Skulls in the Stars

City of Darkness, by Ben Bova

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I’ve recently been in a mood to shop used bookstores as well as read obscure science fiction. This dangerous combination has resulted in me purchasing a number of books by well-known authors that have been forgotten, probably for the best. I have decided to add a new category of book blogging to my blog categories, namely “I read it so you don’t have to.”

The first of these that I purchased is City of Darkness (1976), by famed sci-fi author Ben Bova.

As the book cover indicates, the book is set in a — utopia? dystopia? — in which all major cities have been closed and sealed under domes due to rampant pollution and disease. However, every two months of the year, New York City is opened up to tourists, and the city comes alive in a wild recreation of what it must have been like in its heyday.

One of those drawn to the allure of the city is teenager Ron Morgan, who lives — like most of the population — in healthy rural communities. After visiting the city with his dad, he makes a vow to sneak back on the final weekend for an opportunity to explore unchaperoned. When his father insists that the science- and tech-loving Ron must follow in his footsteps and train to be a businessman, Ron is even more determined to sneak away on his trip.

But things go terribly wrong once he is inside, and Ron loses his ID card and money, trapping him inside as the city closes. With no way out, he learns that New York City isn’t abandoned in the off-season.  Gangs of criminals eke out a living while the gates are shut, waging violent war on each other for the resources to live another year under the dome.  Can Ron find a way to survive in this brutal society, and will he ever find a way out again?

This broad outline of the plot of City of Darkness will, for many readers, sound very familiar to the central concept of John Carpenter’s 1981 movie Escape From New York. There is a curious coincidence in the development in the two tales: Carpenter got the idea for EFNY in 1976, the same year that CoD was published.  Carpenter was evidently inspired when he read the science fiction novel Planet of the Damned in 1974; the novel features a tough protagonist traveling to a violent inhospitable world to avert nuclear disaster. One wonders if he had come across CoD as well, and been directly or indirectly inspired by its premise?  It might also be a curious example of synchronicity in which the social and cultural circumstances of the era inspired multiple people in the same way.

In any case, CoD is nowhere near as good as EFNY.  The plot is exceedingly linear, without any significant twists or turns. The characters are quite uninspired, and many of them seem essentially interchangeable in personality. For example, the two gang members we see the most, Al and Dino, sound and act pretty much the same. The protagonist Ron is also not very well motivated. He is set up in the beginning of the novel as a frustrated tech whiz, and he uses these skills to keep himself alive in the city, but the story never really builds upon his career dreams and the conflict with his father. Ron just sort of exists in the story as a vehicle through which the reader can see the (uninteresting) society under the dome.

The most interesting characters are also the most problematic. Ron hooks up with a white gang, and the white gangs are organizing to be ready to counter the threat of one unified collection of black Muslim gangs. Or, to use the cringeworthy words of the characters in the novel,

“We’re doin’ okay,” somebody said.

“So far,” Al answered. “Y’know those Muslims uptown… they’re all bunched up t’gether now in one big super-gang. Got a leader they call Timmy Jim.”

“Them black bastards.”

“Yeah,” Al agreed. “So far they been pretty quiet. But if they start movin’ all together, and us white gangs’re all split up, the way things are now — we’re dead meat.”

Ick.  It is worth noting that Ron comes across the “Muslim” gang, and Timmy Jim, near the end of the novel, and they are portrayed as quite sympathetic — and much more moral than the gangs that Ron spends most of his year imprisoned with. But it is clear that the author doesn’t have any real insight into racial issues, and the depiction of the Muslim gang comes off as a sort of “benevolent racism”: reinforcing racial stereotypes even while sincerely trying to depict the characters in a favorable way.  And don’t expect to get any sort of definition of “Muslim” in the book.

The novel attempts to be a commentary on class inequality and racial inequality, but it really hardly touches on these subjects and only does so at the very end of the book.  The whole novel feels like a sort of half-hearted attempt, as if the author had the kernel of an intriguing idea but didn’t really have the background or the ambition to take it somewhere interesting.

So, in the end, I rate City of Darkness a solid “meh.” I imagine it was a bit of an experimental one-off for the author that didn’t pan out; I will be interested to read some of his famed works in the future to see how things compare.

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