Dean Wesley Smith wrote “Shadow in the City” for the anthology Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian. Ian, a longtime science fiction fan, had attended the Worldcon in 2001 and became friends with several authors over the next several years, including Mike Resnick, with whom she edited this anthology in 2003. Smith’s story is inspired by Ian’s song “Here in the City,” from her 1999 album Unreleased 2: Take No Prisoners.
Set in the aftermath of a calamity that has depopulated the Pacific Northwest, if not the entire world, Carey Noack has been living alone for four years near the Oregon coast when she decides it is time to return to Portland to see if anyone is living in the city, or at least to retrieve some of the belongings from her old apartment. In Portland, Toby Landel is living in a penthouse apartment he has commandeered surrounded by surveillance equipment he set up around town in hopes of finding someone else living in the otherwise deserted city.
Although both are looking for other people, they are also aware of the danger of finding someone else. Toby’s one discovery of a person moving through Portland since the catastrophe resulted in him not revealing himself for fear that the transient would just as likely kill him as anything else. The tension of the story comes, in part, from Carey and Toby’s concerns once they realize that there actually is someone else around.
The story feels more like the beginning of their story, rather than a complete story, with the two survivors guessing what actually happened to everyone. Carey’s experience as a scientist means that she is able to make a hypothesis based on readings she had taken in her lab during a previous visit to Portland. With a working hypothesis, they also have a ray of hope that there may be a significant number of survivors if they can only find them.
Smith’s story is one of human resilience. Both Carey and Toby have figured out how to acquire skills that allow them to survive in their respective areas, whether it is the high tech hideout Toby has established high above the city or the rural compound Carey has created, but of them making use of the detritus of civilization, but also figuring out how to make their non-renewable supplies last as long as possible.
“Shadow in the City” is reminiscent in some ways of the 1985 film The Quiet Earth in which a strange catastrophe depopulates the planet except for a few people who met very specific criteria at the moment of the catastrophe. The film, at 91 minutes, is able to go into much more detail of its characters’ lives both before they find other survivors and after, but the conjecture in both the story and the film, while quite different, is just an unproven idea the characters have to explain their survival.
The story works well, even if it ends with an unfinished feeling. The reader is rooting for Carey and Toby to be successfully…in their survival, their budding relationship, their quest for other survivors, it doesn’t really matter. The characters are likeable and have managed to successfully get through a traumatic experience and they deserve some sort of happily ever after, whatever form it might take.
Steven H Silver is a nineteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.