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Cities, edited by Peter Crowther, Victor Gollancz, 2003, 291 pp.

Cities gathers four stories originally published by Crowther's PS Publishing as standalone chapbooks. This book is actually the fourth in the Foursight series, each of which has, logically enough, collected four of these novellas. I've previously enjoyed the second entry in the series, Futures, and Cities comes to me highly recommended, so I had high expectations for the book. Thankfully, Cities does not disappoint and in fact represents an embarrassment of riches; as the book's cover puts it, this is "The Very Best of Fantasy Comes to Town." Gollancz published this British edition in an amusing (and appropriate) square hardcover, but the Foursight series is also available in an American edition paperback (a bit hard to find unfortunately).

Cities opens with "A Year in the Linear City" by Paul di Filippo, a story that shows a mastery of exposition, characterization, and invention. That might seem like a heavy burden to bear, but di Filippo writes with a light and graceful touch. The Linear City is a constructed world of some kind, a train track and canal running along mile after mile of shallow city blocks, bounded on one side by the Fisherwives of the Other Shore and on the other by the Yardbulls of the Wrong Side of the Tracks. These two elements -- the constructed world, and the angels and demons -- confound each other nicely; the Linear City is not really a Niven-style Giant Object in Space, nor are the Fisherwives and Yardbulls typical angels and demons. The mix is further complicated by the main character, a kind of artistic free spirit named Diego Patchen. Diego's time is spent writing, adoring his firefighting girlfriend, consoling his ailing father, and trying to patch up the messy lives of his artist friends. Diego writes Cosmogenic Fiction, astounding his readers with tales of fantastical worlds that, in a nice tip of the hat to the book within a book of Dick's The Man in the High Castle, sound almost like ours.

All this could have escalated wildly out of control; di Filippo's marvellous writing carries the subject matter and maintains control. Here's an extended quotation to prove my point, from a scene where the Fisherwives have come for a recently deceased character:

Flowing through the basement wall as if through sheer air, five luminescent Fisherwives filled the room with their briney odor. Half again as large as a human, each pearly monochromatic Wife was cauled within wavery drapery that seemed more an extension of their forms, rather than any robe or mantle. Vast irregular wings like the tissuey integument of lobsters unfurled behind them, penetrating any inanimate intersecting barriers of wall, ceiling or furniture. A subliminal melodic buzzing that verged on intelligibility filled the ears of the humans. The Pompatics shed melting scintilla like snowflakes of cold light. Their sisterly faces, all different, all generic, conveyed no discernible emotions. (62)

Any one of those sentences is a miniature masterpiece, but taken together, the effect is amazing. Again, this type of writing could have easily created problems, bogging the reader down, but di Filippo also maintains the forward momentum of the story. Quite an achievement.

"The Tain" by China Mieville is a vividly-realized ruined-London story. In Mieville's tale, most of the major landmarks of London show up, wrecked, defaced, or the site of some strange battle. The ingenious backstory of "The Tain": over the years as humans developed mirrors of increasingly accurate nature (and more of them), the creatures (imagoes) on the other side were increasingly constrained by our actions, their mutable natures chained to a process of copying our every move. This became so intolerable that they found a way to invade our reality and pay us back. The main character of the story is a man named Sholl, who the imagoes leave alone for some reason he can't figure out. London is still a dangerous place, however, with desperate survivors and army units with no orders. A compelling story and a surprising ending.

"Firing the Cathedral" is a new Jerry Cornelius story from Michael Moorcock. It's not really to my taste, although I do understand the long history of this character and what Moorcock is trying to do here. As Jerry himself puts it: "'Well,' said Jerry, 'someone's got to tell you, so I'm going to. There's been a reality shift. The world turned upside down. Things are still settling at the moment'" (180). Indeed! Moorcock's story spirals out from that assumption and does so consistently.

"V.A.O." by Geoff Ryman closes the collection. It's a tribute to Ryman's powers of observation and writing that the story is, successfully, both hilarious and unbearably sad. The story is told in the first-person by an elderly man named Brewster, who is stuck in an old-age home. He was once a brilliant software developer but has been reduced to hacking the very system that made him famous: the facial recognition software that makes the V.A.O. surveillance society a possibility. That's why he's the prime suspect when an elderly criminal who calls himself the Silhouette is causing havoc city-wide. But one of the first victims of this crime spree is his own grand-daughter, so he begins to suspect others in the home. The identity of Silhouette brings together all of the chilling, funny, and melancholy elements of the story, along with an interesting bit of technological speculation. Good work.

Cities is another successful Foursight anthology. I hope Crowther continues to provide a market for novellas, as what he has already published has been of the highest quality.

Last modified: April 6, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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