The Time-Swept City by Thomas F. Monteleone
Popular Library, 1977
Price I paid: $1
built to serve man and now seeking mastery of man
evolving like a live organism over the milleniums toward the zenith of monstrous perfection
flourishing behind its force fields as disaster ravishes the globe—and voyagers from space vanish among the stars
the ultimate battleground between human and extrahuman power—where the future of earth and the universe will be decided
You know what I really love? The style of back matter that repeats a relevant phrase over and over again. This particular style of repetition probably has an English-majory name like anaphora or epistrophe or one of those, but I looked it up and neither of those fit. Either way, I’m glad to induct ETERNAL CHICAGO into the ranks of such as
It’s possible I’ve missed others. Everybody feel free to play along!
What we’ve got here is a danged interesting premise! And while normally I’d follow the words “interesting premise” with some discussion of how much of a shame it is that the premise was treated as badly as it was, this time I don’t have to do that! It was a great premise, competently executed!
The premise I’d describing is this: The Time-Swept City is a series of short stories detailing the development of the city of Chicago over the course of millenia. In effect, the main character of this book is The City itself, not in that way that directors from New York tend to claim is true in their movies, but literally.
We follow numerous lives, mostly unconnected but with a few exceptions to that, across unstated swathes of time. The book seems to progress chronologically but honestly the author doesn’t give us much to go on temporally-speaking.
Sometimes the reason for a story’s inclusion is unclear until another story, further in the future, builds on it, perhaps directly referencing the previous story, but more often not. A few of these stories were published elsewhere first, so I get the feeling that perhaps the author tweaked them a little bit for inclusion in this book, but that’s okay. It works.
There are twelve sections of this book and I won’t go over them one-by-one, but they formed a greater narrative more successfully than plenty of books with this structure.
The broad strokes of the narrative are that the city of Chicago becomes completely automated to better serve the needs of its populace. In a way that is now a bit familiar, the city becomes The City and becomes self-aware and takes over every aspect of their lives. We see this happen gradually, over the course of many stories, beginning with an early one about a priest whose church is being demolished because the density of churches to religious people in that part of the the city is too high and the space would be better suited to something else.
The priest’s story is the second one in the book. The first is about a star pilot who returns to Earth. While flying through space, he was connected to his ship cybernetically, becoming one with it. After returning, he is disconnected and goes through one of the most honest portrayals of depression I’ve read in a science fiction novel. It hit me pretty deep. The pilot, named Link, finally begins to come out of it, and that first story ends on a bit of an high note. I thought perhaps that would be a theme of the book.
The second story, the one about the priest, is also a portrayal of depression. The priest, Father Patrilli, is struggling with a loss of his place in the world. He’s getting old, his services are becoming less useful in an increasingly materialistic world, and he is struggling with a loss of his own faith on top of all that. In a fit of rebellion, Father Patrilli tries to defy the order to leave his church, and fails miserably. The story ends with him in prison, having accomplished nothing except possibly the damnation of his own soul.
And that, my friends, is the mood of this entire book: Bleakness. This book is damned depressing.
I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. That might depend on what the author was intending. For me, this book was a big old bummer. If the author’s intent was to create a book about the futility of ever trying or feeling anything, then by golly he succeeded with flying colors.
In one story, a cybernetic soldier, trained his entire life to believe that anyone from Outside is an inhuman monster, meets an Outsider and gets to know her. The City takes over his body, kills the woman, and then kills him by using the machine parts to smoosh the organic parts.
A pair of stories, near the middle, tell us about a rebellion against The City. There are riots and finally outright revolt. The City decides to let the people Outside to fend for themselves. The world out there is a wasteland after a war that killed off seven billion people. The first story ends with an instigator leaving with a spark of hope and a notebook that he hopes will help lead humanity back to greatness.
In the second story, about four generations have passed. Humanity has forgotten to read and become nomadic hunter-gatherers. A descendent of the first guy has no children of his own, and has been incapable of finding anyone else worth inheriting the notebook. So he tears it up and uses it to start a fire.
I don’t need this kind of despair. I have enough of my own.
In one story, a woman is placed into cold sleep for an expected 10,000 years until her lover returns from a space mission. A later story tells of how she is woken up by accident by a robot worker. The City forces the robot worker to place her back into cold sleep, which it does. It does so imperfectly, however, and so that 10,000 years of cold sleep just ends, pfft, when there’s a leak in the cold sleep pod and she dies.
Still later, her lover finally returns home and gets to discover that she died. His story is perhaps one of the more inspiring ones, if only because he accomplishes something, even if that accomplishment is just survival for a while.
There are a lot of big ideas in this book, and they’re mostly horrifying. One story tells us about a gigantic, genetically-engineered woman who lives in a tank and bears eugenically-chosen children thirty at a time. Her story ends when the current brood turns out to be imperfect. She’s also psychic, for some reason I don’t much remember, so when the techs come to abort her fetuses, she lashes out, killing them. The end of the story is her death, experienced in psychic detail by a human she thought was her friend.
Most of the people in this book die at the end of their stories, most of them having accomplished little or nothing. I probably mentioned that already. It bears repeating.
As I read the last story, I felt like perhaps, finally, this whole thing could end on a positive bit. See, it’s from the point of view of The City, who starts seeing things. After a whole bunch of diagnostics, it realizes that these things must be real somehow, even though they’re so unlikely. Angels, spirits walking up and down the street, Roman legions amassing.
It turns out that this whole thing is Humanity. While it was wiped out on Earth except for some folks in cold storage in the bowels of Chicago, it flourished elsewhere in the galaxy thanks to our colonist ship from earlier in the book.
The whole last story is like something straight out of Olaf Stapledon, another master of awe-inspiring bleakness. We learn that humanity has ascended, has cast off its purposeless flesh and become one with the cosmos on a plane of energy. It tells us of its journey exploring the universe, and where it discovered in another galaxy a consciousness akin to its own, but evil. After a mighty cosmic clash, humanity emerged victorious, and decided to return home, realizing something.
That evil presence was, apparently, the result of an AI akin to The City, and so to prevent it from happening again, The City must be destroyed.
What is it about ascended energy beings that turns them into complete assholes? Now, you’d expect such a thing from Humanity, considering how we started, but it’s a heck of a trope that energy beings are always “all wise” except that they’re not, they’re just dicks.
Anyway, Humanity is a bag of dicks.
I like to think that some kind of ascended entity with as much compassion as Humanity claims to have would have been able to figure out a way to prevent that evil force from happening again without destruction. Enfold into the cosmic consciousness, give it a pocket universe to play in, or something.
But no, we gotta destroy it. Even though it’s doing exactly what we told it to. We can’t reprogram it, can’t give it new orders, nothing. I mean, we probably could, but we chose not to.
And what kills me is that the last moments of The City’s existence are spent afraid. It fears its death, and it tells Humanity so. You know what Humanity’s response is? “You can’t fear things, because you’re just a computer.”
So that’s what happens. The City is destroyed, and its final moments are sadness, fear, and regret.
That’s not a happy ending! Maybe Humanity gets to move on or something, and that’s fine I guess, but dammit, author, you even made me feel bad for the evil AI in the end because it had emotions but Humanity refused to acknowledge them.
This book stands alone in the annals of ones I’ve reviewed. It’s good. I like and appreciate it. And I absolutely hate the fact that I read it. I don’t need these emotions right now.
I don’t consume a lot of horror because generally it’s just blood and guts and gore and gross-outs. I’m not into that, or jump scares, or any of those things.
But this book made me deeply, existentially terrified in a way that horror only wishes it could.
I was already feeling kinda blue for various reasons, so it might be a right place/right time (or wrong/wrong, depending on your outlook) situation that makes me feel so strongly about this book, but there it is. Sometimes you find the book you need right when you need it, as is often told in tales of beloved town libraries and dusty old bookshops. You don’t often hear the reports of the books that kick you while you’re down. Someone should collect those stories somewhere.
Was the book otherwise flawless? Nah. It suffered from a few of the standard late-seventies tropes that didn’t age well. Namely, it had some sexual explicitness that didn’t feel necessary but spring from the genre’s timely realization that gonads exist. Sometimes it was perfectly fine, other times there were phrases like “her ample breasts rose and fell with every breath” and I’m like dude, just say she was visibly breathing and leave out the boobs, okay? Another time, although I realize now it was the same character, when she meets the robot, the robot examines her and we get a brief but completely unnecessary description of her pubic area.
Men, perhaps surprisingly, get a similar treatment, but in their case it seems more purposeful, like it has a point. There’s a story near the top about a firefighter who is being subjected to a test. He’s being conditioned to love his job. Like, really love it. He’s got special pants that sexually excite him when he’s fighting fires. When the fire’s out, he has a massive orgasm. We get a lot of talk about his thingy and its current state of tumescence.
That’s a neat idea, but gross. A lot of this book is a neat idea, but gross. It just enhances the feeling that the future is gonna suck real hard, and nothing anybody does could ever possibly matter.
I don’t want to feel this way, and I resent this book for making me feel these feelings. I resent it making me communicate them to you, on the chance that I’ll make you feel them too.
Let’s try to remember that these feelings aren’t telling you the truth. Depression is a liar. We all have an effect on the world, and we can choose how to direct it. It’s become a bit of a cliché these days, but YOU MATTER.
I don’t know what the author was going through when he wrote this book. I don’t know if he himself was dealing with some rough stuff, or maybe this is just his general outlook. Maybe he’s a big fan of Camus and crew. That’s his business, although I certainly hope he’s been able to find some happiness.