Pat Murphy’s 1988 novel, The City, Not Long After, depicts a world where a plague has wiped out most of the population of the world. The city of San Francisco has become a haven for artists, who leave a peaceful life free from coercion in any form. Meanwhile, an army man, Four Star, wishes to forcibly recreate the United States. As the novel opens, twenty years after the plague, his army is moving towards the city.
The conflict that this offers to the reader contains a number of intriguing ideas that Murphy explores through the interactions between the two sides.
The show down is quite late in the novel, however. The novel dwells for quite a long time on the lives and characters of those that populate San Francisco. They include The Machine, who builds robots that he considers his children as he believes himself to be a robot. After all, how else would he have survived the plague? There is the editor of the local newspaper, who also writes messages which she distributes to the world in bottles that she throws into the ocean. Lily collects skulls to display in department store windows and Danny Boy, another artist, who wishes to paint the whole Golden Gate bridge blue. And there is, of course, Jax, a girl whose mother, though from San Francisco, brought her up in a less well populated area of the country. Finally and this becomes important in the closing stages of the novel, San Francisco, through the ghosts of its past, is a character.
Post-apocalyptic worlds are a staple of science fiction and there is always the danger that such tropes become clichéd. Pat Murphy’s novel, by introducing the fantastical element of the ghosts of San Francisco, does something to sidestep this.
I was generally sympathetic with the characters. Pat Murphy has created an internally consistent and, thus, plausible utopia. She successfully creates a sense of anarchic community which requires no violence to run smoothly. At some points, though it didn’t particularly bother me, I did have the sense that some people may find the depiction of the characters to be a little irritating. Not everyone enjoys reading about artsy types being wacky.
On the other side, you have General ‘Four Star’ Miles and his army, intent upon restoring the past greatness of America. While the people of San Francisco live free of any interference in their lives, Four Star believes that the only way that the US can become great again is through order, which he will deliver at the barrel of a gun. Any written work from before the plague which discusses freedom and civil liberties is considered subversive and he extracts a heavy price from anyone found in possession of such materials.
The conflict would seem to be a little one sided. Four Star has an army, which while perhaps not so well equipped as the pre-plague forces, is certainly better equipped to fight a war than a bunch of peaceniks hellbent on creating art. Recognising their limitations and, in a refusal to compromise their way of life, the community refuses to fight the war on anything but their own terms. In this way they channel the likes of Ghandi’s non-violent resistance while using their own superior knowledge of the terrain of San Francisco to ‘fight’ in a guerilla style. For example, those resisting the invading army sneak up on their attackers, knock them out and mark them as dead, leaving a note pointing out that, had they wished to, they could have killed the solider. Those ‘killed’ in this manner should remove themselves from the action.
Of course, there is a bit of a problem with all this. The soldier isn’t actually dead and Four Star’s army has guns and training. Though the defenders have many successes, it is clear that ultimate success is unlikely. Murphy resolves this problem in two ways. First, as noted earlier, San Francisco is effectively a character in the novel. The history of the city comes into play as ghosts play a vital part in helping to expel the invaders. More finally, though, the defenders indulge themselves with a piece of violence which, while against their principles, saves the city and prevents more.
If we consider the novel from the point of view of presenting peaceful anarchism and non-violent resistance, the shooting at the end is a rather bloody full stop. However, I think that it does give the novel a little more depth and subtlety. The lives that the people of San Francisco have are clearly worth defending and the principles by which they live shouldn’t be shrugged off lightly. They have reached a point where violent resistance and even a killing is a price worth paying.
I enjoyed this novel. It’s depiction of resistance to repression and coercion is rooted well in human history and geography. The resolution of the novel, though perhaps a little too neat, does at least avoid an even more unsatisfying conclusion. More importantly, though, although a number of years have passed since the original publication of this novel the themes it explores feel relevant even now. The desire of many in positions of power and influence to reduce the liberty of citizens in the name of security is evident through many of the laws that have been passed or mooted since the turn of the century. While the repression of art and speech might not be quite so overt as depicted in the novel, there is a sense that criticism of the state and its aims is not accepted to the extent that it should be.
The City, Not Long After, is a charming, witty and most importantly, witty exploration of conflict. As I noted, there are some elements that may annoy some readers, but if you can tolerate them, this novel is well worth your time. Thoroughly enjoyable.