Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Metatropolis by Jay Lake, Tobias S. Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, and Karl Schroeder

MetatropolisMetatropolis by Jay Lake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a promotion on Audible, and the premise seemed halfway interesting, so I picked it up. Sadly, it shares a lot of the same problem of most anthologies: inconsistency. It had its high points and its low points, leaving it to average out to "meh."

Metatropolis is a shared-world anthology, meaning that all of the writers set their stories in a near-future dystopia they developed collaboratively. This near future is violent, corporate-owned, and clannish. The police force is run by Edgewater Corporation, and its representatives are nicknamed "Eddies." Cities are independent enclaves, scrabbling for survival, and most jobs are picked up on the equivalent of Craigslist, in a process called turking. They're fleeting, and a person may never meet his or her employer. Technology is a few steps ahead, except where people are too busy figuring out the whole survival thing to mess around with wires and shiny toys. John Scalzi provides interim narration, explaining the concept behind the anthology and introducing each story.

The first story is "In the Forests of Night," a military SF-esque tale of the fall of Cascadiaopolis. That's a crunchy granola settlement in the Cascades, and, for reasons that are never entirely clear to me, some corporation owner needs to break in. The story is told through several different perspectives, and introduces several characters. As it's a short story, this was a poor choice, and I wound up confused and annoyed. If this had been a later story, I might've been able to follow it better, but later stories seem to hinge on this city serving as a warning to the others.

"Stochasti-City" by Tobias Buckell is the second, and it takes place in Detroit. Our hero, Reginald, is turked out for a job, and it screws him over. When he goes for payback, they hire him to cripple the city without turning it into a war zone. Reginald is clever on his feet, and the patter he uses to address the reader is almost musical. It was a vast improvement over the first story, and I finally started to get a handle on the world. The message in the story is rather anvilicious, though; they didn't need Reginald to agree with their message to agree to work with them, so why all the persuading?

"The Red in the Sky is Our Blood" by Elizabeth Bear is also set in Detroit, perhaps a few months after the events of the previous story. We see its marks in the city Katy, our no-nonsense narrator, rides her bike around. She gets an offer of employment, too, but her instinct is to run from these well-organized idealists, who may be just trying to trap her for her Russian Mob ex-husband. Her caution is understandable, and her exhaustion at being alone in such a harsh landscape is palpable.

"Utere Nihil non Extra Quiritationem Sui" ("Use everything but the squeal") is John Scalzi's offering, and it's a third strong point in an anthology that had so much potential. He tells of regular city life in New St. Louis (same as the old St. Louis, but for some energy conservation and socialist values). The story is told through the eyes of a young man getting his first job, and getting himself tangled up in an attempted insurrection. Benjamin starts off as a jerk, as the narrative points out to us, but his breezy attitude is easy to latch onto, and he's certainly more likable than the guy kidnapping the girl he likes.

The last story is "To Hie from Far Cilinea" by Karl Schroeder, which involves augmented reality, 3D games, the next generation of Google Glasses, and radioactive material, on top of the above trappings. It adds layers of complexity to a world that's already alien, and I felt like the author was doing it just to mess with me. The story is told through Gennady Malianov, a Ukranian agent who retrieves radioactive material. This job involves going through several layers of augmented reality, and we find out he's nearly crippled by social phobia, a factoid that may have been there to make Gennady more sympathetic, but that doesn't go anywhere. The ploy doesn't work, and I'm left swamped with bizarre details about an esoteric world, navigated by someone I don't particularly like. At least it was over quickly.

If all of the stories had been as strong as the first three, this would've earned a much higher rating. As the two others bookended this anthology (and Scalzi rhapsodized about how much I'd love Schroeder's world-building in his commentary), it gets a "meh."

The anthology is narrated by John Scalzi, with five different narrators for the five different stories. It worked well, and all the narrators knew what they were doing. I have no complaints about the audio quality.

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