City Wars

City Wars by Dennis PalumboCity Wars front
Bantam Books, 1979
Price I paid: 75¢

Chicago vs. New York

For decades after the great wars, Chicago re-armed to defend what was left. Never knowing when an enemy city would strike.

In a world obsessed with fear and violence, Cassandra and Jake were programmed to kill. Neither had ever experienced love.

Now they were drawn together on a combat mission against New York…a city where no human was left alive.

Hmm, let’s see…where to start…


Okay, now that’s out of the way, I guess I can actually talk about this piece of crap.

In that way that I often feel the need to bring up, the back of this book is lies, with one exception. Cassandra and Jake were not “programmed to kill,” for one thing. Cassandra was a super-bodyguard and racks up the highest kill count in the book, sure, but Jake is just a soldier. I think he kills one, maybe two people, and he’s not thrilled with that fact. They don’t go together on a trip to New York. Jake goes alone, on a scouting mission. The book didn’t really talk about how much they’d experienced love.

But that last sentence there, about how no one was left in New York, that’s true. And the problem with that is that it was a MAJOR SPOILER. Most of this book deals with arming Chicago against its ancient and hated foe. Getting there and realizing that everyone was dead all along would have made for a decent (if handled correctly, which it wouldn’t have been) twist, but no, we know all along. I hope whatever guy wrote synopses for Bantam in the late seventies was fired, or at least promoted away.

The setup for this plot is interesting enough. We’re told that in the 2020s (we aren’t told when, exactly, the book takes place, though), the flight to the suburbs abruptly stopped and people moved back into the cities. People started proudly referring to themselves as “Urbans” and the great cities of America enjoyed newfound prosperity. They grew in size, gobbling up the land surrounding them, and eventually they seceded from the United States and became independent city-states. Rivalries increased to the point where they went to war with each other, and the war completely devastated the United States.

A lot of that doesn’t make any sense but I was totally willing to suspend disbelief about that far. It’s obvious the book is a sort of allegory or commentary or whatever on warmongering and imperialism and nationalism and nuclear devastation and mutually-assured destruction and all that stuff. I can accept dumb setups if there’s supposed to be a moral payoff.

Is there a moral, though? No, not really. The book comes across as a “Hey, look at these things people do! They are bad! Don’t do them!” sort of message, with nary a suggestion of what might be done to avert the problems. I’m not looking to science fiction to solve all the world’s problems, of course, but this kind of book often smacks of pretension and heavy-handedness. Such is the case with City Wars. And it has a stupid name.

Our “hero,” Jake Bowman, is tough and mean and gritty and doesn’t give a damn about nobody and he plays by his own rules. He’s pretty typical in that regard. He doesn’t have much else going on for him, either. He meets and falls in love with Cassandra Ingram, a woman trained from early childhood to have total control over her body and to use that control for one purpose: to be an awesome bodyguard. She guards the guy who runs Chicago, a guy named Gilcrest. The book discusses her combat capabilities much less frequently than it discusses the fact that she’s physically attractive and has “exquisite muscle control”.

Yeah, the book has a fair amount of sex in it, and it’s all fairly juvenile and pointless.

Anyway, plotwise there are some bad things going down in Chicago these days. A few random citizens have been attacked out of the blue by “gamma cones” and then later the whole of “Sector E” of Chicago is hit by some kind of Gamma blast. Evidence suggests that these unprovoked attacks were launched by the dastardly New York.

In the meantime, there’s a revolution brewing in the undercity. People mutated by the great City War, called “lunks,” generally do all the crap work in the city. Cleaning, serving, customer service, and so on. All the normal people are disgusted by them but they keep them around out of a sense of pity, I guess. The lunks are getting organized, though. They’ve had enough of being second-hand citizens living in the ghetto. I can’t decide if this part of the allegory is racist or what. The lunks are obviously supposed to represent black people in some way. The book even straight up calls them, and I quote, “the new niggers.” They have long, lanky arms and they’re secondhand citizens subject to abuse. They’ve had enough.

At first I was like “Okay, this author is all for civil rights or something, right?” Well, maybe, except later on you find out that the whole lunk revolutionary movement is being engineered by the bad guys. So yeah, these stand-ins-for-black-people can’t organize themselves to get what they want so they have to have a “normal” person do the thinking for them.

A note on the use of the n-word up there. This book didn’t swear an awful lot. I could go twenty or so pages without seeing a single naughty word. But when it did, it went all out. I’m no prude, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a correct way to handle obscene language in a book, and this book didn’t do that. Does the tone of the book call for curse words? Are your characters the kind of people who would use them? If so, that’s fine. Go all out. Cuss up a storm. Otherwise, why bother?

What this book does is drop in the occasional swear word, but when it does, it goes all out. I’ll go thirty pages with regular conversation, and then for absolutely no reason a character (or worse, the third-person narrator) drops in an f-bomb. Was occasional use of that kind of language supposed to shock me? Was there a limit to the adult language the author was allowed to use? I really just didn’t get it.

The lunks are rising up and New York is posing a threat, so one of the higher-ups in the government calls for what amounts to full-on war. In the meantime, the actual head of the government, the guy Cassandra is supposed to be protecting, gets killed after his wife is kidnapped and he goes to talk terms. He thinks that the lunks kidnapped her so they can discuss terms with him, but it turns out that it was the guy in the government who’s calling for war. I think his name was Hadrian. Gilcrest is killed and Hadrian seizes power and sends some ships off to New York to bomb it into rubble as a retaliatory strike.

Jake has gone ahead of the strike force to investigate what’s really going on. When he gets to New York, he finds that everybody there is dead. Just lying in the streets. He finds a government building and goes down to the basement, where some kind of hologram tries to lead him into a trap for reasons that weren’t exactly stated. In fact, a lot of things weren’t exactly stated in this book, but I’ll discuss that here in a minute.

Jake dispatches the hologram and discovers New York’s real plan. I was actually surprised by this bit. I had expected the attacks to have been the work of that Hadrian guy, but it turns out he was just taking advantage of them for his own rise to power. The attacks were in fact from New York, and they had a real dastardly plan going. One so dastardly that it actually works, despite being ridiculous and stupid as hell.

Jake rushes back to Chicago and finds Cassandra in a bad way. She got in a fight with another super-bodyguard-type person—the one working for Hadrian—and won, but only barely. Jake knows all about New York’s dastardly plan, but he can’t tell anybody until the final pages of the book! Just believe that he knows something really important and try to follow along!

He stashes Cassandra in a safe place and heads to Hadrian’s office. He explains to Hadrian that he knows all about his plan to seize power in Chicago and try to take over the whole country, but that it’s not going to work, because New York had a dastardly plan and everybody is completely screwed. Hadrian laughs at him but then Jake shoots him in half and flees back to where Cassandra is, where he explains what’s going on FINALLY.

New York’s great big plan was to destroy Chicago through a computer controlled series of events. First there would be random attacks that would lead Chicago to send out a retaliatory strike, but the computer would be able to fend off Chicago’s forces and all the while launch a really big gamma blast at Chicago and destroy it utterly. That was the plan.


Why did any of that need to happen? Why not just SHOOT THEM WITH YOUR BEAM.

Jake explains that it was all set in motion by the New Yorkers as a revenge strike. The people in New York knew they were gonna die of…whatever…and so in their final moments they enacted this COMPLETELY STUPID AND OVERLY CONVOLUTED plan.

In the final moments of the book, the plan is enacted and Chicago is destroyed, but Jake and Cassandra hide safely underground, together. I suppose that’s supposed to be sweet until you realize that eventually they’re going to have to come out of there and die like everybody else. But they’ll do it together.

Okay the thing about this book that I hated most and I hinted at occasionally was its tendency to withhold information from the reader. If done right, that’s perfectly fine. This book did not do it right.

Let’s look at Jake’s exploration of New York city, when he discovers the plan. The whole sequence was full of sentences akin to

Jake looked at the computer banks and saw—


Jake suddenly realized—

Lots of thoughts and observations cut off right in the middle so we couldn’t see what was going on. And it wasn’t like Jake was being interrupted by something, either. We would just be given half of whatever he was thinking before he ran off to do something about whatever it was he saw or realized.

Authors, I implore you, don’t do this. This is hack writing. I’m not saying give your audience every piece of information all the time. By no means. We need to have something hidden from us sometimes. But don’t do it so badly. If your character notices something, don’t say he noticed something and then not tell us what it was. A more adept, but still not perfect, way of handling that might be to have him notice something but not realize its significance until later. That works a little better. There are other methods I’m sure I could think of if I wasn’t so annoyed right now. But don’t just interrupt the narration and basically go “Hahahaha I’m not telling you this AREN’T YOU FULL OF SUSPENSE DON’T YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT IT IS”

City Wars did this constantly. You know what I eventually did? I started checking the end of every sentence for an em-dash or ellipsis. That was my cue to ignore everything the sentence had to say, because it would contain absolutely no information. Lexical white noise, filler words, etc.

Did the book have any strengths, besides being a very strong lesson in how not to keep an audience in suspense and not annoyed? Yeah, I think it did. The premise, while kind of stupid, was pretty interesting, I thought. The idea of the major American cities becoming so large that they are independent entities at loggerheads with each other is one that I haven’t seen before, so at least it’s original enough. Of course, to counterbalance that originality is the fact that most of the rest of the book was at least heavily inspired by A Canticle for Leibowitz and probably a hundred other post-nuclear-apocalypse books. But the fact that it wasn’t the USA versus the Russians or the Chinese or whatever gave me a little hope. It’s a situation that I’m pretty sure would be completely unworkable in reality, but suspending disbelief, etc.

The author’s page tells us that this was Dennis Palumbo’s first novel. According to Amazon, this was his only venture into science fiction, and he now writes mysteries and crime thrillers. He also blogs for The Huffington Post, which is surprising because I was convinced that HuffPo didn’t do original content. But then again neither did this book.


I’d be interested in hearing if any of his later books are better, though. I’d be willing to dismiss the problems this book had as the problems of a first novel. Not everybody hits a Carrie on their first go.

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