Paul Di Filippo Reviews Tomorrow’s Children by Daniel Polansky – Locus Online

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Tomorrow’s Children, Daniel Polansky (Angry Robot 978-1915202857, trade paperback, 384pp, $18.99) February 2024

Postapocalypse tales don’t get any grimmer or funnier, more slambang or more nuanced, more hopeful or more despairing, than Daniel Polansky’s Tomorrow’s Children. If that catalog of virtues sounds oxymoronic, please restrain your doubts. Polansky’s accomplished novel is large and contains multitudes, and foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a small mind.

This is my first dive into Polansky’s catalogue, and I am pleased to learn that he has an impressive backlist that I can now investigate. Starting in 2011 with Lowtown (first in a trilogy), he’s gone on to deliver seven additional books, the latest, March’s End, just last year. That’s an admirable level of productivity. But of course, mere quantity would mean nothing without quality, and Tomorrow’s Children has that in bushels.

Here’s the very simple scenario which will be limned and fleshed-out in exquisite detail.

For at least a few generations, the island of Manhattan has been cut off from “the World-Writ-Large,” i.e., the rest of the continent. The isolating barrier is a malign and palpable cloud of unknown origins dubbed “the funk.” This deadly fog—which in small quantities can be huffed and ingested with bizarre results—hovers at a certain height over the island (around the level of a thirteen-floor building) and creates an impassable ground and river perimeter as well. And the people trapped on Manhattan when the funk descended have now created a unique culture and civilization of their own. Food is grown, though meat is limited to that from dogs, rats, and pigeons. The language has mutated in glorious ways, so that, for instance, day is “the bright” and night is ”the dim”; swords are “cutters” and guns (utilizing homemade black powder for their cartridges) are “booms.” (Polansky’s inventiveness with neologisms and twisted syntax calls to mind Riddley Walker or A Clockwork Orange. And, fittingly enough for the Big Apple, there’s a distinct Damon Runyon tenor to his dialogue.) Rich folks—including the Mayor, the Pope and the Commissioner—live in the fortified Enclave, hosting the arcadian Central Park. But otherwise, the inhabitants have sorted themselves out into gangs, each one ruling a bit of turf.

…the Burners, the Bulls, the Brawlers, the Bullies, the Alphabet City Anarchs, the Raiders, the Ogres, the Lamplighters, the Maulers, the Harlem Hellions, the SoHo Sublime and the NoHo Knockers, the Saracens, the Destroyers, the 9th Avenue Avengers, the New Murray Hill Miscreants, dozens more…

The whole society exists in a precarious prisoners’ equilibrium: think PKD’s Clans of the Alphane Moon or Heinlein’s “Coventry”. But all of that is about to change.

Along comes a mysterious figure known simply as “the Kid.” (Are we meant to think of Delany’s analogous city of Bellona? How could we not!) With a couple of deadly comrades, such as Chisel and Ael (this latter figure a wild-eyed Conan-like cutter man with an attendant “hypebird” who sings his praises), the Kid and crew manage to eliminate one entire gang in an obscure powerplay. Why? At whose command? These answers must remain mysterious at first.

The bigwigs in the Enclave can’t stand for this, and they recruit a merc named Gillian as Sheriff. (The trope of retired gunslinger reluctantly picking up her weapons remains potent.) Gillian assembles her own posse, which features a subway dweller named Ariadne and an assassin named Swan, who just might rival Ael in martial prowess. Now ensues a cat-and-mouse game between Gillian and the Kid, a contest which, in the process, takes us to every nook and cranny of the island, revealing the crazyquilt physical and social infrastructure that holds the citizens together.

Add to this mix the mysterious Mr. Simpson—who seems impossibly to have come from off-island!—as well a young boy named Newton who has uncanny mental powers, and a giant storm is brewing which will topple dynasties and leave some characters elevated, some smashed down, and others decidedly dead.

Polansky deploys pleasantly short, rat-a-tat chapters and swift pacing that hurls the story from pillar to post without time for a breath of disbelief or boredom. There’s a surprise on every page, but he saves his biggest reveal until the novel is about three-quarters finished. At this point we learn the true relationship among all the antagonists. Then comes Gotterdammerung and denouement, which proves to be a surprisingly tender coda, given the gaily grimdark doings.

There is of course a certain Mad Max vibe to this tale. But more resonant are the Beerlight novels of Steve Aylett. Polansky does not feature as much sheer surrealism or pretzel logic or non-sequiturs as Aylett, but there’s a definite Marx Brothers schtick to the action.

Gillian watched from the patio of a café across the street, drinking a weak but enormously expensive cup of coffee. Maryland Slim was having the same along with some fried pigeon eggs. Ariadne sat at the table but had resolutely refused a second coffee and was making do with a glass of water. Swan was passed out on the pavement, naked except for his mask and a loin cloth, sallow skin painted in garish red and green.

“What happened?” asked Ariadne.

“They don’t have drugs in the [Subway] dark?” asked Maryland Slim.

“Dark got shroom wine! Dark got everything.”

“Ariadne, does the Green Line run below here?”

“Crone knows so,” Ariadne said. “Rat peep?”

“Rat peep,” confirmed Gillian.

“Dig,” said Ariadne. “Rat bored of simmering.”

And so this hectic yet deftly paced book unfolds, alternating between moments of comedic reflection and moments of Machiavellian savagery, giving us a portrait of a looking-glass Manhattan and its all-too-lively and colorful citizens that makes us question just how far away the funk ceiling is in our own world.


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.


This review and more like it in the February 2024 issue of Locus.

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