According to ‘Metatropolis’ the Future is Simultaneously Doomed and Infinitely Redeemable

[31 May 2010]

By Aaron Wee

Meta might be one of the more over used prefixes, undergoing quite a period of vogue, tossed around conveniently and casually to varying degrees of legitimacy. The OED politely informs me of its Greek roots, taken to mean “with, across, or after”. Metatropolis, a lovely anthology with contributions from some of science fiction’s brightest stars, deserves its title portmanteau, both in being witty enough to elicit ‘why didn’t I think of that’, and its ‘correct’ use of meta.

Unlike most volumes, this anthology began as an audio book, commissioned by the producers at Audible.com. It was only realized in print a year later when the first hardcover copies were released in 2009. An exemplar of the science-fiction trope of positing a future ‘One Week into the Future’, in Metatropolis is a collaborative effort to envision and speculate on a world that could be. The project began as a shared world with fleshed-out landscapes and settings, developed within a unified view of the future. The work is not connected via some vague theme or idea but the authors are united in their common depiction of a future; the star of the anthology is not urban life or a flesh-and-bone protagonist, but ‘The Urban’. It’s a different way of creating an anthology and, consequently, we get a different view of the future.

For some, perhaps, Metatropolis can be a dystopian future. The authors have, essentially, taken all the dangerous and harmful trends of the present, taken them to their logical century-long conclusions, and then pick up from there. There is no single Metatropolis, per se, but a network of urban areas—the sort of city you get after industry—where the average urban citizen would have more in common with someone who lives across the world, thanks to ubiquitous travel and information exchanges, rather than the family who farms down the country road.

While there are some suggestions of a globe-spanning political entity, managing via the single global metatropolis, most of the action takes place on the North American continent: while the major cities (with Detroit being a decayed and hollowed out exception) are networked with the rest of the globe’s major wealth centers, the rest of the continent, neglected and, to a large degree, ignored, by traditional governmental and corporate forms of power, live in Fourierist communities—syndico-anarchist refuges that represent ‘The Rest’. With the exception of Karl Schroeder’s concluding “To Hie From Far Cilenia”, there are virtually no crossovers between the stories and yet, a reader can have no problems situating all five stories—with the narration flying between authoritarian city states and Cascadian communes—within the same, coherent world.

It may be fair to situate Metatropolis within the Third Wave of speculative urbanism. The first was the rather rosy, Jetsons-esque ‘technology will solve everything’ vision, full of high-tech mischief and robot-servant convenience; the second was best exemplified by the grim-and-grit Blade Runner urban aesthetic, where every city has a Brazil-ified Gini coefficient and life is, to use an old expression, cheap.

The world depicted by Metatropolis fulfills a different niche where the urban is explained within the context of the present’s problems, with the prevailing situation balanced between competing ideologies, both purporting utopia without ever fulfilling it, and yet completely satisfied in the way their own vision of the future functions. The cities and communities in this anthology oscillate wildly between fulfilling everything their citizens could demand, and yet fail to ask the right sorts of questions of their communities.

Whereas the first two waves of speculative urbanism have, rightly, asked us to willingly suspend our beliefs for the sake of a narrative fiction, the urban philosophies at play in Metatropolis attempt to show us the good and bad. Often, these ideas are just one step away from contemporary assumptions of the role and function of cities that exist today. As a result, it is not so hard to imagine this telos for the community where one lives—we could, after all, be a single vote/declaration/referendum away.

This is what makes ‘One Week into the Future’ fiction quite so compelling. We are asked not to make any ridiculous suppositions: there is no, as it were, ‘unobtanium’ to power the technology. Instead, we are invited to experience a city that is just one step away from what we know or expect.

The stories themselves, unfortunately, seem to take a backseat to the setting. While each unfolding tale does place the characters and the setting very much in the world, the action is not so much one where their consequences are felt. They may be alluded to, like Tygre’s epochal influence on Cascadiopolis, but very rarely do the stories move into actually developing Metatropolis as an inhabited, lived-in world. Instead, we are given glimpses of utopian ideals and are guided through this conceptual space rather than being told a story. This is not necessarily a bad thing though; the urban speculation in Metatropolis is engrossing, realistic, and entertaining enough to be as dramatic as any central protagonist. 

The stories are themselves fairly optimistic. We get a Messiah-parable in Jay Lake’s “In the Forests of the Night” which is, unfortunately, constantly interrupted by worldwide exposition. It works as an introduction to the scope of Metatropolis but leaves a reader looking for a personal hook flailing somewhat. Still, the vision is consistently utopian, of what might and could be. It works as a teaser—the relentless, palpable hope, and the figuration of the city/environment as hero (in fact, at times, it feels like Cacadiopolis itself can redeem the world). More entertaining is John Scalzi’s “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis” which poignantly asks if you would take a shower with grey water. Its underdog, fresh-grad protagonist finds chaos tempering all visions of utopia. It is endearing, charming, and just full of enough jaunts in side-adventures to keep a reader rooting, this time, for the human protagonist.

The future is, it seems, simultaneously doomed and infinitely redeemable. These are environments where anything can happen—exciting, dynamic, and refreshingly new—where the cities themselves lend well to imagination. Whether deliberate or not, given the world’s wide scope and detailed economies, Metatropolis absolutely reeks of sequel-potential.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/125731-metatropolis-by-john-scalzi-et-al/