Metropolitan: Writing and Reception

by wjw on April 19, 2012

This is the second essay on the conception and creation of my novel Metropolitan.  Perhaps it’s best, if you’re new here, to start with the first installment.

We now return to the narrative.

Actually writing Metropolitan was, as it turns out, quite a chore.

My previous two books, Aristoi and Days of Atonement, had been easy and joyful to write.  I have no explanation for why one work is easy for me and another is hard— Aristoi, Hardwired, and This Is Not a Game were effortless: Angel Station, Metropolitan, and Deep State were work.  I don’t see the common threat that connects  the items on either of these lists.

Certainly one problem was the level of invention required.  Days of Atonement takes place in the present day, more or less, and I didn’t have create anything that doesn’t already exist; Aristoi was full of invention but at least the present day is somewhere in that world’s past.  Metropolitan took place on an entirely invented world, and I had to decide how everything looked and worked.  The buildings, the telephones (headsets, not handsets), the cars (powered by hydrogen), the subway systems (both pneumatic and tracked), the elevators (hydraulic), the computers (analog or mechanical, nothing digital), data storage (on big dictaphone belts).  Not just television, but movies are carried by cable— there are no broadcast media.   There’s a sort of privatized transnational version of Minitel that’s available for rent in storefronts or cafes or whatever.

Having to create all this undoubtedly slowed down the actual writing.  So did working on the class, political, and philosophical stances adopted by the various characters.

I write about power.  In fact a write about power a lot.  And Metropolitan is probably my most overt meditation on the nature of power— plasm, after all, is a realized metaphor for pure power.  Power is expensive, and only rich people have it— unless you’re very smart or cunning or criminal, and manage to get some for yourself.

The Byronic adventurer Constantine, paraphrasing Spinoza, wishes freedom for himself in the same degree he wishes it for others.  (Or so he says, anyway.)  His sometime lover Sorya, paraphrasing Nietzsche, is all about the Will to Power, and cares nothing for the lower orders.  Aiah, our heroine, is very much a part of the lower orders, and must learn the ways of sorcery and power in order to fulfill her own, considerably more modest, ambitions.

It all took a long time to put this together, and by the time I had, I was running into trouble.  I had hundreds of pages of manuscript, and no end in sight.

It’s not as if I hadn’t planned on an ending.  It was right there in my outline, a very detailed outline that turned out to be of no help whatsoever in the actual writing.

I had over three hundred pages of manuscript, and I’d only covered the first two paragraphs of my plot outline.  I decided it was time to bring Metropolitan to an end and write a big To Be Continued on the whole enterprise.  I found what I thought to be a satisfactory ending, wrote it, and prepared to start on the next book, which would carry on the story from the same outline as the first.

I’m reasonably certain that I delivered the book late, but it wasn’t hugely late, and in any case I’d kept my editor informed.

After the delivery, a lot of Really Awful Stuff happened, which I will detail in a further essay.  For now, I’ll just skip ahead to the book’s actual release.

So here I had written what I considered to be an exemplary high fantasy, full of magic and mystery, but what did my readers see?

They saw science fiction.

I thought I’d seeded the fantasy elements in pretty obvious ways.  For one thing, the book was about these people called “mages” who were performing something called “magic.”  There were weird magical creatures, there was a complex mythology involving godlike and magical beings, and there was this magical current underpinning everything and making it all work.

Readers were convinced that plasm was some kind of advanced nanotechnology.  “How is this even possible?” I gibbered.  “You can’t do any of that shit with nano!”

“Listen up!” I wanted to say. “I do not confuse magic with bogus science!  Don’t you do the same!”

There were reviewers who wrote that it was a hard science novel.  I wanted to tear out my hair.  “How can it be hard science when I made all the science up!

Most of all, there was this metaphysical object, the Shield, set between this world and everything else.  I figured that it was as if I’d drawn a map of my fantasy world and put “the Uncrossable Desert” or “the Unscalable Mountains” on it.  It doesn’t actually mean anything.  It’s just We’re not going there, you can stop thinking about it.

Readers totally obsessed about the Shield.  And furthermore, they were really angry at me for not explaining it, and for making this a book about magic instead of a book about Solving the Problem of the Shield.

You’re not even supposed to think about the fucking Shield!” I spluttered.

What was happening was that readers were reading the books with science fiction protocols instead of fantasy protocols.  Fantasy is about cool magical stuff.  Science fiction is about solving technical problems.

To the readers, the Shield was a technical problem to be solved, and the fact that my characters hadn’t solved the problem meant that I was a bad writer.  It was as if I’d written a murder mystery in which everyone ignores the corpse in the drawing room and goes about their lives, and nobody even thinks about finding the killer.

(Actually that would be a pretty cool book.  Though I suspect JG Ballard has already written it.)

George RR Martin later explained to me his Theory of Literary Furniture.  Dragons, for example, are part of the Furniture of Fantasy.  Flying cars are part of the Furniture of Science Fiction.  I’d put flying cars in my novel, and therefore it was science fiction no matter what I thought or intended.  Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, though ostensibly science fiction, are fantasy novels because they have dragons, and that’s how people read them.

So what happened with this book is that my megalomaniacal attempt to rewrite the rules of fantasy succeeded in confusing everybody and convincing a significant percentage of the readership that I completely suck.

(We note that George did considerably better with his fantasy series in which he put actual dragons.)

I think, once again, part of the problem is that I’m not British.  If I were British, Metropolitan could have been slotted into the stream of Mervyn Peake-descended works now called the New Weird.  But I’m not British, so I’m not allowed to be New Weird or New Space Opera or, basically, New.

I’m just this guy in New Mexico who wanted to write a fantasy novel that would change the world, and failed.

(to be continued)

Ralf The Dog. April 19, 2012 at 6:57 am

I think, part of the reason many people thought, Metropolitan was science fiction was, in Metropolitan, magic was a technology. Part of the way I read Metropolitan was, what if magic were science? Part of the reason I did not think of Metropolitan as fantasy was, I had read quite a bit of fantasy, just before Metropolitan and unlike the other stuff, Metropolitan was not fluff.

What bothered me about Metropolitan was, I wanted a world map. I could see that bits and bites of the Metropolitan cultures were based off of current cultures that had been drastically mutated by time. I could see that you had a bit of a map in mind when you wrote the book. I was somewhat younger when Metropolitan was published and not as well educated. It bothered me that I could see, long buried roots of the world, yet I could not dig them up and understand them.

One other thing about Metropolitan that bothered me was, I was a bit confused about the when of it. We have quite a bit of memory about the things that happened two or three thousand years ago, not so much about things that happened ten thousand years back. That said, ten thousand years ago, we did not have the technology to keep records as well as we do today. If humanity had plasm for 8,000 years, I would think that humanity would have mutated to the point it would be unrecognizable. (The relationships in Metropolitan were much the same as they are today. People got married, they went to work, they got flack for ignoring calls from their mother.)

When was Metropolitan? If we lost site of the Moon and the Sun today, how long until it became myth?

James April 19, 2012 at 8:20 am

I read this book when it came out and _loved_ it. I saw it as a SF&F hybrid (more because of the contemporary feel than anything else). I also obsessed about the Shield, and was very excited when that window appeared in the second book.

The style of writing was unique and powerful, and the world itself was fantastic. I wanted more, and “City on Fire” made me a very happy little chap.

Again, there is good work here, and perhaps the e-book will convince readers of the potential of this series…

Dave Bishop April 19, 2012 at 9:59 am

I suppose that after a lifetime of reading F & SF I’m used to suspending my disbelief and was quite happy with the fact that the book was Fantasy and not SF. I think I ‘got’ Aiah and Constantine’s world straight-away.

But what was really interesting was the stuff about the uses and abuses of power (plasm) and the political consequences of such uses and abuses. I loved the contrast between the fantastical (but ‘gritty’) setting and the ‘real world’ feel of the politics.

The other thing that I liked was the characters: highly focussed and determined to achieve their goals to the point of recklessness. Such characters feature in much of your work. Are they influenced in any way by your interest in martial arts?

Shandra April 19, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Metropolitan always read as steampunk for me, or maybe ‘gaslight fantasy’ would be closer…it pulls some of the same strings in my head as the webcomic Girl Genius.

Off topic but I’ve been wondering for years if you’d ever considered adapting Hardwired to graphic novel format? The visuals and the characters are so vivid, it already has the feel of one. Lots of detail for an artist to work with, and it’s aged well with the technological changes of the past 20 years. Still feels believably five minutes (or 80 years) into the future given our current social and political issues.

DensityDuck April 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Like Ralf said, the problem with thinking of it as a fantasy is that you’re describing everything like it was rational; like we know how to use this stuff.

Actually, you could probably draw some parallels between plasm and the modern financial market. Sure, it obeys rules, and you can kind of tell who has lots of it and who doesn’t have much, and who’s good at using it and who isn’t, and it seems like it’s self-reinforcing. But…how it actually does what it does is a total mystery.

“What bothered me about Metropolitan was, I wanted a world map.”

Take Manhattan. Copy-and-paste eleven-point-three billion times. There’s your map.


I like the amount of work you did in making things different. Particularly the idea that “paper” would actually be sheets of plastic, or that everything would run on hydrogen (because all the petroleum had been used long ago), or that diesel fuel would be literally magical (as in, created by magic transmutation.) Or the idea that environmental destruction would have become a myth of human wars with trees and dolphins. I did kind of wonder why the days were still called “Monday” and such, though.

Ken Houghton April 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm

As I said previously, much of the “problem” with seeing Metropolitan as F instead of SF is that the cover was organized. Everything in the universe was organized. It looked more like the world of Blade Runner (the movie) than fantasy. It reads like rational beings all with identifiably-similar world views.

The problems are Arthur Clarke and Larry Niven. It reads like a “sufficiently advanced technology”; to go back to video, it’s the world of the Archons (ST:TOS, to be redundant), not the world of Shore Leave.

The Magic Goes Away. And people know it. And the mages cannot, er, magically create more–resources are processed and scarce.

It’s not The Diamond Age, a contemporaneous novel which is identifiable as fantasy because everyone has anything they want; it’s a world of restrictions, scarcities, and–as a result of that–power and control relationships. So when a government functionary and a plutocrat combine, we recognize trahison des clercs melding with noblesse oblige–the first a reality that we see on a regular basis if we pay attention, the second echoic of our Carnegie libraries and noted by our Foundations with names such as Ford and Gates.

It looks real, in the manner of Niven and the tradition of Clarke. It’s not our society, but it is our people.

Lektu April 19, 2012 at 4:08 pm

First of all, I *love* the book. Best one by you that I’ve read (about a dozen or so).

As for the Shield, I think you painted yourself into that corner. If you hadn’t mentioned it, nobody would have really cared about extra-planetary issues (a few readers would’ve wondered, perhaps, but that’s all). The moment you put that mysterious Shield there, people were bound to wonder about it and think of it as a clue, a Chekhov’s gun. It creates unnecessary tension that is never resolved.
And, IMHO, it’s not a question of sf vs. fantasy; if a fantasy writer puts blank space around the map, with a legend “unknown territories”, again, people will wonder a bit, and that’s all. Martin put a huge wall at the North, which adds mystery, and people would scream their lungs out if he were to avoid explain it, and whatever is at the other side, at least a bit.

Ralf The Dog. April 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm

“Take Manhattan. Copy-and-paste eleven-point-three billion times. There’s your map. ”

Who are the current day Jasper? Who are the Barkazille descended from?? (I think that’s how you spell it.) Was Constantine the descendant of the Russian Mob? I get the impression that WJW had specific locations and cultures in mind when he wrote the book. Unfortunately, I am not traveled enough to follow the clues.

DensityDuck April 19, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Asking “who are the current-day Jaspeer” is like going back to 1400 BC and asking “who are the current-day Texans”. Not only did they not exist yet, but the culture that produced the culture that produced them did not exist yet.

There is somewhat more discussion of geography in City On Fire, but only in the sense that the magnetic pole is somewhere near where the action is occurring.

Erich Schneider April 19, 2012 at 5:22 pm

One thing I liked about the ending of Metropolitan is that it does not, in fact, feel like an arbitrary “here’s the end of book 1, tune in in two years for book 2”. The plot threads are tied off, a phase of Aiah and Constantine’s lives ends, and they exit the book to start another one. A sequel does not feel necessary.

Anonymous April 19, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Erich, much like the ending of City on Fire. It was such a nice clean wrap up with no unresolved plot lines. Just the kind of thing you would want before you left a book for 10 or 20 years. 🙂

Dave Weingart April 19, 2012 at 7:17 pm

I loved that whole world enough that I wrote a song about it. But it DID feel like SF to me and the mystery of what was beyond the Shield was something I was thinking about.

Rachel Swirsky April 19, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Isn’t Jeff Vandermeer new weird, tho?

wjw April 20, 2012 at 2:42 am

“What bothered me about Metropolitan was, I wanted a world map.”

Take Manhattan. Copy-and-paste eleven-point-three billion times. There’s your map.

At one point in the project I decided to work out how many people actually lived in this world, and I calculated how many people would exist if our world had the same population density as Manhattan. (I decided Tokyo would be overdoing it.)

The result had so many zeroes that I got scared and decided not to think about this issue any more.

Ralf, there you go thinking like a science fiction reader! You want the world to be extrapolated from our own, and I never said it was.

The conditions of a fantasy world are completely arbitrary. The best you can hope for is that they don’t contradict one another.

Ralf The Dog. April 20, 2012 at 5:09 am

I know I have a much less sophisticated view of science fiction, however, one of my favorite forms is, You start from a single premise, lets say, some insane molecular biologist creates these little self replicating nano devices. Powered by the cashmere effect, they embed themselves into the mitochondria of every living animal cell, and start creating ATP without the need of 02 or glucose. (perhaps they are derived from chloroplasts.) No one needs to eat or breath. The author then extrapolates how this would change the world. (and spends 12 chapters on the Kreb’s cycle.)

My view of fantasy is, you make up a bunch of stuff, and extrapolate it into something cool, without any real consideration of how reality would work. (Like Star trek.)

My reading of Metropolitan was, “Lets see what the world would look like, if we discovered some new set of rules that look like magic.” The only real stretch in Metropolitan was plasm. (Get the mass of the solar system working for you and you could build the shield using plasm.) Everything following would be reasonably derived.

Perhaps I am a bit nuts, however, I would call Metropolitan science fiction with an extremely outlandish premise. I would call Star Trek fantasy with space ships instead of dragons and unicorns.

Erich Schneider April 20, 2012 at 6:36 am

To my anonymous responder: I didn’t feel the same way at the end of City on Fire. Several plot threads, such as the state of Caraqui’s revolution, the implementation of Rohder’s theories, the hole in the Shield, and exactly what the Dreaming Sisters were up to, were left open. Whereas the end of Metropolitan was more final: Constantine wins, and Aiah leaves her job and marriage to start a new life.

Ralf T. dog April 20, 2012 at 7:03 am

Sorry, that was me, responding with a new iPad that did not know to fill out all of the boring bits for me. I and my iPad have had a talk and there should be no more anon comments.

Dave Bishop April 20, 2012 at 8:17 am

What a brilliant discussion about some brilliant books!

Rebecca April 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm

“My view of fantasy is, you make up a bunch of stuff, and extrapolate it into something cool, without any real consideration of how reality would work.”

Well… not exactly, IMO? Fantasy has to operate by internally consistent rules, just like SF does. “What if you could travel through time and space via mirrors” doesn’t have any basis in reality as a *premise*, but the *consequences* it would have for the world have to be realistically worked out, or the story’s going to be a mess. IMO.

As far as CoF, after lo these many years (I have it in hardcover!), I have resigned myself to never finding out what happens next.

The posts about this book have led me to a very thoughtful week of considering the role of visuals in SF/F. So much to learn!

Not Todd April 21, 2012 at 4:33 am

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Clarke

That’s what my mind kept going back to while reading Metropolitan. At some far away time in the past a lot of people left Earth and left the Shield behind so that they couldn’t be followed (or so that something would not escape). This story is what is happening to those who are still here.

“If you had a world in which science and magic coexisted, then scientists would be looking at the magic in a scientific way.” – WJW

If I’d read that sentence prior to reading Metropolitan I’d have thought about what was happening in an entirely different way.

Michael Grosberg April 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Rebecca, what a coincidence! reading this article and the responses made me think of Mirror of Her Dreams too!

I think I “got” Metropolitan mainly because I was exposed to several “rational magic” fantasies before. There was the already-mentioned Niven with the Magic Goes Away stories where magic is a perishable commodity. And the Donaldson Duology about a world where mirrors can transport you to other places, worlds, or times – depending on the geometry and composition of the mirror. It was that word’s “science” and it worked according to discoverable laws. There was even a technical SFnal “how was it done” mystery that was solvable using the rules laid out by the author. But it was also entirely made up, hence, magic. And of course there was Shadowrun, priming me for a world where technology and magic co-mingle.

“Who are the current day Jasper?” – I would guess Gondorians! I always assumed that Aiah’s world was descended from what we would consider a stock fantasy world. There was a mention of a war with walking trees; Perhaps they were Ents!

Dan Goodman April 22, 2012 at 4:10 am

To me, it was obvious you were writing fantasy; because much of the book was devoted to politics, which is largely a form of magic. (Though not usually as obviously as in the works of Charles Fourier, who looked forward to the oceans becoming lemonade and carnivores turning vegetarian.)

wjw April 22, 2012 at 6:36 am

Y’know, I’m deeply honored that I wrote a book that generates so many intelligent comments from so many people.

Keep talking, folks. I’m so busy I’m not talking much, but I’m listening.

Mike Schilling April 23, 2012 at 1:06 am

> (Actually that would be a pretty cool book. Though I suspect
> JG Ballard has already written it.)

CJ Cherryh, actually, since Cyteen ends without our ever learning who the killer is.

DensityDuck April 23, 2012 at 5:40 pm

“I think I “got” Metropolitan mainly because I was exposed to several “rational magic” fantasies before. ”

Also Anderson’s “Operation Chaos”.

“There was a mention of a war with walking trees; Perhaps they were Ents!”

Well, as I said, that’s how the culture in the book remembers the destruction of the environment and the total urbanization of the planet. Sort of like how modern people have this “cowboys-and-indians Wild West” idea of what life in the American Midwest was like, even though it wasn’t really much like that at all.

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