City of Truth by Morrow, James, 1993

City of Truth by Morrow, James - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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For my money, humor and SF rarely mix well. And its not that I think that the average SF author is too dumb to pull off a good one. Just the opposite actually, as I think that this genre gives us some of the smartest authors. Its just that the best SF to me looks at serious social issues, and humor deflects attention from evaluation of the themes. I do like some authors who use humor. Robert Sheckley and William Tenn come to mind immediately. But there is also James Morrow. He's still with us, unlike those other two, and despite my misgivings about the use of humor in genre tales, I think that this guy is probably one of the best authors we have today. I think that This is the Way the World Ends may be one of the best genre books ever published, and the Godhead Trilogy seems (as I get further into its pages) to be just as good. Unfortunately this book is not that strong. But, I did laugh out loud a lot as I read it. Three stars out of five for this Nebula Award winner.

City of Truth is a dystopic piece that revolves around the love between a father and son. Besides the in-universe humor the setting is the element of the story that Morrow spent the most time on, so Ill start with that. The story is set in the near future in a city called Veritas, where all pre-teens are given shock/avoidance therapy to keep them from lying. Its a very effective therapy and Veritasians live in a society based on truth (though as a side effect, probably a necessary one, Veritasians lose a lot of their emotional responses to extreme stimuli). This comes out mostly in four areas of conversation: Commercial speech, political speech, sentiment and sexual innuendo and flirting. For example, the cars that are sold in Veritas are named things like the Ford Sufficient and the Chrysler Adequate. People eat at restaurants called things like "Booze Before Breakfast," and morning TV shows are called "Enduring Another Day." In one interview on that show the Assistant Secretary for Imperialism discussed various preemptive wars around the world. Jack's son is staying for a few weeks at Camp-Ditch-the-Kids. A type of machine pistol is called a Remington Meta Penis, and a cadre of police officers is dispatched as a "Brutality Squad." Jack's office wall calendar came from Beatoff Magazine. The city cathedral has a sign out front that reads "Assuming God exists, Jesus may have been his son." The city is quite farcical, though it is somewhat refreshing to see a modern society that relishes in its own mediocrity. Quite frankly there was a real laugh on just about every one of the first 25 pages or so. Though it does get serious after that.

In this book Jack's young son Toby is bitten by a feral rabbit while at camp and contracts the deadly Xavier's disease. Toby is still too young for the avoidance therapy, and is a pretty normal happy and loving kid. Jack cannot stand the though of losing his boy, and does some research to figure out what it is his son has. He discovers an area of medicine from "The Nightmare Age" (our time) of lies called psychoimmunology, which seeks cures to diseases using the "mind/body link." Basically people think positively about their condition and they trick their bodies into spontaneously healing themselves. Xavier's disease has no known cure at all, so Jack resigns himself to breaking his conditioning and lying to his boy so he has a hope of survival. The trouble is, lying in Veritas is pretty much punishable by death. So he seeks out a woman he met at a restaurant who he thinks is a member of the resistance, the Dissemblers. She takes him to their underground city called Satirev where his conditioning is broken in a most bizarre manner. Eventually Jack and his son are allowed to become citizens, and the lie-therapy that may save the boy begins.

Despite the fact that this is pretty well written, divining a meta meaning is not too easy. I think that this book is just an example of how humans wander through life, blind to reality even though we think we know a thing or two. Even when there is a crisis that focuses our attention, we tend to retreat to the polar opposite of our everyday outlook, and though it may seem right, there probably is not any truth there either. Morrow here seems to be saying that there is no objective truth at all in subjective truth or dishonesty, but it is through personal pain that we can evolve to find a balance that works, as that pain strips away the layers we build up on ourselves to deal with society. In the last scene of the book all the characters are on a boat, bobbing away from Veritas, so maybe the balance metaphor is accurate. Then again, this just could be a story about the transformational powers of love for one's children. Or going away on a boat could be a metahpor for death. I just don't know. That certainly is not a new idea, but in my opinion its one worth putting pen to paper for. Pick this one up if, like me, you are a fan of Morrow's work. Otherwise there is not too much need to seek it out.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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