Audiobook Review: METAtropolis edited by John Scalzi

METAtropolis is a new SF anthology edited by John Scalzi, featuring stories by Scalzi himself, Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, Tobias S. Buckell, and Karl Schroeder. But it isn’t your normal, everyday anthology in which all the writers write separate stories on the same theme; METAtropolis is a shared world anthology—that is, the authors did collaborative worldbuilding, then each wrote their own stories set in the same milieu. Oh, and the other reason it’s not your normal everyday anthology? It’s only available as an audiobook, available exclusively from Audible.com.

The theme, as you might guess from the title, is cities, or “the cities beyond” if you interpret the title literally. Each author writes about a different near-future region: Jay Lake writes about “Cascadiopolis” in the Pacific Northwest; John Scalzi writes of “New St. Louis”; Tobias S. Buckell explores a future Detroit, etc. So the book is aptly named—the five novellas contained herein do indeed speculate about the future of cities, and do so in a way only SF can.

All five narrators do a fine job bringing these stories to life, but I have to give special props to Battlestar Galactica‘s Michael Hogan (“Col. Tigh”) and Alessandro Juliani (“Lt. Gaeta”) whose performances rose above and achieved what all audiobook narrators strive to achieve—they not only read the stories, but brought something extra to the story experience. Also featured in the audiobook, and also from BSG, is Kandyse McClure (“Lt. Dualla”). The remaining narrators are audiobook veterans—Audie Award winners Scott Brick and Stefan Rudnicki. Rudnicki has long been one of my favorite narrators, and he is in his usual top form here. I’ve always been indifferent to Brick’s narration, despite the accolades he’s received from other critics, and this performance didn’t change my mind on that, but he provides a solid, if unremarkable, reading. McClure, as with the two other BSG castmembers, was a new narrator to my ears, and like her cast-mates, she did a fine job, if not one that is quite in the same league as theirs.

Overall, METAtropolis is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in a long time. The worldbuilding was fantastic, and the individual takes on the theme by each author worked really well together to give the anthology a nice cohesiveness, yet remained different enough to keep each author’s voice distinct so the stories didn’t blend together. My only quibble, really, is with Jay Lake’s story, which I found a bit hard to follow at times (despite Hogan’s superb narration)—it’s fairly dense (and infodumpy at times), and that can be tough to make work on audio, whereas the same text would be quite easy to process when read off the page. Well, if we’re talking quibbles, I’d also say that none of the stories really took particular advantage of the audio format, and I rather hoped that they would somehow to reinforce the choice of medium. But none of them did. I think METAtropolis will read exactly the same whenever it eventually makes its way into print (if not better).

The two standout stories, I thought, were the two with the most complicated titles—Scalzi’s Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis and Karl Schroeder’s To Hie from Far Cilenia. Scalzi’s is the most accessible and fun; Schroeder’s is the most inventive and full of gosh-wow sensawunda.

All of stories all examine the ecology and economics of the future, which seems eerily prescient considering the current “economic apocalypse” the U.S. is currently going through (a term actually mentioned in one of the stories). The stories prove the old adage that those striving to create a utopia inevitably create a dystopia for some (or if that’s not an adage, it should be). Which is not to say these stories are relentlessly downbeat—they’re not. They (as do most good examples of both genres) have enough light at the end of the tunnel to keep them from being dreary.

Where the anthology succeeds best is its vivid and believable depiction of one possible future. You probably wouldn’t want to live in any of the cities depicted in METAtropolis, but you’ll surely have a blast going for a visit.

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