A friend recommended John C. Wright’s City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis for a little light reading. It is possible that my friend is a sadist, or forgets that while I do engage some in philosophy and logic, logic puzzles are really not my thing. With some major flaws, the book was interesting for a read-through.
If you like to ponder the difference between potential, actual, probable, and revision, then this is the book for you. This is intellectual nerd candy for people with philosophy degrees, or for people who want to think they don’t need philosophy degrees because they are just that smart.
I do not have one and don’t remember ever wanting one.
The premise is interesting enough, a city at the end of time is full of Time Wardens. The book was pitched to me as a combination of Dr. Who meets Amber (in case you have been living in a closet those are two seriously inventive series about parallel worlds and time travel).
I would say that the series has the morbid fatalism of Amber to suck all the joy out of the freewheeling possibility of Dr. Who. Wright’s vision of Time Travel is that it is evil, that people will use it only for bad, and we get drug through a grand world tour of wanna-be Time Lords destroying themselves, kidnapping and enslaving people, lying, tricking, cheating, and then perishing in their own futility. I lost count of the characters who know their ending sucks, and chose to be trapped in their shitty endings anyway, either because they want the case more, they think they can avoid it, or they make the wrong choices, again, infinitely.
If you want a thesis on the banal depravity of man, I recommend Faust, it is just as depressing and much shorter. The e-book is well edited but poorly formatted. It does not even have a table of contents so I had no idea I was reading a collection of short stories until the scenes changed around me completely and a chapter in revisited none of the previous chapter’s plots.
Wright’s appeals are that he is Christian (Roman Catholic) a philospher (who is still a Christian) and a writer.
I found his writing technically gifted, and the rest masturbatory and pedantic. There is one really enjoyable short story about a man on the run from a thought-eating nightmare that was both original, clever, and not overly concerned with details. There was a second about a dying man that was rather well written and strongly reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories, tightly woven, sensible, and rewarding after a twist ending.
The rest of the collection weighed upon me like lead. The first short story was a murder mystery about a man’s own murder, with an interesting backdrop, but the logic behind it, no matter how thoroughly philosophically stable, was so much work that by the end I was just glad it was done. Similarly, the last mystery centers around rape and murder between multiple JFK’s and Marilyn Monroe as Helen of Troy that dwelled on how arousing she was and then a lot of rape, murder, and some nihilistic despair.
The morality that does show up is secular Catholic through-and-through. Your salvation is accomplished through your own decisions and hard work. Jesus? Never mentioned. Grace? You have to kill yourself, not in devotion but as an act of contrition, in works righteousness. Then other people who have done the same will lift you back up and you will be pure. This book works more as a poster philosophy for Mormonism and Arianism than actual Christianity, as it is missing faith, deity, loyalty, and compassion in every way.
Also, the mythology irritated me. Infinite-multiverse fiction has always left a bad taste in my mouth because it always turns out to be a loose and lazy mechanic. So what if there is another version of someone? The writer has already established that there are infinite everyones, so big deal…
There is a serious lack of good guys in this collection of short stories. You have anti-heroes, victims, and villains. The list is short by the following sets: redeemers, forgivers, heroes, role-models, and saviors. The most frustrating thing was that there are hints at a better world, a happier version of time travel, and it is never really shown at all. I feel like Wright wants me to know that he’s aware how dystopian his stories are, shows me the contrast, then rubs my nose in his shitty little darkness while hiding the light behind his back.
It was a technically solid read, and if you are smart enough that this does not constitute work to read (as the man who lent it to me) or if you are pretentious enough to want a book that makes you feel comfortably mentally superior, this book will give you a refreshing chance to flex some mental muscles without leaving the dim fog of perpetual crappy sin, despair, and ruin.
Recommended for geniuses and wannabe intellectuals. Not for anyone seeking peace, joy, or an easy read.