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Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Metropolitan" and "City on Fire" by Walter Jon Williams (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS Metropolitan: Inspired by the digital recent reissue (as noted on FBC HERE) I read again, probably for the 5th time, the Metropolitan/City on Fire sequence. The one distinction this time was that I read the two books the first time after a heavy dose of fantasy reading from 2008-2011 when to a large extent I exhausted my interest in most of the genre the way I did with mysteries 20+ years ago.
Metropolitan was still fresh and interesting and did not read like a fantasy of 2012 or of 1995 for that matter, showing once again how much ground is to explore if people - both writers and readers - would stay away from the usual rut of faux-medieval or vampires/zombies somehow thrown together with modern tech, while still having superb worldbuilding, great characters etc...

And despite the author's insistence on calling Metropolitan a fantasy, its mindset is still sfnal and that imho is the fundamental divide between the two - fantasy - conservative, pre-modern based on the superiority of blood and lineage "you are who you are born" though of course you may just be of noble blood in disguise, sf - progressive, modern, based on the superiority of human intellect expressed in science and technology, "you are what you can achieve".

Back to the book, this is the story of a World City, though still racially diverse and divided into many states, and of Aiah a 25 year old born and living in Jasper, an ordinary bureaucratic and stale state of the World City, but being from the Barkazil, a despised stateless minority usually relegated to the dole and petty thieving. Aiah managed to improve somewhat her Barkazil lot and continue school, work for the government - still better than the dole after all - have a Jasperii lover with whom she bought an upper middle class apartment in a new tower...

Having a talent for plasma work - the magical source of power of the universe -  Aiah could not continue her studies at a more advanced level, but at least after a few years of field work, she now works as the most junior investigator for the Authority, the government department in charge of regulating the plasma use - metered like electricity in our world, but with pockets of "wild plasma" here and there plus with the usual thefts and contraband.

When an outbreak of wild plasma manifests itself spectacularly and deadly, the Authority brass decides it must come from some usually troublesome area, but Rohder, an old hand at dealing with plasma with great seniority though now in a sort of "golden parachute exile" in the Authority, feels differently and with whatever clout he still has, manages to get the brass to appoint someone to investigate - and of course it is the most junior and unimportant investigator, namely Aiah.

One problem is that the place (an abandoned factory and train terminal) is in a slum, but one populated in part by the racist "Jaasperi nation" gangs where Aiah's brown skin is unwelcome; still with two Authority field hands at her back - the sort of blue collar workers of the time as opposed to the white collar Aiah - and despite the usual heckling, snubbing (eg Aiah is refused food from a stall under some silly pretexts), Aiah does her duty and by chance discovers a very powerful source of wild plasma in the area, luckily when her helpers were somewhere away.

Thinking hard about the future and pressed by financial troubles as her fiancee Gil is on an assignment away which keeps his cash flow under stress so his contribution toward the mortgage etc are less than expected, Aiah decides to conceal her discovery and try and sell it.

In the meantime Jaasper is also home to exiled former Metropolitan (President/Supreme Leader etc) of half way around the world Cheloki, one Constantine - black skinned racially as it happens, opposed to the white Jaasperi and the brown Barkazil - plasma wizard, very rich, but whose semi-idealistic New City movement scared Cheloki's conservative neighbors so badly that they ganged up, invaded and deposed Constantine some decades ago.

Living a seemingly idle life of a rich retired magnate, Constantine still has some devoted followers, some from idealism as the New City ideology is still very appealing to many, especially the poor and downtrodden, though as we see later it is mostly a form of our democratic capitalism btw, some from habit, some like his right hand woman, lover and confidant with a pet black panther, Sorya, from believing Constantine still not washed out and a ticket to power.

And while secretly sponsoring shows that keep his name in the "news" and plotting with various disaffected factions in various states, Constantine is still mostly washed out until of course Aiah comes around with her offer (money for the wild plasma).

And as a very corrupt state Caraqui, not quite near Jaasper as even Constantine is wise enough to know that he cannot *** off the Jaasperi who give him asylum how much he despises their fossilized bureaucratic government, is teetering on the brink of revolution, Aiah's plasma may make all the difference between another chance at the New City and final defeat.

And of course Aiah's part idealism, part cynical realism is caught with Constantine's charisma and his offer to teach her "real" plasma use, so Aiah starts becoming involved in the "great game" too; not to speak that despite their ineptness, the Jasperi police cannot ignore the obvious at some point (running a plasma war machine from Jaasper tends to be spectacular) so Aiah may find herself into trouble there too.

All in all just a masterpiece and with a great ending to boot; lots of interesting secondary characters (Barkazil mostly as in Aiah's extended family, but also the Caraqui, some quite strange as the city is watery so has sentient dolphins, and genetically deformed humans among its inhabitants), though Aiah, Constantine and Soryah in her occasional appearances just shine.

After all there is a reason I read this book 4-5 times so far and I expect I will read it a few more times..



As I do not want to spoil too many things just a few notes.

City on Fire starts where Metropolitan ends with Aiah taking Constantine's offer and arriving in liberated Caraqui - though not a native, Constantine is one of the new leaders though seemingly of less importance than the officer leading the coup and the slimy cleric who turned his cloak and supported the revolution - where somewhat to her surprise she is appointed head of the new "Plasma Recovery" department under minister Constantine.

Using the skills learned in Jaasper and finally having carte-blanche to bust the local mafia and the plasma black market in the name of the revolution, Aiah soon shines in her job and slowly she becomes a magnet for Barkazil from all over, while deftly navigating the treacherous waters of Caraqui where the various groups compete for power

But the revolution is under peril as the survivors of the former kleptocracy and the dons of the busted mafia convince the neighbors that they are better back in power, while internally the conflicts between the various Caraqui interests also threaten its survival and of Aiah, Constantine etc too.

Constantine's New City ideals are still powerful and together with Soryah's skilled intrigue capabilities and Aiah's recovered reserves of plasma and her new found fame as some mercenary Barkazil brigades are renowned all over the World City and they may just follow a Barkazil "world figure" hoping to recover their native state now under foreign protector-ship may make the difference between death or survival; on the other hand Constantine has his dark secrets, not to speak that there is space for only one powerful woman in his life and Soryah does not like competition...

City on Fire is even better in some ways than Metropolitan and I so wish the author will write more as the ending while at a decent point and not on a cliffhanger, with its main threads solved, promises so much about what was supposed to come before the series' untimely cancellation.




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