*Palimpsest by Catherine M. Valente, 2009.
Now, this one is good enough to make it to my current shortlist for Hugo voting. Very impressive piece of writing, great at tangible details, characterization, and large-scale depictions. This is interesting to contrast with Mieville's The City & the City, in which the population makes an elaborate and constant form of mental repression to not notice the other city fantastically embedded in it. In Valente's work, all the characters are obsessed with entering the secluded Other city, gaining access through dreams and seeking permanent immigration.
The concept seems to lend itself to purient voyeurism, but it avoids these pitfalls and delivers an emotionally complex tale. The basic story concerns a group of strangers, each of whom is drawn into obsessive quest of a fantasy city. The titular city has permanent inhabitants, but people in our world can access it only through sexual contact, access to it in dreams is spread by sex between members of the group, who are also marked by a tattoo appearing on the skin, each strand a part of a much larger map. A lot of what develops is how empty and lonely the frequent sexual encounters are, how cold functionalist relationships become.
There's an interesting process across the book, as the characters get more and more obsessive with their interest, and their outer lives are more and more abandoned. It's not entirely depressing because the quest they have isn't just a psychosis, it's a real city, which becomes more fleshed out and interesting. It's not a facile success fantasy, though, because in being fleshed out the setting itself becomes somewhat banal. "This is the real world," one of the characters insists of the magic city at one point, and a lot bears this out. While some of the metaphysics of the city Palimpsest vary it still has largely similar people, with a class structure and internal politics. What this means is there's little reason to assume the characters will be better off in Palimpsest, in a way it's as empty an ambition as thinking relocation from one conventional city to another will make a transcendent improvement.
There are a few awkward points and impracticalities, most of the latter dealing with the ease in which contact with the extraordinary is covered up from the mundanes. As well, it's a disturbing book in a number of ways, with the explicit detail and the larger patterns of emptiness and selfishness it traces. Still, it's a very rewarding engagement with an interesting premise, and it succeeds a lot more than it falters.
Similar to and better than: Gene Wolfe's There Are Doors
Similar to and worse than: China Mieville's The City & the City