METAtropolis: The Dawn of Uncivilization—
Audio download (unabridged):
Audible Frontiers (October 8, 2008)
Narrated by Michael Hogan, Scott Brick, Kandyse McClure, Alessandro Juliani, Stefan Rudnicki, John Scalzi
Subterranean Press (July 30, 2009)
Most of the books I review tend to be, well, books. Things you pick up, carry into the bathroom with you, dog-ear, that sort of thing. METAtropolis isn't exactly that, but rather an audiobook, and one that's been making quite a splash. Audible.com put it out late last year, and since then, it's garnered a lot of notice and even a Hugo nomination (for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form), a first for an audiobook. Also unusual is that it was released first in audio form (last October) and only recently (July 30) in print. Usually it's the other way around, but it clearly works in this case.
No matter how good the book, whether or not I'll listen to more than five minutes of an audiobook depends on what it sounds like. METAtropolis more than passes the litmus test in this area. Fine production values combine with excellent readers to make the listening experience very enjoyable. Battlestar Galactica fans will recognize several of those narrating: Michael Hogan ("Col. Tigh"), Kandyse McClure ("Dee Dualla") and Alessandro Juliani ("Lt. Gaeta"). All enjoyable and talented actors, leavened with experienced narrators Scott Brick and Stefan Rudnicki, both of whom will be well known to audiobook veterans. Author John Scalzi (who also edited the anthology) fills in between the stories, reading his introduction to each one.
METAtropolis is a collection of five novellas about a very realistic version of the not-so-distant future, where the cities are dying, and the suburbs aren't places you really want to live. In this world, life is a war between those immersed in technology and those without it, techies against eco-survivalists, the haves versus the have-nots. Crumbling cities, zero-footprint living, and life in this "uncivilization" provide the framework for stories by Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, and Karl Schroeder, all writers at the cutting edge of science fiction in the new millennium. But it's not just a collection of stories; it's a world that the authors have worked together to build, and each story shows a different aspect of it.
In the Forests of the Night by Jay Lake
The first novella in the collection belongs to Jay Lake, and it's a hell of a way to start off the book. As John Scalzi notes in his preface to the story, the decision to place Lake's story first comes at least in part from Lake's mastery of world-building. And it's true; In the Forest of the Night is quintessential Lake: rich, involved, almost dripping with the flavor of the shared world that these authors have given us.
It's the story of Tygre (actually his name is Tygre Tygre, hence the title of the story), a newcomer to Cascadiopolis, a city hidden in the foothills of the Cascades near Portland, Oregon. From the beginning, we're never really sure who (or what) Tygre is: is he a messiah or a buddha? A spy, a saboteur, or just a simple wanderer who seeks asylum in the city? But while Tygre is the focus, he's not really the main character of the story: that would be Cascadiopolis itself, both the city and its people (not to mention the people who fight against it). How those people react to the enigmatic Tygre is what fundamentally makes the story, drawing you in and immersing you. There are strong overtones of the Gospel story of Jesus' final days leading up to the crucifixion; however, this isn't the story of a religion, but of how people deal with something they don't understand—
The only real negative of Lake's story is closely tied to its strongest asset. The story is so detailed, so immersive, so rich, that sometimes you get lost in it. This can be an issue with Lake's stories, and the problem is magnified here in the audiobook. But Michael Hogan does a very nice job keeping this to a minimum for the most part.
This story does a lot of the heavy lifting in the anthology's world-building, setting the stage for what follows. It's a great way to start the book and frankly, it made me excited to see what came next.
Stochasti-city by Tobias Buckell
The second novella is Tobias Buckell's. Scott Brick does his usual excellent job narrating this, and you can see why he's so well regarded in the audiobook community. But I'm afraid I wasn't quite as fond of this story as I might have been, which is ironic because I'm much fonder of Buckell's writing style than I am of Jay Lake's (it's very straightforward and not nearly so flowery).
Reg is just an average guy, trying to live his life in the decaying Detroit of the future, the sort of person whom you really wouldn't be too surprised to see in the Motor City today. As he struggles to find his way through his not-so-easy life, he finds himself being manipulated by others toward an end that should be better for him and the city, but you're never sure what the cost may be.
It's not a bad story, and the world-building is marvelous, for all that it's much more spare than in Lake's novella. You instantly like Reg, and you start pulling for him from the first time that he gets screwed over. But ultimately it feels as if the pacing is off in this story. Too much time seems to be spent building up the character as an average guy, and then suddenly his military background takes over and we have a former colonel who is a highly skilled tactician and administrator. It's not completely out of the blue; there are certainly hints of his military background, but it's definitely been downplayed. I don't have a problem with Reg changing, or even reverting to his former self, but it happens too abruptly and completely, not gradually as you'd expect. And since the story is told in the first person, you get not only a very rocky character transition, but also the feeling that the author has been withholding information from you. And that feels like a real breach of trust.
All in all, "Stochasti-city" isn't a bad novella, but it's not nearly up to the standard that Buckell has displayed in his other writings.
The Red in the Sky is Our Blood by Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear's contribution to the collection makes a very good counterpoint to Buckell's entry. It's well read by Kandyse McClure and takes place in the Detroit you saw in the earlier story. It's in a different area of the city, though, but references to the events in Stochasti-city, which helps to tie the stories together. Cadie is a working mother who's changed her name, hidden her daughter, done everything she can to escape her former hellish life. But her past comes back to haunt her—people know about it, and they want her to work with them.
It's a pretty common plotline from any number of action dramas, and could honestly fit well enough in a modern-day setting or the Old West as it does in crumbling Detroit. What makes it work here, however, is the way that Bear integrates the scenario into the setting. Cadie and the other characters aren't simply working against the crumbling city around them, they're part of it, and it's a part of them. When they work towards a solution, it isn't just a matter of working towards a goal of reinventing the city they live in, but rather fundamentally reinventing their society of which they are a part. You walk away with the message that people working together can do more than simply provide an avenue for mutual survival but can actually improve things. And while that's a common enough message, Bear ties it intrinsically to the world of this dying Detroit, drawing you into the story and holding you.
Bear's story feels pretty hard-boiled from the start, and if you're not comfortable with that feel, that can be a little off-putting. However, unlike the noir it first appears to emulate, the ultimate story is very gentle and frankly, a lot more hopeful than I'd expected. Definitely an enjoyable story.
Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis by John Scalzi
In addition to editing METAtropolis, John Scalzi also provides one of the novellas. It's got the most unusual name of any of the stories, but afterward, you find it's probably the most directly applicable of any of the titles. Alessandro Juliani does a masterful job reading it; the flair that he gives to the story fits Scalzi's style very well.
In his introduction, Scalzi says that he wanted to fill a hole in the anthology, in that every other story viewed the cities of METAtropolis world from the outside looking in. This one takes the opposite tack: Benji is a resident of New Saint Louis, looking out. He isn't the ideal resident, to be sure; he's a slacker, plain and simple. That doesn't go over well in NSL—
If you've read any of Scalzi's other work, you'll find that he tends to have a breezy and sometimes irreverent way of telling a story, and this novella is no exception. This isn't a deep, introspective story, but a light, fast-paced romp. It's also probably closer to adventure SF than anything else in collection, but that's not a bad thing. Even if doesn't tweak your emotions and tug at your heartstrings, Utere nihil… is both a fun story and a bit of pleasant levity to balance out the heavier nature of the other stories.
To Hie from Far Cilenia by Karl Schroeder
Karl Schroeder rounds out the collection with a story that looks at the cities from a completely different angle. In To Hie from Far Cilenia, the focus isn't on struggling versions of cities in a world of collapse, but rather on virtual cities created by people from all over the world. In this way, Schroeder's story actually fits the title of the collection better than any other novella here; the cities depicted in the story truly are META cities. Stefan Rudnicki's pacing and precision make the novella a joy to listen to.
The story revolves around Gennady, an expert at tracking down errant radioactive material. He's recruited by Interpol to help find a missing shipment of plutonium and track down the buyer. In the process, he joins with Miranda, an anthropologist who's seeking her son (who disappeared into one of the virtual cities) and both slowly gain access into these virtual cities and their meta-reality, each after their own quarry.
I'll admit that I have really mixed feelings about this story. As I said, it actually fits the concept of a METAtropolis magnificently. And it's a good story, written in an engaging manner, with the sort of colloquial details that make the characters and setting real. Gennady, for example, has stories to tell about tracking down nuclear material, the sort of tales that you'd expect would only come from someone in that business. And the details of Schroeder's META city smack of the sort of realism that make you feel they really exist.
And yet the story is out of place. The cities that you encounter are virtual and essentially constructs of the Internet, sort of a cross between a MMORPG and a micronation, or perhaps an advanced version of Second Life. Despite the realistic details, they don't feel as immediate as the cities seen in the other stories in this collection; if you can just shut off your connection, the stakes for the character don't seem as big. Schroeder is an experienced writer and does manage to deal with this issue to some extent by establishing stakes other than personal safety, but it just doesn't succeed to the level of the other stories in this collection, or at least in the same way. As a result, the story doesn't really fit with the rest of the collection.
All in all, while there are some uneven points, METAtropolis gives you five good science fiction stories by five very talented writers. And once you've listened to it, you'll see why it's nominated for a Hugo—