In the early and mid twentieth century, magazines from the high-circulation glossies to the pulps served up a steady diet of short fiction to vast audiences who read it voraciously for entertainment. Although many decades of radio, and then television dramas and the advent of mass paperbacks, did not initially seem to threaten the mass appeal of short fiction, by the 1980s the signs of decline were there for all to see. And now, in 2008, it is obvious that the people who read for quick, absorbing entertainment have long since gone elsewhere—some to mass-market novels, but most away from the written word altogether. Though many editors remain in denial, this shift has had the effect of changing the nature of the audience that reads short fiction.
But guess what: the result is not all bad! Although writers cannot now make a living writing short fiction (as a few very industrious souls were able to do in the Olden Days), they have more license to experiment. In narrowing, the audience for short fiction has become more sophisticated and more deeply engaged in the conversation of genre short fiction. Not that experimentation necessarily results in fine or interesting fiction, and not that a more sophisticated audience has made mediocrity obsolete; Sturgeon's Law will, I suspect, always remain in effect. But this shift in audience has led to, among other things, the fairly regular production of trade paperback original anthologies aimed to appeal to this audience, such as the pioneering Leviathan series (which debuted in the early Nineties) and, dating from 2002 on, the Polyphony series and one-off volumes like Trampoline, Logorrhea, Salon Fantastique, Interfictions, and ParaSpheres. The emphasis for such anthologies lies in quality, skill, and (occasionally) innovation. They may not sell in huge volumes, but they tend to confer prestige on their authors and appear on year's end reading lists. And they are typically regarded as a sure-bet purchase for readers who want to read sophisticated short fiction—readers like me.
Paper Cities positions itself as such an anthology, through its cover design, its back cover blurbs from the editors of Interfictions, its inclusion of several authors who have contributed to such anthologies in the past, its editor Ekaterina Sedia (known as an up-and-coming fantasy writer), and its introduction declaring that it offers the "second generation" of Urban Fantasy (which it inexplicably characterizes as a "mode of storytelling" rather than a subgenre and claims goes back as far as The Arabian Nights). Sad to say, Paper Cities is the poor cousin of the family. Besides a couple of awful, amateurish pieces, it contains a thin grayness of mediocrity, characterized by weak endings, reliance on cliché, and slightness, occasionally brightened by a splash of lively, interesting pieces that are good enough to rank in the middling range of any of the anthologies listed above. The publisher reproduces Jess Nevins's signature at the end of his introduction, as though to impress upon the reader the credibility and authenticity of his final claim that "If Paper Cities is any indication of second-generation Urban Fantasy—and I believe it is—both the mode of storytelling and the subgenre have a bright future" (p. 5). I sincerely hope that, Nevins's signed attestation to the contrary, the anthology isn't an indication of what "second-generation Urban Fantasy" is or might be, for it's hard to believe anyone would rate it an improvement over, say, Emma Bull's War of the Oaks (1987), the quintessential work of Urban Fantasy.
The first two stories essay stylistic experimentation. "Andretto Walks the King's Way" leads off. Its author, Forrest Aguirre, is best known to the target audience of the anthology for his work on two of the volumes in the Ministry of Whimsy's Leviathan anthology series. Leviathan 3 (2002) won him a World Fantasy Award (with Jeff VanderMeer), while Leviathan 4 (2005) explicitly focused on fantastic visions of the city. The setting for this piece is a castle, not a city. Its style (though not form) is that of a ballad, featuring a panoply of stock characters and a continual stream of clichés, offered up by an omniscient narrator less interested in the sense his sentences make or their interest for the reader than in keeping to the rhythm driving the narration. At the outset, this style works well. But as the clichés pile up, stretching the cartoon characters thinner and thinner, thrusting me into the land of fey tourist kitsch with words like "faire" and phrases like "low, gravely sounds" and "lady of ill-repute," it eventually falters. Ballads—even those Bob Dylan sings—are driven by musicality and an interesting narrative. The musical ballad allows a greater tolerance for verbal clichés because the lyrics constitute only one aspect of its performance; but in a narrative text, words are all the reader has to work with. And so my reading self began to conjure up the Disney castle of Fantasyland, and miniature golf castles and cardboard castles inhabited by the paper-doll cut-outs of my childhood, and I concluded that what I'd taken for irony was only flippancy. The plague causes "exquisite pain"; worries "plague" the sergeant; and when Andretto, who survives the disease, escapes from the grim, plague-stricken castle, he has a fuzzy, warm epiphany: that everyone in the world is connected. Can this be "a parable of AIDS," as Nevins suggests? One can read a mass of clichés as either bad writing or conscious parody. Wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to Aguirre, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth, wondering why he had chosen an almost impossible to imagine horror like the Black Death, which annihilated one-third of the population of Europe at its peak, as the target of his derision.
The second story, "The Tower of Morning's Bones" by Hal Duncan, follows one sort of stylistic failure with another. As all conscious readers know, the content of a story can't be separated from the style in which it is told: and this appears to be the Message here. The piece consists of a solipsistic pack of ramblings exalting a blowhard narcissist called "the Songliner," who lives in the underworld of some unidentified place, smoking opium, screwing, and boasting that his "song is the binding and winding force that makes sense" (Duncan's version of Wine, Women, and Song, perhaps?). The canonical style for conveying a "song" is light, elegant, and lyrical, but here the reader faces pages of turgid prose that lumber about with the grace of a rhino wearing lead-lined galoshes. Incapable of representing the world being "sung of" as having meaning or interest, the narrator quotes the Songliner himself: "The world is what it is ... no more, no less ... but what it is is subtle and mysterious" (p. 31). The heavy, portentous style of the piece, unfortunately, bars the reader from the delights of the "subtle and mysterious."
The next four stories, though readable, suffer variously from slightness and cliché. Richard Parks's "Courting the Lady Scythe" tells the familiar tale of a man who dies at the hands of a femme fatale. Lady Scythe has inherited the role of executioner, which immediately made me think of Kaaron Warren's "The Hanging People" (1995), a marvellous exploration of a woman who takes up that particular family trade; the outcome of Parks's story, however, is (unlike "The Hanging People") predictable from the third page. If the middle portion, involving Storytellers and a forgotten god, had been allowed to do more than serve the plot, this might well have been an interesting tale. Cat Rambo's "Bumblety's Marble" has a city as backdrop, an interesting viewpoint character, sorcery, and "piskies." The story misfires, however, by assigning Doolia, the viewpoint character, the role of spectator looking on as a handsome (dead) boy vainly attempts to get his indifferent mother's attention. The story's many fascinating details and lovely turns of phrase go to waste as mere furniture surrounding Doolia's passive, distant witness of behavior and emotion that the narrative fails to make meaningful sense of for Doolia herself. We never learn anything about the circumstances of these rich, beautiful people who are dead and live below ground, much less any of the other fantastic tidbits strewn through the text: they, like Doolia, simply are. Jay Lake's "Promises: A Tale of the City Imperishable" is misnamed, since the tale uses the city as an anonymous backdrop for displaying a horrifying cycle of deliberate violence and persecution inflicted on little girls who grow up to inflict it on more little girls—all supposedly for some Greater Cause. As with Parks's story, the ending is predictable; since little context for the cycle of violence is given and the world-building is scant, the scenes of emotional and physical violence seem gratuitous. Nevins tells us that Lake has developed this fictional world elsewhere, suggesting it may simply not be a story able to stand alone. Greg van Eekhout's fortunately short "Ghost Market" exploits the familiar fascination with serial murderers who torture and kill children by envisioning the use of magic to exploit that fascination. The ending, again, is predictable and—as with Lake's story—puts the expected moral gloss on its voyeurism to justify the narrative.
Cat Sparks's "Sammarynda Deep" would have been more powerful at novella length, but is nevertheless engaging. The first story in the volume to offer a city that is more than a backdrop, it tells the tale of a man's fame and heroism bought at a woman's tragically unwitting expense. Sammarynda has a visible working economy (something we don't see often in the cities depicted in this anthology) and a distinctive culture and ethos expressed in the social relations and individual psychology of its inhabitants; the story's fantastic element derives from a unique geographical feature of the setting. Jumping ahead in the anthology's ordering, Mark Teppo's "The One That Got Away" is a twenty-first century version of the dinner club story, in which a liar's club tangles with a unicorn attracted to the daydreaming idealist who is its only non-macho member. The pacing isn't quite right and the characters are all too stereotypical, but it's at least readable.
"Readable" isn't a word I'd apply, however, to the two stories preceding and the one that follows Teppo's. The last words of dialogue in Steve Berman's "Tearjerker," "Now tell me a story," is precisely what I wish the author had done. Granted the piece yanked me back to the territory of Jay Lake's tale, that of "hags" exploiting and abusing little girls, but although shit happens in "Tearjerker," said shit is without significance since the narrative tells no story. The piece takes place in a city—Philadelphia, "Fallen" to evil magic and cliché with "carnivorous alleys and debris"—where writing is magical and food rare, it rains vinegar, and addicts mainline the tears of a little girl. But nota bene: whimsical details and sordid images don't themselves a story make. Stephanie Campisi's "The Title of This Story" suffers from the same problem. It takes place in yet another city mysteriously afflicted by Doom, its river occupied by "mora," carnivorous cabbage-like brains (which is all the narrative reveals of them), its architectural structures boasting names like the "Hellticks" complex, the "Abattoir Tower," and the "Noodle Road Snuggery" that never become more than mere names on the page. For all its plethora of details, for all its opium and cocaine, its filth and parrot-skulls and its rival scholars, the city feels as real as cardboard, probably because the piece's dreary details and even drearier setting are thrown on the page without ever being focalized through either its characters or a coherent story. Though the characters grin and crow and bellow with every line of dialogue, said bookisms don't bring characters to life any more than whimsical names do. "We've produced a ridiculous cacophony of random sounds, pathetic musings," one of its characters says with unintended irony. "One can see that these results ... dance uselessly around some central notion that it is impossible to grasp" (p. 122). Worse still is Paul Meloy's "Alex and the Toyceivers," probably the most unreadable story in the book. It combines a constant barrage of eyeball kicks with a nonstop and then and then and then ... recitation of an action plot. This could work in a movie, but visualizing eyeball kicks and action as sketched through words on a page requires the reader's labor. When readers are already engaged with a character and situation, they're usually happy to supply such labor (and don't even notice that they're doing it), but lacking engagement, it is dull, hard work. The "Alex" of the title is less a character than a pure function of the plot, and so it's impossible to care anything about his eleven-page battle in the woods against nightmarish creatures. Here's the sort of thing we know about "Alex": "Alex felt like hurling the axe at it ..." (p. 141) "Alex felt like screaming it was so awful" (p. 143). Such statements are all the characterization the piece has to offer.
Fortunately, with "Alex," Paper Cities hits bottom; all the stories in the second half of the volume are stronger. Though only three pages long, Vylar Kaftan's "Godivy" strikes me as the best story in the book; it's also the first one to grant a woman character agency. If I'd been given it in a blind reading, I'd've assumed it was written by Leslie What. It doesn't matter that the characters are merely figures for playing out a conceit. The tale's style is snappy, its images delightful and snarky, and every word carries its weight. Less, here, is definitely more.
Michael Jasper's "Painting Haiti," though more competently written than the Berman, Campisi, and Meloy pieces, is flawed by a clichéd and racist subtext and its tourist-quality (mis)understanding of the history of violence in Haiti. Claudia, the protagonist, is plausible as a taxi-driver in Raleigh but not as a Haitian expatriate or a painter. Roughly, the story of a "deep black"-skinned monster killing white folks in Raleigh, defeated by a brown-skinned woman (who practices dark magic she just happens to know, probably because she's Haitian) hits the reader over the head with its light/dark symbolism. Sentence after sentence makes reference to white, brown, and black imbued with moral/metaphorical significance. For instance: "light replaced by dark, shadows overtaking the subjects like rot on a piece of fruit that had been fresh only a day ago" (p. 165). It is difficult not to conclude that the tale's moral is that it takes someone touched or stained with "darkness" (a brown-skinned Haitian woman) to defeat evil (a black-skinned murderer).
Though Ben Peek's "The Funeral, Ruined" is marred by its author's apparently shaky grasp of grammar, his tale concerns an interesting protagonist in an unusual setting, that of a city of crematoria. The narrative is at times disorganized, however, and doesn't quite come together. Because it occasionally gives us very fine sentences, all the clunky ones were especially maddening. How, I wondered, could someone who writes sentences like these—"With hard yanks, she tightly wound the frayed black laces of her boots up. On the right boot she missed a hole, and on the left, two" (p. 177)—also write sentences like this: "Her skin, however, sagged around her jaw, wrinkled over her face, and continued to do so down her neck until it was covered by the brown gown she wore" (p. 180). Given its promise, it's a shame it didn't get a couple of more rewrites before publication.
Kaaron Warren's well-realized "Down to the Silver Spirits," which involves an abandoned city of ghosts buried deep beneath a living city, engaged me right up until the end and then lost me. This might be because the narrative, echoing Judith Merril's "That Only a Mother" (1948), drops a sinister hint that it doesn't explore as fully as it seems to have promised. Still, its characterization, its mix of irony and poignancy, and its imagery make it a good read.
Darin C. Bradley's "They Would Only Be Roads" is the weakest story in the second half of the volume. Prester, its protagonist, uses email scams to work magic, which is certainly amusing. But Prester is more a plot-function than a character, besides being a passive player in the action who has to be saved by his friend, Taylor. If she had been the protagonist, it might actually have been an interesting story.
The next two stories are interesting but flawed. The strengths of Jenn Reese's edgy "Taser" are its economical style and excellent characterization of gang boys and the intelligent dog who dominates them. Although the narrative provides no context for understanding what we see of this city, that almost doesn't matter. The story's flaws are hurried pacing at a crucial place in the narrative and an ending that is too pat and easy. David Schwartz's "Somnambulist" offers wonderful imagery and a compelling style, but it's another tale that falls apart at the end. The last-minute assertion of agency by the character who is shown to be active only when she's asleep, who "drives better in her sleep," who "does many things better in her sleep," is unbelievable and made me acutely conscious that the author is pulling the strings and that the characters are simply his puppets.
The last three pieces in the book are, after "Godivy," the strongest, although two of them still suffer from weak endings. Anna Tambour's "The Age of Fish, Post-flowers," achieves the anthology's only credible version of the "fallen" city. That dirt and seeds would be the most precious commodities in a fallen city (here New York, under siege by "orms") makes perfect sense; that a Wall meant to keep the terror out creates more problems than it's worth does too. Tambour's chatty, engaging style is the story's chief strength. "I'm not a knower," the tale's narrator says. "And I don't know anyone who is." Which explains, perhaps the tale's weakness: I ended the story feeling that I didn't have enough information to understand just what is going on here. Barth Anderson's "The Last Escape" combines a Houdini-figure with a sort of coastal pirate culture to charming effect. Who wouldn't delight in the swaggering feats of the Scarab? The story falls apart at the end, with a dropped plot shoe that makes nonsense of the opening sentence and results in the loss of the story's focus when the Scarab disappears. Catherynne M. Valente's "Palimpsest," a vignette of a city called Palimpsest, offers an extended lyric (too much of which is set in italics to be enjoyable to read) playing variations on the theme of inscription. Here we have a story without plot, which (unlike plot without story) can—and does—work. Many of the images are fascinating, more than a few are clichéd; the writing is nevertheless fine enough to hold the reader's attention.
With its vaunted focus on the city, Paper Cities provoked me to ask: What makes a scene urban? Physical structures? Discarded hypodermic needles, vomit, excrement, mud? Many of the stories here have most of those. Working economies? A set of relations among people? Having been nurtured by Dhalgren, my readerly notion of cities assumes that these are more important than either physical structures or the symbols of all that suburbanites loathe and fear. But many of the stories in this anthology don't represent such relations. Many of its authors, apparently, have little love for what makes cities such vital, interesting places. This anthology also provoked me into observing that the invention of details and words that are seemingly random, or without significance, can never be more than graffiti decorating cardboard. Certainly details illuminate characters and setting as nothing else can. But too many of the pieces in this volume scatter a plethora of details without regard to their place in the story itself, without trying to make sense of them as parts of a living, breathing landscape. As a reader, I don't necessarily demand plot, characters, ideas, or wit to make me happy: but I must have at least some of these (if not, simply, exquisite writing) to capture my attention and keep me engaged. Nothing can happen in the reader's head without engagement. Without engagement, a writer's words are just specks of ink on the page—dead, inert, unspeaking. And without engagement, fictional cities remain merely paper cities, never coming to life in the reader's imagination.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.