Review: Metatropolis

Metatropolis
Edited by Jack Scalzi
Rating on an arbitrary 5-point scale: 4 out of 5

Metatropolis is a science fiction anthology exploring, as it claims, the “future of cities”.  That’s not strictly accurate. It’s really a collection of stories that explore the question: If we as a species are going to survive the mistakes of our forebears (particularly ecological mistakes), what will human society have to look like?  It’s pretty clear that we won’t be able to ratchet up world living standards to the stereotypical 2.4 kids in the suburbs mid American ideal.  Resources are too finite and indeed running out.  If our profligate carbon society doesn’t right itself soon, if we face a Century of Judgment, then what will emerge from the drowned coasts and droughted interiors?

The five authors (Jack Scalzi, Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, and Karl Schroeder) don’t really offer blueprints and white papers, of course.  They offer five distinct tales, appropriately interdependent, that explore a possible future.  This is a shared world on the model of Aspirin’s Thieves’ World, though not quite so sprawling or tightly woven.  It is clear that the authors spent considerable time together thrashing out their shared world — though, in keeping with the theme, much of that might have been online and virtual.

So, does the book succeed?

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Addressing craft first, I’d have to say Yes.  The stories are uniformly well-written and engaging.  They each contain a nice mix of philosophizing and action, abstraction and characterization.  Each story has its own voice, as might be expected of an anthology; but even within a story the characters seems multidimensional and believable.  The slow-drip despair of the mid-to-late 21st century comes through nicely.  The world is running down and, for most of the main characters, that is their primary experience of it.  Each story includes a glimpse at what might replace the worn-out consumerist world; each story is a voyage of discovery.

As to the ideas behind the stories:  Most of the time, that works too.  While the thrust of each story is sustainability, there is no myopic utopian fantasies here.  The authors recognize that survival will come not from going back but going forward. In contrast to the environmental dystopias of, say, the 1970s, these authors understand that a call to abandon all technology will not be heeded by the mass of humanity; and, realistically, billions will not lay down and die to redress a balance they did not themselves upset.

Nonetheless, the citizens of these zero-footprint enclaves invariably come off as a tad, well, smug.  Perhaps they have the right to be, since they have unlocked a key to survival while most of the world burns and drowns.  But to present-day ears, it sounds a bit thin.  There is a steady undercurrent of derision and mockery for the “big society” thinking that got the world into the mess it’s in.  One story calls it big capital; another, corporatism; an third, consumerism.  Uniformly they denounce the past few centuries as a mistake run amok, a blight to be rejected and corrected.  This rankles me just a bit, because the actual proposed societies can only exist because of the larger, expansionist, consumerist, big-science world.  Without the technologies spawned by the governments and the markets, there would be no Cascadia with its reputation-based economy or New Detroit with its skyscrapes reclaimed for vertical agriculture.

The philosophy of the book is unsatisfying, because the new societies are every bit as parasitic as the one they strive to replace.  These new worlds feast on the carcass of the previous one (ours) and seem deliberately oblivious to it.  In the end, that didn’t ruin the book because, in my mind, that is very human — exactly how a new vibrant society would have to view its predecessor.  We all need myths of a heroic age.

The preachiness varies a lot from story to story.  It is worst in the introductory piece, by Jay Lake (“In the Forests of the Night”) and seems to dribble off from there. That might be a structural artifact; the need to explain the new world and hook the reader drives some of the choices Mr. Lake makes.  Even allowing for that, I found it to be the least successful of the stories

The second story (“Stochasti-City” by Tobias Buckell), on the other hand, is probably my favorite.  On one level it’s a more straightforward action tale with a unified narrator.  (Mr. Lake attempts a fractured, multifaceted narrative along the lines of Stand on Zanzibar; but he lacks John Brunner’s dexterity.) The big idea seems much more achievable and realistic, as well as something real people might actually attempt.  Of course it’s just my opinion, but Buckell does a better job than Lake in selling his reality.

“The Red in the Sky is Our Blood” by Elizabeth Bear works pretty well, too.  Like the previous piece, it’s about an outsider gaining access to the hidden new cities that underlie the collection.  In this case, the narrative is perhaps a little too linear, though the characters are well-drawn.

John Scalzi’s contribution (in addition to being editor) is “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis”. It means “use everything but the squeal”, referring to a maxim about the high efficiency of pig.  And it is a pig story.  But don’t let that fool you, the way it does the narrator (at first).  It’s still a clever, if workmanlike, exploration of the role of labor in the new cities, which can’t base things on ever-increasing consumption.  I have a soft spot for the story, since it deals in no small measure with education and its impact.  But it must be admitted that it is probably the least adventurous or ambitious of the stories in the collection.

These middle three stories have the advantage of hanging together very well; they mesh to make the shared future world believable, whereas the bookend stories feel more shoe-horned in.  There’s an irony in the fact that Cascadia — the virtual, zero-footprint city that springs up in the Pacific Northwest — is more real and believable in the three stories that mention it obliquely, than in the one that describes it in detail.

The final tale is “To Hie from Far Cilenia” by Karl Schroeder.  Compared to the others, it’s right off the map.  (There’s a bit of a pun in that sentence but — I’ve decided to be spoiler-free.)  The earlier tales all split their focus between technology and sociology.  Not only do the authors explore what sort of devices we will need to survive the Century of Judgment; they also pick about what must change in our social interactions.  But Schroeder goes far deeper than that.  He ponders whether near real-time resource mapping will open up the unexpected vista of a whole new reality — or, at least, of a way of perceiving the world that is so radically different from what our monkey brains are used to, that it might just as well be a new reality.  I’m not sure he really succeeds at making this clear, but I’ll have to reread the story before I could say he failed.

Overall, the book is well worth the time spent in reading it and pondering its questions.  Although the prose is modern, its spirit harkens back to the early days of science fiction, where authors used grand visions to explore unseen possibilities.  Metatropolis is light years removed from the pulp fiction of the 1930s, but it aspires to some of the same larger purpose: to serve as a sort of handbook of the future, helping us navigate its unseen shoals by throwing a light on what might be.

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