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Cities Duplicate, the Past Repeats and the Waters Rise

By Sara Sklaroff
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Past, present, future: Usually, we think of them staying firmly in place. Luckily, science fiction doesn't play by those rules.

In the cleverly altered present-day of China Miéville's "The City & the City" (Del Rey, $26), Inspector Tyador Borlú is tracking a murder case that takes him from his home town of Beszel to the city of Ul Qoma. For reasons lost to history, these two city-states sit literally on top of each other, "crosshatching" and overlapping in a complicated tracery. Citizens of each are trained from youth to "unsee" the other city, learning to navigate around "foreign" cars and pedestrians on the streets, ignore the other city's buildings, though they are "grosstopically" adjacent to their own, and even avoid picking up street trash until time and weather have rendered it safely placeless. To move from Beszel to Ul Qoma, it is necessary to pass through an official border crossing and then return. (From the hints Miéville drops, I'm guessing that the cities are meant to be near what we know as the Black Sea.) The entire apparatus is supported by the willingness of both populaces to engage in a kind of mass denial, and is enforced by the Breach, a shadowy, terrifying agency that does away with those found to trespass the rules.

The murder victim at the center of the story is an archaeology grad student who had been investigating an outlandish theory about the two cities. Solving the crime brings Borlú into a much bigger mystery that causes him to question whether that theory isn't in fact close to the truth.

Miéville, the acclaimed author of "Un Lun Dun," clearly takes pleasure in working out the details of his audacious premise, placing a somewhat old-fashioned police procedural into an obsessively imagined world complete with its own history, anthropology and linguistics. And yet perhaps because this construct is so very intellectual -- like "unseeing" itself -- the novel requires more than a bit of suspended disbelief.

The past reemerges in the future in "Julian Comstock" (Tor, $25.95), Robert Charles Wilson's charming (if occasionally silly) post-apocalyptic western. In the late 22nd century -- years after the Efflorescence of Oil, the Fall of the Cities, the Plague of Infertility, the False Tribulation and the Pious Presidents -- America has reverted to a neo-Victorian society of superstition and totalitarian religiosity.

Narrator Adam Hazzard is a naif, the childhood friend of the title figure, although Adam is of the feudal "leasing class" while Julian is an "Aristo" and nephew to the crazed American president, Deklan Comstock. Fleeing conscription in what was once the Canadian West, the two end up joining the army in a memorable if ill-fated battle against Dutch forces in Labrador. Julian emerges a national hero, in no small part due to Adam's exaggerated published narratives of their activities. They are lauded in New York City, now the seat of the nation, where Julian's political fortunes rise at the same time that he pursues his dream of filmmaking. But on the night he premieres his long-planned Charles Darwin biopic (a silent film, since the talkie technology has yet to be reclaimed), the capital falls to a Dominion-backed army coup.

The not-too-distant future is the territory of Stephen Baxter's science thriller "Flood" (Roc, $24.95). The book opens with the release of a group of hostages in Barcelona. They emerge into a world that seems, well, rainier than what they remembered. During their years of confinement, everyone else has become accustomed to ruined basements and increasingly soggy soccer matches. But the bad weather keeps coming, and the oceans keep rising; soon the sandbags and levees are not enough. As time passes, the humans who survive stake out higher and higher ground. Some display the worst behavior, even cannibalism; others try to save those they can and scramble for solutions. In the end, only a few survive to sail around in a toxic soup of plastics, chemicals and the other detritus of our all-but-vanished civilization.

While Baxter doesn't spend a lot of time on individual psychology, he deftly captures the way people as a group delude themselves into thinking that things are going to be okay, even when clearly they are not. In that sense, the story is horrifyingly believable. Baxter's next novel, "Ark," promises to tell the story of some survivors only hinted at in "Flood" -- which just might mean there is a post-future in our future.

Sklaroff is editorial director of Diabetes Forecast.

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