Book Review: The City Machine, Louis Trimble (1972)

(Kelly Freas’ cover for the 1972 edition)

3.75/5 (Good)

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.

Final Thoughts

Louis Trimble’s work is perfectly plotted with little 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.

 Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) and Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) are far superior in this regard.

For more book reviews listed by author consult the INDEX

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The City Machine, Louis Trimble (1972)”

  1. Haha, great comment about the cover. I loved the cover – some simple contrast of stellar backdrop to the tower versus the ice-dipping rural setting. That and I like the color blue.

    It did feel a little too color-by-numbers by the double crosses really did it for me. Most of it was fairly predictable but some of the slight-handedness was cleaver.

    Adding any more Trimble to your ever-growing batch of to-reads? Wandering Variables?

  2. We outta have a double date with Wandering Variables. And *wow* – I can’t believe how closely that Kinkade painting matches the Kelly Freas cover of The City Machine.

    You’re guilty of influencing me, too, ya know. I now have four more Bob Shaw books in my collection: Fire Pattern, One Million Tomorrows, Vertigo, and Orbitsville.

    1. pseudo-Kinkade art is for hotels and grandmothers — not sci-fi covers — HAHA

      I don’t have a copy yet. I might buy one in a bit — but I have close to 70 to read so I’m trying my hardest to stop buying for a while.

      Bob Shaw — still torn on him, One Million Tomorrows could have been SOO much better. He needed to take a razor to all the melodrama and basic whodunit plots.

  3. It sounds like a good story, but only 143 pages? Just enough to leave you wishing for the long play version I suspect. I suspect that they replaced the magnificently antlered deer in the original picture with an outlying suburb of the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz for this cover art!

    1. It needed to be expanded and expounded upon…. Without doubt. The work still has a nice allegorical feel and completely worth the read. Hehe, yeah, the cover art is a standard Christmas scene + sci-fi city. But I do love the city….

  4. “The City Machine” was approved by Soviet censors during the Cold War and got a lot of play in Eastern Europe. Louis Trimble was a good friend of mine and he was both surprised and amused by its popularity with the Soviet censors. They saw it as a symbolic treatise on the inevitable fall of corrupt capitalism. Louis greatly enjoyed the zlotys, korunas, and forints that piled up from his royalties in frozen bank accounts in the Soviet zone, but never endorsed the Soviet perspective.

    1. Cool story! There were many stories in that era that could be interpreted as endorsing a sort of rural “communism.” I did find that aspect of The City Machine overdone and all too simplistic. A fun, short, and easy allegory but lacking much backbone. I might read one of his other sci-fi novels eventually….

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