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Cities of the Red Night

This cryptic and phantasmagoric book isn't really a novel, though it's packaged as one; it reads like a dream, or series of dreams, written down. It shifts randomly from place to place and time to time, its various scenes overlapping and duplicating and contradicting one another, breaking down into complete chaos by the end. It's mostly written in the first person, but from different points of view (or are they?). Its author is obsessed with drugs, sexual perversions (sodomy, onanism, autoerotic asphyxiation), disease, and death. But in its moments of lucidity, it depicts a prehistory and alternate history that are weirdly compelling.

The book begins with a "retroactive Utopia" speculating on the missed opportunity (in the author's eyes) presented by communes of pirate-anarchists, living under libertarian-egalitarian-democratic "Articles" without organized government. These are offered as a reproach to the liberal revolutions of France, America, 1848, and the "so-called republics of Central and South America" (p. xiv). It is, to my mind, a measure of the author's political sophistication that he explicitly declares that Latin American independence came out of the revolutions of 1848, and implies that the French Revolution preceded the American. Be that as it may, the turning point in his alternate history is 1702, and he compounds anarchism with drugs, buggery, sorcery, and (to my pleasant surprise) breech-loading firearms.

That aside, the core of the book is Book Two, Chapter One, pp. 153-159:

The Cities of the Red Night were six in number: Tamaghis, Ba'dan, Yass-Wadah, Waghdas, Naufana, and Ghadis. These cities were located in an area roughly corresponding to the Gobi Desert, a hundred thousand years ago. At that time the desert was dotted with large oases and traversed by a river which emptied into the Caspian Sea.

The largest of these oases contained a lake ten miles long and five miles across, on the shores of which the university town of Waghdas was founded. Pilgrims came from all over the inhabited world to study in the academies of Waghdas, where the arts and sciences reached peaks of attainment that have never been equaled. Much of this ancient knowledge is now lost.

The towns of Ba'dan and Yass-Wadah were opposite each other on the river. Tamaghis, located in a desolate area to the north on a small oasis, could properly be called a desert town. Naufana and Ghadis were situated in mountainous areas to the west and south beyond the perimeter of usual trade routes between the other cities.

In addition to the six cities, there were a number of villages and nomadic tribes. Food was plentiful and for a time the population was completely stable: no one was born unless someone died.

The inhabitants were divided into an elite minority known as the Transmigrants and a majority known as the Receptacles.

Passing over the grotesque details of the process, suffice it to say that the Transmigrants were reincarnated into children conceived by Receptacles at the moment of their deaths. Nothing is said of what happened to Receptacles when they died.

In time, death by natural causes became a rare and rather discreditable occurrence as the age for transmigration dropped. The Eternal Youths, a Transmigrant sect, were hanged at the age of eighteen to spare themselves the coarsening experience of middle age and the deterioration of senescence, living their youth again and again.

Two factors undermined the stability of this system. The first was perfection of techniques for artificial insemination. Whereas the traditional practice called for one death and one rebirth, now hundreds of women could be impregnated from a single sperm collection, and territorially oriented Transmigrants could populate whole areas with their progeny. There were sullen mutters of revolt from the Receptacles, especially the women. At this point, another factor totally unforeseen was introduced.

In the thinly populated desert area north of Tamaghis a portentous event occurred. Some say it was a meteor that fell to earth leaving a crater twenty miles across. Others say that the crater was caused by what modern physicists call a black hole.

After this occurrence the whole northern sky lit up red at night, like the reflection from a vast furnace. Those in the immediate vicinity of the crater were the first to be affected and various mutations were observed, the commonest being altered hair and skin color. Red and yellow hair, and white, yellow, and red skin appeared for the first time. Slowly the whole area was similarly affected until the mutants outnumbered the original inhabitants, who were as all human beings were at the time: black.

The women, led by an albino mutant known as the White Tigress, seized Yass-Waddah, reducing the male inhabitants to slaves, consorts, and courtiers all under sentence of death that could be carried out at any time at the caprice of the White Tigress. The Council in Waghdas countered by developing a method of growing babies in excised wombs, the wombs being supplied by vagrant Womb Snatchers. This practice aggravated the differences between the male and female factions and war with Yass-Waddah seemed unavoidable.

In Naufana, a method was found to transfer the spirit directly into an adolescent Receptacle, this averting the awkward and vulnerable period of infancy. This practice required a rigorous period of preparation and training to achieve a harmonious blending of the two spirits in one body. These Transmigrants, combining the freshness and vitality of youth with the wisdom of many lifetimes, were expected to form an army of liberation to free Yass-Wadah. And there were adepts who could die at will without any need of drugs or executioners and project their spirit into a chosen Receptacle.

Again, I will elide further details.

The scientists at Waghdas were developing a machine that could directly transfer the electromagnetic field of one body to another. In Ghadis there were adepts who were able to leave their bodies before death and occupy a series of hosts. How far this research may have gone will never be known. It was a time of great disorder and chaos.

The effects of the Red Night on Receptacles and Transmigrants proved to be incalculable and many strange mutants arose as a series of plagues devastated the cities. It is this period of war and pestilence that is covered by the books. The Council had set out to produce a race of supermen for the exploration of space. They produce instead races of ravening idiot vampires.

Finally, the cities were abandoned and the survivors fled in all directions, carrying the plagues with them.

After some metaphysical and epistemological ruminations, the list of cities is recapitulated and elaborated:

Tamaghis: This is the open city of contending partisans where advantage shifts from moment to moment in a desperate biological war. Here everything is as true as you think it is and everything you can get away with is permitted.

Ba'dan: This city is given over to competitive games and commerce. Ba'dan closely resembles present-day [ca. 1981] America with a precarious moneyed elite, a large disaffected middle class and an equally large segment of criminals and outlaws. Unstable, explosive, and swept by whirlwind riots. Everything is true and everything is permitted.

Yass-Waddah: This city is the female stronghold where the Countess de Gulpa, the Countess de Vile, and the Council of the Selected plot a final subjugation of the other cities. Every shade of sexual transition is represented: boys with girls' heads, girls with boys' heads. Here everything is true and nothing is permitted except to the permitters.

Waghdas: This is the university city, the center of learning where all questions are answered in terms of what can be expressed and understood. Complete permission derives from complete understanding.

Naufana and Ghadis are the cities of illusion where nothing is true and and therefore everything is permitted.

The traveler must start in Tamaghis and make his way through the other cities in the order named. This pilgrimage may take many lifetimes.

Beginning on page 225, events in Tamaghis are recounted:

dogcatchers ["muscular youths with heavy thighs and the deep chests of runners. Naked to the waist, they carry a variety of nets and handcuffs around their shoulders, and bolos that can tangle legs at twenty yards":  p. 176] start raiding out of fair-game areas and there is a move by the Hanging Fathers ["naked except for their clerical collars ... one of the most powerful organizations in Ba'dan": p. 269] to extend fair-game areas. Then two foreign Countesses they call themselves -- yeah, Countesses de Slutville -- buy villas on the mountain and set up something they call the Genetic Institute and there are rumors about transplant operations carried out by this sawbones they have brought from Yass-Waddah.... Next thing these two boy-eating sows move in their own Special Police ["crew-cut men in blue suits, looking like religious FBI men with muscular Christian smiles....Officially the SPs have no standing in Tamaghis, but they are bribing the local police and kidnapping boys for the transplant operation rooms of Yass-Waddah": p. 177] and pressure the Council into passing an I.D.-card law so anyone who doesn't have an I.D. card stamped and updated can be arrested and hanged in the Institute.

This leads to riots, expulsion of the Countesses, and elimination of the SPs, dogcatchers, Hanging Fathers -- and "Sirens" to boot.

"Some of the rich kids was [sic] with the mob, so a few big villas are still left. But the richies sure got a new look since then."

The mob ringleaders called in a "Commandante" from Waghdas to restore order, dissolving the City Council and ruling by decree.

The rioters are now the elite of the city, setting style and tone. The fashionable thing is to look for the answers or [sic] the questions behind sex and death. So the youth of Tamaghis look to the academies of Waghdas....

Tamaghis is a walled city, circular in shape, with gates at the four cardinal points. The population is about twenty thousand, but the area of the city would accommodate a much larger population.

Since considerations of privacy do not apply for the emancipated youth, they live by preference in dormitories and cubicle rooms, sharing bathing and sanitary facilities. This concentration of personnel leaves room for the fishponds, farms, aviaries, and orchards within the walled area, so that the city is almost self-sufficient.

And the rich, eager to disassociate themselves from the lingering taint of the dogcatchers, Sirens, predatory Countesses, and the infamous Hanging Fathers of the erstwhile City Council, have made their estates open to youth communes. Cow's milk is brought in from a farm outside the city walls, since the new Commandante banished all cows from the city.

... There is no alcohol and no tobacco in Tamaghis by order of the new Commandante.

This is prefatory to a disquisition on the bizarre recreational pharmacopoeia of the city. For the next cities after Tamaghis, we are given a travelogue on pp. 274-284:

"Ba'dan is the oldest spaceport on planet Earth and like many port towns has accreted over the centuries the worst features of many times and places. Riffraff and misfits from every corner of the galaxy have jumped ship here or emigrated to engage in various pernicious and parasitic occupations, swelling the ranks of brothel keepers, whores, pimps, swindlers, black-market operators, go-between and fixers. The class and occupational structure is compartmentalized like an Arab city."

... "The area  adjacent to the spaceport is an international and intergalactic [sic] zone known as Portland. Portland has its own administration, customs, and police. Biologic inspection and quarantine measures are enforced by the DNA police force. These are highly specialized officers all qualified in every branch of medicine, authorities on every disease and drug in the galaxy.

"They are armed with the most sophisticated weapons: Infra-Sound and DOR [Deadly Orgone Radiation] guns, fear probes, death guns that can be adjusted to kill, stun or disperse, and devices shooting tiny pellets of nerve gas and toxins.

"These officers are highly trained interrogators, trained in telepathic techniques, equipped with the most advanced lie detectors, with readings taken from the sensitive reactions of living creatures: this flower droops at a lie, and this octopus turns a bright blue.

"In certain cases where the subject has been trained to circumvent telepathic probes and lie detectors, and where time is short (a nuclear device must be located and deactivated), the DNA interrogators have recourse to injections of stonefish venom. This poison produces the most intense pain known...."

"Fun City is a segregated vice area occupying a plateau on the north side of the city. Here gambling houses and brothels of many times and places promise to satisfy any taste, but these establishments are, for the most part, tourist traps and clip joints with more shills and Murphy men than whores...."

"The real action is in the Casbah, but tourists are afraid to go there, scared off by horror stories concocted by the tradespeople and Fun City shills. Addicts are routinely burned or overcharged in Fun City, so they head for the Casbah, where any drug can be had for a price.

"The Casbah is built into the hills and bluffs that slope down to the river. This vast ghetto houses fugitives and displaced persons. Outlaws in every sense, they pay no taxes and are entitled to no municipal services. Criminals and outcasts of many times and places are found here.... ["The area is heavily patrolled and the soldiers ["Heroids"] are all heroin addicts. Their addiction conveys immunity to the fever and assures absolute loyalty to their masters who, of course supply them ... extra rations for arrests ... rations cut for any dereliction of duty" (ellipses in the original).]

"Over the centuries, the area has been mined with tunnels so that all the buildings interconnect. The tunnels also give access to a maze of natural caves and caverns.

"There are cable cars and wires with hand carriages and jump seats that run from one building to another. The Flying Squirrels, little people like Igor [later, we are told that "some of them have long prehensile tails and retractable claws on their feet and hands that enable them to scramble up trees like squirrels": pp. 292-293], hop from the highest bluffs in hang-gliders, skipping from roof to roof, carrying messages, drugs, and weapons.

"The Casbah spills over into the river in a maze of piers, catwalks, moored boats and rafts. The tunnels at river level are half full of water, forming an underground Venice with gondolas and limestone palaces dripping with stalactites.

"Any services can be purchased in the Casbah -- from assassination to such illegal operations as I.T. -- Identity Transfer. There are whores, from the most sophisticated courtesans and Rems who offer wet dreams to order, to such mindless organisms as the Happy Cloak and the Siren Web.

"Any drug can be had in the Casbah for a price. Longevity drugs that require ever-increasing dosage, the addict crumbling to putrescent dust if the drug is withheld. Joy Juice: blackout in erotic convulsions and every shot takes years off the user's life-span. A Joy Juicer lasts two years on average and ends up a burnt-out idiot hulk. And Derm my God what a feeling ... soothes your skin down to flexible marble ... but if you don't get it ... the irritation of the dermal nerve endings ... well I've seen a kicking Dermy tear himself to pieces with his own hands. The Blue and the Gray, heavy metal drugs so habit-forming that a single shot results in lifelong addiction. Yes, every drug can be had here for a price...."

"On the south side of Ba'dan, along bluffs overlooking the river, are the vast estates if the rich, guarded by their own Special Police. Recently, sons of the rich, bored with the tinsel attractions of Fun City, began frequenting the criminal ghettos. Some of these youths are addicts and drug dealers, others are purposeful agents sounding me out with offers of aid and weapons.

"The administration, courts, and police occupy a governmental area. A pass is required for entrance. The large middle class of tradesmen, artisans, and minor functionaries occupy the middle of the city, hemmed in between Portland, Fun City, the Casbah, and the governmental area."

Camera pans a wasteland of housing projects like the drearier sections of Queens.

"Traditionally, the city of Ba'dan is ruled by a City Council in which the very wealthy hold an overwhelming majority. Now, the discontented middle class is demanding more seats in the Council. These demands are fanned by agitators under orders from the Council of the Selected with headquarters in Yass-Waddah.

These agitators include "a number of cults ... basically [and anachronistically] of low-church Protestant affiliation" and paramilitary groups.

"The basic issue is a proposed Anschluss with Yass-Waddah that would leave the Council of the Selected in virtual control of both cities. This plan is supported by the middle class, who are [sic]  ignorant of the intrigues of the Council to ruin Ba'dan economically and eventually to close its spaceport.

"To distract attention from these maneuvers, agents of the Council, vociferously self-righteous, call for a cleanup of Fun City, a crackdown on the Casbah, and an end to the international status of Portland. The wealthy see the Anschluss as a danger to their position, but much more vulnerable and immediately threatened are the inhabitants of the Casbah."
...

"Yass-Waddah, a spaceport in rivalry with Ba'dan, is a matriarchy ruled by a hereditary empress. Here men are second-class citizens who can only achieve status as courtiers, servants, shopkeepers, agents, and guards.

Those who fall into none of these categories try frantically to ingratiate themselves as informers. No city in the cosmos is so riddled with informers as Yass-Waddah. The Ba'dan word for informer is Yass.

"The inner city of Yass-Waddah is forbidden to any male being, except the Green Guards, genetic eunuchs [mutants, I suppose], pot-bellied but strong. They form the shock police of Yass-Waddah.

"Latterly, Her Serene Majesty, the Empress, is being pushed upstairs into the attic as the Council of the Selected moves in, backed by the powerful countesses de Vile and de Gulpa, smarting from their defeat and narrow escape in Tamaghis. They are pushing for the Anschluss, after which the Heroids and the Green Guards will wipe out Tamaghis and block the way to Waghdas forever.

"The riots we are here to foment [in Ba'dan] are simply a prelude to an all-out assault on Yass-Waddah."

Later a further intriguing detail is given:

The principle defense of Yass-Waddah are [sic] the towers, manned by a few skilled technicians, capable of throwing electric blasts like lightning bolts. [p. 308]

The climactic battle begins on pp. 296-297:

The Anschluss with Yass-waddah was to be put to a plebiscite. Those most directly concerned, namely the inhabitants of the Casbah, were disenfranchised. But they had obtained permission from the Town Council to make a peaceful demonstration in Courthouse Square around which most of the government buildings were located.

Meanwhile, Yass-Waddan agents were arming and organizing paramilitary forces in Middletown [called "Paries," commanded by General Darg], intending to catch the "Arabs," as they called them [anachronistically enough], between the Heroid Police and the armed vigilantes and wipe them out. After which, they would demolish the Casbah and drop poison gas down the tunnels and occupy Portland.

Dimitri [a character, or at least a name, that appears incongruously in different times and places] had his own plans. After delicate negotiations, he had made contacts in Portland. Portland officials are supposed to keep out of local politics except in cases of "dire emergency." But the Anschluss posed such a threat to their continued function, if not to their personal safety, as to constitute a "dire emergency" and all Dimitri asked was for a customs agent to look the other way for a few seconds when the containers of heroin for the Heroid Police were being passed through customs, while Dimitri's agents substituted identical containers filled with a short-acting opiate antagonist.

Dimitri also has promises of arms caches in the courthouse building provided by certain wealthy families who preferred to avoid more direct involvement. None of the old families wanted the Anschluss. It was a threat to their power and Yass-Waddan agents were talking openly about "parasites" and "traitors."

When the Heroids suddenly go into withdrawals, the insurgents are on hand to inject them with fresh dope, winning them over. Then the real fighting begins.

By the end of the first day, the rioters are in control of most of the buildings on the south side of the square. They are, however, unable to open a passage into the Casbah.

Meanwhile, there is much rejoicing in Yass-Waddah. The courtiers are planning a torture festival for the captives, camping around in costumes and, of course, there will be a prize for the most ingenious torture device....

The Countess de Gulpa admonishes her courtiers to bear in mind that only the ringleaders deserve exemplary punishment. The rank and file will make useful slaves....

The Empress of Yass-Waddah holds aloof from these rejoicings. She knows that whatever the outcome of the battle, her power is gone....

The second day saw substantial gains for the insurgents....

General Darg, still sure of ultimate victory, even if a long siege was involved, refused to ask for reinforcements and sent back reports that the situation was under control.....

In Ba'dan, both sides are looking for a showdown. Darg, because he knows that he cannot conceal the actual state of affairs much longer. Dimitri, because he feels that a state of  siege is not to his advantage owing to the numerical superiority of the enemy and their readier access to supplies and weapons. So both generals evoke every aid they can summon through magic rituals. [pp. 299-302]

At this point, the whole thing becomes just plain silly.

To wrap up, no such Mandevillian itinerary would be complete without its fauna of monstrous beasts and men. We have already met the "little people"; also described are: