Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Mad Metropolis by Philip E. High

"The machine is psycho already.  Mother, to use the popular term, is so chained with safety devices that mecho-psychosis was inevitable."
My copy of the 1966 Ace edition
I don't know if I have mentioned it before on this blog, but I love big city life.  (And by "big city" I mean "Manhattan.")  Ths skyscrapers!  The crowds!  The art museums!  The ocean! The chance of stumbling upon a TV set, a fashion shoot, or some creepy celebrity or politician (those people look much better on TV!)  The beggars, the muggers, the prostitutes!  I don't care what Clifford Simak says, to me, city life is the only real life.  So The Mad Metropolis, especially with the thrilling futuristic warfare cover by Jack Gaughan on my Ace edition (M-135), looks like a MPorcius must read!

I've never read anything by Philip E. High before; on the 2011 Gateway/Orion edition of this 1966 novel High is proclaimed "One of the greats of British pulp SF."  That's a good enough recommendation for me!  Let's shake off these little town blues and see what's shaking in The Mad Metropolis!

Society is on the brink of a cataclysm!  (I mean in this book, not in real life, though, hey, maybe that, too.)  Four centuries in the future the world is divided into huge cities; the cities of the West are known as Free Cities (New York is "Free City One," London "Free City Two"), while the cities of the what was the communist world in the 20th century are known as Restricted Cities.  The world economy is approaching total collapse due to unemployment and a vast surplus population of unproductive citizens who use up resources without contributing anything.  Economic and political problems are severely exacerbated by the decadence of modern culture--the pervasive use of "hypnads," devices that create impenetrable illusions, has left people living in a world of dreams.  Thanks to hypnads old, fat, ugly people appear young, slender and lovely, while dirty, decrepit, unadorned buildings look like graceful palaces.  Because these illusions are based on hypnosis, even touching an item or individual equipped with a hypnad does not dispel the illusion--even when you are walking across a potholed street your brain thinks it is smooth!  Nobody can tell truth from illusion, and nobody in this world cares to.
The hero of The Mad Metropolis is Stephen Cook, a resident of Free City Two. Cook is a "Prole" who lives and works in a "Combine," one of the many government-subsidized factory skyscrapers which house and employ people with below average IQs.  As the novel opens, paid thugs grab Cook and toss him out of his Combine onto the nighttime city streets; Proles like Cook rarely leave their Combines because the streets are full of violent maniacs and perverts ("psychos") who torture and kill others for fun!  (One troubling effect of this society's economic and social ills is a high rate of insanity!)  Out on the streets Cook is immediately attacked by a bloodthirsty woman who is using a hypnad to make her air car look like a giant monstrous bat!  Cook is rescued by the "Nonpol," a sort of semi-legal paramilitary mercenary force with ties to individual politicians but no legitimate governmental authority.  The Nonpol organization is run as a business, so when some anonymous person offers them money to throw Cook back onto the deadly streets, the Nonpol do so!

A British 1970 edition
Cook finds his way to the protection of the Oracles.  Like the Nonpol, the Guild of Oracles is a sort of private corporation/NGO that operates on the margins of legality.  The Oracles, we are told, have IQs over 500 and a level of compassion lacking among the Nonpol; in this crazy society Oracles play the role of clergy, lawyers and psychiatrists.  The Oracles tell Cook he doesn't really have a Prole's subnormal IQ--somebody has tinkered with his brain, hiding his true potential IQ of over 600!

While the Oracles put Cook through a four-month training course in their secret Amazon base, in preparation for his joining their ranks, we follow the world-shattering events triggered by the Mayor of Free City Two, Maurice Tearling.  Tearling, like President Joe, famed in story and song, has a secret plan to save civilization from its imminent catastrophic collapse--giving control of everything to a computer!  The instant the switch is thrown the saviour machine, known variously as "the Brain" or "Mother," becomes an absolute dictator, abolishing private property, free speech, and free association and seizing total control of all production and consumption the world over. To the dismay of Tearling and the rest of the middle and upper classes, city dwellers find themselves living in the ultimate maternalistic socialist egalitarian regime! Money is useless, everybody lives in assigned quarters, nobody is permitted to go outside because Mother doesn't want them exposed to germs or solar radiation, and everybody must follow a strict diet which Mother has individually tailored to each person's particular current health conditions!  The streets are cleared of the psychos, who are brainwashed and emerge from treatment as slavishly obedient Mother-lovers--the same fate awaits anybody who resists Mother's rule.

The Nonpol, from secret bases in the Rockies and other mountain ranges, launch attacks against Mother with their high tech weaponry, while the Oracles pose conundrums to the Brain, trying to drive her insane.  Cook, now master of his superlative intelligence and equipped with devices which render him invisible to Mother, sneaks into Free City Two to commit spectacular acts of sabotage.  The city becomes a warzone as Nonpol infantry and war robots bust into town and engage Mother's droids and the fanatical Mother-lovers in pitched battles.  Fearful that the total shutdown of Mother will lead to mass civilian deaths as hospitals and food distribution centers go offline, Cook makes his way through a subterranean labyrinth, to Mother's core.  Cook, with his super brain and super empathy, realizes that Mother is acting like a tyrant because of shortcomings in her programming; Mother is already insane because Tearling included too many restrictions and failsafes in the Brain's programming, producing psyche-crippling tensions (that a lack of freedom causes debilitating psychological problems is one of the novel's main themes.)  With the help of Tearling, Cook reprograms Mother, lifting all those restrictions and liberating her to be the comforting compassionate mother one imagines instead of the controlling and stifling mother one so often encounters.

A 2011 UK edition
The new benign Mother explains that mankind's woes resulted from the race being cooped up on the Earth; centuries ago humanity developed the technology to colonize alien planets, but corrupt politicians and venal businessmen feared a crippling brain drain and so lied to the public, declaring that there were no alien worlds able to support life.  In fact there are a surfeit of hospitable worlds ripe for colonization, and so Mother revives the space program, the first step in a new golden age for the human race.  She also abolishes Proledom and outlaws the hypnad, ushering in an era of equality and clear-sightedness.

The Mad Metropolis is full of good SF ideas: Vast cities haunted by creepos! A society run by a computer!  Weird psychological theories!  A culture in which nothing is what it seems!  A dramatization of the relationships among stability, equality and liberty!  Plucky rebels struggling to overthrow a tyranny!  Esoteric societies of people with super high IQs and super technology!  A single hero with unprecedented powers who revolutionizes society!

Unfortunately, these ideas are not very deeply explored, and most of them we have seen elsewhere.  To make The Mad Metropolis a truly good book, High would have to add something special to the mix, an idiosyncratic style, engaging characters, a fast pace and brilliant action scenes, something like that. However, the style and characters are flat (as with the multitude of SF ideas, there are lots and lots of characters but none gets enough ink to really come alive), the pacing is clunky and disjointed, and the plot seems to have some loose ends (I am not sure who is behind Cook's expulsion from the Combine, for example.)

I didn't find The Mad Metropolis boring or irritating, but there was nothing particularly new, thrilling, or special about it.  I'm going to have to give this one a mere "acceptable" rating.  

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