After a virus decimates the United States, San Francisco becomes a haven for artistic misfits.
Read enough post-apocalyptic fiction, and you’ll start to tire of the tropes. Some of them will even make your memories of plots start to blend together: the lone walkers of the highways, the department store foraging, roadside bandits, the almost-cozy beginnings of new, hopeful communities.
The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy (1989, reprinted 2006) relies on a few of the expected post-apocalyptic themes, but with some notable --and refreshing-- differences.
The most compelling of those differences is the way the city itself is an art project. The ragtag folks who find themselves still breathing in San Francisco when everyone else is gone aren’t nearly as concerned with commerce or organizing a government as some neighboring cities’ survivors are.
The tattoo artists, graffiti painters, robotics designers and other artists, mechanics and general tinkerers join forces for projects like painting the Golden Gate Bridge blue. Solo projects are all over the city, too.
A glittering suncatcher made of jewelry store diamond necklaces hangs in a window. A church is filled with plants and flowers that sprout from the baptismal font and cover the altar. Plans are made to string wires from the top of a building to the ground, so the wind can play them like an instrument.
Not all of the projects are aesthetic. Just like in the real world of art, some of them are bizarre head-scratchers: polished human skulls juxtaposed with random objects, hundreds of pairs of shoes climbing a staircase, sculptures made of doll heads or museum animal bones.
Among these altered parts of the city rabbits scamper, as do whole gangs of roving monkeys, while buffalo graze in yards and parks. Mechanical creations that seem like metal spiders clank through the streets. Others seem to fly of their own will.
The mechanical creatures are the inventions, and the children, in a way, of a young man who calls himself The Machine, or T.M. for short. His backstory is one of the most touching, and could be a short story in its own right.
After his parents die of the virus, T.M., who is still a boy, doesn’t understand why he is still alive when everyone else around him has died. Considering the fact that his father was a robotics engineer, he comes to the sad and childlike conclusion that he himself must be a machine.
The wild card in the mix is Jax, who doesn’t quite fit in with the artists and inventors, or with anyone. She arrives in San Francisco to find out more about her mother, who had fled the city to raise Jax in the solitude of the country. Jax isn’t exactly an artist, but she’s a bit of a blank canvas, starting a new life that the city will quickly influence.
The bohemian life the group leads in San Francisco is endangered by a military group from Sacramento, who want to revive the United States and feel threatened by the laissez-faire attitudes and disorganization of the artists. Outsiders see them as sinners (another post-apocalyptic trope you might know well.)
It’s clear from the get-go that some sort of confrontation will happen, but it’s the way the battle is waged that is unlike any other post-apocalyptic turf war in fiction. (I won’t give away the main plot points, but balloons filled with jasmine perfume make an appearance as weaponry.)
While there are plenty of novel ideas in The City, Not Long After, the ending is not near as satisfying. In fact, the whole last quarter of the book seems rushed. A gorgeous opportunity for The Machine to realize his humanity is missed completely, and the ubiquitous post-apocalyptic battle between the good guys and the bad guys ultimately settles into cliche.
Murphy’s prose is vivid and often stunningly visual, but occasionally lapses into the florid (“At night the fog embraced the city like a lover.”) Jax’s character can be annoyingly inconsistent, browsing alone among stalls and unknown people at a busy marketplace, but cowering and afraid of strangers once she gets to the city.
For fans of post-collapse fiction, this is a nice one to shake up your reading a bit. It’s no Parable of the Sower or Mara and Dann (to cite some of the most brilliant examples), but its unique city imagery will stick with you a while.
Do you have a favorite post-apocalyptic novel? Does it follow the conventions of the genre or break them?