Young Geoffrey (ed_rex) wrote,
Young Geoffrey

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City Come a-Walkin (and a-Killin' and a-Smashin' and a-...)

Much Ado About Nothing

I somehow came late to cyberpunk, not reading William Gibson's seminal novel, Neuromancer until the late 80s or early 90s.

I don't remember much about the book at this point, but I do know what my reaction to it was was I closed it: Is that what all the fuss was about?

Sure, Neuromancer came dressed in a (ahem) gritty, decaying urban guise, all cynicism and punk-rock, but beneath the mohawks and shabby leather was, I thought, just another take on the old science fiction trope of the Lone Hero battling impossible odds.

New bottle, old wine; if I wanted escapism I prefer that it spam the galaxy, not the back alleys of San Francisco, thank you very much.

Still, when I came across a copy of John Shirley's apparently even-more seminal 1980 novel, City Come a Walkin', with a foreword by none other than Gibson himself, I picked it up.

Gibson's foreword acknowledges City as a vital influence on his work. "I was somewhat chagrined, rereading it recently, to see just how much of my own early work takes off from this one novel."

If my own memory of those few novels of Gibson's that I've read is true, his acknowledgement is legitimate. Shirley's novel is set in San Francisco's punkish demi-monde, circa the year 2000, a bleak, nihilistic world of violence and self-destruction, heading quickly to becoming ruled, quite literarly, by organized crime.

Until the City itself, product of its citizens' collective unconscious comes to life and walks into Stu Cole's club, The Anesthesia on a crowded Saturday night.

Shirley write's a staccato noirish prose and his chapter titles are self-consciously funky. Too funky - "Wun!", "-Tew!", "SEV-uhn!" &cetera. But maybe they're appropriate, because when stripped of its style, what's left is a novel that might have made for a decent Frank Miller comic during his Ronin Phase - ie, stylistically interesting, but ultimately derivative and shallow in terms of content.

Club owner Stu Cole is the protagonist, an upright, arts-supporting businessman who is resisting the influence of the Mob, a cabal which has infiltrated the computer-run economy and is poised to take it over completely.

For reasons which never do become clear, "City" chooses Cole to be his human accomplice as "he" begins a bloody campaign to quite literally eliminate the gangsters.

We then follow through a series of adventures, in which he fights a losing battle against City's control of his own self, culminating in his transformation into some sort of being who can wander time and space, though this reader at least never did understand why or how that happened.

Shirley certainly appears to deserve Gibson's introductory credit for writing the first cyberpunk novel, but the question of why cyberpunk itself deserves any attention remains an unanswered question in my mind. As I said, I prefer a little more imaginative meat on my escapism than is provided by a nihilistic worst-case vision of what might happen, "if this goes on".
Tags: reviews, science fiction

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