Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Speculative fiction that stays with you

White City

By Seb Doubinsky

Publisher: JournalStone - Bizarro Pulp Press 

Pub. Date: January 31, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Seb Doubinsky's White City is a little hard to categorize. Published by Bizarro Pulp Press, it isn't really that Bizarro at all. Its story is fairly straight forward even if spiced up by a few poems and diary entries that gives us subtle hints of what is happening. It may be called slightly avant-garde but only to those who haven't delve into the more adventurous areas of science fiction. While reading it, I could not help comparing it to some of the works of Phillip K. Dick, not because of style but because Dick dealt with many of the same themes of government and authoritarian rule. Few writers since Dick and in the related genres have really dared to seriously explore these areas. I would say Seb Doubinsky's book handles class and racism better than any work I have read in speculative fiction in a long time.

So here is the basic idea. The story happens in an alternate reality, The Nordic Alliance. It sounds a lot like ours, having been through World War II with Hitler and the Third Reich. The Nordic Alliance seems to have kept many of the antiquated and dangerous ideas of World War II and before. It seems to be a divided and loose alliance of city-states that are ruled and governed by various factions. White City is a wealthy district of the North Alliance capital, Viborg City. It is a haven for the rich and privilege without the racial and class conflicts of the other districts. It is dull and boring and everyone wants to live there. Again, not too different from some of our own upper 1% areas of wealth and privilege. Yet violence happens in this favored district when the brother of a powerful industry heiress is killed. Three people are brought together in this event; Leila Bogossian, a reporter who sees this story as her catapult to success, Lee Jones Jr., a young writer in his father's shadow who find in the event an inspiration for his own novel, and Sigrid Wulf, a skilled but sometime insubordinate detective who isn't taken in by the red herrings and propaganda that follows the crime.

The reader follows these three protagonists in brief alternating chapters sprinkled with those previously mentioned short poems and partially revealing diary entries. One of the intriguing things in this novel is that the author isn't so much interested in fleshing out his characters as in creating a three dimensional society and city. Viborg City with its three classes of Cash, Credit, and No-Credit manages to be a distinct alternate universe yet all too often sounding like our own. The author's characters work primarily as ones who are trying to find meaning in a world with a stagnant society and a decadent ruling class. Their individual methods of finding that meaning both define themselves and lead to their different fates at the end of the novel.

Getting to that end is half the fun. The big reveal is not really that difficult to figure out. Doubinsky aims for bigger game. White City is a quiet read. There is only one really violent catalytic event and no real fireworks of the type one might expect in a novel that is half speculative fiction and half mystery. It may be part sci-fi and part crime noir but it is 100% socio-philosophical exploration. The fact that you may not realize this until the end is a credit to Doubinsky's quiet but deep style. The author has a way with words but doesn't fling them around gratuitously. Every phrase has a meaning, even those little poems. When Lee Jr. sips Cognac and Doubinsky writes "Lee found his tasted strangely bitter. But maybe it his soul he was tasting", you know actually what is going on in Lee's mind.

Seb Doubinsky is now on my list of writers to watch. This is the first book of his I have read but it is a quiet little revolution. if this is typical of his writing, it will not be long before others also add him to their "Ones to watch" list.

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