Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The ones I could see

I'm reading The City and the City by China Miéville at the moment. I'm only about 60 pages in but I already really like it, partly for its clever ideas which are currently just emerging, but also for its languages. Miéville has a linguistics background and this shows in the plot of some books (Embassytown, for example) and the writing in all of them: he's creative and clever and does really unusual things with words. Not that you need to have a linguistics background to be able to do that, but it seems like he really knows what he's doing with language. I don't know, I know nothing about literature, so I can only waffle in an uninformed way on that point. But his sentence structure is so clever sometimes, and in this book the characters are from somewhere in central Europe, so the names are all made up but completely believable, and things like that. I think there was even some zeugma at one point and I really love zeugma. 

[Very slight spoilers follow, maybe? Not sure, I haven't read enough of it myself to know.] 

One thing that made me stop and admire it today was a clever use of could. There are parts of the city that the main character can't see. The sentence that caught my eye was describing some railway arches. He says (my bolding):
Not all of them were foreign at their bases. The ones I could see contained little shops and squats decorated in art graffiti.
At this point in the story, the reader doesn't know what the concept is here. Is it that he was able to see the arches, or that he was permitted to see them? This latter idea is what other events have hinted towards, but so far it could be either. 

This is because can and could (present and past tense respectively) can mean two different things. The first meaning, where he was able to see the arches, illustrates logical modality, or the possibility of him seeing them. The second, where he was permitted to see them, illustrates deontic modality: what is possible within the rules. This is an absolutely lovely use of this ambiguity which allows him not to reveal too much of this conceptual device this early in the story. I'm pretty sure he knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote it that way. 

This ambiguity is also, by the way, why you get smartarses responding to a question like 'Can I go to the toilet?' with 'I don't know, can you?'. 


  1. Great book - one of my favorites from Mieville.

    I didn't know he had a linguistics background. That shouldn't be surprising, but it makes what he does with words that much more interesting. (And now I'm even more irritated at the member of my book club who turned up his nose at the deliberately baroque prose in Perdido Street Station because it's not in the "straightforward E.B. White style.")

    1. I think I'd defriend anyone who said that about a book, especially one of his. I'm not sure what form this background takes but I know he knows his stuff.

  2. Well, this was someone who had equally weird and arbitrary nitpicks about the magnificent Swordspoint and The Player of Games, so I'd learned to consider the source by then.

    That guy knows his stuff on a LOT of subjects. I would not want to get into an academic slapfight with China Mieville.