METAtropolis by John Scalzi

Subterranean Press (  
July 2009
ISBN 978-1-59606-238-2
264 Pages

Trade and Limited Edition

Cities have long been characters in their own right in fiction, especially Science Fiction and Fantasy. One needs look no further than the seminal SF film Blade Runner to see the epitome of a sprawling future city. Cities in fiction often have their own quirks and personalities as much, and sometimes more, than the human characters who inhabit them. Modern writers like China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer, and less recent writers like Fritz Leiber and M. John Harrison have made cities distinct and stand out settings of fantastic fiction. Here, editor John Scalzi gathers five well-regarded genre writers to peer into the telescope of the future and see what super-cities of the future might be like. Although this anthology began life as an audio book, Subterranean is publishing a limited and trade print edition of the anthology.

Jay Lake’s In the Forests of the Night is the lead-off story in the volume and the story that worked for me the least. In many ways the narrative was unbalanced and I found myself unable to fully keep up with the flow of Lake’s story. In a nutshell, a stranger enters the vast city whose identity is not quite known. There is a good deal of subterfuge and murderous intent in the plot, but even for a short story I felt I was being info-dumped.

Stochasti-city Tobias Buckell has a feel of Steampunk with bicycles as the preferred mode of transportation in the future city. The story is something of a revenge tale and had me superficially thinking of the film Strange Days. Buckell’s city is Detroit and is continually threatened by eco-terrorists (or revolutionaries as they consider themselves) and remove the thing that made Detroit what it is and was – automobiles.

A woman on the run is the theme of Elizabeth Bear’s The Red in the Sky is Our Blood. Whereas Lake’s tale was a bit uneven in the relay of setting and information, Bear is more effective in placing her story and the plight of protagonist Katy in the future city. In addition to running from her husband, Katy is searching for her daughter. Bear delivered some nice emotional punch in this story. This story also takes place in a future Detroit.

Unsurprisingly, John Scalzi’s tale Utere nihil non extra quiritationem suis provides the most humor. I say unsurprisingly because this is the same writer who launched a novel (link to my review of The Android’s Dream) with a fart joke. Here, the protagonist is a slacker who ends up works on a pig farm spending much of his day literally knee deep in crap. This could have easily been a mockery, but Scalzi really gives the character and story a very endearing touch. The characters seem genuine and along with the setting of the future city, make this quite a plausible and entertaining story. Again with the comparisons here, but the New St. Louis in which Sclazi placed his story seemed quite reminiscent of Mega City One from 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd comics.

To Hie from Far Cilenia by Karl Schroeder finishes out the anthology on a pretty strong note. Here, the story is something of a heist as missing plutonium is the MacGuffin which sets the plot in motion. The characters trying to find the plutonium are a motley crew in the truest sense of the word – Miranda, a gamer looking for her son; Danail, an autistic man whose words aren’t his own which sort of makes him two characters in one body; and the leader of the posse is troubleshooter Gennady. The conceit here is that Schroeder isn’t telling his story in one city, but rather multiple cities. The story, in many ways, acts a travelogue through cities which are one part real, and another part virtually created from Live Action Role Playing Games over the real world. It’s a strange creation that was a bit confusing, but with the titular Cilenia acting as something of a Cibola or refuge place of legend slowly came together.

The stories, then, are obviously connected by their similar vast future city settings. Lake’s story was the least effective for me, while the others each worked in their own special way. Having enjoyed John Scalzi’s previous fictional output the most, I can’t say I’m surprised his story worked the best for me. Considering this anthology began life as an original audio anthology that it is now available in this limited edition should be an indication of its appeal.


© 2009 Rob H. Bedford

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