The City, Not Long After

By Pat Murphy
Spectra, 1989

From the Oldies but Not Badies file comes yet another in my seemingly endless quest to find the perfect post-Apocalytic novel.

This one is far from perfect, but I give it high marks for originality. However, in this review, I'm going to start with what is un-original: the basic conflict. Peace versus power, kindness versus killing, persuasion versus power, wit versus warfare. Guess which side the writer comes down on? And come down hard she does, just a little to often and a little too predictably. That aside, the world she envisions, while improbably, is none the less imaginative, even magical. So much so, that I found it hard to listen (I "read" the audio version) while driving - I found I was so busy creating the world she conjured up that I was driving past exits and missing the light changing from red to green.

The basic premise is the usual for this genre: something (in this case, a plague) has depopulated the world, leaving a random handful of strangers alive to face the future. One of them just happens to be the daughter of the woman whose peace project started the whole thing. She (the mother) and a group of peace activists have gone to an temple in Tibet and begged for a few of the temple monkeys ("Peace Monkeys") to take back to their native San Francisco to further the cause of peace in our time. Unbeknownst to them, the monkeys harbor a disease the monks are immune to, and it soon spreads worldwide.

The mother and daughter flee for the hinterlands, living off the land. The daughter becomes an expert hunter, relying mostly on a crossbow, and a bit of a recluse with little need for other people. When her mother dies, she leaves her daughter with a mission: to warn the city of San Francisco that the evil General Four Star is on his way with an army to conquer the city.

Four Star is the standard issue bad guy in such dichotomies: he is the man who wants to control it all by force. He cobbles together a band of troops via the old reliable intimidation, and they set about bringing what's left of the world into a semblance of order, or, alternatively, killing those who won't cooperate.

Meanwhile, by some stroke of luck, the city of San Francisco has been left with a motley collection of artists - poets, painters, sculptors and tattoo artists - for citizens. And in the way of artists, they concern themselves not so much with things like eating, growing crops, breeding and educating children, and organizing their various skills into a rudimentary society, but in creating art. The art, unrestricted by public opinion, lack of money or materials, or civic injunction, is wildly imaginative - things like creating a sculpture made entirely of glass that sparkles and shines and includes the observers reflection; plumbing and other pipes cut to varying length and placed so that the winds that blow up the canyon-like streets play strange music on them; and repainting the Gold Gate Bridge entirely in shades of blue with patterns designed by the many painters who take part.

It is into this city that the young woman (she was never given a name by her mother) arrives on horseback with her warning. Finding and being quickly adopted by the artists, she soon also finds her name by an accident of Scrabble letters: Jax. The love object of Danny-boy, a painter, she warns the loosely organized leftovers about Four Star, and urges them to get armed and set up a resistance.

Danny-boy convinces them to use their art to dissuade the attackers. "Don't try to beat a man at his own game," he advises. "Make them play ours."

And the games that writer Frank imagines are clever and intriguing, to say the least. When the ragtag army arrives, the city is ready with a ditch to slow down the powered vehicles, and things like an army of Jesus, Mary and Joseph statues pryed from the empty churches, the Jesus statues adorned with crowns of barbed wire. Or music and messages and tolling bells broadcast non-stop to set the soldiers teeth on edge. Their best weapon, though, turns out to be Jax. Suddenly and inexplicably an expert ninja, she creeps silently about, "marking" the soliders one by one with the inked inscription "Dead" across their foreheads, and signed "by Jax." This, of course, lets the invaders know that they could be dead had the city dwellers chosen, but that they would rather not resort to bloodshed. Jax disagrees with peace-loving Danny-boy about this, sure that the only way to stop the army is to really kill them; she agrees to try it Danny-boy's way, and there lies the rest of the tale.

I won't be giving anything away by telling you that Peace beats War. How that end is reached, though, does have a few twists and turns, and the book did keep me turning audio "pages" if not avidly, then enthusiastically.

Because this was the audio version, I'll also rate the reader a 3 on a 1-5 scale. Marguerite Gavin's voice was pleasant enough, but her sometimes astounding mispronunciations, and tendency to read in a bit of a pattern was offset by fairly believable characterizations, particularly for Jax and Danny-boy.

All in all, not-bad-for-the-beach summer reading!


Anonymous said…
I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

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