METAtropolis edited by John Scalzi

Reviewed by Farah Mendlesohn

Metatropolis cover

The current market in audio books is dominated by book-to-audio productions, with dramatizations (often previously performed on the radio) a close second. Material written specifically for the audio book market is still relatively rare. Of the entirety of material available, science fiction is a small player in the market, but we do have one specialist SF audio company: Bruce Coville's Full Cast Audio.com. Coville specializes, as the title implies, in dramatizations of books, yet another way of delivering the text. METAtropolis, one of the first purpose-written SF audio texts, sticks to my own preferred delivery of a dramatic reading by a trained actor or reader.

The project was conceived as a shared world, in which a landscape and an economy would be generated, and stories told within. The world the authors established is approximately fifty years in the future. Although there is a gesture to a world polis, the stories themselves are all set on the North American landmass, among a collapsing U.S. economy and infrastructure. Corporate capitalism and Federal government are enduring their last gasp and in their place is emerging a variety of solutions: the most authoritarian (in a kindly way) are the mega-cities or city states, huge areas linked across the world to each other to create an economic "corridor" within which citizens of Seattle or Tokyo can move, but into which outsiders are rarely permitted. Increasingly anarchic are cities such as Detroit, still ostensibly controlled by the corporate police, but in reality being undermined by the new neo-anarchist and communitarian movements, all of which have different theories of distribution, but all of which are essentially Fourierist rather than Marxist. One of the stories is set in a city state, one in Detroit, the others in interaction with one or more of the new movements which exist as liminal territories sketched over the geopolitical map. Stories did not have to relate directly, but the world they inhabited had to be contingent. There are very few direct connections between these stories, but with the exception of Karl Schroeder's story, which seems to take place considerably later, all of the others inhabit at least the same few years.

Much of METAtropolis works very well; there is a sense of a world beyond the tale. However, the stories feel designed to show off the world, rather than to be consequences of the world: for too much of the time we are being given a tour of Utopia.

The aural nature of the project is crucial to the overall experience. With any anthology one choice for the reader is whether to dip in and out, or to read in order. As my iPod moved seamlessly from one to the other, so did I. For me, a major issue was not just whether a story was a good SF story, but whether it was one which kept my attention as a listener. As a reader I skip. I listen to audio books because they don't let you skip, and I like the enforced attention. As a listener, I have learned that the voice matters, as does the performance and the delivery.

John Scalzi, whose introductions frame the stories, is a superb reader. I may quibble with some of his editorial comments which imply, for example, that the shared world idea is something new which he and his colleagues conjured from thin air (he knows that we know that this is not true, but the explanation that follows is clear enough if one has never come across the concept before), but the introductions are clear and concise and read with a crisp freshness and which I longed for in some of the other stories. Scalzi is excited about the future. It is rather unfortunate that some of the readers seemed to be downright depressed.

The opening story is Jay Lake's "In the Forests of the Night," a tale of a stranger in a city and that city's enemies in which the stranger may be John the Baptist and the city itself the Christ figure. Lake is a writer whose work I sometimes enjoy and sometimes do not: his work is intensely descriptive, which is delicious when, as in Mainspring (2007), the character is on the move into new and strange territories. In a novel such as Trial of Flowers (2006), the constant sense of the characters telling themselves and us what they at least could already be assumed to know was overwhelming. "In the Forests of the Night" suffers from the same problem. The omniscient narrator repeatedly places the story on hold in order to tell us about the world in which the story takes place, its landscape, its politics, and worst of all—because most leaden—its history. This content is why John Scalzi has placed the story first, so that we the reader can get a grip on the world of the book. In a written text it might have worked, but this is where the audio nature of the text comes in to play. Five hundred words is one page. A page can be skipped over. But five hundred words is almost five minutes of reading, and a reading cannot be skimmed. Listening to this story while on the treadmill, I was able to time the lengthy expository passages, and they run to seven and ten minutes long. The story—which is slight anyway—is halted while we are subjected to lengthy descriptions of landscapes or inner fears. The story is just not aural enough.

Most unabridged novels are not written for the audio form, and the fan of the unabridged versions must get used to moments when less than a little happens. I'm an agnostic, feeling that some texts benefit from abridgements (particularly crime texts, when so much time is spent deliberately delaying satisfaction), but the delivery of a text can also make a very real difference to how it is received. Michael Hogan, the reader of Jay Lake's story, has a rich, deep bass voice and may be a wonderful TV actor, but he is a rather poor reader. Acting and dramatic reading are not actually the same skill: acting is about getting inside a character, and may involve persuading the reader not to notice the actor; dramatic reading is more in the nature of a performance which is constantly demanding of the audience "listen to me! Focus on what I am saying!" Hogan produces a performance almost devoid of that demand: he has chosen a sonorous, dark, and melancholic style which, combined with the lengthy deviations I have already discussed, drains the story of dynamism. Hogan attempts to impose import on the tale, but the tale has its own import and this double layering succeeds mostly in being rather depressing. Furthermore, Hogan's diction is poor; you imagine the edges of words constantly dropping out the side of his mouth. On the television, where one partially lip reads or understands sentences via the interaction of dialogue this is realistic, but in a reading, there needs to be crispness to the delivery. Every dropped consonant in the audio book had me scrabbling to figure out what had just been read.

Tobias Buckell's story, "Stochasti-city," is a rather nice tale of an urban drifter who falls in love with a young woman who rips him off, gets involved in a little "turked out" spying, and falls in with a bunch of eco-revolutionaries who want to reconfigure Detroit as a car-free eco-metropolis. The unlikeliness of Buckell's vision is its central appeal, supported by the genuine possibilities in bicycle culture and Buckell's understanding of the escalation method of mass protest. Where the story falls down is that almost every description of Europe seems to be based on a faulty understanding of European infrastructures at the end of the twentieth century—and again this is much more noticeable in an audio book than it would be on the page. I am also a little dubious as to whether turning humans from destructive urbanisation towards nomadic life is actually an improvement: goats are easily as damaging to a landscape as agriculture.

Buckell's story is read by Scott Brick. The voice is pleasant enough, but as with Hogan, the delivery is overwhelmingly downbeat. In other hands, "Stochasti-city" could have been a quick-fire adventure story, with a really optimistic kick, instead of which the protagonist is delivered as a sacrifice to fate.

Elizabeth's Bear's story is third. "The Red Sky Is Our Blood" is a non-story about a woman in hiding from her Russian mobster husband, rescued by friendly respect-based anarchists who offer her and her adopted daughter protection in return for assistance. The tale takes place after Katy's escape and ends when she accepts the offer. The narrative mostly consists of a classic "tour around utopia," accompanied by a constant insistence that the alternative economy Katy is being offered is not a utopia, an issue I'll come to in a minute.

The story begins rather effectively with Katy cycling through Detroit, on her way to see her daughter, who she has left in a residential creche. On her journey she notes that she is seeing more and more people with flashing, glittery tags and that there seems to be a link between them, enough that a high powered city woman acknowledges a tramp in the street. Coming out of the creche, Katy is accosted and for no sensible reason accompanies a man called Homer to a diner. There, Homer reveals to Katy, and to us, all he knows of her: she is the American wife of a Russian crime boss, who discovered he was having an affair. Confronted, the crime lord delivered his mistress's body to his wife and on her request gifted her daughter. Katy ran, and has been running ever since. At this point I turned off the iPod and took some long, deep breaths: orientalism is somehow so much more offensive when one has to listen to it, and can't just turn a few pages. I've read Mills & Boon romances with this plot.

Homer offers Katy sanctuary and starts trying to convince her that his community is the way forward. There are a lot of lectures. Heinlein would be very happy. Katy, who is rather smart, asks a number of very important questions: how do they acquire goods they can't produce from low tech? What do they do with growth? And, most importantly, how do they distribute goods? All of these are answered in ways that, by supposedly satisfying Katy, are meant to satisfy us. This is where aurality comes in again: I'm a fast reader. I know that if I were reading this I might well swallow it, but the pace of delivery is such that I have time to think, "hang on ..."

I mean, yes, if they don't have many possessions, dispossession is not much of a threat, but those tags they carry to ensure access to services can be stolen as easily (more easily) than you can requisition a house; you can grow vegetables on small plots of land, but you can't grow grains that way. Agribusiness really is the best way of growing grain, which is why grain culture tends to lead to concentration of large plots of land. Cotton is not the easiest thing to produce without large tracts of land either—which is why sharecropping was impoverishing for both cropper and landlord. I haven't got to factory goods yet, but the little lecture on ten people sharing one lawnmower comfortably overlooked what would then happen to the lawnmower industry, or to the price of lawnmowers, if there was no unit cost reduction. This is supposed to be a scavenger culture, but scavengers need a growth industry to scavenge from, they need waste and careless use. If this culture takes over, what next? We are told, "we'll deal with that when we get there." Each of these challenges is dismissed with a little handwaving, but as a listener, I have time to think and to be dissatisfied.

More worrying is the whole trade in respect that the culture claims. When Katy argues that it's just another form of money she's told that it's different, because it serves different purposes. What these were exactly seemed to be more to do with ideology (of distributed service) than end. Furthermore, Katy's point that this is just another form of money is used to bury another issue; it's also just another version of hierarchy, and not a very transparent one at that. Who exactly decides who is worthy of respect? How are the tags given out? Far from being an attractive system, I found myself wondering if I had just walked into a system of corporate fascism (of the kind that flourished in the 1930s among a particular type of liberal who thought unions caused too much strife). This kind of respect system is far less likely to promote innovation than it is to promote conformity—American high school culture comes to mind. Finally, and before I move on to the reading of the story, any revolutionary who said to me "What can they arrest us for? We haven't done anything illegal!" would have instantly labelled themselves as aspirants for the Darwin Award, by virtue of being too naive to live.

To a very great degree, whether one likes a reader's voice is entirely a matter of taste influenced by cultural expectations: I discovered some time ago that the female pitch of choice for American audio books is too high and too "sweet" for me (I think I have been conditioned by Jenni Murray of Woman's Hour, and Charlotte Green, newsreader and once-celebrated doyenne of the Shipping Forecast to expect rich, melodious female voices). But I do not think it unreasonable for readers to adjust their delivery to the nature of the text, and to the "stage directions." Kandyse McClure's reading is out of the Eeyore school. Sentences droop. The overall tone is of misery and depression. It doesn't go very well with a story about a vibrant new community. The most important of the activists we meet, Stephanie, has all the vocal energy of an anaemic vampire. And for pity's sake, if the text says, "he said nonchalantly," then deliver the line nonchalantly.

On to the Scalzi story, "Utere Nihill Non Extra Quiritationem Suis," which is very much better read by Alessandro Juliani, with the kind of vocal range and attention to detail which meant I forgot I was listening and began to feel part of the story. Scalzi's story is a pleasant, nicely written coming of age story of a boy in New St. Louis. However, I don't think there is a single surprise in it. Benji is twenty and in New St. Louis one has to have taken one's aptitude tests by the age of twenty or be evicted. Once one has taken them, a combination of one's knowledge and one's attitude determine one's choice of jobs. Benji is a bit of a slacker, has taken a year out to travel around their allied cities, and has taken the tests with only days to spare. His mother is a Councilor but declines to bail him out. So Benji discovers that thanks to forgetting everything he has ever learned he is qualified for only three jobs. He misses out on one and ends up on the pig farms where genetically engineered pigs are bred. Then he helps his friend Will drive out to see his own slacker brother, their IDs are copied, and those copied IDs used to raid New St. Louis for food production bio-tech. Benji's pigs' genetic material is at risk from an opportunist (his friend Will's brother again), and Benji sees them off, gaining the girl and some status but choosing to stay with the pigs. All good fun. The Devil is in the details.

This is a society that has chosen the age of twenty to do its winnowing. Anyone not safely in work by that age is out. So the society is selecting for relatively early conformity, which is fair enough but risky; more seriously, this choice is selecting against boys. Any special ed teacher or juvenile delinquent case worker will tell you that boys default from our education system in far larger numbers than girls. In UK exclusion units the ratio is often as high as ten to one. Women tend to come back into the system earlier (sadly with too-early motherhood). Young men settle down around the age of twenty-five. I am not pretending to universals, but in both American and British society for centuries young men under twenty-five have generally been seen as a disruptive influence even when tied down by systems of apprenticeship. So New St. Louis is going to have a severe gender imbalance. Marcus's choices are late also because he has traveled: travel, it seems, is to be discouraged. Marcus—unlike every one of my students who took a year off before university—has learned nothing and matured not one jot. He protests this assumption, but it is held to rigorously by his city. He also seems to have forgotten everything: the revelation of his test scores are an exercise in humiliation. The idea that a kid who has sat in a classroom, with his level of demonstrated intelligence, would do that badly is unlikely in the extreme. And of course they keep being called aptitude tests when even those setting them say they are tests of specific knowledge and ideological conformity. Essentially the entire story seems to be some kind of warning fable to kids to buckle down instantly and conform, with the carrot that if one does, even work on a pig farm will prove rewarding.

Although this is a pig farm with genetically enhanced pigs, which is another place where the Devil snuck in. I rather like pigs. They are smart, sensitive, and bright enough to play really quite complex computer games. If kept in poor conditions they are susceptible to heart attacks. They love to be clean and roll in dust to wash. Given room to move around they will designate one area as a toilet. They quickly identify people they like and are very companionable. It quite puts one off one's bacon.

In the UK, pig keeping is quite strongly regulated: open sties, room to move around etc., etc.. In the U.S. it is not. Many pigs in the U.S. are kept in conditions close to battery farming. So it is probably not Scalzi's fault that when he set out to envisage what one might genetically engineer in a pig which is to be kept among thousands of other pigs he chose intelligence, the ability to recognize humans and understand language, and a number of other traits for which pigs are already well known ... rather than, say, stupidity and calmness, which would give them the ability to cope with the conditions he described.

Finally there is the actual plot and the denouement of the tale. To make it work, Scalzi has to create Really Stupid People. The Really Stupid People are the security forces, who only point their security outward—we get a little lecture on the Maginot Line from Benji. (Funny, I thought he didn't listen at school ...) Frankly the invaders deserve to win, but we knew that because they came for food technology to help them eat, in protest against being given charity. Just to make sure also that we don't link Really Bad Guy (Will's brother Marcus) to the deserving invaders, Really Bad Guy indulges in a spot of kidnapping and blackmail of Will's girlfriend/Benji's object of desire, which provides Benji, a classic Mary Sue, the opportunity to be super brave, smart, and also funny—essential to this kind of story—and swamp him in pig excrement. Leah (the girlfriend) is not completely passive, but she pretty much has to be directed. But I still enjoyed it.

Lastly we come to Karl Schroeder's "To Hie From Far Cilenia" read by Stefan Rudnicki, again in what I had come to think of as the collection's trademark, downbeat tone; but this time it was appropriate to the narrative character. By this time I was getting rather tired of lectures about the nature of METAtropolis. I do understand that the stories might be listened to out of order, but rather than each story's info-dumps contributing a little to the picture, I was being subjected to a great deal of repetition. It did not help that Schroeder's is another non-story, another tour around utopia. In "To Hie from Far Cilenia," Gennady Malianov is a troubleshooter, hired to find missing plutonium. His sidekicks on the adventure are the autistic Danail Gavrilov who is being "ridden" by another personality (the ridden are known as "cyranoids)," and Miranda Veen, an anthropologist and game player who is looking for her son. The portrayal of the autistic man as someone apparently being done a favour by his "rider" seemed about twenty years out of date; that of yet another woman set in motion by the loss of a child, seemed even older. Men, it seems, have motives. Women have maternal feelings. My reaction to this was compounded by that age-old twitch in which the female character's looks are described in abstract detail, while the male character's looks are described contextually, if at all.

The search for the missing plutonium and for the teenage child, takes our protagonists into a series of worlds which are constructed through geo-political filters and maps placed over the "real" world. In effect—and as we are told frequently and at length—these are LARPs which have become real political and economic entities. As with Bear's story, every so often we get to hear a bit more about the structures of these societies and what they do, but also as with Bear, the answers raise more questions than they resolve. At one point we are told that the attraction of Cilenia is the ability to leave the consumer economy in favour of a new autarky, but even if I discount my skepticism about the existence of autarkies (archaeologists have found no societies that don't exhibit some evidence of trade), I still want to point out that Cilenia is an alternative consumer society, it is not an abdication of consumerism. Furthermore, as in Bear's story, the supposedly autonomous utopia is busy raiding the rubbish tips of the society it wishes to leave behind. In the end, while I could see a difference in value (and hence status) ideologies, I couldn't actually see a real structural difference between the worlds. Malianov's comment that he no longer understood why people worked for employers rather than market their own skills, merely reminded me of this: the answer is because marketing my own skills is a waste of the time I would otherwise spend applying them, and an employer is only—in the end—an agent.

Schroeder's story resolves very weakly with a confrontation on a ship, and a choice between white hats and black hats, with very little evidence to support the assignment of either. The nearest we get to evidence is on the subject of those cyranoids: although the ethics of the autist, Danail, being ridden is never discussed or questioned, or is the assumption that he is somehow better off, there may be an implication that his less than free choice (and all the prejudicial assumptions buried within) are an indication that his rider wears the black hat. The other cyranoids are all young people, whose experience of being ridden is wholly beneficial and facilitates their learning (heaven forfend we think about it as a form of exploitation). Otherwise, the combination of dramatic and implausible final choice with the weird names of the rival organizations (Rivet Couture, sanotica, and Oversatch) left me with the impression that I was in the paranoid world of a Bond movie in which evil agencies with strange acronyms fight endlessly in a virtual world.

Summing up, as a straightforward anthology the stories here are fair but not outstanding: with the exception of Buckell's "StochastI-city" they tour their universe rather than being a product of it. However, the overwhelming flaw of METAtropolis is the sense that it was never really thought of as an aural project. The stories were written to be good stories on the page: they revel in description and explanation. They are for the most part terribly slow, and that slowness is mediated into almost snail-like delivery. As recordings they feel padded. The time listed is 9 hrs and 12 mins, but there are only 8 hours of really effective listening in there. Only Scalzi and Schroeder seem to have a sense of how aural time differs from visual time informing their tales and, as science fiction, every story suffers from the time aural reception gives to consider what has just been said. There is nowhere for weak plotting or airy handwaving to hide. Yet despite all I've said, I did enjoy the project as a project, and I'll look forward to a sequel.


Farah Mendlesohn edited Foundation for six years. Rhetorics of Fantasy was published earlier this year.