Paul Di Filippo Reviews Those Beyond the Wall by Micaiah Johnson – Locus Online

Story


Those Beyond the Wall, Micaiah Johnson (Del Rey ‎ 978-0593497500, hardcover, 384pp, $28.99) March 2024

It seems safe to say that the evergreen SF trope of a high-tech city or culture besieged by low-tech outsiders or “barbarians” goes back at least to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) with its depiction of the Eloi and the Morlocks. Of course, Wells had myriad historical examples to inspire his conception, probably most prominently the downfall of the Roman Empire under assaults from the northern tribes. But in any case, Wells added to and crystallized the motif into finely honed usability, and, due to the trope’s potency, many other writers soon followed in his footsteps. A work such as Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912)—telling of the Last Redoubt and its attackers—is a ramping up of the concept, which had even subtly infiltrated young adult books, namely The Wind in the Willows (1908) with its depiction of Toad Hall overrun by the Wild-Wooders.

At the start of this genre-wide story cycle, the city dwellers were, for the most part, the Good Guys, with the outsiders—”those beyond the wall,” if you will—being the Bad Guys. But somewhere along the line, for at least some of the tales, the city became equated with decadence and stasis and corruption. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction relates:

Modern sf has made extravagant use of three stereotyped images of the future city: one exaggerates the contrast between the city and a surrounding wilderness, often enclosing the city in a huge plastic dome (see Keeps), polarizing the opposition between city life and rural life; a second displays once-proud cities fallen into ruins, decaying and dying (see Ruined Earth; Ruins and Futurity); and the third presents a vivid characterization of the future-city environment in which humans move in the shadow of awesomely impersonal and implicitly hostile artefacts. Underlying all of these images is a vision of the city as essentially dystopian…

By the time of Henry Kuttner’s Fury (1947)—reportedly the favorite SF novel of that archetypical outsider and rebel, William Burroughs—the city had to be overthrown if humanity was to prosper and move on, and our sympathies lay with the rebels not the establishment. Twenty years later, in Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog” (1969), the city was irredeemably the villain, without any false piety about the benefits of civilization. And so the dialectic has remained, down to the present.

All of which brings us to Micaiah Johnson’s second novel, Those Beyond the Wall, which is a rousing, fervently told, red-hot excursion into the dynamics between the powerful and the powerless, the elite and the excluded, the rich and the poor, the dead-enders and the visionaries. While Johnson is intent on maintaining these polarities, she is also careful not to color either side pure evil or pure good. There’s plenty of human failings to go around, and in fact at one point our protagonist thinks: “I’ve been looking for a villain this whole time. Every story needs a villain, especially one with as many dead as this tale has. I just didn’t know it was going to be me.”

Before delving deeper, let me say that I was fully invested in this propulsive narrative before I discovered that the book is a sequel to Johnson’s first, The Space Between Worlds (2020), which remains unseen by me. But while the protagonist of the predecessor volume, a woman named Cara, does return, she is far from central to the story, and, in fact, I maintain that based on my own experience, no prior familiarity will be necessary to enjoy Those Beyond the Wall.

Our dichotomous setup consists of two venues located in a post-collapse environment. Wiley City, surveilled and circumspect, hogs many resources and enforces conformity while indulging excesses. Ashtown, just a small distance away, survives feistily, albeit precariously, with ingenuity, freedom and less of everything.

Our narrator is a woman who has assumed the name of “Mr. Scales.” She is a “runner” for the Emperor of Ashtown, a fellow named Nik Nik. Runners are a kind of praetorian guard, blending intense killing skills along with jack-of-all-trade fixer capabilities. Although there are other runners who beat Scales in certain areas, her combination of qualities puts her at the top of the pecking order. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that she is the Emperor’s sister—a secret known to very few.

I commit a small spoiler here, but the surprising reveal comes early on, and the rest of the novel is contoured by their relationship. Scales is without any aspirations to power, and is content—one could hardly call her “happy”—to remain an assassin of the state. But of course, any contentment is a recipe for change, and events will propel Scales beyond her wonted niche.

The engine of the plot is a series of bizarre deaths. Five or six individuals—both in Ashtown and in Wiley City—have more or less exploded bodily, becoming red ruins of flesh and blood and bone. Why? It eventuates that invaders from across the multiverse are attempting incursions, and this is what happens to their avatars when the invading doppelgangers arrive. Stopping this assault will eventually involve a treacherous alliance between the haves and the have-nots, which will test Scales almost to destruction.

But along the way we are treated in large part to what I think of as a C. J. Cherryh-style journey of interpersonal relations. Cherryh pioneered the in-depth emotional exploration of loyalty, duty, servility, honor, sacrifice and kinship in a fantastical milieu, and Johnson follows suit. The cadre of Scales’s fellow runners—Tear, Crook, Cheeks, Dragon, et al—are a colorful lot, vividly limned. Some love her, some hate her; some are rivals, some are allies. Her up-and-down, back-and-forth interactions with these peers—as well as her somewhat twisted sibling rivalries—fill many of these pages not devoted to the main plot, veering from romance to bonhomie to gladiatorial combat.

Because Scales is present on every page of this tale, her own depiction has to grab the reader if the book is to succeed, and I think Johnson manages this vital demand quite well. Scales blends a kind of doomed romance with fatalism, tenderness with brutality, short-sightedness with clarity of vision, self-sacrifice with egotism, black humor with literal-mindedness. She shows herself large enough to contain and channel and divert the immense consequences of the crisis.

Thanks to these amalgamated qualities in its narrator, and to Johnson’s unrelenting addressing of the eternal societal tensions, Those Beyond the Wall nobly carries forward the old and ineradicable battle between hearth and wilderness.

 

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Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.


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