Metatropolis (editor John Scalzi)

The most common misconception about science fiction is that it sets out to predict the future, when, in fact, although its stories might be set in future worlds, the best examples of the genre use these settings to explore present-day concerns.

Metatropolis collects five original stories by award-winning science fiction writers: John Scalzi, Jay Lake, Tobias S. Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, and Karl Schroeder. The stories have the same future setting: a world co-created by the authors. The project, originally an audiobook and now in print, is a clever, original hybrid of a fragmented novel and a short story anthology.

The shared setting is a near-future world where globalization has failed, and the new world order resembles a series of ancient Greek city-states. Each major city-centre has a different political landscape, although generally either hyper-capitalist, with order kept by a multinational police firm, or run by anarchist collectives of environmentally minded and highly advanced technologists.

It’s something of a red-state/blue-state divide in hyperdrive — throughout, the authors trace potential developments, from the hopeful to the horrific, of current political, environmental, economic, and technological issues.

Militarized environmentalists retreat to the forested west coast to form the city Cascadiopolis and produce new, open source technologies in Jay Lake’s “In the Forests of the Night.” But a stranger appears among them to mark both the beginning of the city’s end and the start of its influence on the wider world. Lake intersperses quotes from fictional studies, essays, and so forth throughout the narrative, giving a fuller sense of the future world but interrupting the story’s forward motion. This is the most stylish but the least well-structured of the stories, and a good introductory work despite its flaws.

In “Stochasti-City” Tobias S. Buckell’s characters navigate a ruined, ruthless, and hyper-capitalist future Detroit and “turk themselves out” as freelance odd-jobbers. In hyper-bureaucratic fashion, projects are subdivided to their smallest task and outsourced to oblivious freelancers — entire battles can be fought with each combatant performing a simple task, like transporting a backpack three blocks on the way to work.

In “The Red in the Sky Is Our Blood,” Elizabeth Bear’s protagonist outsources both her stepdaughter’s rearing and safety, under extenuating circumstances. Both Bear and Buckell detail eco-terrorist uprisings (though clearly in sympathy with them). In John Scalzi’s “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis,” the city of New St. Louis is a near-realization of the Cascadiopolis dream, although by no means utopian.

The authors have clear political sympathies that threaten to overwhelm the stories. One can almost sense, on occasion, a giddiness in their descriptions of capitalist collapse. But they are smart enough to concern themselves with story first — though they might flirt with didacticism, the stories deliver the goods promised: inventive, compelling plots.

However, only Karl Schroeder’s story “To Hie from Far Cilenia” is truly mind-bending. Schroeder’s city is a completely decentralized, virtual one inhabitable only in the imagination — although it’s no less “real” for all that. It’s a city one enters through augmented reality — imagine a high-order video game in which special glasses lay partial or complete images over the visible world.

The environmentalist and capitalist-vs.-anarchist overtones recede while Schroeder highlights a truly futuristic cityscape — a virtual one. Already-existing games like Second Life and World of Warcraft have proven this to be a viable if bizarre idea. Although the odd story out, Schroeder opens up a concept that had started to feel restricting.

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