The City Under the Stars


Gardner Dozios & Michael Swanwick


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

February 19, 2022

wonder sometimes if I am too generous with my ranking of a novel depending on whether or not I like the author's previous works. I loved Swanwick's Stations of the Tide and marveled at The Iron Dragon's Daughter - so is The City Under the Stars really a five star novel, or did I round up because I like one of its authors? I have concluded that yes, City Under the Stars indeed merits five stars, though if you haven't read anything by Swanwick, I highly recommend The Iron Dragon's Daughter. His short fiction is pretty good too.

The protagonist of The City Under the Stars is an aging laborer named Hansen. Hansen labors in the human domain of a divided Earth in the far future. Hansen spends near the city of New York, on the wrong side of a glowing huge wall that separates the struggling remains of humanity from the "City of God". Hansen's mindless job, shoveling endless mounts of coal into a chute, is necessary because what remains of civilization is at a medieval equivalent of technology and culture. Although this backwards world does have some marvelous surviving machines left over from the Utopian times, no one would no how to repair these magical machines if they ever broke down (they never break down). These technological marvels are put to work at simple tasks – such as pulling carts - when surely they are capable of much more valuable, intricate tasks.

The environment of the future Earth is a ruined mess. The still air is baking hot. It is a grey, dusty world. A shining, iridescent wall is visible, dividing these pitiful humans from the wonders of the advanced society on the other side. Beyond that wall, in the City of God, are the transcendent humans – the people who created incredible technologies and wield incomprehensible powers. But there is no communication between the two sets of humans, the glowing wall is lethal to touch.

Hansen is already old (perhaps 40 years old), his existence is drudgery, a hopeless, pointless life. After each shift, Hansen staggers home across a ruined, poisoned landscape. The dead lands will wear a man out; indeed, years ago Hansen’s beloved wife Becky perished from the poisons of this world, and since then Hansen has been an empty shell, laboring without joy or purpose. Hansen is hated by his deadly enemy the foreman, Oristano. Ever since Hansen broke Oristano’s nose in a bar fight years ago, the two have loathed each other. Oristano will do whatever he can to make Hansen’s life miserable. Oristano hits upon the idea to put a young, strong New Man onto Hansen’s coal shoveling team. New Man is even bigger and stronger than the indomitable Hansen. Worse, the New Man can shovel coal at a pace even faster than Hansen. It is clear what the outcome of this scheme will be – New Man will be appointed shift leader, and Hansen will be out of a job. Without work, Hansen will soon starve. He will be forced into poverty and starvation; the brief, violent life of an outlaw his only option.

Hansen retaliates against Oristano, and then flees, though he is bound to be caught by the SIs soon. He joins a bandit gang, a dangerous band of violent men. One of the gang members is nicknamed The Preacher. The Preacher is treated like a fool; it is obvious that he once was an educated man, but now is reduced to wild story telling to amuse the rest of the gang, which will then tolerate his presence and feed and protect him. Preacher feels an uncontrollable urge to venture closer to the glowing wall, even though it is death to the touch. The SIs attack the outlaw gang, and the members flee in all directions. Preacher is rescued by Hansen. With the SIs in murderous pursuit, Preacher and Hansen find themselves close and closer to the wall.

Hansen tries escape the authorities by to passing through the shimmering lights. The wall ought to painfully slay Hansen, yet, incredibly, it appears that Hansen will be permitted ingress.

The City of God is explored by Hansen, the bizarre and incomprehensible wonders are opened to his exploration. The City appears to be deserted, yet the lush, beautiful landscape and the functions remain ready to serve and delight. The rest of the novel (its just 248 pages in the trade paperback) is about Hansen’s discoveries in the city and what happens when he tries to dismantle the glowing wall and return some technology to medieval humanity on the ruined side. It is an interesting tale, I think Swanwick and Dozios were successful. Unfortunately, the two will collaborate on no future works because in a lengthy afterward, Swanwick describes his friend Dozios' long life and untimely demise.