Technologies and Timestamping

Miéville is consistently coy about the physical reality of his split cities. There are indicators that they are, in fact, physically overlapping, as the the words grosstopical and crosshatch indicate – and, yet at other times the indication is that they never actually overlap, and are divisions of a single city, kept apart by bureaucracy, tradition, law enforcement and unseeing alone. This vagueness is one of the most intriguing point of Miéville’s novel, as the reader constantly shifts his or her perspective, willing the narrator (or author) to “slip up” – for Miéville to accidentally or on purpose let Inspector Borlú slip out of his highly ingrained psychological division of the two cities and the societal avoidance of questioning their state – accidentally revealing the “true” state of the split cities, i.e. confirming or denying the existence of any magical or otherwise unrealistic conceits.

However, Miéville is sly, conniving, and plays around with his reader. On one page he will situate his world in our world, mentioning Harry Potter (as a popular fiction series, not as a person), the very much existing organisation UNESCO, diplomatic connections to the US and Canada, for so on the next page describe the mysterious, shadowy Breach – that intangible, undocumented force which acts as a menacing, but necessary bogeyman, keeping the inhabitants of Besźel and Ul Qoma in check, that is, within their strictly delineated geographical or societal parameters.

This uneasiness between Besźel and Ul Qoma suggests the cities as an East and West Berlin with walls created by fear, tradition, societal acceptance and bureaucracy, and Besźel-Ul Qoma as a magical place of multiple layers – a Google Map in real life, if one will, where Besźel and Ul Qoma, like filters, overlay one another in the same spaces. I do not think it is accidental that Miéville mentions Harry Potter, in which a combination of memory manipulation and a magic of seeing and not seeing, creates spaces that only those who are permitted to, can see . The prime example of this is, of course, the Black family house at 12 Grimmauld Place, which materialises (albeit in a physical manner), once a person has read a piece of paper on which an authority permits him or her to view the house.

Of course, Harry Potter and The City & The City are hardly comparable. Nonetheless, the positing of something almost plausible because so detailed, in an otherwise starkly real and self referential world, causes the same kind of “what if” thought pattern in the reader. And with Miéville, it gets even more interesting when he starts mentioning the internet, and “Googling”.

The use of the term Googling, and mentions of various technologies, is interesting because such vocabulary can, usually deliberately on the author’s part (a prime example is William Gibson’s Spook Country), be used to time-stamp fiction. Most of the technologies Miéville mentions – data mining, webcams, world wide web, are common enough throughout the late nineties and 2000s that there is no definite conclusion (almost definitely purposefully). What’s more, the technology at use in Besźel, Inspector Borlú’s dial-up connection, is self-consciously referred to as outdated – probably in comparison to similar technologies in Ul Qoma.

The term “Googling” has been around since at least 1998, and had definitely entered the Western vernacular by 2002, when it was referenced on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So the term itself is not, perhaps, the most accurate as a time stamp, given the extraordinary development of technology, and particular the general use of digital and satellite maps in the period from 1998 to 2010, when the novel was published.


Miéville’s mentions and Integration of  technology in his cities simultaneously does and does not support the theory that Ul Qoma and Besźel are a  non-magical/non-surrealist place(s). The novel itself, as mentioned, is self-consciously aware of technology, of it’s use, it’s placements. There is a distinct flavour of recent past, a timestamp at disconnect from the publication date stamped in the front matter of the novel itself. As Inspector Borlú states, it “is the 21st century” (161), and there are several indications that though the technologies of Besźel might not be quite up to speed with the books’s publication date, those in Ul Qoma might be closer. Written and published a full 10 years after selective availability was turned off, half a decade after Google maps, several years after smartphones started becoming ubiquitous with their map applications, and certainly a long time after GPS navigation systems had replaced paper maps on most long (and many short) car journeys.

However, regardless of the time stamping element, even mentioning such technologies raises questions of the digital realities of the Miéville’s split cities.

There is a sense in which, with the spatial turn and modern technology looming in the background of almost every intended reader’s mind, the universe Miéville has constructed becomes simultaneously more and less sustainable as these technologies advance, bringing with them a different set of perceptions of space and place – different assumptions, different actions, different relationships to location.

As discussed in the “Geolocating Beszel & Ul Qoma” section, hypothetically situation this split universe in a data saturated, tagged, and networked time and environment, one can imagine that through tools we are all too familiar with today such as extensive blocking and government map control, the division could be upheld even more rigorously as it is as it appears in Miéville’s novel. Using the same technology that cuts of signal from a smart phone as soon as one crosses a border, each map could be networked to exist in the network of one city or the other, rather than the geographical area of both.

Though thought experiments such as this and others conducted on this site do not create conclusive interpretations of any text, situation, or cultural mindset, they are tools in an exploration of how existing in an environment saturated with various mapping, tagging, networking and location technologies can affect, and even significantly change, interpretations of literature, as well as of one’s own surroundings, and what beginning discourse there exists to start interpreting these changes.  

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