Richard Kadrey’s 1988 Metrophage is a stand-alone cyberpunk dystopia. Metrophage was the ninth book in Terry Carr’s Third Ace Science Fiction Specials. Like the other Third Ace Science Fiction Specials novels1, Metrophage was Kadrey’s novel-length debut.
Jonny Qabbala sets out on a simple errand: locate fellow reprobate Easy Money at HoloWhores, Easy Money’s place of work, and shoot him in the head. This will be retribution for Easy Money’s murder of Jonny’s quasi-friend and drug source, Raquin.
Johnny will never realize most of his goals, including this one.
After oil ran out in the mid-1990s, the world divided into two factions: the Muslim-dominated New Palestine Federation and the Japan-dominated Tokyo Alliance. New Palestine enjoys a substantial advantage in machinery and raw materials, not least because the Tokyo Alliance lost access to its lunar facilities when the alien Alpha Rats attacked. America is a junior partner in the Alliance. Jonny’s hometown Los Angeles is a violent, anarchic hellhole.
The Committee for Public Health may be an ad hoc assembly of naïve young vigilantes, but it’s the closest thing LA has to a functioning government. Once a Committee bounty hunter, Jonny defected to pursue life as a minor hoodlum. Jonny is therefore not pleased to be detained by Committee goons. Whatever they want cannot be good for Jonny.
The Committee’s Colonel Zamora is interested in Jonny because smuggler Conover is interested in hiring Jonny’s services. Jonny is to be a mole: the means by which Zamora can follow up on hints that Conover is conspiring with the Alpha Rats. It’s a sensible plan. It goes as well as any scheme does in the novel, which is not well.
When Jonny makes contact with Conover, he learns that he and Conover have the same goal: find Easy Money. Or so Conover claims. In fact, there are plots within plots. A novel plague is spreading across LA, and the long-awaited war between Alliance and Federation is about to begin. Jonny is but a pawn and he does not even know in which game he is playing.
The prose in this is a bit wooden and there is a fair amount of intrusive exposition. Well, it was Kadrey’s first novel.
Metrophage was the last book in this series to be edited by Terry Carr. Following Carr’s death in April 1987, editorial duties were taken over by Damon Knight.
This novel was my introduction to surrealism as resistance. If you’ve ever heard me shout “The Fascists are at the door! Fill the bathtub with brightly-coloured machine-parts!” … Metrophage is why.
This review cannot be long enough to discuss Jonny’s complicated love life. Let’s just say that cyberpunk is a close cousin to noir. As with noir, to fall in love is to offer to fate something precious whose loss is both painful and inevitable. Falling in love with two people raises the stakes without improving the outcome.
If you were looking for a representative sampling of cyberpunk’s tropes but only had time to read one novel, that novel should be Metrophage. The novel offers just about every single one: a declining America now a Japanese colony; impressive and repulsive body-mods; a community composed entirely of criminals and brutes. All this is presented in a bewildering but nonetheless memorable stream of images.
What Metrophage lacks is a coherent plot, It prefers side-quests and startling revelations instead. To a fair degree, this is thanks to the characters, who are for the most part an assortment of untrustworthy, often-drug-sodden reprobates with the attention span of goldfish. It’s also because in Kadrey’s universe, all plans are doomed before they begin, either because their architects are not as smart as they think they are or because there are vital facts of which they are unaware.
Although Metrophage did not attract the bevy of awards other works in this series did, it did successfully kickstart Kadrey’s career. Kadrey has published at least twenty novels to date, a dozen in the Sandman Slim series alone.
1: Minor exception to the first novel rule: Howard Waldrop’s Them Bones, which was Waldrop’s solo-author novel debut. He had previously published a novel with co-author Jake Saunders.