METATROPOLIS  

Edited by John Scalzi  

Subterranean Press   

978-1-59606-238-2  

264pp/$30.00/July 2009  

Metatropolis
Cover by Edward Miller

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


Mankind has organized in cities for more than 5,000 years.  Over that time, cities have grown and adapted as populations increased and technological and social change made their mark.  In Metatropolis, originally conceived as an audio anthology, editor John Scalzi and four other authors apply concepts of community, environmentalism, and technology to describe the future of cities as they continue to change.  These stories take place in virtual cities, ruins of current cities, and a city which more resembles a camp site.

From the moment the mysterious and charismatic Tygre enters the enclave of Cascadia in “In the Forests of the Night,” it is clear that Jay Lake has created a city unlike any that exists in our own worlds.  His anarchic construct is built among the woods of the Pacific Northwest and beneath the mountains in lava tubes.  Just as it isn’t clear to Bashar, the sort-of leader of Cascadia whether Tygre is a threat, it is also unclear to the reader where the real threat is going to come from.  While the story is complete, there are a few loose ends which seemed like they might be left for other authors in the anthology to tie off, but instead are left dangling. 

Unlike many shared worlds, Metatropolis doesn’t have characters shared between stories.  Even when two stories are both set in the same city, as both Bear and Buckell set their tales in a future Detroit, the depiction is different enough that it is only small details that really indicate any shared chronology. In his introductions, Scalzi makes it clear that the world was a collaborative project, and it does show, although mostly in the trappings the characters have to deal with, such as the ubiquitous Edgewater.  For the most part, the authors are creating their own cities.

Reginald maintains a low key job as a bouncer in an all-but-deserted Detroit.  When he is robbed by the barmaid, who takes his savings and leaves, causing the bar to close permanently, he finds himself nearly destitute in Tobias Buckell’s “Stochasti-city.” However, this is a world in which anonymous, seemingly random, temporary jobs are relatively easy to get.  And when several people perform their random acts of employment, they can lead to things actually being accomplished.  In Reginald’s case, he finds himself arrested and refused his payment.  Initially working with Edgewater, the security firm that is mentioned in many of the stories, as he tries to avenge himself on his deadbeat, anonymous employer, Reginald finds himself brought into an organization that sees hope for the decaying city and gives him a target, the Starship Detroit, and purpose for his life.

Both the setting of Detroit and the idea of belonging to something bigger than oneself is carried on in Elizabeth Bear’s “The Red in the Sky is Our Blood.” Bear’s Detroit is not quite as run-down as Buckell’s, and unlike Reginald, Katy has a family to look after.  At least, she has a step-daughter hidden in a high security crèche. Katy hopes the daughter is unattainable by the goons employed by her husband, and her daughter’s natural father, a Eastern European gangster. While Buckell’s Reginald was a loner by nature, Katy keeps to herself from fear that her husband will find her.  Just as Reginald was coopted into the Starship Detroit project, Katy also finds herself coopted into an organization that feels that the ruins and failures of traditional cities can provide the basis for a greener, more communal city.

Moving the action a little to the southwest, John Scalzi populates a walled St. Louis which has some similarities to the city Starship Detroit was trying to build in “Stochasti-city.” “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis.” Focuses on Benjy Washington, a neer-do-well son of a city Executive Councilwoman.  Nearing his twentieth birthday without a job, he finds himself forced to become a pig farmer, overseeing genetically modified pigs in a vertical farm.  For the first time in the anthology, Scalzi allows humor to intrude on the need for survival in an increasingly hostile environment as characters try to save their city and determine what the future should be.

The final story is Karl Schroeder’s “To Hie from Far Cilenia.” Just as Jay Lake had created a city unlike any other for the opening story, Schroeder focuses his attention on the idea of living in a virtual world.  Mixing his virtual world with the real world, Schroeder introduces ideas of community, interaction, and city which are reasonably fluid, although he never quite manages to explain how the events in the virtual world can so directly influence physical objects in the real world, although his comments on ideas developed in the virtual world influencing the real world are quite well thought out. Not just a pointer to his strange world, “To Hie from Far Cilenia” contains two interwoven quests.  The first is a woman looking for her lost son, whose location she might be able to glean from the virtual world.  The other is a hunt for missing Plutonium, in which the clues in the virtual world point to answers in the real world, but in a much less satisfying manner.

Although there are indications that the stories are all set in the same universe, references to Cascadia, Edgewater, and so forth, each story stands completely on its own, without events in one effecting another and no specific characters appearing in multiple stories.  Metatropolis may have been conceived as a shared world anthology, but readers expecting a science fictional Thieves’ World or a project like Medea: Harlan’s World may well be disappointed in the format, rather than the individual stories.  The stories themselves generally work well, although Lake’s “In the Forests of the Night” suffers from having to do the heavy lifting of introducing the concept of the anthology as well as tell a story and Schroeder’s  “To Hie from Far Cilenia” introduces a concept which is far less traditional than anything that comes before it. All five stories work, but especially those two, work far better in a print context where a reader can easily re-read than they did in an audio version.

Jay Lake In the Forests of the Night
Tobias Buckell Stochasti-City
Elizabeth Moon The Red in the Sky Is Our Blood
John Scalzi Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis
Karl Schroeder To Hie from Far Cilenia

 

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