Metropolitan: the Worldbuilding

by wjw on April 18, 2012

I’m delighted to report that the Metropolitan ebook is now available on Amazon and via Smashwords, from whence it will migrate in time to the Apple Store, the Sony Store, the Kobo Store, Baker & Taylor, etc.

Those of you with Nooks, as usual, will have to wait another day or two for the file to clear customs at Barnes & Noble. Sorry about that.

Metropolitan was such an unusual project for me that I’ll probably devote several posts to it, one of which will have to do simply with its odd legal and commercial history.  (Lawyers were involved.  Threats were made.  A New York publishing company was shaken to its roots, and I walked away with a bunch of money.  [Consider this a teaser for the next episode.])

One of the first things to consider about Metropolitan is that it’s a product of megalomania.  Having subdued the cosmos in Aristoi, I decided with my next novel that I was going to fix fantasy.

It’s not like anyone asked me to do this.  It’s not like readers were demanding that I repair their favorite genre.  It was just something I decided to do, as a favor to the universe.

When I cast about for fantasy to read in the early 1990s, I always hoped to find a something that would give me the same thrill as reading Tolkien for the first time, or (a personal favorite) E.R. Eddison.  But I wasn’t much finding it.  Fantasy was being written by normal people— as normal as writers get, anyhow— instead of the great eccentrics who founded the genre.  And fantasy writers I admired, like Jonathan Carroll and John Crowley, were being marketed not as fantasy writers, but as writers of literary fiction . . . it’s as if the genre had cast them out as unworthy to write for the Dragonlance franchise.

I lamented this state of affairs in a essay about the writers who I called “the Bull Goose Loons.”

The people who created modern fantasy, safe to say, were not normal. They led reasonably normal lives, perhaps, but the territory inside their skulls was well off anybody’s map. Think of William Morris obsessively detailing floral wallpaper designs while his wife Jane was off boffing Dante Rossetti; James Branch Cabell spending decades writing his arch, umpty-volume saga about human futility while the twentieth century sang its song of greed, progress, and mass murder; JRR Tolkien (catholic and married in a day when Oxford dons just weren’t) doing scholarly work on the Oxford English Dictionary while secretly transforming his linguistic obsessions into the neography of Middle Earth; and Mervyn Peake— well, just look at Gormenghast, will you?

They just couldn’t help themselves. The books they produced are artifacts, great lumpy sticky things that stand outside of their own time, of anybody’s time. No one could mistake their books for works by anyone else. They stand without reference to the mainstream or any other literary tradition, even the traditions of classical fantasy. Their authors clearly had no audience in mind when they wrote them, aside perhaps from some friends or disciples, or, more likely, some inner daimons who demanded a prose work that recalled the experience of reading The Grettir Saga for the first time. Their works are clearly the results of obsession, of visions so eccentric that they verge on dementia. They were bull goose loons.

(“Bull Goose Loon, ” by the way, is a reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and refers to the top dog in a loony bin.  It doesn’t mean, as some have assumed, that I believe that good fantasy writers must be exclusively male.  [And here the author sighs heavily.])

What I decided to do was write a fantasy as crazed and eccentric as those written by the Bull Goose Loons, as a way of encouraging others to do the same.  (Was I as crazy as all that?  Well, I did have the megalomania going for me.)

(And by the way, universe, you’re very welcome.)

I started by applying to the Matter of Fantasy the Two Principal Rules of Cyberpunk.

  • The future will not be monocultural.

  • If you think about the Old Stuff hard enough, it becomes New Stuff.

So I thought about magic— Old Stuff, indeed— and what it actually meant.  Magic had been treated badly by genre fantasy, or so I felt— it had been crudely mechanized, as in Dungeons and Dragons, where wizards had two Level Three spells, four Level Two spells, and five Level One spells.  Damn it, I thought, magic should be, y’know, more magic than that.

This is what I concluded: Magic is the ability to alter the laws of nature in accordance with human will.  That definition takes in all active forms of magic (as opposed to passive magic, like divination, where you’re not trying to change anything, you’re just trying to figure out what’s going on).  So I decided to strip magic to its essence, the raw material, magic stuff, which I called “plasm,” and the human mind controlling it.

(I am indebted to Pati Nagle for the term “plasm,” by the way.  I was trying desperately to think of a word that meant “manna” but wasn’t “manna,” and Pati was right on the spot with the word that, in essence, made the whole project as singular as it was.  I can’t imagine the book would be even remotely the same without the word.)

I was also intrigued by the term “urban fantasy,” which had become attached to a certain kind of fiction in the mid 1980s (and to a very different kind of fiction around 2007, but that’s neither here nor there).  At the time, urban fantasy consisted of stories in which orcs, say, would appear in a hardware store in Milwaukee, and adventure would ensue.  I confess that I didn’t quite grok urban fantasy’s appeal, for all that some very talented writers were doing it.  I couldn’t work out what elves, or other sylvan beings from pre-Christian Northern European mythology, were doing hanging around in punk clubs.  They should be back home in their oakwoods or garths or whatever. Punk is a reaction to class issues and despair, and I didn’t see why elves would be a part of that.

No doubt that’s a blindness peculiar to my character.  My fault, anyway.

So anyway, I thought hard about the Old Stuff in urban fantasy and tried to turn it into New Stuff.  I decided I would write Total Urban Fantasy, or TUF.  (I’m not sure I’ve ever shared this acronym with anyone before.)  The magical beings and creatures in Metropolitan wouldn’t be imported from some Germanic garth but entirely the creation of the urban environment, creatures at home in, and partly created by, industrial infrastructure like factories, subway tunnels, elevators, and skyscrapers.

The magic would be created by the urban environment as well, through geomancy.

One big influence on the cityscape of Metropolitan was Mervyn Peake and his Gormenghast books.  Gormenghast was a castle so huge that it took a day to walk across it.  I decided to create a city so vast that it encompassed the world— like Trantor, only with wizards.  Though Gormenghast was enormous it wasn’t in any way generic: reading the books you can see the Hall of Bright Carvings, Swelter’s kitchen, the faded velvet cushions in the rooms of Cora and Clarice Groan.

In a similar way I tried to envision a city that wasn’t at all generic, but composed of millions of distinct environments.  I had in mind Anton Furst’s production design for the Tim Burton Batman film, with the huge deco buildings looming down on the dark, cavernous city; and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with its shining skyscrapers, aerocars, and its Moloch-haunted underworld.  The scene of Metropolis’s ancient cathedral, overshadowed by giant modern buildings, was very powerful to me, and spoke of the way one city can become layered on top of another, all those layers of pentimento growing  . . .

Having decided to set a story with magic in a modern city, I had to consider what modernity meant to magic.  All those stories of ancient magic living in the modern world never made a lot of sense to me— here we are in a world of computers and 767s, and witches are still wearing pointy hats, waving wands, and mumbling spells out of a book?  How come science and industry have advanced, but magicians haven’t evolved since the days of Paracelsus?

If you had a world in which science and magic coexisted, then scientists would be looking at the magic in a scientific way.  If the recipe called for eye of newt and toe of frog, scientists would try to find the specific element in newt-eye and frog-toe that produced the intended result, then refine it, bottle it, and make it available in Walgreen’s.  Your spells would go off the same way every time, and many more newts and frogs would go on to live long, happy lives.

Since magic in Metropolitan is created by the city itself according to well-known principles, I made plasm a metered public utility.  Rich people can afford a lot of magic, and poor people can afford none at all.

(A lot of traditional fantasy is about class, for all that American readers tend to be somewhat blind to this.  In my book, access to plasm is a class divider.)

Some reviewers like Norman Spinrad commented on the way I handled language in this series.  The language is indeed singular, and the reason the language is singular is is that it’s translated from Elizabethan English.

No, really.  It is.  The book came to me in the full richness of Elizabethan prose— in the traditional language not just of Shakespeare and Ralegh but of many of the Bull Goose Loons— but for the benefit of my readers, I translated it into modern English.

(It was impossible not to note that E.R. Eddison, who I love and who wrote naturally in high Jacobean style, is not the Bull Goose Loon whose trilogy was turned into a money machine by Peter Jackson.  In this case, my commercial instinct overrode my original inspiration.  And besides, I couldn’t see people in office blocks staring out at the weather and saying, “Lud, I mislike the sight of yon stormcloud.  The tempest shall rattle the windows i’ their frames ere long, I warrant— I hope the Wi-Fi shall not go down.”)

And apropos Eddison, I should point out that Constantine is very much one of Eddison’s hyper-masculine heroes translated to a modern milieu.  He’s all emotion, all action, all opera, and he’s so butch that he’s not the least embarrassed to collapse in a fit of weeping when the burdens of being Constantine grow too onerous.  (It does get him what he wants.)  Constantine even paraphrases Spinoza, as does Dr. Vandermast in Eddison’s Mezentian books.

Well.  Be that as it may.

Having written my lovely high fantasy, I sat back to await the world’s reaction.

What I had not anticipated was that readers would refuse to recognize it as a fantasy at all.

(To be continued . . . )


Ralf The Dog. April 18, 2012 at 6:42 am

(“Bull Goose Loon, ” by the way, is a reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and refers to the top dog in a loony bin. It doesn’t mean, as some have assumed, that I believe that good fantasy writers must be exclusively male. [And here the author sighs heavily.])

So, what you are trying to say is, good fantasy writers must be a goose? (I would throw in some kind of top dog joke here, however, I have decided to pretend I have standards.) Downloading the book, soon after I exit this page.

Dave Bishop April 18, 2012 at 8:08 am

‘Metropolitan’ is on my select list of ‘top favourite books of all time’! For me, it’s one of those books where the setting, characters, images and plot stick vividly in my mind. I remember that when I first read it, it ‘hit me like a train’ – it was so original and ingenious. A brilliant piece of work, if I may say so?

Sorry for coming on all ‘fanboy’ – but it has to be said.

Ben Lehman April 18, 2012 at 8:21 am

Metropolitan (and, even moreso, City on Fire) is one of my favorite works of fantasy. I had a habit for years of aggressively snapping up used copies of both books to give away to friends who hadn’t read them yet.

Thanks for writing this, I look forward to the next bit.


Erich Schneider April 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm

So, when are you going to “fix” paranormal romance, Walter? The world awaits your take on the lesbian werewolf!

The thing about magic, as those who believe in it believe it works in our real world, is that at its heart it involves operations in a symbolic domain having effects in larger reality. Which means that if “eye of newt” were an essential part of the spell, it’s not a specific chemical element in it that makes it essential – it’s its “eyeness” and “newtness”.

But one could say that’s what the researchers in your fictional world managed to “refine” – when spellcasting is described there’s hints at a geometric logic to it (visualizing the Trigram and the like) as opposed to its requiring material components, implying the symbolism has been boiled down to its most essential level. And that dovetails nicely with the geometric logic behind plasm collection in the first place.

So, bravo!

DensityDuck April 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm

To some extent I wonder if Metropolitan would be different if it were written today, when steampunk is A Thing. Because I can definitely see someone doing steampunky things with the setting. (You’ve even got airships! Albeit they’re cyberpunk advertising blimps rather than flying steamships.)


Did you get in trouble with Defiant over “Warriors Of Plasm”?


I always did like how you portrayed Constantine as being one step ahead of everyone else, but justifiably so, not Evil Overlord “muahahaa, you didn’t KNOW that I knew that you were going to know that I knew that you’d know!”


Part of the problem with the whole “science of magic” thing is that you tend to switch between “magic does whatever it needs to” and “magic is a predictable thing like magnetism or thermodynamics”. You have ‘canned’ magic things, like launching the aircar, but then you have Aiah turn rust back into iron just by wanting it. I like the idea of a systematic, rational, methodical approach to magic; I just think that it didn’t come off quite as well as you wanted. (I still really enjoyed reading the story, I just think that the magic was still kind of more mystical than scientific. Which is, to be honest, how I prefer it.)

DensityDuck April 18, 2012 at 6:13 pm

whoops. Sorry.

Rebecca April 18, 2012 at 6:14 pm

I must agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Bishop. Metropolitan is on my all-time Top 10 list. (Along with Emma Bull and her elves, I’m afraid, but hopefully neither of you minds. 😉 I could go on for quite a while about all of the things I love about that book.

Nathan April 18, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I definitely must read this book.

Bill M April 18, 2012 at 9:41 pm

I read the first sentence of your blog entry, ran over to the table on which my Kindle Fire was sitting, bought and downloaded Metropolitan, and now I’m going to read the rest of your blog entry.

wjw April 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm

That’s the spirit!

John F. MacMichael April 18, 2012 at 11:51 pm

Well, I will confess I did finish reading your blog entry before hopping over to Amazon and buying a copy for my Kindle. Of course, I have copies of “Metropolitan” and “City on Fire” on my shelves but one of the things I have come to love about my Kindle (a Christmas present from my girl friend) is the ability to, in effect, slip a shelf full of books into my pocket whenever I go out.

By the way, I noticed that the authors whose works I bought just before yours were R. A. Lafferty and Jack Vance. Williams, Lafferty and Vance; there’s a literary tag team that could lay down a major smackdown on anybody’s imagination!

Ken Houghton April 19, 2012 at 3:33 am

I’m waiting for the new installment, where you note that the cover alone told people that Metropolitan was sf and not fantasy, and everything went wrong from there.

“At the time, urban fantasy consisted of stories in which orcs, say, would appear in a hardware store in Milwaukee, and adventure would ensue. I confess that I didn’t quite grok urban fantasy’s appeal, for all that some very talented writers were doing it….Punk is a reaction to class issues and despair, and I didn’t see why elves would be a part of that.

No doubt that’s a blindness peculiar to my character. My fault, anyway.”

Join the group, though Metropolitan, of course, does the same thing, even if the world look more like that of the Blade Runner movie.

Mat E April 19, 2012 at 3:34 am

I just started re-reading “Metropolitan”, and the experience of riding he subway in Tokyo, with its creaking swaying cars traveling under the densest urban landscape on earth reminds me of the public transit that Aiah uses in the beginning of the book. My favorite thing is spying a temporary repair or new expansion in the old tunnels, and seeing the decaying strata of modernity.

wjw April 19, 2012 at 7:19 am

Rebecca, you’re allowed to like Emma Bull’s book. I like it too.

It’s the whole genre that I don’t quite get, but I willingly admit that it’s my particular blindness.

Eleanor April 19, 2012 at 9:31 am

I love these books, I’m so glad they’re being reissued, even if not in print media! Is there going to be a third book? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?

DensityDuck April 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Bill M, I did exactly the same thing. “omgomgomgomgomgomgomg oh hey blog post ORDER THE BOOOOOOK okay got it now what’s this blog post”

Michael_gr April 19, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Oh Walter! Not only do I have to be reminded of the unfinished Metropolitan trilogy, but I have to also think about the unfinished Zimiamvian trilogy as well! The notes Eddison left for the middle of The Mezentian Gate are so enticing… Perhaps a talented author *cough* *cough* could step up and write those missing chapters, scratching a long-neglected Elizabethan itch along the way…

By the way, was Terry Gilliam’s Brazil an inspiration? There are some similarities – mechanical computers (or whatever they are – typewriters with screens, anyway), pneumatic tubes, a mix of mid-20th century aesthetic and mad urbanism, and a bureaucrat hero (I still remember Aiah’s early triumph of getting a new office chair).

Mat E, I had a similar experience in London back in ’99. some of the older tube stations have a distinct Metropolitan vibe.

James Williams April 19, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Would you be willing to try a kickstarter in order to write the third book?

drakes April 20, 2012 at 1:23 am

It’s about time I reread Metropolitan and City on Fire. Like The Crown Jewels (among others) I enjoy them so much I savor every reading.

I agree that these books would not be the same without “plasm”, it draws associations expertly and sounds great. Pati Nagle nailed it, and you were wise to use it. I’m reminded of a quote that is applicable (well at least partly) beyond the programming circles in which it normally appears:

There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things. — Phil Karlton

wjw April 20, 2012 at 2:35 am

James, I am open to a Kickstarter campaign. Just not right now. Timing, as in all things, is crucial.

Michael— I looked at the Mezentian Gate at one point and tried to work out what would be required to finish it, aside from a writer much more conversant with the Jacobean metier than me.

All I can say is that Eddison, like me with Metropolitan, had no damn idea how many words it would take to finish that book. The action covers forty years and features innumerable characters. I’m thinking that to finish that book would easily take another 1000 pages.

Not that I wouldn’t take a whack at it, that is if I ever cloned myself successfully.

drakes April 20, 2012 at 11:25 am

Also- thanks for this post, insight into creation of the world here is very welcome.

Jon Meltzer April 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm


(Someone had to)

DensityDuck April 24, 2014 at 5:17 am

So. About that Kickstarter…

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