QUEEN CITY JAZZ by Kathleen Ann Goonan (BOOK REVIEW)
“Her new nose deep in Flowers, she sucked forth stories, stories, stories, they fell off the stamens that weren’t stamens and stuck to her legs and she pushed them into pockets and stored them there laughing, in her dreams, in the beautiful and perfect greed of this glorious sucking up of pure experience. Other Flowers beckoned, and soon her legs were packed with precisely configured information to return to the Hive.”
Queen City Jazz (1994) is Kathleen Ann Goonan’s debut novel, and the first in her groundbreaking Nanotech Quartet. Released just as the sparks from the original cyberpunk movement were beginning to fade, Goonan reinvigorated speculative fiction by imagining a future America transfigured by nanotechnology run amok. The brilliance of Queen City Jazz lies in the way it draws on both the utopian and the dystopian, acknowledging that technology can be transformative for good or for ill, depending on how it is wielded. Goonan’s novel explores the dizzying, utopian possibility of nanotech as well as its potential to be abused as a system of control. But beyond this, Queen City Jazz is a glorious eruption of imagination. Goonan’s hallucinogenic visions of the Flower Cities and the giant Bees that keep them running are entirely rationalised through the science fiction novum of nanotechnology, yet in their glorious flights of fancy they anticipate the delirious visions of the New Weird. Goonan’s vibrant imagination and erudite exploration of nanotech make Queen City Jazz something of an overlooked classic, and one that deserves to be rediscovered.
Verity lives with the Shakers, a small rural community who eke out a precarious living in a postapocalyptic America. Following the Information Wars and the nanotech plagues, they live in a low-tech environment in fear of the technology that transformed the world. Their attempts to hold out against the future end in tragedy, and Verity finds herself alone, traveling to Cincinnati, the Queen City, with her friend Blaze and her dog Cairo, mortally wounded and wrapped up in nanotech cocoons. Cincinnati was the fourth city to vote to undergo Conversion, becoming one of the Flower Cities, where all matter is enlivened and can be moulded to human will, everyone’s needs are provided for, dreams and reality intertwine, and all citizens are linked via a metapheromone network to the City itself. Fizzing with nanotechnology, the City is everything Verity’s Shaker family warned her against, but it just might contain the technology that can save Blaze and Cairo’s lives. As Verity experiences the wonders and the horrors of the City, she discovers the truth behind the utopian vision of its creator, Abe Durancy, and the importance of her own role in freeing the City.
Durancy envisioned the Flower Cities as a utopia, a place where humanity would be free of the necessity of working for a living and could live a life of unbridled imagination. However Durancy’s utopian vision is thwarted by the capitalist system within which the Flower Cities are created, allowing those with the most money to benefit at the expense of everyone else:
“The Flower Cities which resulted, after much international fervor, were, of course, for the ultimate benefit of the companies who held the patents, the ones whose trademark was dotted on the back of each Bee, organic, grown, just like an eye or a leg. If you invested in a Flower Building – a Plant, as they were called, of course – you had a lot of decisions to review.”
Just like how the internet has become a tool for the maintenance of the neo-liberal status quo in the hands of a few unscrupulous corporations, so is Durancy’s attempt to build a better world compromised. Instead of being open to all forms of expression, the City is hampered by Durancy’s own restrictive and deeply privileged vision of a creative lifestyle. The Bees become addicted to human emotion, and instead of allowing the people of the city to live out their lives as they wish, the people become stuck in loops of literature and popular culture, forced to relive the same cycles of other people’s stories and art again and again rather than creating anything new. Goonan’s critique of how corporate money and the nostalgia industry come together to stifle human creativity seems even more pertinent now than it must have when the book was first written. It is up to Verity, who, with her cyborg implants, her sense of morality, and her life lived outside of the City, to find a way to break the cycle and set the people of the City free.
But as well as warning of the ways in which this technology could be abused, Goonan is also interested in how its truly utopian possibilities could be brought to life. Goonan’s Flower Cities are incredible creations, in which cutting edge technology is merged with elements of the natural world to create new and exciting possibilities. The Cities are entirely organic, the buildings grown rather than built, and everything is connected via a mycelial network. Communication and transfer of information is carried out by the genetically engineered giant Bees, whose role in pollination makes them the perfect system to transfer biological information between humans or other parts of the City. In this way the City functions like an ecosystem. The intelligence of Bees allows them to communicate via dances with each other and the humans, allowing information to spread freely across the network of the City and for the individual cells of the City to learn and grow. In this way, the City functions like an enormous brain, with the Bees embodying the City’s thoughts. Once the City has been freed from Durancy’s restrictions by Verity, freedom of choice is returned to its inhabitants and they can finally live a life of imagination and creation.
Queen City Jazz is both a powerful thought experiment and a glorious piece of imagination. Goonan’s novel shows how complex and thought provoking speculative fiction can be at its best, whilst boldly carving out new territory for the genre. The novel deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of speculative fiction readers, and is a reminder of Goonan’s formidable talent.