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.