Sep 27 2011 11:00am

Transformative in This as Everything Else: Walter Jon Williams’s Metropolitan and City on Fire

It would seem odd to describe Walter Jon Williams’s Metropolitan and City on Fire as political thrillers set in a post-Singularity world-spanning megacity, but it’s not inaccurate. The reason it would be odd is because they’re arguably fantasy. Indeed, one could call them “urban fantasy” if the term didn’t already mean something else, because they’re among the most urban books ever written. It’s the future. There’s an impassable light-giving shield over the sky that was put there when the gods ascended. The sun and moon and day and night are legends. The entire world is covered in city — divided into many polities under a bewildering multitude of governments, but it’s all solidly city, with food growing on the rooftops. There’s a kind of magic thing called plasm that is magically generated by the relationships between buildings (by understandable and controllable methods) and which is used for everything from rejuvenating cells to astral projection. They think it’s magic, and they know how to work with it without knowing how it works — it’s power, and it’s the basis of civilization. A female civil servant from a working class immigrant background finds a secret source of plasm, and the whole plot gets kicked into motion.

There are a couple of things I can say about these books re-reading them now that I couldn’t say when I first read them in 1997. The first thing is that in some ways they resemble Williams’s latest books, This is Not a Game (post) and Deep State. If you like the political action of those, you’ll also find it here. Secondly, they are not going to be finished. They were supposed to be a trilogy, but the third book is never likely to appear — not only the editor but the whole imprint these books were published under was cancelled, and Williams moved on to other projects. This is a pity, not only because they’re brilliant, but because they’re clearly a character study of Aiah and how she comes to terms with power.

Aiah begins about as powerless as anyone can be — she has a boring bureaucratic job and she’s barely making the rent, her lover’s away and he’s not sending back what he said he’d send. She’s a member of a visible minority, the Barkazils, who are known as the “cunning people” but who live in a ghetto and suffer all the kinds of prejudice and violence that minorities do tend to suffer in big cities. She’s a great character, and she’s an unusual kind of character in an unusual kind of world. She finds the plasm well, and what she does with it and the choices she makes are the books. Each book is reasonably complete with a good volume completion ending, but it’s clear that at the end of City on Fire Aiah has had enough of being acted upon and is shaping power for herself. There are also tantalising hints of what is outside the Shield.

This is a world where when you’re caught up in a revolution your grandmother rings you with advice about hoarding. It’s a world with vast divides between rich and poor. It is in many ways very realistic — much more realistic than most SF, let alone fantasy. The gangs feel like gangs and the poverty really feels like poverty — the difference between just making it between paychecks and not quite making it, the odd combination of relief of being in your ethnic neighbourhood and feeling simultaneously you can’t wait to get away from it again. But then there’s the plasm and the things plasm can do, and the things that live in plasm and the bargains you can make with them. The little details are wonderful — how Aiah gets used to the luxury of fruit, and how she can’t understand how time zones used to work or why they used to have them. There are also talking dolphins and plasm-modified people who are their own ethnicity — and who have religious leaders ranting against them.

This is the future of our world, but it’s the far future — names and continents have changed in the centuries in which the Shield has been up, and the mythology is of the Ascended and only occasionally reaching back further. We are ancient history to them, and they have their own problems. These books are deeply political, engaging with how politics works in practice and in theory. They are more than anything about power, who has it, who wants it, what you can do with it. And plasm is power, and plasm is transformative, and can be used for war, or ads in the sky, or to make yourself young again, if you know how to do it. It’s magic by Clarke’s Law if it isn’t really magic, and they meter it and tax it and steal it.

I’d have loved to have seen what happened next to Aiah and to this world. But I’m very glad I have these two books.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. WarrenTF
Walter Jon Williams described these books as fantasy. Plasm is definately magic, not technology. If I recall correctly he wanted an urban fantasy that wasn't elves on motorcylces or something like that.

I'm glad the books are being reviewed here, they are excellent and deserve to be more widely read. I'm still hoping for another.
2. JohnnyMac
I love these books. WJW does a brilliant job of world building in them. He manages to be original and realistic at the same time. Excellent characters and, something I find very rare in fiction, believable politics.

I too hope that one day a publisher will be inspired to pick up the series and let WJW finish it.
3. JoeCrow
not only the editor but the whole imprint these books were published under was cancelled

Wow. They cancelled the editor too? That's hella harsh. Publishing's a pretty rough game, man.
Michael Grosberg
4. Michael_GR
I don't think Metropolitan takes place on a future Earth. I believe it's a fantasy planet. There's not a single mention of anything from Earth's past. There is, however, a mention of a time when trees walked and fought with humans - think of this as sort of Middle Earth, a standard fantasy land, eons after an industrial revolution. And Plasm is definitely magic in its most basic definition of "mind over matter". Yes, you can hoard it and store it and run it through cables but the end-user is never a machine, there always has to be a human mind making use of plasm. Sure, their magic is amenable to statistical analysis and operates according to understandable mathematical formulae, but so does Patrick Rothfuss' magic system in The Name of the Wind.
I think the thought that this is SF about a future earth harmed the books. Some people who read those thought they were reading sloppy SF and couldn't see the books for what they were.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
I think there are a number of reasons for seeing it as a future Earth and the plasm as magic by Clarke's law rather than magic. One is the dolphins. Another is names like Constantine which hint at historical continuity. And then there were the time zones -- not an inevitable solution to being a planet, that.

But it also doesn't matter -- it's a world that got to where it is via being more industrialised than us and a singularity, when the Ascended ascended and put up the Shield, and the realities of it now are what they are. The ancient history is only an interesting curiosity.
Nancy Lebovitz
6. NancyLebovitz
I can see your point-- not that it's a future Earth, but it makes sense if you think of it being set in a simulation.

I'm exceedingly fond of the first book, not so much of the second-- in the second, Aiah is showing signs of having a Destiny, but in the first she's doing her own scrambling.

Anyway, I liked the idea of plasm-- you can do miracles, but it runs out fast-- the ethnic division which doesn't seem to be based tightly on any existing ethnicities, the chickenshitness of only being able to study working with plasm if you can pay for the plasm-- I need to reread at least the first one, and even though I didn't like the second as much, I really wish the trilogy had been completed. Considering how intelligent the first book was, perhaps the destiny would have turned out to be other than what it seemed.
7. Not Kate
I too am really really sad this trilogy was never finished.

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