Travel Documents 24: A Fall In Autumn

A Fall in Autumn

 Michael G. Williams
Genre: Dystopian,gene modification, noir, spec-fic

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The Dust Cover Copy

WELCOME TO THE LAST OF THE GREAT FLYING CITIES

It’s 9172, YE (Year of the Empire), and the future has forgotten its past.

Soaring miles over the Earth, Autumn, the sole surviving flying city, is filled to the brim with the manifold forms of humankind: from Human Plus “floor models” to the oppressed and disfranchised underclasses doing their dirty work and every imaginable variation between.

Valerius Bakhoum is a washed-up private eye and street hustler scraping by in Autumn. Late on his rent, fetishized and reviled for his imperfect genetics, stuck in the quicksand of his own heritage, Valerius is trying desperately to wrap up his too-short life when a mythical relic of humanity’s fog-shrouded past walks in and hires him to do one last job. What starts out as Valerius just taking a stranger’s money quickly turns into the biggest and most dangerous mystery he’s ever tried to crack – and Valerius is running out of time to solve it.

Now Autumn’s abandoned history – and the monsters and heroes that adorn it – are emerging from the shadows to threaten the few remaining things Valerius holds dear. Can the burned-out detective navigate the labyrinth of lies and maze of blind faith around him to save the City of Autumn from its greatest myth and deadliest threat?

The Deets

The Scene

Worldbuilding

This book takes you there from page 1, on which our main character is drinking sake and staking out his mark. By page 5, our PI has been picked up by a cabbie who’s a Rat. No, really. A Man-Animal Hybrid, with a perfect memory of the great flying City of Autumn. Genes are adjusted as easily as clothes for the right price and the right people in this world. And this has brought out myriad facets and stratified a new society: there’s the Mannies on the bottom, bred to serve humanity. There are the Artisanal Humans, kept as a genetic reservoir and a living museum population. And then there are the many levels of Human Plus.  There are powerful AI Golems that might have been human, once. It depends on who you ask. There are religious sects that revere the untampered perfection of what is ‘natural’, and opposing religions sure that the next gene splice will banish all our woes. There might even be Angels, somewhere. And there are stories. So many stories. Stories of a glorious past and a grievous fall from grace of ancestors only barely remembered. Terrible stories of cities falling from the sky and Angels bent on vengeance. All this is wrapped in some solid ideas for future tech, the mechanics for a flying city, and prose that is half op-ed and half love letter on big city living in all its grunge and glory. It’s a story about the stories we tell ourselves and the lies we want to believe. It’s a story about getting there, and getting by. And maybe, sometimes, getting lucky.

The Crowd

Characterization

Valerius Bakhoum is everything you want in a good noir PI character: he’s a little bit wily, a lot tired, and a drinker of whiskey out of a coffee cup. Under the street grime, he’s fiercely devoted to the right of each person to make their lives their own. He’s got the quiet compassion of the man who’s been there too for all sorts of lives. He’s not too fussy about what or who you do, as long as you’re not hurting anybody else. But God help you if you are, and he finds out.Even Valerius doesn’t realize how strong both his curiosity and his convictions are. But the dual powers will drive him into situations he never could have imagined.

Valerius is also proudly, candidly and quite comfortably queer. His identity is woven so naturally into his world and his character that I didn’t blink, and that’s always a high mark in my book. His thoughts on sex, sexuality and getting a bit added a nice sassy spice to this sometimes tawdry, sometimes terrifying tale. But don’t fret: for all its darkness, you’ll often laugh while reading this one, and bright things always manage to shine in Autumn’s shadows: things like compassion, respect, integrity. And maybe even love.

The mix of sharp-edged wit, candor, and clear-eyed compassion in this story makes all characters, good and bad, both achingly familiar and completely true. Whether you agree with them or turn from them in disgust, love them or hate them, you recognize these characters like the image in the mirror. That gives each of them real power.

The Lingo

Writing Style

Valerius tells this story in the terms of a neo-noir dreamer who’s seen the seamy side of life, and the writer has done a masterful job of balancing poetry, snark, sci-fi ideas and powerful ideas on the head of a pin. The storytelling really is gorgeous. It’s the kind of story that can weave chases over rooftops among quietly lyrical scenes like this:

“I’ve read the ancients used to throw pennies into fountains to commemorate the dead, but at Lotta’s, we drink from the water rather than throw something in. The story goes that by drinking from that water, we quench the thirst of the departed for the pleasures of the quick.

The water always tastes better to me there than anywhere else in Autumn, and Autumn is a City with very good water.”

 

The Moves

Plot

Weaving violence, intrigue, fights for autonomy and for dignity, unreliable witnesses and terrible wonder together, this story is gorgeously plotted. I was so lost in it that I let my lunch burn on the stove. Oops…

Overall Rating

I am in love with this book. It’s lyrical, poetic and gritty as a city street. It’s complicated, it’s messy, and it’s alive. It’s a love letter to urban living and human hope, an indictment of urban living and human weakness. Beyond that, it’s just a great story!