Walter Jon Williams wastes no time establishing his world in this mid-1990s science fantasy novel:
A burning woman stalks along the streets. Ten stories tall, naked body a whirling holocaust of fire. Terrified people on Bursary Street crumple into carbon at her passing, leaving behind only black char curled into fetal shapes. The heat she radiates is so powerful that structures burst into flame as she passes. A storm of paper, sucked out of buildings by uncontrolled drafts, spiral toward her and are consumed. Uncontrolled rivers of flame pour from her fingertips. Windows blast inward at her keening, at the eerie, nerve-scraping wail that pours from her insubstantial, fiery throat. In a city that girdles the world, all-devouring fire is the worst thing imaginable.
There are details we never learn – what world is this? Is this some strange future or a secondary world? – but they don’t matter. There are two important details we do learn almost immediately. The first is that this is a society adept in the geomantic arts, drawing power — plasm — from the shape of its buildings. For those who can afford access to plasm, lives filled with privilege and convenience. For those denied access, lives familiar to the urban poor in ages past.
Like all sources of power, plasm is potentially dangerous. In the wrong hands, it can level a city. In the right hands, it can change one.
The second important fact is that this is a world as filled with people as it can be, a planet covered in endless cityscape; there is nowhere to run to where someone has not arrived before you and thanks to the Shield placed around the world by the Ascended Ones in ages past, no mortal can ever leave the planet. When the Barkazil, the Cunning People, fled their lost city it was not to some new homeland, pristine and empty or at least only populated by peoples easily pushed aside but lives as a slum-dwelling minority in the Scope of Jaspeer, despised and considered expendable by the majority.
Aiah has struggled up to bare respectability, working as a low level functionary in Jaspeer’s Plasm Authority. All this seems on the verge of vanishing, as her lover’s failure to provide his end of their budget pushes the couple closer to bankruptcy; for him, a member of Jaspeer’s dominant race, embarrassing inconvenience, for Barkazil Aiah, calamity.
When her investigation of the source of the Bursary Street flamer’s power leads her to a treasure in undocumented plasm power, Aiah sees that it is too vast a prize for a conventional graft. Only a bold strategy, a grand daring scheme worthy of the Cunning People will let her survive exploiting her discovery, which leads her to the Metropolitan Constantine; not only can the deposed revolutionary afford to buy the plasm, his grand vision of the New City is seductive to someone forced to live on the margins of her society.
Nobody ever looks inside the duffle-bag filled with thousand dollar bills and walks away but at least Aiah is sensible enough to grasp that a simple plan isn’t going to work. She does get lucky three times – she works for the Plasm Authority, she finds the plasm deposit and for a man willing to cut deals with soul-eating demons Constantine is a decent sort of person who isn’t going to leave Aiah in a number of dumpsters across the span of Jaspeer – but Aiah is also smart, crafty and hard-working, willing to accept the costs of what she desires.
While Aiah manages to go from a put upon less bureaucrat to someone surprisingly comfortable with her share of fifty thousand deaths, this isn’t just another book about an innocent who is corrupted by wealth and power. Aiah is irrevocably changed by her experiences but not necessarily for the worse.
I think SFWA has a regulation requiring authors to present cities as dung-heaps unfit for true people but as oppressively overpopulated worlds go, this one wasn’t that unpleasant. The Shield is a nice touch, making it clear fleeing to the off-world colonies was not going to be the easy out for Aiah. The plasm-driven world is nicely realized.
The denizens of rec.arts.sf.written who read this back in the mid-1990s loved it but sadly I don’t think that translated into commercial success. I suspect Williams is cursed being too good for his own good – even his attempts to churn out mindless MilSF have been suspiciously ambitious. It is a rare author who innovates without being harshly punished for their transgression; reliable commercial success lies in producing works familiar enough not to challenge the reader much, while being just different enough from what came before to avoid plagiarism lawsuits. Williams appears incapable of the necessary levels of mediocrity for grand popularity in his chosen genre.
I have two good pieces of news for people who want to explore this work. The first is it is on sale right now, for $0.99, but the sale will be over soon so don’t hesitate. The second is that there is a sequel to this book and it is if anything even better than Metropolitan.