Most of the novels reviewed here concentrate on the dark side of San Francisco. They center on the Tenderloin, on crime and street life. Pat Murphy’s contribution, The City, Not Long After, on the other hand, looks at the bright side of The City. San Francisco is, after all, the capital of Flower Power, the city of free love, of gay emancipation, of anti-war protests and experimental art of all kinds. It is SF, the city of science fiction.
And so, not long after the Plague, the few survivors amongst the people of San Francisco are playing in the ruins. They want for little. There are shops, offices and homes full of stuff that the dead no longer need. There are parks in which they can grow food, and a market where they can trade salvaged goods with the people of the more extensive farmlands of the Central Valley. And having nothing else to do, they make art.
“And she found things, though not what she was looking for. Under the reception desk in the lobby of a downtown office building, she found a tiny village built of mud bricks and pebbles. The huts were thatched with eucalyptus leaves that had long since lost their pungent smell. In an alley off Mission Street, she found a red brick wall decorated with running buffalo and deer. In a vacant lot south of Market, she found a tower constructed of crystal doorknobs, clear glass bottles, window panes, wine glasses, and crystal tableware of all varieties. The ground surrounding the tower was littered with rainbows, broken shards of colored light that shifted with the movement of the sun.”
Jax, the heroine of the story, is the daughter of a famous San Franciscan peace campaigner. The full import of her history does not become clear until much later in the book, and I’m not going to spoil the story for you. However, for reasons that you will discover, Jax’s mother flees the City and ends up on a small farm near Sacramento. For many years she is able to raise her daughter in peace and safety. But then The General arrives.
General Miles, nicknamed “Fourstar”, is determined to rebuild America. To do so, naturally, he must restore order. There must be government, and because of the desperate state of the country it must be a military government. Everyone must work together in the rebuilding effort, and so ensure that they do all forms of dissent must be stamped out. People should not be allowed to read subversive books from before the Plague that talk about freedom and civil rights and other dangerous concepts. And above all, that annoying cadre of lunatics, layabouts and malcontents that has taken over San Francisco must be destroyed.
After her mother’s death, following detention and torture by Fourstar’s men, Jax heads into The City to warn the artist community of the impending invasion. There she meets various colorful personalities: Mrs Migsdale who edits the local newspaper and every day throws cryptic messages in bottles into the ocean; The Machine, who builds robots and thinks of them as his children; Lily, who collects skulls and displays them in department store windows; and Danny-boy, whose ambition is to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue.
The message of Fourstar’s impending invasion is not new. The artists have heard it often enough from traders, although the news that he might actually be on the march is of some interest. Some, like Snake, the former gang leader turned graffiti artist, recognize that a little planning might be in order. Much to Jax’s horror, however, the San Franciscans decide to fight their war, not with guns, but with art.
“CERTIFICATE OF DEATH
Please consider yourself removed from combat.
Look at it this way – we could have killed you.
If you don’t stop fighting, we really will kill you next time.
The People of San Francisco”
Armed with vastly superior knowledge of the terrain, and the surprise that comes from their unconventional tactics, the artists hold out for a long time against the invaders. Many of the troops do defect, as they are encouraged to do. But while this book might be a fantasy (ghosts of San Francisco’s past play a small but vital role in the resistance), it is no naïve Disney fairy tale. Murphy is far too honest to resolve the story without bloodshed.
Overall this is a beautiful, delicate and, as I have come to expect from Pat Murphy, highly amusing tale of the rightness of resistance to violence, and of the inevitable futility of that course of action. Peace is something that we can only achieve at a cost. The question is whether the cost we choose to pay is temporary sadness, or permanent subjugation to the whims of General Miles and his ilk. Furthermore, the more Peace we want, the higher the cost, and sometimes that price is never worth paying.
The irony is, of course, that the people of San Francisco have, in recent months, along with the population of the rest of America, fallen solidly in line with General Miles’ message. Faced with a dangerous threat from Outside, the people of America have freely given away some of their civil rights (and more significantly most of the civil rights of visitors to their country) and have invited armed men into their lives that they might have Peace without any danger to themselves. These days, few publishers would dare run with a book in which the heroes resist the resurrection of America and describe the American flag as ugly. Perhaps we are in need of a heavy dose of art.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.