Stefan's Reviews > Metatropolis

Metatropolis by John Scalzi
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Apr 04, 2010

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bookshelves: short-story-collection, science-fiction, advance-reading-copy, anthology
Read from May 31 to June 04, 2010

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is equally interesting: due to environmental change and political upheaval, the idea of national government has been superseded by something akin to city states, often self-governed or in partnership with other cities across the world, while outside the city walls the situation may be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.

(This review was also published at the Fantasy Literature website: --- come check us out!)
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