A Year in the Linear City - Paul Di Filippo

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

A Year In the Linear City
Paul Di Filippo
PS Publishing
ISBN: 1902880374 (Amazon link)

This is a limited edition novella (I'm weak! I'm weak!) signed by the author. It's a handsome little hardback from a small english press. They do nice things you might not see elsewhere.

There is a certain charm about novellas; long enough to be satisfying yet not long enough to demand large chunks of your time. Alas, the downside of that is that it's long enough to smack you with a dozen ideas yet not long enough to build on them to a degree they might deserve. I enjoyed this novella, but it left me thinking that there is one hell of a novel left unwritten in it... which is a pleasant reversal of the usual situation!

The linear city is just that. It's a city laid out in one uninterrupted line. The city is divided into blocks (our hero lives in the 10,394,850th block in the Gritsavage borough), with a main street running down the middle. A subway runs underneath. And now, the interesting bit (spoiling the story not at all, but the atmosphere a little):

On one side of the city are the railway tracks. On the far side of the tracks is The Wrong Side of the Tracks, a nasty place where yardbulls may take you upon death. On the other side of the city is the river. On the far side of the river is The Other Shore, a nice place where fishwives may take you upon death.

This is no mere theological supposition; upon the moment of death these Pompatics arrive through the walls, pick up the bodily remains and carry them off. All through the day one can see many of these creatures overhead...

In this world lives Diego, a man who is notable for two things; one, his girlfriend, Volusia Bittern, a firewarden ('Volusia was no typical member of her sex. Over six feet tall, she outweighed Diego by fifty pounds, not an ounce of any of her broad honeyed flesh susceptible to trimming as fat. Her capacious bosom counterbalance by fertile hips, her strong hands capable of nearly concealing the shaft of an axe when paired along its length, Volusia loomed amongst most women - and many men - like a burly wrestler at a convention of midgets.'), and two, his occupation. Diego writes Cosmogonic Fiction for a pulp magazine. He's good at it. He spends much of the novel throwing ridiculous ideas around, and following where they lead (What if the dead remained where they died?) in the grand manner of classic SF.

The novel's story is simply about following this pair and their friends through an interesting period in their lives.

The characters are brightly drawn, and the world fascinating in its details, feeling like nothing so much as something set in an alternate world's small town America at the turn of the last century. Complete with colourful mayor. Some events are more colourful than others, but ultimately this little tale is about Diego and his musings re style vs ideas.

I have two problems with this novella, though I'd recommend it:

(1) Shows occasional signs of wielding a thesaurus. I suspect the effect could purport to be Vancian, Wolfian, or merely well-educated - but the smooth flow of the prose, already well spiced with a broad vocabularly wielded well, is often interrupted by a juttingly obscure word (phtisic? desuetude?). Or maybe I was just annoyed that I didn't know what they meant, and couldn't even find 'em in the (mostly rubbish) on-line dictionaries. I'm not actually sure this criticism is entirely fair, as the quality of the writing is generally superb, but although I devoured the book at a sitting (note to self, don't start new books at 1am) I did feel jolted on a couple of occasions.

(2) The sub-text, or whatever is the correct term. I'm fairly certain that the novella is really about the argument Diego has with his editor, who is paying him pennies compared to those who write 'proper' mainstream novels. Diego is starting to think that perhaps style is more important than the rigorous following through of an Idea. His editor just wants ideas. This novella has plenty of hooks (two suns, one along the city, providing night and day, and one spiralling at 90 degrees to it on the short axis? the city beast underlying the subway?, the linear nature of the world?, the existence of block 0?) but the author refuses to follow them, sticking instead to the story of Deigo, his Amazonian girlfriend, his unreliable friends, his dying father etc. All told with style and verve. A nice idea, and an enjoyable end product. Only one problem - in the end I did want to know the answers to those big questions... And one character does hint that he knows more than we are allowed to.

Recommended - a vivid slice of life in a world at once weird and compelling mundane.

A second opinion: a Google turned up this review, which made me realise my clever insight was perhaps terribly obvious! On the other hand maybe there was something in it as this reviewer misses it, but comes to the same conclusion regarding wanting more...

Posted: Sun - February 9, 2003 at 12:12 AM