City of Darkness, by Ben Bova (1976)

City of Darkness cover #1
Sorry it’s been awhile. Fortunately the 7th grade trip to New York was not apocalyptic in the slightest. Anyway, speaking of New York, it’s the setting of today’s old-school apocalypse! In the future, everyone lives in vast suburban Tracts in little boxes made of ticky-tacky. All Cities have been evacuated and sealed, deemed too filthy for human habitation. They reopen Manhattan Dome every summer as a sort of Vegas playground for Tract folks.

City of Darkness cover #2
When Ron visits Manhattan with his dad near the end of the summer, he can’t get enough. (The girls, after all, are “fantastic.”) He runs away from home for a last weekend fling before they close the City. Like a good suburban tourist, he picks up a hot chick who steals his money and gets beat up by a guy who steals his ID. Without an ID he can’t leave the Dome before it closes for the year. He’s trapped.

City of Darkness cover #3
New York, of course, was not completely evacuated. It’s full of an assortment of gangs, one of which picks Ron up because he happens to be good with machines. From that point on it might as well be any urban gang story, with the violence and girls-as-currency and internal power struggles and tragedy. (Until the end, which I’ll get to in a minute. It’ll be spoilery, because the end is the most interesting part, but the book isn’t so amazing that I think it matters if you’re spoiled.)

Apocalypse how? This isn’t a worldwide apocalypse, but a local one (and very much a dystopia).

Here’s the World-Weary Adult Who Explains It All (every YA post-apoc has one):

“Too many people crowded too close together. People started falling over in the streets, dead from pollution or mugging or just plain brain fever…. The banks threw up their hands and said the city was a bad investment. Eight million bad investments. Then the Federal Health people came in and said the environment inside the Dome had sunk below the level needed to sustain human life. Inside of a year everybody would be dead.
“You should have seen the rush! It was like a riot and an earthquake and a war, all at once. Went on for months. Families separated. Kids left behind…. People running every which way. When the dust finally cleared, the City was declared officially abandoned — empty, nobody here. So they sealed it off.”

Some people stayed behind, of course. Including the World-Weary Adult, some black marketeers who make their money off starving kids and then go home to the Tracts at night, the gang kids’ parents, and, as it turns out, all the people of color.

A lot of talking about race:

From the very beginning you know that the only black people Ron has ever seen are on TV, fighting the distant war in South America. When he joins the gang, it’s made clear that the south of the City is all white gangs, while the north is run by their enemies, the black “Muslims,” who are united under one leader, Timmy Jim.

After the devastating destruction of his own gang, Ron is taken to work for the Muslims, fixing their machines and training more repairmen. (It turns out, by the way, that “black” here includes Latin American and “Indian,” which probably means Native American rather than South Asian. Asian Americans are never explicitly placed in the world of this book.) Timmy Jim adds this to the apocalypse story:

“Oh, they took out the whites, all right [when the city evacuated]. Rich and poor. Irish and Italian and WASP and all. They got out okay. But they kept us inside. When we tried to get out, they beat us back with clubs, electric prods, water cannons, lasers — they didn’t let us out, man! They closed this City and wrote it off as a dead loss and claimed all of us were dead.
“That was why they closed the City down, man. The real reason! Wrote off all the welfare cases…. Left us to starve, to freeze, to be rat bait. They left us to fight with each other and kill ourselves off.”

But Timmy Jim is more than a gang leader — he’s a military commander, and he has big plans. First he got the black part of town under control (Ron describes it as cleaner, with working lights and open shops). Next the Muslims will fight until they unite all the white gangs under Timmy Jim, too. And then they’ll invade Outside. All those black soldiers? Timmy Jim planted them somehow (the book has some plot holes the size of Manhattan Dome), so he knows they won’t defend the Tracts.

Ron is stunned. He no longer feels particularly connected to his home, after a year in New York, but he can’t imagine it invaded either. (And, I’m sure, can’t imagine it controlled by a black man, though he doesn’t say that explicitly.) At the same time, he’s horrified by the starvation and poverty he’s seen in the City. At the end of the book, he manages to get his ID back. He leaves when the City reopens in June, vowing to “change [the Outside people],” to “rub their noses in the filth they’ve left behind them.”

So on the one hand, the blacks have their shit together way more than the whites — their part of town is the part that works. On the other hand, that’s because they’re run by a military dictatorship. I’m not sure what other sort of government would work for people sealed up in a lawless, starving City, but we’re clearly supposed to be afraid of Timmy Jim and the idea of him invading Outside.

Ron is offered as the saner, safer alternative: the Tract whites can change, without the violent revolution. “Even if I have to make myself President,” he vows — not “even if I have to blow some shit up.” We white folks can fix ourselves from the inside, now that we understand the problem. It’ll all be ok, we just need to be shown the way by one of our own!

13 vs. 31: The starkness of the color line felt very ’70s to me — not that we don’t still have plenty of racism, obviously, but I find it hard to imagine this book flying today. It doesn’t even pay lip service to the idea that people of different races should try to get along.

A lot of the world-building doesn’t hold together. How can New York be so crowded and full of shops and “sharp” girls if everyone who fills it in the summer is from the Tracts just like Ron? He says he feels like a “real” New Yorker when he buys his fancy duds, but there’s no such thing. (Well, of course there is, but he doesn’t know that yet.)

Also, it’s implied that the soldiers don’t mostly come from Cities. So where do the black men who become soldiers grow up? Are there poorer black Tracts? And where did all the poor white City people end up?

I’ve always had a fetish for closed societies, which is I think what appealed to me about this 20 years ago. (Also, who could resist a dramatic title like City of Darkness? Which, now that I think of it, is kind of a terrible pun…) I was more annoyed this time ’round by the things that didn’t make sense. But I was still drawn in (as evidenced by the fact that this is the longest post ever).

Finally, an environmentalist sidebar for Earth Day: Ron and his friends gush a lot about how exciting all the noisy cars and crowded streets of the City are, compared to their own sanitary homes and electric cars or trains. The thrill of the City is in the transgression. When Ron leaves the City to shake things up Outside, it’s the ultimate transgression — maybe he hasn’t grown up, as we’re led to expect from the usual trajectory of the YA novel; maybe he’s just taking his thrill-seeking to the next level.

Covers: The first one was the cover of my childhood (sorry it’s so tiny); you can’t tell it’s science fiction at all. It just looks like urban teen fic (with very ’70s haircuts). The others are obviously SF, but you can’t tell they’re YA. I do kind of dig the one in the middle that looks like a graphic novel.

…Whew! Guess I made up for not posting in a week. Pseudo-academic wankery takes up some space, man. You get a cookie if you made it this far. A post-apocalyptic doom cookie.

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2 Responses to City of Darkness, by Ben Bova (1976)

  1. Kate Diamond says:

    I want my post-apocalyptic doom cookie! I read the whole post, and enjoyed it very much. Three cheers for pseudo-academic wankery.

  2. Jaime says:

    my favorite kind of cookie!

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