Charis recommended that I read The City & The City as a potential way to complicate my thinking about virtual environments, I readily agreed: dissertation research without footnotes!
I won’t spoil the book for those who may still want to read it, but I will say I was intrigued by the idea of two overlapping cities sharing the same physical space but otherwise rigidly separated in terms of habits of perception. The book reads quite easily as a commentary on any form of balkanization, whether national, religious, or cultural. It also brings to mind Foucault’s work on the internalization of authoritarian forms of discipline and Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, to which Mieville’s book gives a kind of fictional life. It was, after all, Lefebvre who said: “What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and links it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?” The City & The City models Lefebvre’s triad of perceived-conceived-lived space and his distinctions between the scene and the obscene via its characters’ rigorous adherence to the seen and the unseen. But it doesn’t take Mieville’s imaginative exercise to witness the same careful “unseeing” of people and places in the real world–in urban ghettos, war zones, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and on, and on, and on.