METAtropolis edited by John Scalzi
It’s not a utopia. It’s just maybe something that sucks a little less.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it turns out that all those eco-freaks were right all along. We humans destroyed the planet and now we’ve got to live with the mess we’ve made. Many world governments, including the U.S., have been essentially dismantled and large, mostly independent and self-governing city-states have taken their place.
Under the direction of John Scalzi, the story authors — Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder, and Scalzi himself — got together to map out their new post-apocalyptic world and their goals for METAtropolis. (Scalzi gives insight into some of this during the introductions to each story in the audiobook version.) Thus, though the stories are set in different locales and use different characters, the history and rules are the same, and they sometimes even reference each other. This sounds like a terrific idea, and indeed the focus on collaboration is evident. I liked that some concepts, such as “turking”, are introduced and explained in one story, then used again in a later one.
So what about the stories?
“In the Forests of the Night” by Jay Lake: After the collapse of the United States government, The Cascadian Independence Project is finally thriving and is populated by Silicon Valley techies who are more interested in being green than in venture capitalism. They live in holes in the ground, develop new technologies, and just want to be left alone to live together cooperatively. Their lives are disrupted when a messiah figure shows up.
I love Jay Lake’s style — character-driven, detailed, lush — and I enjoyed the setting of Cascadia — the swath of rich forest land in the Pacific Northwest. But this story didn’t hold together for me. The inclusion of the messiah figure was confusing and had no relation to the rest of the stories. Also, since a lot of this new world’s background (e.g., oil crunch, resource drain, etc.) was provided in this story, there’s quite a lot of exposition (about how we humans have destroyed the world) to suffer through. This got old pretty quickly because the green anti-capitalism messages were just too heavy-handed. However, the audio production of this story was excellent and Michael Hogan is a terrific reader.
Tobias Buckell’s story, “Stochasti-City,” set in Detroit, was much better. At least there was a coherent story and an interesting main character here. Reginald is just looking out for himself, but when he takes a risky high-paying turking job, he gets involved with some anti-automobile eco-terrorists. I enjoyed this character and some of the ideas that Buckell presents, though all of the anti-whatever themes were starting to grate. Again, another nice reading, this one by Scott Brick.
Elizabeth Bear’s “The Red in the Sky is Our Blood” is also set in Detroit and complements Buckell’s story. I think this story was supposed to be hopeful, as it imagined a way that like-minded people might live and work together for their common good, but I just found it bleak and depressing. In Elizabeth Bear’s character’s own words: “It’s not a utopia. It’s just maybe something that sucks a little less.” This story was read by Kandyse McClure who does a good job.
John Scalzi tells a light-hearted story that, for the first time in this collection, was entertaining in its own right. That is, its plot and characters weren’t over-shadowed by the message. Benjy, who lives in New St. Louis, has waited until the last minute to get his job and is in danger of being exiled. The city government assigns jobs, but because Benjy is a slacker and didn’t do so well on his aptitude tests, he gets stuck doing the worst job in the city. The reader, Alessandro Guiliani, had Benjy down perfectly and “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis” was very funny. I laughed aloud often and finally felt like I wasn’t wasting my time with METAtropolis.
Stefan Rudnicki, who I completely adore, read Karl Schroeder’s “To Hie from Far Celenia,” but that’s not the only reason I liked it. Here we learn that people of post-apocalyptic Earth are starting to deal with life by retreating into virtual worlds that have their own economies and constantly shifting world maps. Some people do this for fun (perhaps they never got over the steampunk fad and they still want to wear paisley and pocket watches, for example) and some do it for other reasons… I enjoyed the world-building in this story and it stretched my brain more than the previous tales did. Also, the future evolution we experience in this story is the one that seems most likely to me, and there were a few ideas that truly fascinated me, such as the autistic Cyranoid.
All in all, I loved the premise of METAtropolis, the authors did a great job with their collaboration, and the production, by Brilliance Audio, was excellent. However, I only truly enjoyed half of the collection because, until John Scalzi’s story, I just got tired of reading about climate change, zero footprint, carbon load, globalization, resource drains, big-capital, etc. These anti-everything messages aren’t new and interesting ideas anymore, and they were just too heavy-handed for greedy humans like me.
Metatropolis is an interesting book, to say the least: in addition to being a “shared world” anthology, featuring stories from five authors working in the same “collectively-constructed” future setting, it’s also (as far as I know) unique in that it was released first as an audio book (reviewed below by Kat) and only subsequently as a traditional “paper” book, first as a limited edition by Subterranean Press, and now in a shiny new edition by Tor.
The concept of the book’s shared world is equally interesting: due to environmental change and political upheaval, the idea of national government has been superseded by something akin to city states, often self-governed or in partnership with other cities across the world, while outside the city walls the situation may be more similar to what you’d find in a post-apocalyptic novel. Each of the five stories collected in Metatropolis explores the concept of what such a city or society might be like in interesting, different and (mostly) successful ways.
If you’re not sold yet, the list of authors reads like a veritable All Star team of current, interesting SFF authors: Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder and John Scalzi, who also served as editor for the entire project.
“In the Forests of the Night” by Jay Lake opens Metatropolis with a powerful story about a mysterious and charismatic stranger arriving in Cascadiopolis — a hidden city situated in the Cascades area that stretches from Portland up to Vancouver. As the first story in the anthology, it unfortunately bears the burden of having to include some world-building information, which is (more or less gracefully) handled by including extracts from economics and sociology texts that draw up the anthology’s shared world future in a few quick strokes. Passing over those necessary info dumps, you’ll find a beautiful story, effectively displaying a number of different perspectives, written in gorgeous, dense prose that just begs to be reread. The story lays on the William Blake a bit too thickly — the main character’s name Tygre is one thing, but naming part of the city Symmetry was a bit much for me. Still, filled with characters that have the raw power of archetypes, this is nothing short of an excellent story. (Four stars.)
Tobias Buckell‘s entry, with the groan-inducing title “Stochasti-City”, switches us over to a drastically changed Detroit, and to Reginald, an ex-military bar bouncer who becomes involved in a unique urban rebellion. The story has a not-quite-here-yet future realism that reminded me of Cory Doctorow, with several elements that seem as if they could be happening today — but not quite. I enjoyed Reginald’s story of gradual personal awakening, the more subtly handled world-building touches, and especially the sense of real social change occurring in the story. (Three stars.)
Next up is Elizabeth Bear‘s “The Red in the Sky is our Blood,” the gripping story of Cadence Grange and her not-quite-stepdaughter Firuza. It describes another unique social experiment, cleverly hinted at in Tobias Buckell‘s story, and also refers back to the Cascades setting of “In the Forests of the Night,” which pulls the entire anthology so far into a coherent whole and helps its fictional world become more real. This story also contains the most beautiful prose in the entire anthology (which is saying a lot, given that it also features Jay Lake). Just read this gem of a sentence: “Cadie could picture the conversation like intersecting fingers, locked at the base but pointing in incompatible directions, pushing against one another.” (Four stars.)
John Scalzi‘s story “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis” (which, I believe, is Latin for “Look, I’m smart and know impressive quotes”) just didn’t work for me. Its protagonist Benjamin has the smarmy, sarcastic sense of humor of almost every character in the author’s novels, and the plot, involving a slacker forced into gross manual labor, somehow manages to be improbable at first and predictable towards the end. It also involves large amounts of pig excrement. There are some interesting looks at people living in a city-based society, contrasted effectively with life outside in the wilderness, but aside from this, I could have done without it. Still, if you generally enjoy John Scalzi‘s style and sense of humor, you will probably like this story too. (One star.)
Thankfully, Karl Schroeder‘s “To Hie from Far Cilenia” closes out Metatropolis with a sizzling mind-bender of a story about technology-enhanced “virtual” levels of society that overlay — and influence — everyday reality. The ending rattles a bit, but there are enough stunning ideas (cyranoids!) to make “To Hie from Far Cilenia” a story that’s almost impossible to summarize, but also one you’re guaranteed to remember for a long time. (Four stars.)
Taken all together, Metatropolis is a unique and mostly high quality collection of connected stories by some of today’s most exciting authors. On one level, the anthology has an important and relevant message about the state of our present society and the direction we’re heading in. On another, it’s just a great read with some truly memorable stories. Check it out.
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