Stephen Palmer: Urbis Morpheos

Fungal dreams and nightmares.

Cover of Urbis Morpheos by Stephen Palmer

After finishing and really enjoying Palmer’s latest novel, Hairy London, I thought I’d give his previous book, Urbis Morpheos, another try.

I’d made several prior attempts at this far-future tale of environmental conflict, but each time I’d scaled the foothills of the first few chapters only to decide that it was confusing – clever – but confusing, and deserved to be considered when I was more awake. Or more intelligent.

Some time far in the future (if the jacket suggests a million years then the text never mentions it, and that seems a foolishly long anyway) a prisoner escapes from her imprisonment and returns to her home through a nightmarish and vastly changed Terran landscape. She then goes on a quest, possibly two quests, to understand and repair the ecological horrors that imperil the Earth and reconcile the conflict that endangers it.

Laid bare, like that, the plot seems simple, traditional almost. It’s more interesting than that – she is an outcast, outsider, and the conflict endangering Urbis Morpheos, both city and world, it seems, is a conflict between two ecologies wrestling for supremacy – the natural, green, gaian ecology, and what is termed the “manufacturing ecosystem”, but which is so much more than that unusual phrase implies – a whole alternative ecosystem of machines – nan-ites, articial intelligences, artificial beings, intent on a resource-intensive development of the world. Manufactured life, rampant, is the main threat to the “natural” world, but also seems to mimic it – there are machine equivalents to every aspect of natural life, some almost indistinguishable.

It still seems an obviously binary opposition, an extrapolation of the tension between the capitalist appetite for natural resources and the green desire for conservation, but, even if the conclusion is a tad didactic, Palmer develops it slowly in the novel, introducing the machine beings first and gradually introducing the collision of the two ecosystems as the source of conflict. The “natural” in this future is largely fungal, and as Gwyneth Jones points out in her lovely introduction (and she uses the term “Greenpunk” which is rather nice) knowledge and information is transferred by the consumption of mushrooms… But the Manufactured have their own equivalent to the mushrooms, wrealities.

Tales of the far future like this, where scientific advance is indistinguishable from the fantastic often bears comparison with Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and most attempts don’t stand up well. I’m happy to declare that Urbis Morpheos is closer than David Zindell’s interminable Neverness sequels (though I do like the original novel) in this respect. Like Wolfe, Palmer plays narrative games with us, and while they enhance and please the reader, he never seems quite in control of them.

We are given, early on, chapters with three distinct sections – an unidentified first person narrative, and two third-person narratives. The first is about Psolilai and her travels to find an object of (technological) power that can heal the world; the second is about psolilai (lower case) – seemingly the same character, with the same companions, but in a different adventure trying to uncover the mystery of who rules a section of the city and how they are interacting with machine intelligences.

But there are no markers between each section, or indication of how they relate to each other. Later whole chapters alternate between Psolilai and psolilai and the two stories run in parallel, occasionally overlapping – it is hinted that one dreams the other – but never quite intersecting, before the first person voice returns at the conclusion. Now I’m in two minds about these techniques – I’m all in favour of keeping the reader confused and bemused, but in a work as tricky as this, it would have been better to add some structure and organisation, perhaps only typographic, or in the structure of chapters, to guide the reader through. Palmer also throws in some games in the time scheme – at one point a character pops up just to fill in what has happened offstage, but it only serves to confuse the relationship between the Psolilai and psolilai stories because it suggests that one of the narrative strands takes place later than the other.

So having finished the book I can confidently say that I enjoyed it, but it is not without flaws. The two narrative quests are well written and intriguing, and the vision of a far future on the brink of eco-collapse is terrifying but well put together. It is resolutely alien but never unreadable. Nor is it as difficult to read as Mieville’s Embassytown. The conclusion is perhaps a little too simplistically allegorical – the novel is at its best when it is furthest away from direct parallels with the now. Rather like a literary mushroom trip, enlightenment must come at the end, befuddlement should gradually become reflections.

I must confess that I only considered the novel’s title after I’d finished. All the way through I’d been thinking it was a changed city, morphed, if you like, but also a play on “morphology”, the study of the forms of things, especially in biology, and of words. In this Palmer excels, for everything is made strange, then eventually familiar, which is a fine gift for a writer to have.

Then I realised that Urbis Morpheos is literally the City of Dreams, which brings the failure of the narratives to converge coherently, and the geographic instability of city and world into perspective.

43 year old wastrel and writer...

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