REVIEW – The City & The City (2009) By China Mieville
THE ZONE has my (epic) review of China Mieville’s Arthur C. Clarke and British Science Fiction Association-award winning novel The City & The City.
A brilliant idea dragged behind a donkey-cart of a plot.
Re-reading my review, I was struck by the similarities between Mieville’s book and the book I am currently reading : You Are Not A Gadget – A Manifesto (2010) by Jaron Lanier. The opening chapter of Lanier’s book warns of the perils of what he calls ‘lock-in’, which is a kind of technological reification whereby arbitrary design choices made early on in the development of a technology then come to define that technology because by the time a better design comes along, it is impossible to re-engineer the entire conceptual architecture of the technology.
The example Lanier uses is MIDI – a technology that handles digital music from the viewpoint of a keyboard player. To whit, notes are static entities and are related to each other by going one up a scale or one down a scale. Unfortunately, not all musical instruments work in such obviously digital terms as pianos, for example violins and trombones (as well as the human voice) allow a smooth progression up and down the scale. They are not naturally ‘stepped’. However, because MIDI is now locked-in to the way computers handle music, music software that does deal with non-stepped instruments is necessarily based around a fudge – the smoothing out of a musical scale which, conceptually, is all about going up one step to one note and down a step to another note.
This seems to me quite analogous to Mieville’s view of culture – The characteristics that make up the shared conceptual and linguistic references that make up a culture are ultimately arbitrary but we treat them as though they are locked-in. Locked-in by time, by our sense of identity and our will. The City & The City‘s wider conceptual point is, it seems to me, that culture is never locked in. We simply believe it is. We convince ourselves that it is but the truth is that the potential for radical (revolutionary?) change is always present.