Of the striking elements of Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the greatest may be the setting. Humanity confined to an infinite strip of land bounded by mountains on one side and a river on the other, they can go as long and as far as they want in either direction and never find a barrier. Individual groups and societies lining the river, raw human nature pervades the story. But what if they achieved civilization? What if the strip became a single line of city buildings stretching from horizon to horizon? Such is one premise of Paul Di Filippo’s delightful 2002 “A Year in the Linear City”. It is, however, not the most striking element.
The novella opens on a roaring 50s’ quote from John Clellon Holmes. Expressing a freedom, a joie de vie, an uninhibited exuberance in which new cultural niches were continually opening up, what follows is the dynamic story of Diego Patchen. Part of a new wave of writers producing what is being called Cosmogonic Fiction (CF!), he’s had recent success with stories published in the increasingly popular Mirror Worlds magazine. Writing not yet as profitable as he would have it, he and a disreputable yet amiable friend, Zohar Kush, occasionally participate in the illegal activity of scale-hunting (stealing scales from the massive reptile that resides in the under levels of the city) to make ends meet. Though having a girlfriend of the voluptuous, kind variety, not all is sanguine in Patchen’s world. His father a bilious man who lies abed day after day lamenting the death of his wife, Patchen likewise faces editorial censure and peer ridicule for his production of “counterfactual tales”. But when a cultural embassy is planned, of which Patchen is on the list of delegates, things take a turn Uptown.
Elastically, fantastically linguistic, “A Year in the Linear City” is a joy to read for language alone. It has style, panache. (The Dickensian/Vancean names alone—Yale Drumgoole, Mallika Prang, Winslow Compounce, Volusia Bittern, Jobo Copperknob—are a true delight.) Di Filippo pulls words from hidden corners of the English language, without pretension, and inserts them into a stream of narrative that likewise utilizes expressions from yesteryear vernacular, all combined to tell a story of unequivocal yet indefinable tone. A mood of esoteric nostalgia, the story feels retro in many ways. But given the orthogonal turn Di Filippo takes creating the setting, it’s far from a simple exercise in bringing the past to life.
Linear City exactly what it purports itself to be, Patchen lives at Block 10,394,850 in the segment known as Gritsavage. The city a string of variegated apartment buildings, shops, and business, all connected by subway trains in front, and a river just beyond, no one in Gritsavage has ever been Uptown—the purported center of Linear City. Pompatics and Yardbulls from beyond the river flying in to collect the dead when they die, and the myserious reptile living beneath the city in an ever deepening pool of blood further twist what feels like NYC in the 50s into a paranormal conglomeration of urbanity not seen on this side of reality. Patchen’s story the centerpiece of the novella, the setting nevertheless adds color and fills interstices with its shifting, Weird uncertainty, and in turn provides the narrative that little bit of zing to makes it move.
But no genre review of “A Year in the Linear City” would be complete without brief mention of the novel’s discussion of Golden Age speculative fiction. Patchen viewed as a hack artist, his cosmogonic fictions are frowned upon by the literati for reasons we in the real world are familiar with. But Di Filippo pokes fun at both sides. Patchen’s editor on one hand says to the poor writer: “I let you express yourself as you see fit, and I recognize the more elegant turns of your prose. But when it comes down to style versus sense of estrangement, poetry versus ideas, then I have to plump for estrangement and ideas every time.” Gernsback? Campbell? At the same time, Patchen is made into something of a hero when he retorts to a literary author who ridicules him: “My compatriots and I earn most of Mr. Pinney's [Patchen’s editor] money for him, I believe. Why, my stories probably purchased those gold cufflinks he's sporting.” Implying book sales and popularity are the more important aspects of ‘cosmogonic fiction,’ when one looks at what the majority of real-world fantasy and science fiction readers consider ‘good,’ indeed some questions are raised regarding the true quality of less sophisticated books on the market. That the novella is about the mundane, quotidian life of a writer living in a fantasical city only puts a more interesting spin on the genre commentary…
In the end, “A Year in the Linear City” is a fine novella that pays homage to yesteryear life and genre, fictionally and meta-fictionally. The setting fully cosmogonic, it nevertheless tells of a writer breaking into a burgeoning pulp magazine market with stories scorned by the literati. Despite the genre self-pitying, Di Filippo is on his game linguistically. The story waxes lyrical, abstruse, and sometimes just plain Weird, but is persistently stimulating and engaging. No matter scientifiction, speculative fiction, cosmogonic fiction—whatever you want to call it, it’s good reading.