Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Years of the City

by Frederik Pohl

Decent, but hardly great, and further and further in became underwhelming. The device of linked short stories to show a specific city changing it intriguing, but the actual description provided isn't that satisfying. I think it ends up being too cynical, too focused on organized crime and the moral/dramatic failure of most of the characters.

In the end smaller details stood out, but the wider layout of material and societal change failed to capture me. The issue in part is probably due to my lack of familiarity with New York City, for the book it’s far from incidental that the representation concerns the future of that particular metropole. Perhaps there’s a whole subtext that I’m missing, elements that would ring clear and be either funnier or more interesting if I had actually lived there. As is, such specificity weakened the account. I felt by the end like I was seeing pretty clearly Pohl’s views and musings on the city, but not a real sense of the urban center in itself, or a longer term vision that really captured a sense of invented history and human scale. Instead there were some new technologies, an occasionally compelling societal adaptation, and some fairly engaging narratives that didn’t really carry the full potential of the setting. In that sense it’s failure is precisely as a work of science fiction, which is unusual for Frederik Pohl, but ultimately I have to pronounce myself underwhelmed. It still works as a set of stories by the energy and logic with which events unfold, and the speed at which Pohl establishes a discrete personality.

Coming to this piece not long after Mieville, I’m struck by how New Crozbun, the city that’s far more clearly imaginative, detached from realistic events, baroque and metaphysically extreme--feels ultimately a lot more plausible than the city presented here. A consequence of differying levels of detail and complexity, ultimately. Pohl’s city is ultimately hard to visualize beyond the few dozen people we see interacting amongst the major projects and technology discussions. Mieville’s city can’t be seen except as a densely poupulated, diverse, and complex social environment, ultimately the main character in his books more than any single person. Often the final point of quality of science fiction is it's ability to go out on a limb.

Better than: Jennifer Government by Max Barry
Worse than: Legacy by Greg Bear

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