Book Review: Future City, ed. Roger Elwood (1973)
November 22, 2011 § 14 Comments
According to Future City, the cities of the future are to be avoided at all costs. There are no utopias here — only overpopulation, pollution, racial warfare, natural disasters, robot takeovers, and eventual reversion to primitivism! But there’s a trajectory! In fact, Roger Elwood, the editor of the volume, asked for new stories that fit along this arc. Elwood claims that there are twenty-two leading science-fiction writers who contributed to the volume. Unfortunately, three of these leading authors don’t submit stories: Tom Disch contributes a one page poem, Clifford D. Simak a brief introduction, and Frederick Pohl a short afterword. Also, two of the twenty-two are monikers for Barry N. Malzberg. Famous authors like Frank Herbert and Ellison contribute substandard short stories. Many of the other leading figures are not “leading figures” in any sense of the word!
As with most collections there are gems AND complete blunders. Robert Silverberg, R. A. Lafferty, Ben Bova (and others) all contribute thought-provoking stories making this collection worthwhile.
Short Story Contents (limited spoilers)
The Sightseers, Ben Bova (2 pages) 4.5/5 (Very Good): The first short story of the collection is a wonderfully visceral “flash” piece by Ben Bova. A father brings his son on holiday to New York City. A searing vision of a decaying New York segregated from the rest of the country, replete with bedicabs (cabs with meters and beds and prostitutes), real murder films, dingy hotels — visitors must be subjected to a lung-cleansing machine before they leave.
Meanwhile, We Eliminate, Andrew J. Offutt (11 pages) 4/5 (Good): In an overpopulated and massively overpopulated future Louisville (a problem which plagues the entire country) a man from Indiana drives into the city with a large vehicle banned from urban areas. Fred Lapidus, horrified by the pollution from the vehicle, follows him in his car. A confrontation occurs… bricks… a crash… A call from the police. In Offutt’s future the fear of pollution is a fear more real and frightening than communism.
A quality short story from an author I’vd never previously read — reminds me of the slightly earlier ecological disaster masterpiece, The Sheep Look Up (1972) by John Brunner.
Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam, Laurence M. Janifer (5 pages) 1/5 (Bad): An immediately forgettable story about a massive city where the windows of the high-rises are completely sealed from the external elements. When the power goes out the airconditioning ceases to function, the elevators, etc. Some people get stranded and start to suffocate. The silly premise and poor writing means I won’t track down any of Janifer’s other works — although, now that I think about it his novel Brain Twister (1959), co-written with Randall Garrett and published under the name Mark Phillips, was nominated for the 1960 Hugo…
The World as Will and Wallpaper, R. A. Lafferty (15 pages) 4.75/5 (Very Good): This was my first exposure to R. A. Lafferty’s allegorical cityscapes and won’t be my last. It is a fascinating allegorical tale with an air of whimsy and undercurrents of dread — a future world city comprised of strips of land filled with happy people who rarely talk or read. William Morris sets out to find the Wood Beyond the World… And makes a startling discovery. A beautiful short story — I cannot wait to pick up some of Lafferty’s novel length works!
Culture Lock, Barry Malzberg (6 pages), 1/5 (Bad): It’s a shame that my first exposure to Malzberg has to be such a miserable one because he’s heralded as a top-notch sci-fi writer. A future city somehow compels people to become homosexual and engage in orgies…. The terrible premise makes little inherent sense — the whole thing comes off as ham-fisted condemnation of homosexuality rather than a logical social result of the invented future. Avoid.
(If someone has a more nuanced explanation please let me know!).
Violation, William F. Nolan (6 pages) 3/5 (Average): A vaguely intriguing short story concerning a fiercely tyrannic city where everyone travels/lives/works in the “comforts” of the underground reaches. A nameless man and woman venture out of the underground to ride around in a car and have a fight — only to be stopped by a loan police officer waiting. Nolan, most famous for his novel Logan’s Run (1967), tries to imbue the work with a nihilistic streak and some sparse sentences but the end result is forced and rather banal…
City Lights, City Nights, K. M. O’Donnell (i.e. Barry Malzberg) (16 pages) 4/5 (Good): Barry Malzberg’s second contribution to the collection is far superior to Culture Lock. Cities are inhabited by the most dangerous, uneducated, and individuals — Malzberg predicts a future where the worst neighborhoods expand and take over entire cities. A outsider (most people avoid cities altogether) director ventures into Manhattan to film a reenactment of the assassination of JFK with a mismatched group of city-dwellers, lumpen. The spectacle unfolds in a delightful manner. The ending, although appropriate, weakens the effort.
The Undercity, Dean R. Koontz (14 pages) 3.5/5 (Good): A welcome humorous take on the evolving nature of the underworld in a massive city where crime has been reduced, murder mostly eliminated, drugs and all forms of sexual activities legalized, and marriages mandating equality of the sexes. A veteran of the underworld teaches his daughter (Koontz is manipulating the normal mafia-esque tropes) how one CAN still engage in illegal money making activities. He spends his day filtering sewer, sneaking people out of the city, and marrying couples who want to violate the equality act.
Apartment Hunting, Harvey and Audrey Bilker (9 pages) 1/5 (Bad): Written by a no name husband and wife duo who wrote three published short stories in their entire career… for good reason. Apartment Hunting is structured to ratchet up tension for the final (predictable) event. However, it plods along like a limping mechanical dog. A husband and wife look for an apartment in an overcrowded city. They discover that the previous occupant of the apartment they want won’t leave.
The Weariest River, Thomas N. Scortia (38 pages) 3/5 (Average): Scortia is another author whom I’d never heard of but sadly The Weariest River is the weariest slog in the collection (and not because of the page length). His future world is blessed/plagued by immortality. The Company acquires the immortality serum and becomes the governing body of this future society. The inventor himself is forgotten and it is through his eyes (and flashbacks) that the story progresses. The immortality serum does not prevent aging but quickly heals the individual — so, people live and extremely long time with nagging pains. The oldest are confined sent to a facility which puts them in suspension. The young and old alike in a desperate attempt to find meaning in life engage in all varieties of deviant behavior and drugs. The story is an interesting take on immortality but ultimately fails to make an impression on any emotional or intellectual register.
Death of a City, Frank Herbert (9 pages) 3/5 (Average): I was expecting grand things from Frank Herbert but I was disappointed. City doctors “cure” discontented cities by destroying them. City Doctor Bjska and intern City Doctor Mieri approach Mieri’s hometown which needs to be cured. She protests! Bjska attempts to convince her otherwise… Herbert makes no real attempt to explain WHY cities have to be destroyed. The problems of Mieri’s hometown seem rather minimal. This disconnect made the story preposterous.
Assassins of Air, George Zebrowski (9 pages) 3.5/5 (Average): Another interesting attempt by a relatively unknown author to explore a future plagued by pollution. Our young hero Chris is a recycler of old cars which are being phased out for new electrical ones. He spends his wages on PLATO machines (Programming Logic For Automatic Teaching Operations) so that he can receive a better job. His employers are less than pleased. If this was fleshed out into novel form it would feel like a middling juvenile — a smart boy hero, simple villains , a few interesting ideas.
Getting Across, Robert Silverberg (31 pages) 4.75/5 (Verg Good): Silverberg’s installment is by far one of the best in the collection. The earth is composed of a world city (or sorts). However, unlike other conceptions of a world city this one has fractured into individual districts of 3-5 or so thousand with their individual governments. People rarely travel between districts — each district has its own character and laws and travel is generally frowned on and prevented by stringent regulations. The main character, the District Commissioner of Nutrition, is sent to track down his month-wife who stole the master computer program that runs the Ganfield district’s food distribution, robots, finances, everything… The loss of the program plunges Ganfield into despair and decay. I was extremely intrigued by Silverberg’s concept that a world city wouldn’t necessarily be more interconnected but might decentralize and “provincialize.”
In Dark Places, Joe L. Hensley (10 pages) 3.75/5 (Good): This story took three rereads for me to appreciate. The future cities are wastelands of outright race warfare between whites and blacks. When a white president from the south gains power he places all the blacks behind fences. Our main character is a black mayor of a city which has avoided war (the concessions he made are only hinted at). Worship of a new amorphous “god” of the African Americans called ‘Him’ gains adherents in this desolate environment. An intriguing read…
Revolution, Robin Schaeffer (4 pages) (i.e. Barry Malzberg) 4.75/5 (Verg Good): The third Malzberg story is by far the best. A short rumination — a young boy protests recent legislation controlling the minds of the remaining humans. A robot shows him the real state the the city…. Beautiful despair.
Chicago, Thomas F. Monteleone (15 pages) 3.5/5 (Average): Monteleone’s installment belongs in a pulp magazine of the 40s/50s. A sentient Chicago is no longer occupied by humans but rather robots. A certain robot mysteriously (and unexplainably) begins to ask questions when he is sent to a cryogenic building — he sees a woman! And accidentally awakens her! I would have loved this story as a kid. It’s simplistic/predictable but, dare I say, touching.
The Most Primitive, Ray Russell (2 pages) 1/5 (Bad): Man has regressed to primitives who hunt and are hunted. There’s nothing else to say about this dud. Boring, thank goodness it’s only 2 pages. Avoid.
Hindsight: 480 Seconds, Harlan Ellison (6 pages) 3.5/5 (Good): My first exposure to the great Harlan Ellison was middling at best. The world’s cities have lifted into space, à la Blish’s Cities in Flight, due to an approaching planetoid which will crash into Earth. One man is selected, a poet, to stay on the planet (and die) so that he can send his impressions of the destruction of earth (to the flying cities) for all future generations of the displaced. The story manages to evoke emotion and touches on the ramifications of the loss of mankind’s home world. And of course, our poet is unable to do justice to the event and has more personal concerns.
5,000,000 A. D., Mirian Allen deFord (6 pages) 3/5 (Average): The collection ends on a sour note. Mirian Allen deFord paints an banal picture of a future world where all the cities are in ruins, the sun is dimming, humans have become mostly sterile and have reverted to hunting and gathering. Despite crumbling civilization various (unconscious) social constructs remain (crossing oneself, monogamous relationships, etc). A forgettable read…
Don’t be put off from the acquiring the volume by the composite rating — there are some gems among the chaff — notably, Silverberg’s Getting Across, R. A. Lafferty’s The World As Will and Wallpaper, Robin Schaeffer’s (Barry N. Malzberg) Revolution, and K. M. O’Donnell’s (Barry N. Malzberg) City Lights City Nights. Unlike many anthologies these stories have been placed in an arc of the city’s evolution deliberately — I found the structure refreshing and worth reading in order.
Many of the authors are justifiably unknown or are monikers of Barry N. Malzberg. It’s a shame that Simak, Disch, and Pohl didn’t contribute stories because Simak’s introduction feels lifted from an intro anthropology class, Disch’s poem is filler, and Pohl’s conclusion adds a few self-evident points and his vague feelings regarding cities.
By the end the mono-thematic take on the City as vehicle of evil, destruction, and the end of mankind wears thin. But, I revel in well-conceived dystopic visions and there are quite a few in this collection!
All in all, Future City is an intriguing yet frustrating collection.
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