The City, Not Long After, by Pat Murphy
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Pat Murphy’s novel, The City, Not Long After, is a puzzling piece of work. With generous helpings of fantasy, it doesn’t quite qualify as science fiction. Sometimes the book is categorized as a dystopian novel. Since the near-future American society Murphy depicts is in shambles because of a pandemic that took place 16 years earlier, it fits the general description of dystopian fiction. But the manner in which the pandemic occurred is fanciful in the extreme. And many of the characters find it difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy: the future San Francisco of the novel seems to have a larger population of ghosts than of living human beings.
Here, more or less, is what happened . . .
San Francisco peace activists led by a Buddhist named Mary Laurenson launch a campaign to secure a large number of monkeys from a Tibetan monastery high in the Himalayas. These are very special monkeys—”peace monkeys.” As the prophecy goes, the monkeys will bring peace, but in an unexpected way. And so it comes to pass. The activists distribute small colonies of monkeys to major cities throughout the world: New York, Washington, Tokyo, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and so forth. Everywhere “people welcomed them as harbingers of peace.” Unfortunately, fleas living on the monkeys transmit a deadly virus known as “the Plague” to the human population. The virus spreads worldwide, killing nearly everyone in its wake.
As the pandemic breaks out, Laurenson gives birth to a daughter. Though she learns to read and gain some understanding of human affairs from her mother, the girl grows up essentially wild. She roams free all over the countryside around Woodland, a small community near Sacramento. She learns to hunt with a crossbow, becoming a deadly shot, and to break into abandoned houses to find salvageable canned goods. Meanwhile, all around them, society is disintegrating. Small numbers of people have gathered in towns and cities. Others drift about the Earth, hostile to everyone who approaches. Somehow, a large number of soldiers—about 150, we learn later—have survived. Under the command of a self-styled general named Alexander Miles, known to most as Fourstar, they are invading the towns in Northern California as part of his plan to reconstitute “America.”
At the age of 16, Laurenson’s daughter accompanies her on a trek to San Francisco. Along the way they are stopped by one of Fourstar’s patrols. The young woman—still nameless—is released after a time, but her mother is kept for longer. The young woman finally manages to gain her mother’s release, but Laurenson has become extremely ill in captivity and soon dies. The young woman heads off alone to San Francisco, urged on by her mother shortly before her death. At the army camp, they have learned that Fourstar intends to invade the city. The young woman’s mission is to warn them.
San Francisco is a disorienting experience for the nameless young woman. She is frightened by the sheer size of the buildings and put off by the people she meets. The city’s population totals about 100, leaving her to roam unmolested virtually everywhere. In one abandoned home, she finds an old Scrabble game laid out on its board. Three letters stand out: J-A-X. She immediately resolves to take Jax as her name.
Jax finds the people of the city unconcerned about Fourstar’s planned invasion. Most of them are artists of one sort or another. Danny-boy is a painter whose canvas is the city itself: the big project he soon undertakes is to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue and invite graffiti artists including Snake, Mercedes, and others to express themselves on the bridge’s pillars and cables—but only in shades of blue. The Machine is a young man, the son of a deceased robotics engineer, who believes he himself is a machine created by his father. The boy is a mechanical genius and spends his time scavenging for materials to construct solar-powered metallic insects and other robotic creatures as well as a robocopter he flies all around the city. Ms. Migsdale is a former school librarian who had lived along before the Plague. She publishes the city’s occasional newspaper, the New City News, and tosses cryptic and mysterious messages in bottles into the Pacific in hopes of getting a response. Ms. Migsdale spends a lot of time with an obsessive man named Books, a former senior research librarian at the San Francisco Library. Though slow to warm to these people, Jax eventually becomes friendly with many of them, especially with Danny-boy. At length, she moves in with him in the St. Francis Hotel suite Danny-boy has claimed as his own.
When it becomes clear that Fourstar’s invasion is imminent, Jax is unable to persuade Danny-boy and the others to defend themselves by meeting the army in combat. They insist on doing things their own way, as artists. When the invasion actually occurs, she reluctantly agrees to their plan. Now, with astonishing creativity, the people of San Francisco baffle and frustrate the soldiers and their leader by refusing to exchange shots with them, even though they have ample arms in the city. Instead,they adopt a plan Jax has devised: one by one, sneaking up on individual sentries and members of patrols, they anesthetize the troops and paint the word “DEAD” on each of their foreheads, autographing the work on the soldiers’ cheeks. Meanwhile, others have built barricades and mazes, and The Machine has used his robocopter to bomb the army with stink bombs and other annoyances.
Eventually, once more than a third of the soldiers are marked “dead,” it becomes clear that someone will have to label the general himself—or kill him outright, as Jax wants to do. Sneaking behind the army’s lines through tunnels and storm drains, Jax succeeds in getting into the room where Fourstar is sleeping. Against her better judgment, she simply uses ether to immobilize him and mark him “dead” like the others. When escaping, however, she is seen by an army patrol. She manages to elude capture only because The Machine, flying overhead, crashes into the soldiers in a suicide mission to save her. Undone by the death of her friend, Jax wanders unthinkingly all over the city. Eventually, she is captured by troops and taken to the general, who orders her death by hanging.
On the gallows the following morning, with the noose around her neck and Fourstar by her side, a shot rings out from a nearby rooftop. The general collapses, dead. But the shooter, who turns out to be Danny-boy, acting entirely against his pacifist principles, is himself shot dead by troops near the gallows. Jax, freed from the noose, manages to persuade the troops to end the war. Some will join the people of the city, and others will simply leave.
Life goes on in the city, and Jax lives to an old age.