Towards an Impossible Polis: Legal Imagination and State Continuity

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


China Miéville’s The City & The City is set within Besźel and Ul Qoma, two fictional cities that exist within the same physical space. Citizens of both states are legally bound to ‘unsee’ any buildings, infrastructure, and individuals belonging to the ‘other’ city. Analogously, or so I claim, international law also ‘unsees’ political communities that do not conform to its received conceptions of statehood. The result of this real-life unseeing is not coexistence but subordination and neglect. Moreover, even established states can be divested of their status in unjust ways. The threats faced by Small Island Developing States (SIDS) due to climate change provides a recent example. Rising sea levels may cause the shrinking of SIDS land and maritime boundaries, and even their complete submergence. Traditional interpretations of international law suggest that states must possess inhabitable land, such that many SIDS may well be doomed to legal extinction. In this chapter, I attack this view. The City & The City not only illuminates how international law ‘unsees’ particular communities. It also acts as an ‘intuition pump’ for the diverse possibilities that might exist, were international law to exhibit greater legal imagination. Besźel and Ul Qoma might exist in an unconventional and fictional relation to land, but they do so both plausibly and stably. If we can imagine such bizarre arrangements working, why not also imagine states with no relation to inhabitable land at all?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCultural Legal Studies of Science Fiction
Number of pages25
Publication statusPublished - 2024

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