A few weeks ago I left London and entered the future again. I was about to fly in an oldish plane from one old airport in England to another old airport in Norway, in order to give a talk about the world city in the twenty-first century. I felt I was as entitled to talk about the world I lived in as any of the rest of us: that larger half of the world's sum of homo sapiens who have become treeless in this century, veldtless, farmless, parkless, legless; but who have become, necessarily, just streetwise enough to know where the nearest just-in-time cloaca disgorges pellets of the fungibles we ingest like battery hens; and who breathe the poison gas of Pax Aeronautica when we travel. So I left London on the Gatwick Express and began the process of becoming "John Clute": which is to say becoming a readable portion of the original entity indistinguishable (to all purposes) from the barcode that tracked its transit to come. And so the "John Clute" packet arrived at Oslo Airport, and began to breathe life into itself again. I felt repurposed. It crossed my mind that transiting the aeropolis worldnet was a bit like experiencing matter transmission in SF; and I had a quick flash memory of A J Budrys's blackly proleptic Rogue Moon (1960), a book which in retrospect seemed like a description of the way we lose ourselves in travel in 2011. I walked with my fellow recovering barcodes to luggage reclaim, where the system had jammed, leaving most of our worldly gear stuck somewhere in the bowels. There was dead silence in the vast space. Two things came to mind. One: that when a zero-redundancy just-in-time system seizes up, the part of the world machine that has been affected by the dysfunction ages instantly, like an abandoned shopping mall, or some matrix-world when the electricity is turned off. Mourning becomes entropy. Two: that the emotion felt by passenger units, when their codings have been defaced by a failure of the world-machine, is shame.
In my hand while enduring this shame, there was a copy of Engineering Infinity, an anthology of Hard SF stories edited by Jonathan Strahan, which the fungible called Mr J Clute had previously attempted to read in flight, not very successfully. If there was solace and delight in the book (in retrospect there was a bit), and maybe even a hint of a clue of how to describe the experience of living here in the future, it had gassed through me like phlogiston. Nor did I find out much about how Strahan's select cohort of surviving Hard SF minds might describe the world cities in our planetary future where most of us will live until we are cancelled, because there were no world cities in the book to talk about (with one exception, see below); the book entirely lacked, in other words, any Hard SF analysis of the strategies of perception necessary for most of us, if we hope to survive much longer in the cities on this planet as they pile on top of one another, in the Boschian scramble for lebensraum we now experience as normal. There was nothing in Engineering Infinity remotely as relevant to the issues of the day as the analysis of the perception dances of urban life worked through in China Mieville's The City & the City (2009), a book which is genuine Hard SF, with no candy. (I mentioned the book in my talk.) All the same, though I was no wiser about the world after reading Peter Watts's "Malak," about a weapon in a near-future Middle East desert which teaches itself what to kill, the tale was as rousing as Watts in life; but then Kristine Kathryn Ruch's "Watching the Music Dance" was simply dispiriting: a deeply muted dystopic vision of the costs to a fragile marriage of depriving a child of her music-education implants set in a suburb greyly updated from 1960s Galaxy-world. Karl Schroeder's "Laika's Ghost," about a secret plot to jerrybuild a spaceship and escape to Mars from a near future desert near Stepnogorsk, where entropy is toxically visible, was modestly entertaining. But except for some en passant hints of devastating climate change, his skaggy slightly elongated tale seemed less current than Brian Aldiss's Somewhere East of Life: Another European Fantasia (1994), which transfigured a similar endzone into a fable that has not aged.
In flight, I had come across an article about the London Olympics, where I learned that 70% of all those attending—excluding our owners, who will be whisked to their sponsor seats in stretch limos via special traffic lanes originally intended for athletes hurtling from one venue to next across the world city—will be arriving by public transportation, which seemed a positive datum worth mentioning the next day at Lillehammer, a quasi-suburban town that had once housed a Winter Olympics. But what I also mentioned in Lillehammer was what seemed to be the real point of the article: that before they gain access to the actual Olympics ground, commuters by public transport will be channelled through a vast new purpose-built enclosed multi-billion pound shopping mall, and that they meant to do that. Passing through this commercial gauntlet puking vacancy into our souls, and staring into a vast gymnasium whose vacancy is only temporarily masked by the actual games, will not truly be distinct experiences, being no more really than blushes on the fungible within. The blatancy of the marriage should come as no surprise, perhaps; not any more. What did chasten me a bit as an SF reader, on the other hand, was the lack of any story in Engineering Infinity whose take on this world even remotely reflected the underlying realities of Olympia Mall. In Lillehammer, it was almost humiliating—for an SF critic who had come to that town in order to give some sense of the relevancy of SF to our own lives henceforth—to come across the graphic work of Hariton Pushwagner, a Norwegian artist who had been modestly active in London in the early 1970s, but who had gone to ground back in Oslo and was only now being recognized. I had certainly never heard of him. He had lived in London between 1969 and about 1975, where he had created a dystopic graphic novel about the last day in the life of a world city run by an insane cartel about to incinerate the planet and escape to a new world, rather like the title organisation in Ben Elton's first novel, Stark (1989). Pushwagner went to ground, and his tale was lost until very recently, when it was published as Pushwagners Soft City (Oslo, Norway: No Comprendo Press, 2008). The text—consisting of a few simple directional phrases—is by Axel Jensen, the primary influence for whose SF was Yevgeny Zamiatin. Drawn with a radically deceptive simplicity, Soft City renders with an OCD outsider's fixative intensity a maskless vision of this very world that was continuing to be born during the years of the artist's entombment out of history. His tale says more about the feel of 2011 than anything published within the aspirational remit of Engineering Infinity.
Which is not to say it's a bad anthology, though its exposure of the extrapolative paucity of Hard SF as regards the planet might seem embarrassing. By some degree the best story in the book is David Moles's "A Soldier of the City," in which solar-system-sized macrostructure is slantingly described, a city is destroyed, an enemy mega-artifact blasted into smithereens at the cost of the life of one of the "gods" who rule this bit of the sevagram, and the protagonist changes yearningly into a figure of genuine interest as the tale slingshots into another realm. The constant unpacking and complexification of story casts the mind back to James Tiptree Jr. in her pomp. I don't know Moles's other work, and could only hope this was a singleton, because it was such a luxury to deal with so much content without the diminishing knowledge that it would soon be normalized into continent-sized dynastic dramas, or what.
I had thought to spend some time on J M McDermott's Never Knew Another, but only if it made any pretence of wrapping itself up on its final pages; but it does not do that. This is his second novel, and diddles the reader a bit the way early novels tend to in this century, for most of them seem to be written within the sophisticated arenas new writers tend to inhabit these days: online clambakes; writing workshops; MFA programs; so on. Which is to say they come to their task fully prepped. McDermott's main surrender to expertise lies in his use of the exceedingly common bait-and-switch technique: you start your epic (Never Knew Another is the first volume of McDermott's projected Dogsland Trilogy) with a bang: a superflux of happenings, intensely couched; adult figures doing adult things gravely and efficiently, as is the way with adults; and a sense that we have arrive in medias res at the genuine take-off point for the entire novel. And once you have the reader hooked, you segue backwards to a simpler time, where you can expand at leisure the first-draft crap your instructor told you to bury, where you can corrosively over-explain everything that leads up to the place you began the novel; and if you are particularly bare-faced you can turn all this pre-story faffle into a Young Adult novel, which is to say you can divagate along Young Adult rails on the Young Adulthood of the heroine before she becomes remotely storyable. McDermott does almost go Young-Adult on us, but stops short. And his route into realms of flashback is cunning: one of the adult werewolf demon hunters who start the tale ingests the memories of her dead prey by breathing his essence through his skull, rather the way Severian breathes in Thecla; and it is her reconstruction of his memories that organizes the flashback passagework that takes up most of the book. But it is a close call.
The world of Never Knew AnotherL seems ungirded by any SF explanation, though who knoweth what sequels know, the Shadow knows. It is a world in recovery from a war of some sort that ended in the deep past, though the demons (who may have lost) continue to infect human stock with their poisonous blood. The werewolves' current prey are two seeming humans whose demon blood will eventually poison them, and is toxic to the world around them. As far as volume one deposes, they must be hunted down and killed. The skull is of a demon/human who had fallen in love (as his werewolf soul reader learns) with a young woman who also has demon blood. The city they live in, which they call Dogsland, is foetid, immense, Piranesian, o'erclouded with woe, fecund. A secondary pattern of story eventually focuses on the identity of the "king of the night," who runs the underworld just as aristos rule above: pure Urban Fantasy in the old old sense. Since only one of these aristos is identified by name at any point, it is perfectly obvious, according to the As Above So Below rules that govern almost any fantasy depiction of any conurbation larger than Basingtoke, that she will be the "king of the night," and so she is. McDermott has a harsh deft way with words and sentence growths. And he hardly wastes any of his words anywhere, not even when he depicts his demon prey (whose earlier lives take up really a lot of pages) at moments when they are remembering their own lives, which brings them dangerously adjacent to the wrong side of puberty. So, unless McDermott goes walkabout (I think he has a tendency to, and I think he better watch his step carefully in volume two, which is where, traditionally, all the tumbleweed in an author's hard disk goes to roost), this could mark the beginning of something very good indeed from a genuine hard puncher. So please. Keep shaking us like this.