Edward Bryant’s 1976 Cinnabar is a collection of American New Wave science fiction stories set in a far future city, the city from which the collection takes its name.
Cinnabar lies between a forbidding desert and an inhospitable ocean. It may be the last city on its world; nobody is certain if fabled Els still exists. Cinnabar is enabled by inherited technology of which the modern day can only dream. It is composed of nearly autonomous neighborhoods that answer only to Terminex, a great supercomputer ensconced in the heart of the temporal anomaly that sits at the centre of the city.
This is where any respectable reviewer would draw parallels between Cinnabar and J. G. Ballard’s Vermillion Sands. Since I have not read Ballard’s Vermillion Sands, I cannot do so. I have also not read Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time, which seems another likely work for comparison. However, I can compare Cinnabar to the John Varley setting of the Eight Worlds. Although the two settings do not share time or place, they do share the conceit of an enabling technology which, by freeing humans from natural constraints, permit them to enjoy either a quasi-utopia or a quasi-dystopia. As they wish.
I regret to say the citizen of Cinnabar appear to have chosen dystopia: stark class differences, abusive practices, and a decadence that renders citizens miserable rather than satisfied. There is lots of wild sex but no one seems happy, during or after.
Bryant’s novelette Brain Terminal reminded me of Varley’s Steel Beach, as I might have expected. The Lunarian citizens of Steel Beach and the citizens of Cinnabar have made the same choice. They have loaded all the hard work of keeping the community functioning on a long-suffering AI. They only deign to check in on the poor computer only after it becomes clear the wheels are falling off.
Too bad that humans don’t find basic maintenance an enthralling pastime.
One difference between Bryant and Varley is that Bryant is more obviously New Wave (American variety). This may be due to the fact that Clarion veteran Bryant got his start in venues like New Worlds, Quark, and Universe. Those journals might have helped form his style Or perhaps his Clarion-formed style suited them. In any case, the stories seem a trifle self-conscious and quite determined to provide the reader with a soft-focus read on a decadent setting (but without lingering on physical details). The setting might grate if it went on overlong. But it doesn’t. Books were shorter in those days; what were novelettes then might be considered short stories now. The collection as a whole is only 176 pages long.
Introduction: Everyday Life in the City at the Center of Time • essay by Edward Bryant
Creativity-related musings from Bryant.
The Road to Cinnabar • (1971) • short story by Edward Bryant
Wylie Cafter emerges from a desert he has no memory of crossing. He doesn’t even remember a distant city from which he might have come. A city that may not exist. His exploration of vast, decadent Cinnabar is illuminating, but ultimately tragic.
“Jade Blue” • (1971) • short story by Edward Bryant
Jade Blue, cat-woman nanny, tends to her charge, George. He is an eternal child, doomed to perpetual childhood by parents who later vanished. They left him to Jade Blue, confident in her sense of duty. They cannot have foreseen the extremes to which Jade Blue would take her loyalty to George.
Ideally, citizens should agree to the changes imposed on them. However, informed consent is impossible for created beings (who are given no input into their own design) or infants. Cinnabar appears to have no safeguards for either class of being, probably because the adults would find responsibility towards others a stone-cold drag, man.
“Gray Matters” • (1972) • short story by Edward Bryant (variant of Their Thousandth Season)
Decadent sybarites edit their memories, only dimly grasping that to discard unpleasant recollections is also to abandon hope of learning from them.
“The Legend of Cougar Lou Landis” • (1973) • short story by Edward Bryant
A bold adventuress fighting social injustice discovers the extremities to which those committing injustice will go to preserve their privileged way of life.
Hayes and the Heterogyne • (1974) • novelette by Edward Bryant
Horny American teen Harry Vincent Blake is snagged out of time by Timnath Obregon’s latest invention. Timnath and famed sex star Tourmaline Hayes provide Blake with a transformative tour of a world untroubled by 20th century hang-ups. Blake returns home with a brand-new kidney and a determination to reform the world.
Blake’s tour focuses on the upside of Cinnabar (hot sex with sexy people! Freedom from biologically-and-culturally-imposed gender norms!) rather the drawbacks. Admittedly, that’s how outsiders touring utopia is supposed to work.
“Years Later” • short story by Edward Bryant
A husband’s coping mechanism for his loveless marriage runs afoul of supply issues of which he is not aware.
Most quasi-immortals in Cinnabar don’t do long-term marriage. If this story is any guide, there is good reason for that.
Sharking Down • (1975) • novelette by Edward Bryant
Terminex decrees that Timnath Obregon’s great shark Sidhe must meet Grimdahl’s great shark the Black Avenger to determine which is superior: natural or artificial predator? If the wrong one wins, Cinnabar will die! What follows is quite unexpected.
Brain Terminal • (1975) • novelette by Edward Bryant
Jade Blue, Cafter, Tourmaline, and Obregon set off towards the very centre of Cinnabar to confront an increasingly deranged Terminex.