Walter Jon Williams
Harper Collins, 1995
Buy It? Sure!
Welcome to a world packed with people by the billion, a city that covers the world, divided into a dozen fractious, frequently-warring states. A world ruled by the mysterious power of plasm, the sole source of magical energy, generated, magnified, and focused by the careful geomancy of past centuries.
A world where nothing changes. Where a new building means destroying the old, means relocating hundreds, means bureaucracy, red tape, and bribery, means alterations in the geomantic balance that generates the world's most coveted resource. Where the awesomely powerful Shield isolates Earth's humanity and has done so for so long that the sun and moon are barely remembered and far less real to the people than the Ascended, those few humans of legend who were allowed to pass the Shield and join the Immortals.
Aiah works for the Plasm Authority in the Scope of Jaspeer, although she herself is not Jaspeeri but Barkazil, one of the Cunning People, whose home metropolis was destroyed long ago. The Authority is a decent job and dependable enough, but the only route to advancement is by hanging in long enough for your superiors to die, and every day she faces the entrenched prejudices of the Jaspeeri, who are freshly startled by every sign of bare competence from a Barkazil. She spends her days sending plasm to other people, the powerful mages who can afford itunlike her, who could barely afford the few classes she took in its use. Who certainly can't afford the apartment she and Gil recently rented, before he was sent off on a long, far-away assignment and their expenses increased. Who finds herself increasingly near a cliff-edge which will see her back in the same hopeless poverty and pointless struggling that grips most of Jaspeer's Barkazil population.
"What's the worst thing in a city that covers the world?
To live forever with the object of desire and not possess it."
Then she stumbles across a fortune in plasm, an untapped well that has been accumulating raw magical power for centuries. At first she thinks only of tapping small amounts of the plasm, perhaps selling it on the black market, secretly resuming her studies but she knows that sooner or later plasm thieves get caught, get sold out to the Authority or to the Operation that runs Jaspeer's criminal underworld.
So she sells it. All of it, to someone with a very good use for it. Constantine was Metropolitan of Cheloki, a metropolis he seized from his own corrupt and vicious family only to see it invaded and destroyed, his life's work to end in exile. Constantine still dreams of the New City he envisioned long ago in Cheloki, a radical change in the order of things, in the endless, petty, stifling sameness that grips humanity, dreams of some day even defeating the Shield and allowing them to see the stars again.
In exchange for the power to make this dream real he will give Aiah all she could wantmoney just for starters, passion, lessons in plasm use, for as a master mage he can teach her far more than any collegeand more. Aiah is about to begin a more dangerous series of lessons as well. "We are not little people," Constantine's lover Sorya warns her at the start, and as she walks with the great Aiah begins to learn their ways. When she has learned flight, shall she return to her old life?
Of course not. Williams goes after this world and this story with the skill a reader should expect of him by now. The themes are familiar ones: a far future world, a society sufficiently different from our own and detailed enough to captivate, a grand scale of events and ideas, a sustained meditation on power and its uses. Typical of Williams, his heroes have flaws and there are no readily identifiable villains (although there are characters we are meant to dislike). The only common element missing is his usual obsession with immortality (plasm use can extend life immensely, but it is not the issue it was in, say, Knight Moves or Aristoi).
I've read this book three times now and still admire it. Williams has a deft hand at his craft. His characters are sharply drawn and set carefully in their environment, a world much changed but one where, unfortunately, human nature retains all its old familiar ways.
Metropolitan is, unusually for Williams, the start of a longer work. The second book, City On Fire, addresses the oft-ignored fact that after the good guys have won, the real work has just started.
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Except where otherwise noted, all material on this site is © 1999 Rebecca J. Stevenson