Metatropolis Is The Best Kind Of Urban Renewal

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The futuristic city is often a supporting character in science fiction, but these urban visions rarely feel like places you could live in. So Metatropolis, a new anthology of city tales, is a nice surprise.

Oh, and there will be some spoilers here. But I won't reveal who Luke's daddy is or anything.

Metatropolis is unusual for a number of reasons. It's available as an audiobook now - narrated by Battlestar Galactica's Michael Hogan, Kandyse McClure, and Alessandro Juliani - but it's coming out as a print anthology this summer. It's a shared-world anthology, but it's not based on a world created by one particular author, with a bunch of other writers trying to stay faithful to the Master's vision. Instead, it's a near(ish) future setting that editor John Scalzi and the contributors worked out amongst themselves.


And it's strangely optimistic, once you get past the premise that the United States has all but collapsed and old ways of living are being wiped out. Most of the stories in the book offer something between a trickle and a flood of hope. The biggest theme in the book is that once our current unsustainable way of living finally unsustains, something better may rise up as a result out of the chaos. But on the other hand, the chaos will be plentiful.


And most of that optimism is centered on cities, or city-like strutures. Most "fall of civilization" storylines show cities turning into unliveable nightmares of violence and bad hair. It's only in little rural communes and enclaves that you can survive the collapse of everything. But Metatropolis turns this cliche on its head, with some future cities that seem quite nice, surrounded by suburbs and countryside that are referred to as "The Wilds."

In particular, the Cascadiopolis of Jay Lake's story "In The Forests Of The Night" and the New St. Louis of Scalzi's "Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis" are places you could imagine wanting to hang out. Cascadiopolis is an anarchist commune built near what's left of Portland, Lake's hometown, where everybody works to create green technologies. And New St. Louis is more hierarchical, but also extremely eco-friendly, with vertical farms and genetically engineered pigs who create ultra-rich fertilizer and whose urine that can be used to stabilize plastic. Both places are all about sustainability and "zero footprint," even as they keep out the outside world with paranoid levels of security. Towards the end of the book, we learn that these megacities have a loose confederation, including non-U.S. cities like Shanghai, that allows people to travel among them.


In Tobias Buckell's awesome story "StochastiCity," we visit a version of Detroit that's more like what you'd expect in a futuristic dystopia, complete with private security guards from a company called Edgewater, who crack skulls of anyone who gets in the way. But even there, super-organized eco-anarchists have a scheme to hoodwink Edgewater and take possession of one huge building, turning it into a vertical farm and building a mini-eco-paradise in the middle of the urban hell.

That's another major theme of the book's five long stories: people creating unconventional social networks. In Buckell's story, it's "turking," in which people subcontract a task out to dozens, or hundreds, of individuals, none of whom know the whole story. In Karl Schroder's story, "To Hie From Far Cilenia," this turns into an alternate reality game, Oversatch, where fictional countries like Cilenia and Sanotica are not just overlaid on the real world, but they supercede it. (To join the game, you need to wear special glasses which let you see a display of the alternate reality.) And instead of "turking," people actually "ride" other people by looking through their eyes and telling them what to do or say. And in Lake's story, we see how trust networks are still vulnerable at the level of human interaction, because someone who's good at social engineering or especially charismatic will always be able to find a way in to a supposedly closed system.


As I mentioned, the optimism in the stories is tempered with a lot of chaos, and we get to see a lot of the downsides of this shiny future. If you happen to be in the wrong city, or outside the cities altogether, life can be pretty horrendous. Besides the somewhat thuggish security contractor Edgewater, we also see how organized crime has stepped in to take some of the roles that government has let drop. All the same, I'm not sure how realistic a picture of our urban future the book is supposed to be - at times, there seemed to be a bit of wishful thinking mixed in. And here and there, there are huge chunks of preachiness about environmentalism, recycling, cars, sustainability, and other green topics.

But the way you know these urban settings have succeeded in their worldbuilding task is, they provide a backdrop for some cracking city adventures. Scalzi and Buckell, in particular, keep you guessing about where their stories are going and provide fun yarns where you root for their underdog protagonists. These feel like cities where anything can happen, from getting your skull cracked to discovering your life purpose. And most important of all, when I was done reading about this future dys/utopia, I wanted to spend a lot more time there. [Amazon]