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The Million Cities

The Million Cities by J.T. McIntoshThe Million Cities
Pyramid Books, 1963
Price I paid: none

THE MILLION CITIES

covered every inch of Earth’s surface with a gleaming metal skin—and penetrated almost to the planet’s core. Billions of people crowded them, using up the last depleted resources of an aging world. There was no hope for mankind but exploring and colonizing new frontiers beyond the sky.

The Chartists were the only people with the ability to build a spaceship—were within reach of success…

And then the government outlawed space travel—and began a vicious reign of terror against the Chartists!

The literally shattering climax of this fast-paced story by the author of One in Three Hundred offers a double surprise—for the Chartists are not what they seem….

I sure do love the cover to this book. I love that that translucent guy is snapping that rocket in half. I even love that the people are falling out of that rocket like there’s gravity. I love that it’s not a literal representation of anything that happened in the book, but in a sort of metaphoric way it makes sense. It’s just good.

The book was pretty good, too. I liked this one. It was well-written, although it had numerous flaws, and the plot kept itself going at a good clip throughout. It held my attention from the start, and even though the world it set up was pretty cliché at first, the characterization and narration made up for that.

The author, J.T. McIntosh, was actually named James Murdoch MacGregor, and it seems he published quite a lot under various names.

The book takes place at some far point in the future. The world has become entirely industrialized, and the surface of the Earth has been replaced with one gigantic city. It’s a marvel of engineering. The book even states that while most people refer to this institution as “The Million Cities” (hey, that’s the name of the book), that’s a misnomer. It’s just one city.

All other animal life has gone extinct under the tide of humanity. We’ve filled up the entire world, almost down to the core, with habitation, and even then that’s not enough space. Earth is  overpopulated and resources are dwindling. And yet we don’t go to space like most people think would be a good idea. There’s no way to let the pressure off.

The reason given for no space travel is pretty clever. There is also no air travel for the same reason. The logic is that if something goes wrong and something crashes, there’s nowhere safe for the thing to hit. If the entire world is one big city, any accident would result in hundreds or thousands of deaths. This becomes important later in the story.

The book has a large cast for such a short novel. Clocking in at about 140 pages, there are at least six characters I can think of off the top of my head that warrant “main character” status. And yet they didn’t feel all that crowded in. True, they weren’t very deep characters, usually they had about one trait each, but that one trait was fleshed out enough that the characters felt like they had a bit more going on. This is interesting to me.

Another thing that I found interesting was how the characters were introduced to the audience. Whereas in most plots an author would start with disparate characters who, over the course of the novel, come together, this book did the opposite. Whereas the various characters’ storylines interwove here and there throughout, they were introduced at the beginning of the book as people who were all at the same party. They met and then went their separate ways. I like that. It’s a storytelling trick I’ve never seen before, so far as I can remember.

So the meat of the story, at least at the start, has to do with a group called the Chartists. They’re an underground resistance movement of sorts. For the most part they don’t directly oppose the world government, they just do some of the things that the Senate can’t or won’t. They carry out assassinations, for instance, of people who might wreck the world by bringing back wars. They generally do good works, but they are demonized by the government and the population at large, although there are still plenty of people who sympathize with the Chartists without joining them.

So there’s Jon, whose daughter Pet (what a stupid name) is secretly a Chartist. We follow his story a lot. He’s unhappily married to a woman named Liz, but despite that he loves his daughter in a way that comes off as a bit creepy sometimes. Pet is very attractive.

I guess that’s my cue to talk about the thing I liked least about this book. You know how I said that every character had basically one character trait? Well, for all the women that trait was her attractiveness. Pet is very attractive (at one point another character points out, in internal monologue, her “delectable breasts,” which caused me to put the book down for a while and hate my gender). Another very attractive woman is Jia, whom Jon dated a long time ago and it seems they each still carry a torch for the other. Jia is another Chartist, and she helps Pet out sometimes.

There’s Lorna, who is less attractive but still pretty attractive. She and her brother Rik are working on a spaceship. Lorna uses her pretty-attractive-but-not-super-attractive abilities to keep the spaceship’s designer, Tom, in line.

Once you get past the rampant sexism, though, the book is enjoyable. I’m not diminishing or justifying it, just acknowledging it and moving on.

In a plotline that made me think this book was a criticism of McCarthyism (note: a shorter version of this book was written in 1958, the year after Diamond Joe died), a senator named Wilmington Smith has decided that the Chartists are the worst thing ever and he thus enacts a plan to get rid of them all. He buckles down on them, hard, allowing such measures as torture and unwarranted arrests to apprehend all the members of this devious and subversive organization.

Here’s a neat thing, though. While Senator Smith is ruthless and terrible, he has another goal in mind, and it’s not altogether evil. He’s trying to push through legislation that will limit people’s ability to have kids, among some other things. This is necessary because the world is dangerously overpopulated. The problem is that people aren’t going to sit tight and let the government dictate whether or not they can have children. There would be a massive uproar. So Senator Smith’s plan is to make it clear to the population how dire the situation is by gradually making things worse on them. One part of this is showing how dangerous the Chartists are and making it seem like no one is safe. Other measures include closing down the only natural spot on the surface of the Earth (the Park) to make more housing and gradually dropping everyone’s wages so that things get tight. Once people are convinced that things are bad enough, they’ll accept rules that help to alleviate that problem.

Senator Smith, Machiavellian genius.

So this crackdown on the Chartists make things difficult for our characters. Pet is assigned the task of assassinating Senator Smith by getting in good with his son, Ron. Ron is the one who noticed Pet’s boobies. To be a tiny bit fair, Pet was dressed provocatively on purpose to get his attention. To be much less fair, Ron, after like one date, declares his undying love for Pet and wants to marry her. What’s worse is that after the book is over, they do get married. Uuurrrggghh.

I think I may have spoiled something there.

See, the thing that really gets the world’s goat is Smith’s closing of the Park. It was mankind’s last vestige of nature, even though it was kept there by some seriously unnatural means. On the day the Park is set to close, a huge number of people come to visit it. The guards are overrun and more and more people just pour in. It’s not a riot or even an organized gathering, it’s just people there wanting to have fun before the Park is closed. The government, however, reacts badly. First there’s teargas, then there’s bullets, and before long it is a riot.

Oh my god, this is the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Except written five years previously.

Really, I feel like McIntosh did a good job of predicting what happened over and over again for the remainder of the sixties.

The riot decides that Senator Smith is the reason behind all this (rightly so) and thus heads to his house and kills him.

At least Pet’s off the hook now.

Oh, in the meantime there’s lots of torture and stuff, some of which happens to our characters. One thing noteworthy is that Chartists are trained to resist the various tests, like lie detectors and truth serums and so forth, that would lead to them betraying the organization. This knowledge is actually public, and it leads to a problem. If being a Chartist means that you’ll test negative for being a Chartist, then that means everybody who gets tested is automatically convicted of being a Chartist whether they are one or not.

The ties to Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror are strong, but it’s sort of weird because the author of this book is Scottish. I’m thinking that this segment of the book is more about witch hunts in general, but there’s still a good chance he looked across the pond and went “Whoa.” It’s not exactly an original theme for a dystopian book, but I still think it was carried off well.

So while society is falling apart, Lorna and Rik are working on a spaceship. I think I mentioned that. Since spaceflight is so dangerous, there’s no way they’re going to get any kind of government approval on it, so they enlist the aid of the Chartists to help them get this thing off the ground. The Chartists agree and things appear to go as planned.

Jia and Pet get captured by the government and tortured, but they are eventually freed.

The narrative takes a sharp turn here. At first it felt like this climax came completely out of left field, but on reflection I think it was seeded throughout. Unfortunately, most of the revelation of what the Chartists really are and what their mission is comes in the form of pure exposition from Jia to Ron, and that takes away a little of the oomph.

It turns out that the Chartists are against spaceflight too. They’ve sabotaged the ship so that it will crash back to Earth. Doing this will kill lots and lots of people, but they feel that it’s worth it to save humanity from all the other aliens in the galaxy.

What, whoa, what?

See, it turns out that mankind is not alone in the universe. By no means. In fact, the universe is teeming with life. Life takes hold everywhere it can. Even the moon has microbes on it. There are Martians and Jovians and Venusians, as well as numerous species outside the Solar System. In fact, they’ve got a galactic confederation going on, and we’re not invited.

This galactic confederation has one main rule. Every planet belongs to the species that lives on it. Even microbes are protected by this statute.

The reason we know all about this is because these aliens told a certain few humans about it, and those humans became the Chartists.

This is the thing I like most about this book. Whereas most science fiction likes to tout humanity’s drive to explore and spread throughout the cosmos as our greatest strength, in this case that whole thing is subverted. There’s no chance in hell that humanity, due to those very factors, would ever abide by the single rule that unites the galactic community. If they made themselves clear and said, “Hey, here’s the deal…” humanity would just ignore them and go its own way. Humans might well say that they can coexist with other species on their worlds (and there are species on pretty much every world, in some way, shape, or form), but we’ve proven by how we treat our own world, and each other, that this just isn’t the case. We would just keep pushing and pushing, bucking the rules with our unflagging human spirit, until the only possibility left is that the rest of the galaxy has to kill us all. So the only thing that makes sense is to turn humans off space travel completely.

So this spaceship crashes and kills nine million people.

Including Jon’s wife Liz, whom he didn’t like very much and now he can marry Jia.

The outer space Illuminati manages to keep humans in our prison for a little while longer, at least until we grow up a bit. Maybe one day we’ll be allowed to go out into space and join the community, but not any time soon.

It turns out that this whole thing was seeded by the way people act throughout the rest of the book. Senator Smith and the Chartists have the same ideas about how people work, and they even use many of the same Machiavellian methods. Even though I don’t think it was stated or even hinted at directly, I think it’s worth considering that the Senator was, in fact, a Chartist himself. The Chartists seem to have no qualms with sacrificing their own for the greater good, so it would make sense in both directions.

Even though the characters in this book weren’t terrible, I feel like they were secondary to the rest of the events that took place. Sure, they enacted a lot of those events and reacted to them, but this was a book about big ideas and schemes and worldwide conspiracies. The characters were more or less swept up in all that and didn’t have much to do except give us a viewpoint to see what’s going on. Usually that would bug me but this time it didn’t. I think it’s because we were never led to believe that they were anything but people swept up in big events.

Even the characters who look like they’re the driving force turn out to be pawns in a greater struggle. While Rik and Lorna were working on that spaceship that led to the climax of the book, one gets the feeling that the Chartists would have found another way of doing something like that. Some Chartist even straight up says that every year there are at least a hundred proposals for spaceships, many of them much better than the one Lorna and Rik were developing, and they all have to be put down somehow. It was just luck that those two characters came into the drama at all.

Apart from the treatment of women, the worst thing about this book was how the back cover was all YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE THIS TWIST ENDING. Knowing that a twist ending is coming really takes a lot of the bite out of it, even if you don’t already know what it’ll be. I suspected for a while that the Chartists might well be some kind of aliens or something, although I’m happy to say that I was wrong in their plans and motivations.

So yeah, if you can stomach how this book describes women in much the same way a teenage boy would, this is a pretty good read.

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1 Comment

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    That does sound like a really interesting twist on the critically-overpopulated-earth motif (although, really, urbanizing the Earth down to the core? I wonder how that would work). I do like the way this social setup seems complicated in organic ways, though.

    Like

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