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Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams
Published by Harper Paperbacks
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams is a curious mixture of science fiction and fantasy elements. It is set in a world-girdling city cut off from the outside universe by the Shield, a glowing, all-consuming barrier erected by the mysterious Ascended Ones untold millenia earlier. In this world the primary source of power is plasm, a geomantic energy generated through the relationships of buildings to one another, rather like the traditional Chinese system of feng shui. However, plasm is a substance with mesurable physical effects. It can be gathered, transmitted, distributed and metered. Under the direction of a sufficiently adept will, it can heal, create and even alter reality, everything but break through the hated Shield.
Unfortunately, plasm is also tremendously expensive. That fact is the central fustration of the protagonist, a young woman named Aiah. A member of the beaten and dispossessed Barkazil people, Aiah was able to escape the miserable life of endless babies born for the welfare checks. Her ticket out of that dead-end world was a scholarship to an exclusive private school. There Aiah dared to dream and took courses in geomancy -- until she finished the theoretical courses and entered the practical, only to run straight into the harsh reality that her scholarship didn't cover the necessary plasm fees and she had no other suitable resources. So she transferred into administration and hoped that someday, somehow, she could get enough money ahead to resume her studies.
She is chafing under the restrictions of those diminished dreams when change walks into her life in the form of a ten-story-tall burning woman. This destructive force is the result of a plasm diver, an illegal prospector, stumbling on a hidden well of plasm too big for her to handle. Once the Plasm Authority snuffs out this flamer, Aiah is assigned to the team that will search out and safely tap the plasm deposit that created the apparition.
Aiah stumbles upon it, narrowly escaping becoming engulfed herself, and realizes that this is the chance she has long awaited, the opportunity to escape the stifling narrowness of her life and to attain her dreams. However, to do that she must commit numerous illegalities, actions which have the potential to ruin her life if they are ever discovered. Furthermore, the slightest misstep puts her at risk of ending her life as a burning monstrosity stalking the streets. That thought haunts her sleep as she puts her plan in action.
After her initial attempt to find a buyer among her own people goes awry, she turns to Constantine, the famous mage who was once the leader of a revolutionary movement. At first Constantine is suspicious, but once he determines that Aiah is indeed what she claims, he not only buys her secret cache of plasm, but also makes her his secret student. He tells her that she has far greater capacity for learning than most students, and can go directly to difficult techniques rather than spending time and costly plasm on endless repetitions of basic drills.
Constantine also has political ambitions. He plans to take over the corrupt government of the island metropolis of Caraqui and attempt once again to implement his philosophy of the New City. He draws Aiah into his confidence and has her help develop the strategy for accomplishing this. Part of this involves secretly developing apparatus for tapping, storing and transmitting the plasm at her secret cache. The other part involves spying on the defenses of Caraqui.
In the climactic battle, Aiah is at the warehouse which hides the plasm-handling facility. She helps with the transmission work, but is able to see much of what she has done. All the time she contemplates her own responsibility for putting the course of events into motion. (In this she is a refreshing change from the many novels with outcast protagonists who discover the Secret Source of Power and turn it on their enemies without ever learning any wisdom).
Afterward, she returns to her life as a trivial functionary in the Plasm Authority, all the while creating a cover that will enable her to draw attention away from herself. She does her best to let them think that she plans to stay permanently, to further her education with the rewards she has garnered for locating various plasm thieves (a cover operation to draw attention away from Constantine's actions). Only at the very end does she finally pack up and leave for good, apparently to join Constantine on Caraqui.
When I finished Metropolitan, I thought, "this novel fairly cries out for a sequel." What will happen to Aiah? Will she get to Caraqui and rejoin Constantine? Will he be able to realize his plans this time around? Will they be able to find a way to pierce the Shield and regain the freedom of the stars for humanity?
I was happy to discover that there is already a sequel, City on Fire, and a third novel is in the works.
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Review posted January 4, 1999