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Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams

Published by Harper Paperbacks

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams is a curious blend of science fiction and fantasy elements, such that it can be read as either. It is set in a world-girdling city (think Trantor or Coruscant) cut off from the outside universe by the Shield, a glowing, all-consuming barrier erected by the mysterious Ascended Ones untold millenia earlier. In this world the primary source of power is plasm, a geomantic energy generated through the relationships of buildings to one another, rather like the traditional Chinese system of feng shui. However, plasm is a substance with mesurable physical effects that can be studied in a scientific manner. It can be gathered, transmitted, distributed and metered for purchase, much like electricity here in the Primary World. Under the direction of a sufficiently adept will, it can heal, create and even alter reality, everything but break through the hated Shield.

Unfortunately, plasm is also tremendously expensive. That fact is the central fustration of the protagonist, a young woman named Aiah. A member of the beaten and dispossessed Barkazil people, Aiah had found a way to escape the miserable life of endless babies born for the resultant welfare checks which was the lot of most Barkazil women. Her ticket out of that dead-end world was her intelligence, which won her a scholarship to an exclusive private school. There Aiah dared to dream and took courses in geomancy -- until she finished the theoretical courses and entered the practical, only to run straight into the harsh reality that her scholarship didn't cover the necessary plasm fees and she had no other suitable resources. So she transferred into administration and hoped that someday, somehow, she could get enough money ahead to resume her studies. Except expenses somehow always ate up all her salary, no matter how hard she tried to save.

She is chafing under the restrictions of those diminished dreams when change walks into her life in the form of a ten-story-tall burning woman. This destructive force is the result of a plasm diver, an illegal prospector, stumbling on a hidden well of plasm too big for her to handle. A mistake that has utterly consumed the unfortunate, leaving only her burning form like a terrible ghost. Once the Plasm Authority snuffs out this flamer, Aiah is assigned to the team that will search out and safely tap the plasm deposit that created the apparition, so that it may be used by legitimate adepts.

Aiah stumbles upon the plasm well almost by accident, only narrowly escaping becoming engulfed herself, and realizes that she holds the chance she has long awaited, the opportunity to escape the stifling narrowness of her life and to attain her dreams. However, in order to take the plasm for herself she must commit numerous illegalities, actions which have the potential to ruin her life if they are ever discovered. Furthermore, the slightest misstep puts her at risk of ending her life as a burning monstrosity stalking the streets. That possibility haunts her sleep as she puts her plan in action.

After her initial attempt to find a buyer among her own people goes awry, she turns to Constantine, the famous mage who was once the leader of a revolutionary movement, the New City. At first Constantine is suspicious, but once he determines that Aiah is indeed what she claims, he not only buys her secret cache of plasm, but also makes her his secret student. He tells her that she has far greater capacity for learning than most students, and can go directly to difficult techniques rather than spending time and costly plasm on endless repetitions of basic drills.

Constantine also has political ambitions. He plans to take over the corrupt government of the island metropolis of Caraqui and attempt once again to implement his philosophy of the New City. He draws Aiah into his confidence and has her help develop the strategy for accomplishing this. Part of this involves secretly developing apparatus for tapping, storing and transmitting the plasm at her secret cache so that it can power weapons against Caraqui's defenses. The other part of his plan involves spying on the defenses of Caraqu, seeking their weaknesses.

In the climactic battle, Aiah is at the warehouse which hides the plasm-handling facility which provides the power for Constantine's attack on Caraqui. She helps with the transmission work, but is able to see much of what she has done, including people who die terrible deaths as they lose control of the plasm weapons they are wielding. All the time she contemplates her own responsibility for putting the course of events into motion. (In this she is a refreshing change from the many novels with outcast protagonists who discover the Secret Source of Power and turn it on their enemies without ever learning any wisdom).

Afterward, she returns to her life as a trivial functionary in the Plasm Authority, all the while creating a cover that will enable her to draw attention away from herself. She does her best to let them think that she plans to stay permanently, to further her education with the rewards she has garnered for locating various plasm thieves (a cover operation to draw attention away from Constantine's actions). But even as she does, she knows she's only lying to herself as well as those around her. She has tasted the power to change the world, and she simply cannot go back to being an ordinary functionary, a cog in a system directed by others and dedicated to maintaining the status quo without any regard to what it does to the people living under it.

Review posted February 23, 2010.

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