Published in 1970, The City Dwellers by Charles Platt is based on the belief that cities were going to hell in a handbasket.
One of Platt’s earliest published fiction books, The City Dwellers is a collection of four short stories which are interlocked inasmuch as they seem to be about the same city over some length of time. They aren’t given titles but listed as Parts.
In Part 1, a 19-year-old rock star is having some kind of a nervous breakdown as is his new lady friend, all of 25. They live in a city, and things are not well. The birth rate has plummeted because men just don’t feel like having sex.
In Part 2, a crowd of hippie-like cool cats come out from the city to try to lure back one of their number who has resettled on a farm, a place that isn’t all that comfortable but maybe better than back in urban rat race.
In Part 3, set much later, after a “crisis,” the population is now split between the civics who live regimented lives in the city core and follow the rules (and comprise a group that is ever growing smaller) and the loners who wander where they will, living on the leavings in the vast areas and buildings that have been abandoned.
The city was cold and empty and lifeless; but sometimes it was beautiful….
Dedicated to conservation, the civics despised loner life as being devoid of purpose or principles….
“Hasn’t been a civic in the loner zone for ten years and the last one was lynched.”
In Part 4, now half a century after the crisis, the remaining people — apparently the descendants of the loners — live an anarchic existence, punctuated by regularly scheduled riots. One resident, much older than most of the rest, thinks a purge is necessary.
Each of these Parts is interesting today as an insight into the dystopian sense of then-modern life that Platt was expressing. The four of them together, though, seem overwrought because so much of what Platt expected has not come true.
Indeed, instead of a drop in population, the world number keeps going ever higher. And cities with their suburban hinterlands are being built at ever-increasing rates especially in Asia and Africa.
The City Dwellers, because of its intense focus on a very specific sort of future envisioned for something very rooted in modern life — in 1970 and today — strikes me now as a wrong turn, a stumble.
That’s not the case with many other science fiction books from that time, probably because they tend to deal with a much wider range of subjects and aren’t as narrowly focused as The City Dwellers.
Patrick T. Reardon