Thursday, April 07, 2011

Book 10 – The City, Not Long After

By Pat Murphy

This pristine 1989 hardcover has been with me since I first bought it as a teenager. I went through a fantasy/sci-fi period back then, and Pat Murphy was one of my favourite writers. Although labeled a fantasy writer, her stories tend to be grounded in contemporary reality (kind of like Charles de Lint without the faeries and goblins).

Murphy also did double-duty as staff writer at the San Francisco Exploratorium, so her urban fantasies usually involved science and art. At the time, I had already read her Nebula award-winning novella “Rachel In Love”, about a human girl trapped in a lab chimpanzee’s body and The Falling Woman, about an archaeologist’s encounter with an ancient Mayan goddess.

When The City, Not Long After came out, I remember the premise really intrigued me, as it would be my very first introduction to PA fiction. The idea of a desolate post-apocalyptic San Francisco inhabited by a motley group of artists and weirdos appealed to my youthful romantic sensibilities. Now more than 20 years later, I thought it'd be a good time for a revisit.

At first, my older cynical self was suspicious: how could a disparate group of survivors just take over an abandoned city and live peacefully among themselves? But soon enough, I was able to immerse myself in the author’s world, which was starting to make some sense, at least in the realm of magic realism. I had forgotten also that the novel was aimed at young adults. There was some sex, violence and swearing, but it was all quite PG. The themes and social commentary were also fairly simplistic (make art, not war!), but not too annoyingly so, as Murphy is a pretty good writer.

The plot is straightforward: fifteen years before, a plague devastated human civilisation, and small pockets of survivors live in scattered groups. In San Francisco, artists and misfits have taken over, since they're the kind of people who don't mind ghosts of the past haunting the empty streets. However, the peaceful existence of this rag-tag community does not last. A rural army led by a fascistic dictator nicknamed Fourstar threatens to invade the city and impose a new world order. Here the symbolism of a rural dystopia invading an urban utopia is pretty cut and dry. The protagonist is a young nameless woman whose mother was taken by Fourstar’s soldiers, who then escapes to SF to warn the inhabitants about Fourstar’s militaristic plans. While there, she explores the streets and abandoned buildings (described in vivid detail by the author who obviously knows the city well), learns how to become friends with eccentric oddballs, names herself Jax and finds love in the form of paint-can wielding Danny-boy.

[Note some SPOILERS coming up]

The climax is pretty cool. The artists may be wacky, but they aren’t stupid, so they band together and wage a war of resistance against the invading army, made up of uneducated farmers who have been trained in traditional warfare, yet are ill-prepared for non-violent guerilla tactics. Guess it’s rather fitting that this takes place in San Francisco. Radical warfare, man!

Every artist has a speciality which comes to play. Sculptors and gardeners set up creative barricades of religious statues, wrought iron and poison oak. An audio engineer rigs gigantic speakers to blast mind-numbing noise while the soldiers try to sleep. A mechanically gifted autistic called The Machine flies around in his gyrocopter dropping smoke bombs to confuse the army.

----- Spoilers end here -----

As PA fiction goes, the novel has some interesting ideas, though these ideas don’t get explored to their full potential. The ending was fairly ambiguous, never really answering whether non-violent resistance can be achieved in a post-apocalyptic milieu, and the finale also resolved itself too easily and idealistically for my cynical taste. But as PA fiction with a magic realist spin for young adults, it had some good drama and action, making for a fairly enjoyable read. I can see why I got into this in my youth.

It's interesting to note the recent crop of young adult post-apocalyptic (YA PA) fiction, such as The Hunger Games and Enclave (Razorland) series, which seem pumped full of action and violence. Pat Murphy's novel may probably seem quite tame and subtlely nuanced in comparison, so I'd have to check out these trendy new PA YA books to find out!

No comments: