My favorite book about San Francisco is also one of my favorite SF books. In The City, Not Long After, Pat Murphy uses the city as a setting for a post-apocalyptic tale, and it’s hard to imagine the tale taking place anywhere else.
The story opens in a San Francisco populated by a loose community of misfits and artists. Those who stayed in or came to the city after a plague wiped out most of humanity seem to be those who least would have noticed something like the total collapse of Western civilization, or perhaps those who would least have regretted its passing. Art and dreaming are their prime motivators. Art projects from small (a message in a bottle) to huge (painting the Golden Gate Bridge blue) give their lives meaning. They are a mixed lot: hippies, bookworms, anarchists, freethinkers and even a man who believes he is a machine.
Into this world comes a literally nameless girl who doesn’t quite know what to make of them. Are they decadent doomed remnants of an earlier, even more decadent society? Blessed fools? Visionaries?
Whatever they may be, Jax, as she is eventually named, has come to them with a warning: an army is on the march from Sacramento (natch) attempting to reunite the state and ultimately reestablish the old United States. Its leader, General “Fourstar” Miles, represents law and order. But the people of San Francisco are happy with their anarchy and chaos. Manifest Destiny on his side, Fourstar marches into the city expecting only token resistance.
Thus the artists of San Francisco have to decide what to do when his army arrives. It’s a small army, but they are an even smaller group of defenders. Beyond the practical are the deeper issues of morality. Is self-defense and preservation enough to justify violence? How far are they willing to go? And in a war of values, is there any justification in adopting your opponent’s viewpoint in order to preserve your own? At the core of the book is the power of art to transform and the responsibility of artists to change the world with their art. In this case, the artists opt for guerilla warfare on their own terms using their own rules.
The book is obviously on the side of the artists… but if it agrees with their ideals it does not idealize them as people. They are a chaotic disorganized group, at times incomprehensible. That is the point. This story could have easily devolved into platitudes and nonsense, but the arguments are valid and the consequences of sticking (or not) to your ethical code are worth exploring. The soldiers are not cold killing machines nor are the artists wide-eyed innocents. Living up you your own ideals is difficult, not everyone succeeds, but the attempt must be made all the same.
The city itself plays an active role. Ghosts inhabit the streets; fogs and magics fill the air. Even before the invaders arrive the artists live with these apparitions and wonders in their daily existence. This lends the proceedings a mythical and mystical flavor. Art vs. Power, with souls as well as lives in the balance. Long after reading the book the artworks both human and supernatural (for so they appeared to me, the City making it’s own evanescent art) described within its pages stayed with me, making me look at familiar surroundings in new ways.
Pat Murphy works at the Exploratorium, a place where science, science fiction, and art all intersect, and she mentions her work there as a big influence on this story. It shows; these are not anguished artists suffering in their attics, but artists as engineers — observing reality and changing it.
Murphy is one of our most important local SF authors. Whether you’ve read her work or not you’ve probably felt her influence. She is one of the founding mothers of the Tiptree award and has taught writing at Stanford and UC Santa Cruz as well as at the Clarion West writer’s workshop, teaching new authors such as current Hugo nominee David Levine and Campbell Award winner Nalo Hopkinson. She has won a slew of awards herself, including the Nebula and Sturgeon. And she isn’t just busy in the genre either; she writes children’s science books for the Exploratorium, and along with Paul Doherty she co-writes a very entertaining science column for F&SF.
A few years ago she teamed up with Lisa Goldstein and Michaela Roessner to overcome their reluctance to self-promote and also to bring former SF readers back into the fold. They call themselves the Brazen Hussies.
SF/SF Issue 28, August, 2006