The City, Not Long After, Pat Murphy

The City, Not Long After, Pat Murphy (1988)
Review by Richard Palmer

Pat Murphy’s 1988 novel, The City, Not Long After, depicts a world where a plague has wiped out most of the population of the world. The city of San Francisco has become a haven for artists, who leave a peaceful life free from coercion in any form. Meanwhile, an army man, Four Star, wishes to forcibly recreate the United States. As the novel opens, twenty years after the plague, his army is moving towards the city.

The conflict that this offers to the reader contains a number of intriguing ideas that Murphy explores through the interactions between the two sides.

The show down is quite late in the novel, however. The novel dwells for quite a long time on the lives and characters of those that populate San Francisco. They include The Machine, who builds robots that he considers his children as he believes himself to be a robot. After all, how else would he have survived the plague? There is the editor of the local newspaper, who also writes messages which she distributes to the world in bottles that she throws into the ocean. Lily collects skulls to display in department store windows and Danny Boy, another artist, who wishes to paint the whole Golden Gate bridge blue. And there is, of course, Jax, a girl whose mother, though from San Francisco, brought her up in a less well populated area of the country. Finally and this becomes important in the closing stages of the novel, San Francisco, through the ghosts of its past, is a character.

Post-apocalyptic worlds are a staple of science fiction and there is always the danger that such tropes become clichéd. Pat Murphy’s novel, by introducing the fantastical element of the ghosts of San Francisco, does something to sidestep this.

I was generally sympathetic with the characters. Pat Murphy has created an internally consistent and, thus, plausible utopia. She successfully creates a sense of anarchic community which requires no violence to run smoothly. At some points, though it didn’t particularly bother me, I did have the sense that some people may find the depiction of the characters to be a little irritating. Not everyone enjoys reading about artsy types being wacky.

On the other side, you have General ‘Four Star’ Miles and his army, intent upon restoring the past greatness of America. While the people of San Francisco live free of any interference in their lives, Four Star believes that the only way that the US can become great again is through order, which he will deliver at the barrel of a gun. Any written work from before the plague which discusses freedom and civil liberties is considered subversive and he extracts a heavy price from anyone found in possession of such materials.

The conflict would seem to be a little one sided. Four Star has an army, which while perhaps not so well equipped as the pre-plague forces, is certainly better equipped to fight a war than a bunch of peaceniks hellbent on creating art. Recognising their limitations and, in a refusal to compromise their way of life, the community refuses to fight the war on anything but their own terms. In this way they channel the likes of Ghandi’s non-violent resistance while using their own superior knowledge of the terrain of San Francisco to ‘fight’ in a guerilla style. For example, those resisting the invading army sneak up on their attackers, knock them out and mark them as dead, leaving a note pointing out that, had they wished to, they could have killed the solider. Those ‘killed’ in this manner should remove themselves from the action.

Of course, there is a bit of a problem with all this. The soldier isn’t actually dead and Four Star’s army has guns and training. Though the defenders have many successes, it is clear that ultimate success is unlikely. Murphy resolves this problem in two ways. First, as noted earlier, San Francisco is effectively a character in the novel. The history of the city comes into play as ghosts play a vital part in helping to expel the invaders. More finally, though, the defenders indulge themselves with a piece of violence which, while against their principles, saves the city and prevents more.

If we consider the novel from the point of view of presenting peaceful anarchism and non-violent resistance, the shooting at the end is a rather bloody full stop. However, I think that it does give the novel a little more depth and subtlety. The lives that the people of San Francisco have are clearly worth defending and the principles by which they live shouldn’t be shrugged off lightly. They have reached a point where violent resistance and even a killing is a price worth paying.

I enjoyed this novel. It’s depiction of resistance to repression and coercion is rooted well in human history and geography. The resolution of the novel, though perhaps a little too neat, does at least avoid an even more unsatisfying conclusion. More importantly, though, although a number of years have passed since the original publication of this novel the themes it explores feel relevant even now. The desire of many in positions of power and influence to reduce the liberty of citizens in the name of security is evident through many of the laws that have been passed or mooted since the turn of the century. While the repression of art and speech might not be quite so overt as depicted in the novel, there is a sense that criticism of the state and its aims is not accepted to the extent that it should be.

The City, Not Long After is a charming, witty and most importantly, witty exploration of conflict. As I noted, there are some elements that may annoy some readers, but if you can tolerate them, this novel is well worth your time. Thoroughly enjoyable.

This review originally appeared on Solar Bridge.

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Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan

Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan (1999)
Review by Richard Palmer

A recent thread on Torque Control about Women and the Clarke Awards, got me thinking about my genre reading habits. The thread had its genesis in an interview with 1999 Clarke Award winner, Tricia Sullivan.

The first thing that occurred was that I haven’t read anything by Tricia Sullivan, the second that, when I thought about it, I have read very little in the way of recent SF from female writers.

So, to deal with the first (and, I suppose, the second!), I thought I’d give Tricia Sullivan’s writing a go. Considering that it was a Clarke winner, I figured that Dreaming in Smoke would be as good a place to start as any.

Dreaming in Smoke is a novel of ideas. At its root, it’s a story about an attempt to colonise a hostile alien world. There is also a strong element of cyberpunk to the novel; furthermore, Sullivan has convincingly created a society set up and arranged to cope with the rigours of colonising an unfamiliar planet.

Much of this is familiar territory; the colonisation of alien worlds has a long history in SF. Cyberpunk, handled poorly, no longer seems as vital as it did. This novel, however, does have a nice take on it, the “Dreaming” of the title. Most interesting – though this is a little prejudice of mine – is the exploration of the differing social structure which is, again one may argue, not new.

Kalypso Deed (one of those born in the colony), a “shotgun” is tasked with entering peoples dreams to ensure that they are able to continue their scientific thinking whilst asleep. Though Cyberpunk itself is as an SF trope a little hoary, this particular conceit is a nice entry into the sub-genre. Sullivan makes a good stab at conveying the dream-states; particularly gratifying is the lack of wonder that Kalypso brings to her work. Mostly bored with her assigned task – especially given that she is tasked with assisting Azamat Marcsson, a competent but dull and unimaginative man. His dreams are so devoid of colour, that she amuses herself by illegally using the resources of their controlling AI (named Ganesh) to listen to old Earth music.

The opening of the novel gives an indication of what we can expect from the “Dream” sequences:

“The night Kalypso Deed vowed to stop Dreaming was the same night a four-dimensional snake with a Canadian accent, eleven heads and attitude employed a Diriangen function to rip out all her veins, then swiftly crotcheted them into a harp that could only play a medley of Miles Davis tunes transposed (to their detriment) into the key of G. As she contemplated the loss of all blood supply to her vital organs it seemed to her that no amount of Picasso’s Blue, bonus alcohol rations, or access privileges to the penis of Tehar the witch doctor could compensate for having to ride shotgun to Azamat Marcsson on one of his statistical sprees with the AI Ganesh. She intended to tell him so – as soon as she could find her lungs.”

The world, T’Nane, had been chosen for colonisation because of its apparent suitability for accepting human life. However, it transpired when they arrived that things had changed and the environment was inimical to human life. This backdrop is crucial to the shaping of the society portrayed. The people selected were selected to ensure the success of the colony. Unfortunately, given that the world they arrived on was not what was expected, when the novel opens, it is clear that the colony is stagnating, if not regressing. The “Mothers” are there as the heads of the society and, though ageing, they still are powerful and if not always respected, they are still listened to. Meanwhile the male “Grunts” (of whom Marcsson is one) were chosen for their suitability for colonising the new world. Unseen (and at the beginning presumed dead) was a group who had been researching ways to adapt themselves and the world to each other.

Given their loss to the “Wild” (the lands outside the bases constructed around the ship that took them there) the colony is left unable to grow as the carefully constructed society is unable to adapt to the new situation. It’s clear that they have lost much of the creative brilliance that would be required to solve their problems.

Colonisation stories can follow different paths. One solution is that the people arrive on a planet which is similar enough to Earth that there are few problems surviving. Of course, terraforming would be another way. Another, such as in Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus is to alter the colonist to fit them to the environment (this does also remind me somewhat of Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness, given that the inhabitants of Winter were adapted to the peculiar conditions of this planet. Where Pohl’s novel focuses upon the effects of the transformation on the man, Le Guin’s set as it is at a time when the colonisation of Winter is long forgotten is more focused upon the society created).

Dreaming in Smoke handles the problem by seeing the planet and the people altered when they come together. Mostly this works; it is consistent with all else that we’ve seen. Given the state of the society which no longer has all that it needs to survive and the unexpected hostility of the planet it seems more likely that the colonists would have to reach a compromise with the planet.

The novel isn’t without its flaws. The ambition of the novel does, unfortunately, come at the expense of characterisation. Few of the characters had any great depth to them, and it was difficult to get any real sense of the relationships that they supposedly had. A part of this is probably due to the unfamiliar social structures within a small and clearly delineated population. In this context (and the context of the unexpected dangers found on the world of T’Nane) the coldness between many of the characters is believable. Kalypso is almost an exception to this (although I can’t say that I found her to be particularly sympathetic, though her actions were, in the main, understandable).

Also, though the story makes sense and is ultimately satisfying, there were, on occasion, instances where I have to confess that I was a little confused as to how we had got to that particular point. It’s not a huge problem for me, though it may irritate some. I’m inclined to think that the problem is that, in what is a fairly compact novel, there isn’t really enough room for all the ideas. Ultimately, though, being no fan of unnecessary bloat in novels I’m pleased that Tricia Sullivan kept the novel lean.

I can’t say whether or not it was a deserving winner of the 1999 Clarke Award; unfortunately I haven’t read any of the other novels on the shortlist. On its own merits, though, it is a novel which, in spite of some minor flaws (and, hey, how many novels are truly perfect?) is worthy. Entertaining, intelligent, thoughtful and featuring prose of a consistently high quality, it was an excellent introduction to Tricia Sullivan’s work.

This review originally appeared on Solar Bridge.

The Journal of Nicholas the American, Leigh Kennedy

The Journal of Nicholas the American, Leigh Kennedy (1986)
Review by Richard Palmer

I was first made aware of this novel in some of the online chat surrounding the lack of well-known works of SF by female writers. It was suggested that it is a fine companion to Robert Silverberg’s (excellent, in my opinion) Dying Inside. In Silverberg’s novel, the main character, a telepath, finds that his powers, far from making him a god amongst men, leave him suffering the same problems as the ungifted and, indeed, are often a hindrance to him feeling fulfilled.

Similarly, Nicholas Dal, the writer of the journal of the title is not actually telepathic, but rather a telempath. This power gives him the unwanted ability to feel what those around him are feeling and makes his life incredibly difficult as he struggles to form and maintain relationships. His power makes him too sensitive to the inner feelings of those around him. The problems that this ability brings are highlighted through his damaged relationship with his mother. His father also gifted, shared his Miranda his wife, with the young Nicholas, leading him to struggle with sexual relationships with women.

It had been suggested by a psychiatrist that the young Dal had an Oedipal complex, but he and we know that the problem runs deeper than this. His confused feelings here aren’t as a result of any great desire for his mother, rather that his relationship with her was tainted by his father’s love for her and the intensity of the feelings that he had.

This is a particularly intense demonstration of the problems faced by Nicholas, due to his family curse. This leads Nicholas to drink vodka to excess. Nicholas is the son of a Russian emigré family, but the drinking of vodka isn’t in any odd hat tip to the country of his forbears, rather it just allows him to blot out any unwanted thoughts that may be broadcasting his way.

Much like Silverberg’s novel, though it is made pretty clear that the ability to feel what other people are feeling is not desirable, it doesn’t take this conceit and make Dal’s life an unrelenting grind. Though one would imagine to him that it may feel like that! At some points, Kennedy shows the real highs that he is able to reach through his ability. This is never more obvious than at the point where he meets Jack. She is a fellow student on the course that Nicholas is attending.

In the best possible circumstances, falling in love with anyone is a dangerous thing for Nicholas. Not least with the baggage that he brings to the relationship himself. But Jack (not, as he’d thought, Jacqueline, but Susanna) has problems of her own; it transpires that her mother is terminally ill and that her father’s inability to deal with it properly is leading to the break up of her family. Despite the emotional difficulties that Jack brings to her relationship with Nicholas which she can’t know quite how badly they’ll affect him, her time spent with him provides some of the most affecting an intense passages of the book.

This is because his empathic abilities allow him to give himself to her completely and in the way that she desires. This doesn’t, of course, suddenly make his life perfect. He still has to contend with the problems wrought by his dubious gift and though he does quickly gain Jack’s heart it doesn’t always seem that he is properly opening up to her.

Dal’s problems don’t stop here. The title of the novel The Journal of Nicholas the American points to a further problem that he has. Though he is indeed an American. He was born there and speaks fluent English – naturally – he still seems an outsider to many. This is without them realising that the barriers that he erects, the obvious drinking and his more personal decision to have a vasectomy and end the line, because the tendency of his family to speak Russian at home and (as Jack wrests from him) his thinking in Russian means that he speaks a heavily accented English and he is identified by his countrymen as being the other.

“I stopped at the liquor store and the clerk with the rocky, athletic face was working behind the counter. How I hate him! He sees me too clearly. I used to think that he had the Dal sensitivity, but I could never feel it. I have stopped searching for others like me, anyway, but he just seemed to see right through me. He’s ugly inside, so smug and sure that I am an alcoholic. He smells foreignness on me, and once asked where I was from. When I told him I was born in St Luke’s Hospital in Denver, he just said ‘huh,’ and never spoke to me personally again.”

This separation is, of course, what he desires, but it is still an intensely lonely way for him to live.

Always preying on his mind is the fear that his ability may come to the notice of scientists and that they will wish to study his ability that someone may use him and profit from him – he is warned by family that he may be treated as a freak for the amusement and entertainment of others. The possibility that he may be being tracked down leads him to have a secretive existence and to run away from this problem, rather than confront it.

Much of the novel is pretty grim, almost unrelentingly so, in fact. Partly this could be seen as being a product of Kennedy’s decision to use the device of a journal to tell Nicholas Dal’s story. However, despite some of it being uncomfortable to read, I think that this choice has worked for Kennedy. Indeed, the fact that some of it is uncomfortable is a testament to her ability as a writer.

Some may complain that all this heartache, deception and introversion leads to a thoroughly selfish and self-pitying character who makes choices for stupid reasons. Well, he is. But then, really, who isn’t sometimes? Though Kennedy is exploring a fictional ability, we are all able through less SFnal or supernatural means, able to empathise with other people and this can often be painful. Everybody has been, at some point in their lives, stupid or selfish even with the best of motivation.

As both an excellent piece of SF (though with a light touch) and a good examination of human relationships, I highly recommend this novel to anyone looking for something new to read. This novel deserves a wider audience than it seems that it has had. Wonderful stuff.

This review originally appeared on Solar Bridge.