(Kelly Freas’ cover for the 1972 edition)
First, a snarky comment about Kelly Freas’ unfortunate cover art — I can’t help but giggle at the imposing sci-fi behemoth cityscape which accidentally wandered onto a Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light” (or, as I call him, “The Painter of Kitsch”) Christmas tableau. Kelly Freas’ fuzzy light, happy-budget-hotel-color-scheme art seldom impresses me. Perhaps I’m too harsh….
On the other less caustic hand, Louis Trimble’s The City Machine is a surprisingly intriguing blend of allegory and sci-fi tale. In line with my previous critique Colin Anderson’s Magellan (1970), the audacious subject matter of the work is let down by the banal style. A slight poetic edge, a few turns of phrase, a few memorable descriptive lines regarding the titular city building machine, à la Lafferty, Delany or even Philip K. Dick would have greatly improved the work. There are also a few plot, character motivation, and societal motivation issues that crop up every now and then that temper my praise (and rating). I desperately wanted to like the book more than I did.
Without doubt, still worth finding, and unjustly forgotten — almost a great read.
Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
In the distant past colonist left Earth and headed for the planets. On one of these unnamed planets society walled itself in a three-tiered city — the lowest (the Lowers) are the downtrodden starving the workers, the middle (the Uppers) control the machines etc, and the highest tier (the Highs) are comprised of a later group of colonist which exerted control over the rest. Groups live outside of the city (the Outers) in a state of rural happiness.
In an effort to control society, the ability to read and write (and thus the ability to read the manuals for operating the city building machines that could readress the vertical control of the three tiered city — a one leveled city for example) was curtailed. The Lowers maintained one Reader who was able to read the ancient texts. Our hero, Ryne, is the remaining Reader — however, he’s risen (by means of nefarious manipulation by the Upper Coordinator) to the Upper society. His lover Linne, a pleasantly positive/well-rounded female character, prods the malleable Ryne into throwing in his lot with the downtrodden Lowers.
The Coordinator also has a plot up his sleeve to prevent societal change (and cement his rise to the ranks of the High) and solicits the aid of Ryne (who believes that the Coordinator believes that he’s firmly wedded to the Upper cause). Ryne is to descend into the Lower reaches of the city (as an exile) and learn the true nature of the rebellion headed by Laszlo, a diseased, decrepit, and paranoid old man. Little does Ryne know that the Coordinator knows his true intentions and is holding Linne hostage.
Louis Trimble’s work is perfectly plotted with few tangents of any sort — which lends the feel of a “by-the-numbers-sort” or work. I would argue that the plot simplicity (yes there are crosses and double crosses etc.) is a great boon for the allegorical aspect of the novel — the cityscape itself reflecting the social makeup of a society and movement within the society.
But there is a substantial failing — the reason WHY Ryne emphasizes with and eventually goes to extreme measures to rescue the Lowers is never altogether clear — it’s a given that they’re downtrodden and taken advantage of but the extent of their plight and the actions of the Uppers and Highs against them is never expounded on. In this light, Ryne’s final act that forces the hand of the Coordinator (yes, a plot spoiler but one sees it coming the entire novel) makes little to no sense.
The sadly forgotten The City Machine deserves a few more readers. I wanted more than a mere 143 pages, I wanted more literary elements, I wanted more city descriptions, character ruminations, I wanted more detailed theories about the interplay between urban environment and society — which simply means that Trimble’s vision is delightfully seductive but all too ephemeral.
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