“ all things good of this Earth flow into the city because of the city’s greatness. “–Pericles of Athens
Cities are one of the most enduring and peculiar of human inventions. We’ve had cities for ten thousand years, as soon as humans started gathering together in groups larger than villages. We’ve built cities on canals, in deserts, above the arctic circle and in the deepest Amazon. As our world has changed, cities have grown, developed and changed. As our world further changes, so, too, will our cities. What will the cities of the near and medium term future look like? What will the people in them be like? What do they say about the world?
METAtropolis, edited by John Scalzi, purports to find those answers. METAtropolis brings together Scalzi’s editing, with worldbuilding led by futurist and author Karl Schroeder. METAtropolis was conceived from the beginning as an audiobook (only later getting a print publication) and the care and craft that the stories come across as audio stories shows. This is a collection of stories meant to be listened to, more than read.
The story quintet, and their narrators, are as follows:
“In the Forests of the Night” by Jay Lake, narrated by Michael Hogan. This opening story, with a lot of info-dumping, mixes that info-dumping with the poetic story of Tyger, who infiltrates the city of Cascadiaopolis, hidden in the Pacific Northwest. But to what end? And what about those who seek to undermine it?
“Stochasti-City” by Tobias Buckell, narrated by Scott Brick. A bouncer/veteran down on his luck finds himself caught between Blackwater-like mercenaries and an organization planning radical change for future Detroit.
“The Red in the Sky is Our Blood” by Elizabeth Bear, read by Kandyse McClure. Also set in Detroit, this is an often intimate story of what lengths a mother will do for her step-daughter, especially when confronted with a whole new society hidden in plain sight.
“Utere Nihil non Extra Quiritationem Suis,” by John Scalzi read by Alessandro Juliani, is the lightest of the pieces and the funniest. In New St. Louis, the son of a powerful politician finds his connections cannot save him from having to take a rather menial job. Said job, however, might be just what the neer’do’well precisely needs.
“To Hie from Far Celenia,” by Karl Schroeder read by Stefan Rudnicki, ends the collection with a high concept meditation on videogames, false realities, imaginary cities and countries and much more, as a UN inspector, looking for stolen plutonium, goes way down the rabbit hole. It’s Charlie Stross crossed with Jorge Luis Borges.
As a story, I think the strongest story of the collection is clearly Scalzi’s “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis”. It’s well written, its damned funny, and I refuse to translate the latin title, since it is very much a giveaway and reveal. In terms of having my mind blown by mind-corking ideas, the anchor story of the collection, Karl Schroeder’s To Hide from Far Celenia, certainly fits the bill. All of the stories were entertaining and definitely well within the voices and wheelhouses of the authors, even when harnessed to this shared world.
I could have hoped for more discrete and firmer connections between the stories. The connections are tenuous, at best. A little more clarity on the internal timeline of the stories would have been welcome, too. It’s clear, for example, “In the Forests of the Night” takes place, first, but by how much? Sometimes its a little too nebulous how the stories relate to one another in terms of time. Also, all but one of the stories takes place in the borders of the current United States, which disappointed me a bit, too. There are intimations and brief mentions of international cities of this chiaroscuro future, but we do not get more than the briefest of mentions of them.
I should also mention that the stories, the world and the ethos of the shared world has an extremely green bent. I don’t think the stories quite rise to the level of being preachy. However, I suspect those whose political leanings are significantly to the right of mine might feel differently by the themes and messages in this story and might feel differently.
In sum, the Metatropolis project is a fine example of shared world building and speculation on behalf of its authors. The audiobook is excellent listening, too, especially for drives long enough that you can listen to appreciate an entire story at one go. The five narrators chosen for the stories seem individually tailored to the work and the respective authors. From the poetic to the metafictional, and all points between, the narrators all handle their respective texts very well indeed.
And, I admit, there is something metafictional itself in driving long distances across the Great Plains, far away from cities of any size, listening to these five stories of cities that are not yet in existence, but might yet be. It’s an experience I commend to all of you.