A YEAR IN THE LINEAR CITY by Paul Di Filippo (Book Review)
“These neighbors of ours are undeniably, unfathomably provincial. But so are we, as evidenced by our unthinking offense. The psychic landscape of the City is not only bigger than we imagined, it is bigger than we can imagine.”
Paul Di Filippo’s A Year In The Linear City (2002) is a key work of the New Weird. Set in a city that is one block wide but infinitely long, bordered by a river and heaven on one side and a railroad track and hell on the other, the story focuses on the everyday lives of a writer and his friends, yet manages to convey a dizzying array of speculative ideas and mind-bending concepts. Thanks to China Mieville’s iconic Perdido Street Station (2000), the New Weird is frequently associated with large and sprawling epics. With A Year In The Linear City, Di Filippo demonstrates that the genre can thrive in shorter form. Over a brief 80 pages, Di Filippo manages to both show off the range of his bizarre imagination and to make the Linear City feel like a real, lived-in place for all its alluring strangeness. It is something of an underrated classic.
A Year In The Linear City shows us a year in the life of Diego Patchen, a writer of Cosmogonic Fiction, the Linear City’s version of SF. As the seasons change, Diego visits his dying father, writes imaginative stories for the pulp magazine Mirror Worlds, and gets into various scrapes with his firefighter extrovert girlfriend Volusia Bittern, his scammer best friend Zohar Kush, and their various mutual acquaintances. The novella is a picaresque series of vignettes, through which we get a window into life in the Linear City and how its surreal architecture subtly shapes the outlook of its inhabitants. As a writer, Diego is able to interact with people across the spectrum of the City’s social classes, from the drug dealers and Scale merchants he and Zohar have clandestine dealings with to the civil servants that Volusia manages to charm. Thus from his perspective we get as extensive a tour of his home block of Gritsavage as possible, from the ballrooms of the mayor to Scalehunting underneath the subways. Diego even becomes part of an ill-fated voyage down the City’s unending river, as a chance meeting with the Cosmogonic Fitcion-loving major sees him being recruited alongside Volusia and the rest of Gritsavage’s best to represent his block in a diplomatic visit to the distant Borough of Palmerdale.
One of the key themes of the book is the sheer bizarre wondrousness of existence, and how genre fiction is uniquely situated to help us appreciate it. The denizens of the City are mostly concerned with the trials, triumphs and failures of their everyday life. As such they don’t spend much of their time thinking about the fantastical nature of their City, it is simply part of the background of their mundane. Diego’s work, by postulating other possible existences, acts as a metaphor through which he is able to express his wonder at the world, and allows him to reflect on his own existence in a way that others in the City do not. Thus we can see Di Filippo carrying out the same task for us, the way in which the characters accept the strangeness of the Linear City reawakening us to the strangeness and beauty of our own world. However Di Filippo understands the importance of making the Linear City more than just a mirror world to our own. In order for the story to convince it has to come across as a living, breathing city, inhabited by believable people. Di Filippo achieves this through his characters, who are a strange mix of the larger than life and the intimately human. Diego and his friends, for all their extravagant adventures, are anchored by the very human concerns of love and family. Diego’s thorny relationship with his dying father, his relationship with Volusia, and his enduring friendship with Zohar form the emotional centre of the book.
The Linear City itself, as part of the New Weird, sits somewhere in the spaces between science fiction and fantasy. The strangeness of the City’s ontology could have some kind of rational explanation behind them, or they could just be the product of imaginative fancy. The City’s night and day are determined by the Daysun, which rises Uptown and sets Downtown, but its seasons are marked by the Seasonsun, which rises from the Other Side across from the river and sets in the Wrong Side of the Tracks, spiralling up and down the infinite length of the City. When people die, they are taken away either by the Yardbulls to the Wrong Side of the Tracks, the equivalent of hell, or by the Fisherwives to the Other Side, the equivalent of heaven. The City appears to be built on the back of a giant Citybeast, whose movements can demolish entire blocks. Rather than furnish us with any explanation, Di Filippo shows through Diego’s Cosmogonic speculations that the citizens of the City wonder about its ontological and spiritual nature, but at the end of the day have no clear answers to the questions of how their incredible City came to be. Like us, Di Filippo’s characters are left to ponder the nature of their universe and existence when they can, whilst the business of daily life takes centre stage. One of the powers of estrangement is to make us look on the world around us anew, with the wonder we should have. Diego’s SF stories of worlds where there is a single round sun, or where people’s corpses are not immediately seen to by psychopomps, make us fully aware of the strangeness and wonder that we take for granted because they are our daily reality. A Year In The Linear City restores us to a state of wonder about our own reality, and shows us the power of the New Weird to see reality with a fresh perspective. It is this that makes it a vital and moving work of speculative fiction.