24 November 2013

City without stars, by Montse de Paz

It's odd, I don't remember reading another Minotauro prize before this Ciudad sin estrellas (City without stars). It wasn't on purpose, I swear. Just life, nothing more. The important thing is that, in this post, I offer you the review of an awarded spanish science fiction work. And you know how I like to do the reviews: long and going well into detail. Otherwise this wouldn't be an analysis worth of ProseRage.

It's not that I've read many works where the scenario is a city-state surviving in a postapocalyptic era. But what I've watched are movies, and the first big reference I recalled while reading this novel was Logan's run. The plot is not the same but has enough points in common to make them comparable. And through the writing of this review came to my mind other significant names: Judge Dredd (the comics and the film starred by Karl Urban, not that dreadful thing with Stallone), Equilibrium and City of Ember. Beware, I'm just talking about similarities in some aspects, nothing more. "Ciudad sin estrellas" is not like the other works mentioned, mainly because science fiction isn't fully at the heart of the plot. Montse de Paz has used the genre as an envelope for a young-adult story which could have been located, with merely cosmetic changes, in our reality.

The edition I have is the paperback one, published under the Booket brand. That is, compact size, recycled paper... The usual and more than enough. When this title came out with the Minotauro seal, it did it in hardcover and dust jacket style, format in which it still can be bought from Planeta's website. The photomontage used as cover is correct but dull. The buildings seem to me as renders from the end of the last century, to tell you the truth. Specially noticeable is the excess of metallic gray in their facades and the mistake they've done when not rounding off well the picture: the dome is behind the buildings, not containing them. The covers of the Bruguera bolsilibros (spanish pulp novels) I reviewed some months ago are much more suggestive.

Summing up, the illustration fits the content but is not attractive enough for potential readers. Point in favour is that Booket specifies over the cover, in the bottom left corner, the genre this book pretends to be part of: science fiction.

I say "pretends" because I think the author has fallen short with the "scifi" angle of the story. To begin with, read first the official synopsis.

Ziénaga is a perfect and safe place. Isolated, protected and self-supplied, the city offers to its inhabitants all sort of amenities and pleasures. It's a paradise of concrete and neon, under a invariably grey sky during the day and orange at night. But in the relic hunters' forums they talk about a world outside the walls of the city.

A world very different from the official versions, according to them a desolated desert surrounds the scarce inhabitable zones on the planet. However, the state authorities rush to supress these rumors and the so-called «mysticoids» are considered rebels and are punished by the establishment. One dusk, at the twilight hour, while going with his friends to the metropolis' most famous luxury brothel, Perseo Stone will make a decision.

Poised by his mother's memory, condemned for being a rebel, he'll decide to defy the system to discover what's beyond the limits of the city. For that he'll carry out an incredible plan that'll make all his world totters.

Maybe this plot have rung a dystopic bell to you, one of those futuristic and dark reflections of our society. However, the core in this work is Perseo's search of something beyond that grey reality in which he lives and the reconciliation with his mother's remembrances. He doesn't pretend to change the society of Ziénaga (slightly deformed version of the word Cienaga, swamp in english, so Zwamp could be a fitting translation), just to check out if there's something else outside the physical and mental limits of that city-state. It's, then, a personal voyage of discovery, a journey into maturity. A story which some of us could tag as young literature and that could be developed in any age or environment. Science fiction in this book merely serves as a decorative and functional element, nothing more than something circunstancial through the unfolding of this work.

Allow me to explain how is the world described in Ciudad sin estrellas. A cataclysm called the Hecatomb has reduced humanity to the population living in the sole twenty inhabitable territories left on Earth. They're called B zones, B being a short form of the term biozone. There are other areas, some of them for military use and others named Z which are just mentioned in the book. ¿Maybe there are zombies in them? It wouldn't surprise me much, really.

The biozones communicate with each other very little, by few official meetings and remote transmissions. Therefore, each zone is a enormous city-state (like the Megacity One where Judge Dredd is THE law). They live in a self-sufficient way because of reasons never specified by the author. And a very important thing, beyond the frontiers of those megacities there's nothing else but a barren desert. All this and some other details more are told in the first two pages of the story, an early introduction with a fair lengt which begins to hint the stagnated situation in which our species lives in that future.

Here the most veteran readers and moviegoers of the genre will have noticed why I mentioned Logan's run before. In the film (I suppose in the later series too), the citizens of what looked like the last city on Earth never thought about getting out from there. The world outside the colony was a radioactive wasteland completely forbidding. Or that was what the regime made them believe in.

Worry not, I won't spoil the reading of this title. As I've pointed out before, the heart of this work is not in the science fiction but in the personal circumstances of the main character. His family troubles, his travel out of and return to Ziénaga and the tremendous consequences from all that are the engine of the novel, which works reasonably well. Still, I cannot consider it but a lesser work, one of that kind that entertains but don't leave a relevant impression in the reader (especially in the genre-hardened one).

I understand that the author wanted to use the excuse of the protagonist's voyage as a vehicle to show Ziénaga's miseries. Destructured or broken families are the norm in that city, the citizens are completely submerged in a ultratecnological society and indoctrinated with not believing anything not proven scientifically. In fact, they're taught this motto at a young age: "Palpable, measurable, verifiable." Anything that falls out of that rule must be rejected. Is a society where there's no mysticism or a search for trascendentality. They live in a continuous grey without any horizon in sight.

Yet there's people who push the boundaries: the relic hunters look for the remains of that past which the regime doesn't explain, and the mysticoids are those who project their thoughts to less earthly things. Both groups are dangerous for the system and are pursued and jailed, something that happened to Perseo's own mother because of talking about "odd things". All this added to the bad relationship that the main character has with his father and being part of a relic hunters forum, will propel the young Stone to check out if there is something outside the city-state. This sounds good told this way, but Montse de Paz has developed the story more as a teenager rebelliousness matter than a science fiction adventure.

The greatest lack of this book is not telling in detail Perseo's travel outside the city. The author deprives the reader from seen how the hero is transformed by what he discovers beyond the desolated surroundings of the city. What she does is to center the story on the consequences for the kid's relatives (I call him kid but he's eighteen years old) and for their own city. Let's say that, althought not on purpose, he provoked a big mess where even the Ziénaga's army and police get involved (and quarrel with each other). Nevertheless, no matter how awful ends being that commotion, it's nothing more than a teenager's rebellious act. Perseo doesn't aspire to change Ziénaga's society with what he have discovered, he just thinks in sharing it with his friends.

I haven't said all the truth about who Montse de Paz "doesn't-narrate" Perseo's adventure. She tells his getting-out, his return and, lightly, some moments lived by the young man while he was out of the city. A mistake because this leaves the main character out of play while we're told things that doesn't matter that much in comparison. Although maybe that was for the best because it's hard to believe. Someone without any experience in extreme survival throws himself to explore a completely unknown territory for him, without knowing the fauna and flora, with no support at all and not knowing where drinkable water springs are is really hard to believe. A lot.

Then there is the idealization problem. What Perseo finds beyond Ziénaga seems so nice to him, so huggable, that is normal that, in contrast, the megacity looks like a giant ultratechnological tomb. The worst of this is, as she writes it, the author seems to renegate from science and embracing a mystic and idealistic perception of nature. She forgets completely that wild life is awfully hard and doesn't understand about idealizations, mysticisms or any other kind of human brain fart. Being a radical rationalist (Zienaga's society) is as bad as just having unrealistic ideas in the head (mysticoids).

About the secondary characters I'll say that they play their part reasonably well, in particular as a sometimes parodic reflection of our current society. Nevertheless, this parody grazes simplism when showing the military and the police as shortsighted people, integrated too much into the system they protect. I could go further talking about some of the characters that stand out, like the madam Amanda but where I really want to go is...

The technical failures! The main story unfolds well, with rhythm and sense but the circumstances in which it happens show problems.
  • All biozones are independent from each other, running under a extreme autarkic regime. This is hard to believe, natural resources are not evenly distributed around the Earth crust. Just this fact should force the commerce among zones.
  • Despite the rejection of supertitions and mysticisms, in the biozones there's art. They have architecture, videogames, music and other artistic manifestations. And hang me if making all that doesn't imply a good fistful of "mysticism" sometimes.
  • Perseo escapes through a breach in the fence (A simple fence?) which surrounds Ziénaga, a flaw the authorities don't care to fix. If they're so worried to not allow anyone to go out, ¿how come they obviate that opening?
  • Not even the army seems to know what's going on beyond the city's boundaries. This is incredible since they have satellites in orbit. In fact, it's hard to believe that hasn't already happened a rebellion there encouraged by some military officer or authority who tells the truth to its fellow citizens.
  • When weapons come to light, the author mentions the "ultrasonic laser launcher". My retinas almost detached themselves when they read such thing. Writing just "laser gun" would've been enough, thanks.
  • I've mentioned before the thing about Perseo's incredible survival outside of Ziénaga...
  • But not his enormous naivety in his return. He didn't expect, although he should had, the really serious troubles he would end facing after his comeback.

The story is easy to follow and fast to read, but all its science fiction potential ends diluted in a coming of age tale. I want to believe that the ones who awarded Ciudad sin estrellas with the Minotauro prize saw in it a criticism towards our increasingly technified and alienated society both in personal and social aspects. Sorry but not for me, the especulative and futurist elements are just embellishment and nothing particularly good or new. Worse is the aftertaste which it left in the end: rationalism and sciencitic thinking look very bad compared with magical thinking and mysticism. Nevertheless, searching for transcendentality is not at odds with having both feet on the ground.

Title: Ciudad sin estrellas
Author: Montse de Paz
Publisher: Booket
Awards: Minotauro 2011
First edition: Marzo de 2012
PAges: 251
ISBN: 978-84-450-0010-6


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