Saturday, January 8, 2011



- John Scalzi -
(Jay Lake, Tobias S. Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder)

I saw this book on display at the library on the 'new sci-fi/fantasy books' and ended up taking it out. This was definitely an 'impulse buy', if that is possible to do at the library? I was rushing through picking up something else, on my lunch break, and I just happened to be walking by the 'new books' display (which seems to happen every time I'm there). I was not in need of a book since I was still only halfway through The Bourne Identity, but, I picked this book up anyway. Just to glance at it of course. What interested me was the self labelling on the front cover - A collection of stores in a shared future...yes, now seeing that in print I realize it's a bit weird to find that interesting. But, I really like books that take a look at the world in the near future, especially those horribly depressing post apocalyptic ones!
Looking this book over I realized this book had a couple of things against it, at least in my eyes. One, it was not a book about a post apocalyptic world, which I initially thought it was because of the cover art. Two, it is a collection of short stories...I don't typically read collections of short stories, I prefer the long drawn out epic trilogies of at least 1800 pages. Even though I think I prefer epics, the two books of shorts stories I have read in the past have stuck with me, and I enjoyed them and I think about them from time to time. Anyway, I gave into my impulse to 'impulse buy' and borrowed the book.

The five stories are all good enough to be stand alone short stories, but, together they create something more. The writers all do a great job of interlacing their individual stories with all of the other ones in the book. For eg. there is a constant contracted security force called Edgewater that makes an appearance in each story. Many of the new gadgets of the future make their way into multiple stories (like the 3D glasses). There is also mention of the other stories and cities the other writers use. These all help congeal the book, bringing it all together like a nice jam. One story is like the sugar, another like the strawberries...although good on their own when mixed together to make they can make much a nice jam, mmm.
I know the question you are asking, which story was the pectin - not tasty, but, needed to hold the mixture together?

Even though the stories all revolve around a similar future world and have a focus on exploring what cities will be like, all of the stories have drastically different feels. The major difference is the writing. All of these writers have different styles and putting them back to back really shows this off. I have to say Jay Lake's writing style; straight forward, very simple, short sentences, small paragraphs, was a the one I enjoyed reading the best. This was the first story in the book, so it grabbed my interest and created that positive feeling right off the bat encouraging me to keep turning those pages. I'm glad the book started with that story.

The first story, In The Forest Of The Night, took a look at a city built by environmentalists. Imagine how a city of extreme 'tree huggers' would look, function, and survive. Well, Jay Lake, thinks it would be found in the deep forests on the Pacific west coast. It would be hard to find since the citizens would be very conscious of the land and do all they can to prevent harming it. These people would be spread out, and very little government would exist. They would be self sufficient and eat fungus and stuff they grew in the trees (yum). It kind of reminds me of the many fantasy books I've read and the elves. Elves have cities in the forest, that blend right in. They somehow keep in balance with nature and cause no ill effects.

The next story, Stochasti-City, by Tobias S. Buckell, looks at how Detroit might fare in the future. With sky rocketing oil prices and a ruined economy, it seem many people are getting desperate for jobs. 'Turked', is the key word here. Turked, is taking a small job that is posted on the web, some job like - take this unmarked bag to a corner three blocks from here and drop it in the mail box. Obviously some illegal smuggling or something, but, when there is no work people get desperate. The main character takes one of these 'turked' jobs, which is to watch a security compound and text a message everytime the security officers come out. He ends up not getting paid so he tracks down the people who were supposed to pay him. Turns out it is a gang of bikers, not motor bikes (what with the cost of oil and all), but bicycle riders. Who are also extreme environmental activists. They take over abandoned skyscrapers and turn them into farms/greenhouses. They travel across the country doing this. I guess this appeals to the main character and he ends up joining them and has a much more fullfilling life. No more 'turking'.

The third story, The Red In The Sky Is Our Blood, Elizabeth Bear, is also set in Detroit. It is another story with a bicycle. A hardened biker chick is recruited by a secret society (I guess the another idea of an alternate city of sorts) who live in the former suburbs. All of the houses are abandoned, so this secret society salvages stuff to make them into greenhouses. This book has the feeling of a public service announcement/survival guide. It talks all about how landfills are filled with so much stuff that if we scavenged it all out we could live a mighty fine life, and lack nothing. I found it kind of preachy and the story line was lacking...even for a short story. If I were grading this I'd give it a D- . Which is kind of sad b/c I've read Elizabeth Bear novels and liked them.
This story may be the pectin I was talking about earlier.

The fourth story, Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis, by the editor John Scalzi, is a bit of a lighter story. It starts and ends with a pig in a wedding picture. This one takes place inside a new St. Louis. It's a closed city where the economy strictly managed. The main character is a slacker who finally comes of age where he either has to work or leave the relative safety of the new city. However, since he waited so long and never took school seriously he is left with a position working in a skyscraper pig farm. Lucky guy!
In the end he goes from a kid on the edge of society, not connected and not involved, to find his place in society. This one had a slightly more positive look at how efficient cities could be in the future...even if they are surrounded by chaos.

Final story, To Hie From Far Cilenia, by Karl Schroeder, is the only story that takes a peek into a far flung idea for a future city. The idea is a virtual city 'made' from online gamers. It sounds like they put on these special glasses that change the way the world looks. Buildings are given an old world feel, people's clothes have the look of the early 20th century, and other's with the glasses in the same world are highlighted. It sounds like the more you put into this world the more access you get, and eventually can move onto deeper and deeper worlds. They are hidden cities, functioning apart from 'reality'. There are restaurants only members can get it, with food grown by other 'members', all living in buildings for 'members' only. Very fact, a little too complex for me to really follow. This may have been better in novel length?

What was missing for me...a future city on the moon!

Overall, I felt kind of depressed reading these prophecies of our future. Where has the happiness gone? Where was the hope of a brighter future? Where has the dream of space travel gone? Maybe I'll look for a brighter book on my next visit to the library.

Rating: READ