I discovered Metropolitan completely unexpectedly while browsing the (somewhat sparse) science fiction and fantasy section at my local public library. I had heard of Walter Jon Williams, but had never read any of his work. After reading the jacket copy and deciding that this book seemed written just for me, I borrowed it. What followed was one of the most entertaining reading experiences I’ve had in years. It’s possible that some of my enthusiasm is due to the surprise factor — I never expected to come across a great book so accidentally. Williams’s creativity and originality make it easy to praise him, however.
The setting of Metropolitan is a world city (a planet entirely covered in cityscape) that may or may not be a future/alternate Earth, that functions almost entirely on the production and retrieval of plasm, a magical “geomantic” energy source drawn from the planet through the geometric placement of manmade structures. In other words, the structure of the world city itself, the way its buildings are designed and laid out, converts latent energy into power. The world economy (both white markets and black) is based on its purchase and sale, and plasm is expensive. Though everyone has access to it, only the very rich can afford the fees. Plasm can be channeled by mages to telepathically project their minds to other places, create, alter, or destroy physical matter, and even to teleport. It is tapped like electricity and governed by the Plasm Authority, essentially a utility company that also enforces penalties for plasm theft. The book is written from one main character’s point of view, that of Aiah, a Barkazil woman who works a dead-end job at the Plasm Authority and often wonders what her life would be like if she had the resources to get a degree in plasm use. Aiah is a clever, adventurous character, one who is pleasantly honest and comfortable with moral ambiguity, particularly if the ends justify the means. The book begins when she finds a hidden plasm source that opens a door into a larger world than she ever dreamed of.
The world city is divided into nation-like city-states called metropolises, each of which is governed by its own apparently autocratic ruler, the titular Metropolitan. Aiah’s growing desire to profit from her discovery leads her to Constantine, an infamous revolutionary who once tried, unsuccessfully, to execute a coup d’etat in his home metropolis. He is now an ideological inspiration for contrarians the world over, with dreams of achieving a vaguely communist state where equality and the ascension of humanity are paramount. Constantine is another well-drawn character, whose revolutionary fire and Machiavellian principles make him both exciting and dangerous.
Walter Jon Williams draws you in with this book through sheer creativity: the world is a unique one, a mixture of science fiction and fantasy (which would arguably make it science fantasy). The planet itself is enclosed in a force field called the Shield, which was erected as some kind of vague punishment by a more advanced civilization known only as the Ascended Ones. As such there is no sun or moon. The planet is lit by the light of the shield, and given the fact that barely a square mile of it is left unbuilt means that the setting has a very urban, noir feel to it. The technology level of the world is vaguely 1940s, with a dieselpunk vibe: there’s electricity, phones and computers, but people also use pneumatic tubes for communication and the computers are metal contraptions with monochromatic lens screens that read data off of belts.
He keeps you in with his characters, though. Both Aiah and the secondary characters feel like real people, their problems, big and small, seem like real problems, and Williams emphasizes the importance and impact of everyday life on even the most fantastical of plots. Aiah might be teleprojecting her anima across the city one moment, but the next she is worrying about paying her bills and agonizing over whether she wants to end her relationship. The book’s plot is self-contained, but leaves ample room for a sequel, City on Fire, which I look forward to reading. I’ve since read that Williams has yet to write a third novel in this world due to complications with publishers, but I can only hope that he’ll return to it, particularly if the second book proves to leave a larger story unfinished.
Metropolitan is William Gibson meets China Mieville, and I loved every minute of it. Those of you who crave the weird and fantastical, particularly when written with style, need to pick up a copy. I feel like Williams mined my brain for ideas of things I like and then wrote a novel about them. But then, I don’t get out much.