City Come A-Walkin,’ by John Shirley
July, 1980 Dell Books
Back in the early ‘90s at the height of the cyberpunk craze I first heard of John Shirley’s City Come A-Walkin,’ which at that point was a nigh-legendary early example of the subgenre, supposedly impossible to find. I remember seeing ads in magazines for a pricey trade paperback reprint of the book, wondering if it would be worth checking out. Then I moved on to other things and forgot about it, until one day sometime in 2005 I found this original Dell paperback at a Dallas Half Price Bookstore. At half off the original cover price and in mint shape, to boot. This was back in the days when HPBS didn’t put stickers with inflated prices on every single damn “old” book and actually lived up to the name of the store.
An interesting note is the big and bold “Fantasy” on the cover of this Dell edition. This is an accurate designation, because it turns out City Come A-Walkin’ is less Neuromancer-esque cyberpunk and more of a magic realism sort of thing. This isn’t just due to the premise of the book – that the city of San Francisco is personified into a living being which interacts with chosen vassals. It’s true of the entire narrative. Characters react to bizarre situations with nonchalance, and we even have some characters who are capable of ESP, apparently a fairly common thing.
This would be one thing if we were in some far-off future, but City Come A-Walkin’ is set in 1991. The vibe is cyberpunk in how the corporations and banks have pretty much taken over daily life and also in the general air of urban decay. Otherwise there are no parts where the heroes jack into the Net and go off into virtual reality worlds, a la William Gibson. In this regard Shirley’s work is actually more prescient, as the computers are mostly used for financials and surfing the web – there’s an accurate prediction of what the internet will be like when one character visits a phone booth that’s also a news kiosk, magazines and newspapers being searchable onscreen.
The urban malaise is made clear posthaste; the novel starts in the grungy inner city of San Francisco and stays there for the duration. “Angst rock” is the music of the day, the polar opposite of the bland disco music which still plays in clubs. Shirley clearly wrote the novel in the late ‘70s, but he does get it right in that the “disco” of his 1991 is “made by computers,” and thus has more in common with the “disco music” we really did get in the early ‘90s: techno. As for angst rock, it’s clearly modelled after punk, only apparently with more of a heavy metal edge and adlibbed lyrics. At least when Catz Wailen is doing the singing; she opens the novel, sitting down in a studio booth to hear back a few hours of music she’s recorded with her band. Only in a prefigure of the EVP phenomenon, she starts hearing a familiar voice speaking to her beneath the music.
The voice belongs to Stu Cole, and it’s clear from the outset he’s “no longer with us.” But rather than speaking to Catz from the afterlife, he’s moved into some sort of quasi-limbo. He wants to tell Catz what happened to him, but to do so he will go into “the necessary mindset [of the] third person,” which fortunately means that the novel’s not going to be in first-person – I personally hate sci-fi that’s written in first-person. From here we slip back a few weeks to May of 1991, as Cole tends to his grungy bar in San Francisco while Catz Wailen, uh, wails away with her punk-metal band. Cole isn’t your average protagonist: forty-two, with thinning hair and a growing pot belly, he was briefly involved in local politics and is in love with San Francisco, even decorating his hovel of an apartment with photos he’s taken of it.
This night Cole notices a strange patron in his bar, an otherwise nondescript dude of medium height and build who has a granite-visaged face which is mostly hid behind a pair of mirror-lensed sunglasses (a look soon to be a cyberpunk staple). Cole notices this guy interracting with some of the patrons and gets a weird vibe from him, so he asks Catz to check him out. Catz has ESP, conveniently enough, and is able to get a good look at who this guy is and what he wants. She sends Cole what she’s learned via “psi-shots” as she sings with her band. In other words she sends Cole mental flashes and also sings about this stranger in her ad-libbed vocals. This is where the title of the book comes from. It’s all pretty goofy.
Even goofier – the stranger is City, ie the City of San Francisco itself, taking the form of a human and walking among his people. Cole just accepts this, again indicating that this is more of a magic realism sort of affair. Catz for her part knows beyond question who and what City is thanks to her ESP – and folks I have no idea why Shirley gave the book’s three protagonists names that all start with “C.” I mean, Cole, Catz, and City. Why not just add a Cora and Carlos to the lineup? Luckily there’s a bit more inventiveness with the plot. City isn’t just the city in a human body, he’s also the personification of the will of the people, a subject very near and dear to Cole’s heart. His own political objective was to give voice to the inner city dwellers who are increasingly straightjacketed by the corporations and banks, thus we are to understand why he’ll be drawn to City.
City makes a memorable first impression. He causes two men and a woman to start fighting and stabbing each other; turns out City has informed the trio that they’re cheating on each other. After this City rushes off to confront some hookers, returning them to their parents, City adopting new guises with each visit. Oh and goofily enough his being always emanates disco music, which only Cole can hear, and this is supposed to be another indication of City’s bizarre powers, but really it just made me think of that pimp in I’m Gonna Get You, Sucka who had a dude with a boombox follow him around to provide his theme song. There’s also a running subplot about Vigilantes who wear stockings over their faces and who have declared war on the hookers of the city; Cole’s received a threat from them, given that his business is an unofficial headquarters of the local hookers. The Vigilantes are basically the brownshirts of the government and will serve as the main villains throughout.
Eventually the plot surfaces: the Mafia is becoming involved with the banks and the government in a corrupt scheme which will further shackle the miserable populace; more importantly so far as City is concerned, a global internet will eradicate the boundaries which separate cities, rendering them needless, and City will die. Shirley of course doesn’t use the term “internet,” but this is what he describes – all customers and employees shopping and working from their own homes via computer interface. I found this interesting because Shirley in his own way is advocating populism over globalism – there’s actually less of a leftist reactionary tone to the novel than I expected there would be – with the concern that the identities of individual cities (and people) will be lost in the sprawl of global conformity.
The only problem is, City gradually proves to be what the British would call a “nutter.” He has chosen Cole as his latest vassal due to Cole’s love of San Francisco and its people; Catz can also come along due to her psi abilities, which allow for easier grasping of City’s goals and objectives. Thus he sends the two off on increasingly-dangerous missions to destabilize the Mafia-bank corruption which threatens San Francisco’s autonomy. From the start City is sadistic; he sends Cole and Catz into a bank building, armed with guns and wearing masks, and somehow compels Cole to pull the trigger and kill a Mafia bigwig. A guard is also killed in a particularly cruel manner, with a firehose jammed through his eye.
In addition to the thinning hair and expanding gut Stu Cole is a much different protagonist than Shirley’s series characters Jack Sullivan and Traveler; he dwells on his acts of violence through the novel, plagued with nightmares of having taken lives. Another big difference is that Cole isn’t as likable as either Sullivan or Traveler, but this is mostly because he becomes an unthinking dupe of City as the novel progresses. He not only lacks the backbone but also the memorable spark of either of those later characters. And as for the narrative itself, true Shirley was more of a veteran writer when he moved on the The Specialist and Traveler, but it would seem the action-centric themes of those series books forced him to be a more streamlined writer; too much of City Come A-Walkin’ comes off as filler, a lot of it comprised of word painting or flights of fancy which Shirley didn’t saddle his later novels with.
As mentioned Cole becomes more of a willing pawn in City’s increasingly maddened schemes. City doesn’t have as much power during the day, thus can’t appear in human form during daylight and will speak to Cole over the TV airwaves. Cole meanwhile is under attack by the government, his credit erased – a theme here is that there’s no such thing as physical money anymore, all of it credit via bank accounts, and Shirley’s argument is how a corrupt, overbearing government could destroy someone’s entire wellbeing with the click of a button. Cole’s also losing his club, the banks asking for an insane fee to buy it back. At this point though he’s almost in a zombie state, shuffling around the city at City’s behest, usually getting in scrapes with the Vigilantes.
Cole’s also not as savvy as Sullivan or Traveler when it comes to the action stuff; he constantly makes bonheaded moves. Like when he and Catz get in a firefight with some Vigilantes, then run after them and jump in their truck as they get away. In other words the two just pretty much hand themselves over to their enemies. Here Cole and Catz are beaten for info, and finally City’s able to free them – starting a fire in the house – but Cole’s forced to leave Catz behind. He gets her back in another action scene, one with a memorable start: Cole meets himself, appearing as a ghostly figure a la the “Burning Man” material in The Stars My Destination. Ghost-Cole tells our Cole where Catz is, what to look out for, and etc. Another reminder of the surreal nature of the novel is that Catz, upon being freed by Cole in a brief action scene, is pretty nonchalant about Cole’s story of meeting his future self.
Another big difference between this and Shirley’s series work – the sex is a lot less explicit here. When Cole and Catz get to the expected tomfoolery it’s all off-page. Cole for his part has been suffering from impotence, something Catz intuits thanks to her ESP, but he’s also nervous because he’s so “old” and out of shape and Catz is all young and pretty and stuff, or at least I assume she is; Shirley doesn’t much describe her, but she comes off like Patti Smith mixed with Debbie Harry or something. When Catz pleads with Cole to break it off with City because of the increasing danger, not to mention Cole’s increasing slavery, he refuses. At this point Catz herself is already on City’s bad list; he’s told Cole that “the girl can no longer be trusted” because she doubts City’s omniscience. Catz ends up leaving San Francisco with her band.
It’s hard to root for Cole at this point; he hides in an apartment, having lost his own place, waiting loyally by the TV for any messages from City. Now he’s a terrorist for City, planting bombs and getting in firefights at his behest without ever questioning anything. And City becomes more and more of a villain, even beginning to question Cole’s loyalty. The book climaxes with a bizarre, surreal moment in which City tries to kill Cole, with Cole ultimately finding himself in a removed sort of reality. This takes us back to where we started, and Shirley gives a memorable finale in which Catz basically tells ghost-Cole to kiss off – she’s too busy living life to care about his deranged “cities must survive” shit.
Shirley includes some cool stuff here and there, in particular an angst rock concert by a group called The First Tongue, which as described sounds like modern group Ghost, down to the clerical robes and facepaint. Even cooler, Shirley references Blue Oyster Cult here. The urban squalor is well depicted, as are the dangers of an overbearing totalitarian government. But I really didn’t care for any of the characters. Sure, Shirley probably considers The Specialist and Traveler as just contract work, but the protagonists of those series were likable and easy to root for. His writing in City Come A-Walkin’ is strong, though, and in some ways prefigures his later work in the masterful Wetbones. Overall I can kind of see why this one was so regaled in the cyberpunk days, but I personally didn’t think it lived up to its reputation.