John Shirley Website
City Come a Walkin'

City Come a-Walkin'


Mass Market Paperback: 204 pages

Trade Paperback: 216 pages (1)

Trade Paperback: 216 pages (2)

Ebook: 705 KB

William Gibson explains plainly and firmly in his introduction just where
this book and its writer stand in the establishment of cyberpunk:
Zero hour. Mother and father to all that came after it.

The city become flesh and walking among us.
Lowlife and high stakes on future-bleak streets with tech enhancements.
A love story: a triangle between a man, a woman, and a city.

Stu Cole. Everyman. A club owner too old to dream, too hard to hope, too caring to quite give in—a redemptive, reluctant hero.

Catz Wailen. A tough little rocker with a psychic connection and a heart of gold.

City. All of San Francisco. A sentient, compelling, enigmatic being fighting for life.

And there are bad guys, really bad guys.

A chaotic, dystopian, near-future San Francisco is controlled, through the all-electronic banking system, by the Mob. A unique superhero appears. The collective unconscious of the city itself coalesces and transmutes into human form. He resolves urban tensions, justifies the dramas of lives by bringing destinies to consummation, and dispenses justice. With Cole and Catz's help, he intends to take the Mob down.

Here's the world we all caught on to... AFTER we saw Blade Runner... and read Neuromancer... and re-read Philip K. Dick... and got wired and started living part of the future. But City was already there.

John Shirley on City Come A-Walkin':

City Come a-Walkin' was a unique book, a kind of magic realism novel with cyberpunk elements.

James M. Palmer, Revolution Science Fiction, 08/03/2001

Revolution Rating: 10/10

I was just finishing kindergarten when City Come a-Walkin' came out and prepared the literary landscape for cyberpunk. But I'm glad that Four Walls, Eight Windows saw fit to reprint this brilliant work. CITY COME A-WALKIN' is edgy, dark and intense, with none of the glamour given hardware in William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's work. From the rich, evocative prose, to the gritty, future 1980 that Shirley gives us, this book has a lot to savor.

Club owner Stu Cole is in trouble: with the agency that controls the new cashless society, with vigilantes, with the Mob. With him is psychic singer Catz Wailen, his only friend. Together they encounter a strange being: a living embodiment of the city of San Francisco, and he needs their help. When the Mob takes control of the organization that runs the electronic finances of the city, Stu is recruited by City because of his special rapport with it. To save his club, Stu must help the city's avatar, but at a price he may not be willing to pay.

This book is a treat for cyberpunk aficionados. Not only is City perpetually clad in mirrorshades, THE cyberpunk symbol, but Shirley's 1980s San Francisco is full of futuristic trappings-from gasahol cars to video phones to street kiosks that display news articles electronically. All of this is described in Shirley's engaging prose, which captures the emotions and intensity of each scene, as in this passage:

He poured drinks, lubricating the cogs of the Saturday Night Blowoff Machine, and kept a watchful eye over his smoky-dim mirrorball-spangled domain.

Shirley's description of music is also wonderful, as in this passage:

The band thundered on like a phalanx of armored tanks grinding across a battlefield. The melodies were precise and involved, but amplified and toned with an edge that, to the uninitiated, made them sound like a wall of noise. But like an armored vehicle which at first glance seems a bullish mass of metallic aggression and nothing more, the music, closely examined, was made up of many carefully-honed and securely interlocked parts. A great machine of sound.

This sounds like a description of any type of music, but especially hard rock or heavy metal, that only an afficionado could appreciate.

Another interesting thing about City Come a-Walkin' is its structure. The book is divided into ten chapters, sandwiched in between an intro and outro. The chapter titles—WUN! through TENNN!—go along with an instrumental that Catz's band does in the first chapter, after their first sighting of City. With each shout of a chapter number Catz feeds Cole mental images of important events that are going to happen during the course of the narrative. This gives the book an added depth.

What impresses me most about this book is, well, everything. I love the way Shirley can put words and sentences together. I love the plot. I love the dirty, corrupt future Shirley has created. I love the protagonists Stu and Catz, and I both love and hate City, who is at once a champion of near limitless might and an amoral guardian of, ultimately, himself. For it is the city itself that City is protecting. And if someone gets in his way, woe be unto them.

If you like your SF a little gritty and hard-edged, or if you're just tired of the same old flashy cyberpunk, take a walk through Shirley's San Francisco. He takes an original premise and turns it into an entertaining novel that will keep you turning pages.

WIRED: Street Cred: Cyberpunk's Patient Zero by Marc Laidlaw 01/29/1997

In the introduction to this new edition ofCity Come a-Walkin', William Gibson calls John Shirley "cyberpunk's Patient Zero." Reckless, rude, and raw-edged, Shirley had the 'tude before anyone; he also walked the walk. In the darkly exuberant City Come a-Walkin', published four years before NEUROMANCER and long out of print, cyberpunk was already in full riotous bloom. Now Shirley has taken a swipe at polishing the sometimes rushed and awkward prose of the first edition, giving everything a sheen to match the beautiful trade-paper packaging provided by Eyeball Books. An essential addition to the libraries of cyberpunk historians, City's appeal is much more than academic.

Science fiction—and especially cyberpunk—often views humanity in terms of its cities. The metropolis is a perfect dramatic backdrop, a microcosm that permits us to view the collision of culture and technology at the very point of impact. In Shirley's novel, the city is not only the setting but also the protagonist: San Francisco has come to life in the form of a punked-out golem, determined to "take back the streets" from violent forces that have rotted it from within. The campaign is violent. Like most of the cyberpunk writers who came after him, Shirley has all but eliminated pastoral images from his fiction: the closest thing to paradise is the reclaimed urban wilderness left behind after the tyrants have been clobbered and the buildings have burned themselves out.

Dallas Taylor,, Vol. 10 #11, 04/05 and 04/11/2001

John Shirley put the punk in cyberpunk. He was the first carrier of the virus, both shaman and totem to the likes of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In 1980, when City Come a-Walkin' was first published, Shirley was fronting punk bands in Portland; writing was just his day job.

Set in San Francisco in 2008, City Come a-Walkin' is the story of Stuart Cole, the aging owner of Club Anesthesia. All he wants out of life is to run his club, but the Mafia and the government have teamed up to digitally control all monetary transactions and unionize the vice industry, using vigilantes to strong-arm any opposition. Enter City, a brutal, amoral avatar of San Francisco's overmind, who enslaves Cole in the fight against the forces of technocratic fascism, turning him into a pawn in a chess game whose stakes are the future.

Aside from its place in the history of cyberpunk, City Come a-Walkin' is a wild ride, blending a distinctively American version of magical realism with the underground culture's resistance to the encroachments of the string-pullers in suits. City is punk rock's answer to the death of God, a Zeitgeist given form and cut loose to wreak havoc on the forces of evil. More than anything, City Come a-Walkin' is a rock and roll gesture in literary form, a middle finger raised in the face of fascism's dream of total control. It's like going to a good punk show where the music and the electricity wash everything away and anything is possible.

The Absolutely Weird Bookshelf, (no date)

You can't really look at John Shirley's City Come a-Walkin' (Dell, 1980) without also considering the cyberpunk movement which followed it so closely. Cyberpunk is not a thing unto itself. Rather than springing fresh from the brows of Gibson/Sterling/et al, it is the flower of a secret continuum of fiction stretching back to Alfred Bester's Demolished Man and before, and continuing on through such works as Delany's Dhalgren, a science fiction which doesn't really need space travel to propel its plots. A hundred years from now, this thread of fiction may well be looked back on as the axis of science fiction, rather than the young adult-ish works of Asimov, Clarke, and others we now regard as the root texts. We are now in the collapse of the space age, where outer space will become ever more abstracted, the man in the rocket being replaced by the instrument package and delivery system. The will to space is gone. It doesn't even look like we will be able to establish a real station in near orbit. And as fiction follows culture, the cyberpunk movement emphasizes the importance of the computer, data, and the network as the important science to be fictionalized, eclipsing the starship and the alien as the speculative icons of choice. This will facilitate a retroactive revision of the science fiction opus, marginalizing space opera and its assorted offspring to a dead end branch of the literary tree. There will be no starships, it's too expensive to travel in space, and there are more than likely no aliens as we have imagined them awaiting or searching for us, and our science fiction will slowly sluff off such things as one does a dream becoming dim in our memory.

City Come a-Walkin' is an appropriate prefiguring of technological change in allegorical form. Shirley posits a twilight world where the cities come alive and create avatars to weed out the coprruption that inevitably arises in periods of transition. City is the tale of the urban entity dying righteously, so a new world can arise from its ashes. Shirley's vision is part allegory and part punk anthem to a world getting ready to change. Without the tech flash of the cyberpunks, Shirley burns a disc which riffs the birth of the Networks, the wiring of the population that will ultimately remake urban society. The cyberpunk worlds of Gibson amd Sterling are birthless slices of a future that exist without a deeper context, in many ways. Shirley looks at the crux moment, the fulcrum around which the present is about to become the Future.

City Come a-Walkin' is neither sentimental nor apocalyptic. It is about the inevitability of change. Its story is about a last paroxysm to cleanse the sidewalks of the City before a new dawn, the action that will push the button of the transformation of consciousness. A burned out club owner and an angst-ish punker musician with a Gift walk with the disembodied avatar of San Francisco, who smells the change in the air and sets out to balance accounts and cleanse away the evil and corruption of the Old World in a Book of Revelations sweep. It is the City as Weapon, a manifested subconscious will of its citizens, a natty shapechanger in mirrorshades who prowls the nighttime streets. City cuts a swath through organized criminals, murderous right-wing vigilantes, rapacious developers, and the other dirty froth cast up by the sins of the twentieth century. For the new world to be born, the puppet masters who hover like thin shadows behind the politicians, the CEO's, the cops, the banks, must be swept away in an exorcism of blood. So the City must Walk.

City Come a-Walkin' supplies a neccesary context to the later work of the cyberpunks. Shirley supplies the wired imagination with a mythic history, a canvas upon which to paint the tones of the Future world. It has a realness that doesn't often show up in cyberpunk fiction, a combination of seedy old infrastructure with the shiny Tech of the New. The myth of cyberpunk is the wired world, an egalitarian technology that will filter down through the layers of society. What is more likely is a class division between the wired and the not, a division that will become economic and hardened in place as the techies get and protect Their's. This is Shirley's tough picture of the world a-comin', a societally more dangerous place that will spring from the shoulders of the dwarfs it stands on.

Walk on., L.R.C. Munro

A take-no-prisoners trip into the heart of a sentient city

Stu Cole runs Club Anesthesia, the wildest fringe bar in a near-future San Francisco. This is a tough world where criminal organizations vie for power, vigilantes roam the streets and electronic credit is the only legal tender. Cole's club is a meeting place for all elements of the city's social fringe. One night a grim, trench-coated man in mirrorshades appears in the club and beckons Cole and Catz Wailen, a psi-sensitive singer, out into the streets.

The "man" is actually City, the living-flesh avatar of the city's collective unconscious, and he is on a mission to right the wrongs that plague its streets. City draws Cole and Catz into one violent confrontation after another, forcing them to take on its enemies, regardless of their own desires. While Cole and Catz wrestle with the personal cost of being avenging angels, City drives them on to battle a criminal "cancer" that threatens to destroy not only San Francisco, but possibly the rest of the country.

City Come a-Walkin' is considered by some (including William Gibson, who wrote the forward to this edition) to be the vanguard of cyberpunk. Originally published in 1980, it contains most of the fundamental elements of the genre, but in a raw, rough form. There is no "cyberspace" here, no AIs, not even personal computers, yet all of these concepts are implied in the book's concrete analogy of electronic-interconnectedness-as-neural-network and in the way the city (and City) operates.

What comes through even more strongly is the "punk" ethic. Shirley captures the gritty feel of subcultures evolving on the margins of a corrupt, monolithic power structure, yet since the landscape isn't die-cut from Neuromancer or Blade Runner, City feels even grittier and a lot like urban North America in the '90s. This is a revised edition, so it's hard to say if Shirley was as prophetic as he seems, but there is some striking prognostication here.

City stands up less well as a novel in its own right. The writing is choppy and raw; City's "enemies" are generic and everybody's dialogue is afflicted with annoying phonetic slang. Cole and Catz are solid enough characters to evoke some empathy, but not enough to really make readers care what happens to them. In fact, most of that caring is evoked by the bracketing story narrated by a now mysteriously disembodied Cole. On the other hand, the urgency of the ideas and the rough edge of the prose has its own energy that makes the book very readable despite its flaws.

This revised reprint of City Come a-Walkin' is a rough, energetic, often violent book full of ideas that, if no longer new, are still considered radical. Definitely worth a look, although more interesting for its place in the evolution of science fiction than for its own intrinsic charm.

I would recommend this book both to people who love cyberpunk and those who despise it as it gives a very different view of the underpinnings of the genre.

Cyberpunk for Beginners (2012):

Treatment of City Come a-Walkin' by John Shirley is unwarranted, the treatment primarily involving complete dismissal and ignorance of this very important novel. You see, whenever someone recommends a cyberpunk novel you get the usual: Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Altered Carbon, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Software, etc. Well, I promised to discuss the unsung heroes in this genre and for me, so far, this is the most unsung of them all.

The straightforward plot follows a club owner struggling to pay his debts to the mob who frequently harass him due to his outspoken views concerning their influence and control over the corporations that govern much of the city's infrastructure, namely, the credit card transaction systems. The city, in general, is frustrated with the corrupt government, and the citizens' wishes to remove this power structure manifests as a mysterious entity called 'City' who acts upon these grievances. City's goal is to unseat the mob from their position of power. The plot concerns itself with three characters, the club owner Cole, who is the primary protagonist; Catz Wailen, the love interest; and City. Rufe Roscoe the mob boss doesn't serve as much of a character; he is just a face to represent the head of the crime family. His presence reminds me of Robert De Niro's disappointing performance as Al Capone in The Untouchables.

This book is seminal; you can tell that a couple pages in after reading William Gibson's gushing foreword about his interactions with John Shirley and how this book influenced him, and believe me, many of the most imaginative and distinctive concepts in Neuromancer and the Sprawl Trilogy owe their existence thanks to the ideas put forward by City Come A-Walkin'.

One of the greatest strengths belonging to this novel is the amount of love applied to rendering the cyberpunk aesthetic. John Shirley pays close attention to detail concerning lighting; objects obscured by cigar smoke, bright flashing disco lights, neon-lit shopping centres etc. This emphasis on lighting effectively places the reader in the derelict environments Cole frequently finds himself in, it is what makes the visuals tie in together, the mood stays consistent throughout and develops organically. Silhouetted figures lurking in dark alleys gives this book a distinctly noir-ish feel to it.

Every single cyberpunk tenet I have listed in the 'What is Cyberpunk' section can be found in this book. Tech intimacy can be found–and I don't want to give too much away–with Cole's communion with City, and his 'awakening' to the electrical grid that flows to all the electronics found within the city. Many different punk subcultures are described in detail. Though, it is a shame that their philosophical leanings are not looked upon in enough detail, at least their attire is delineated to a high degree. Dreams are crushed cyberpunk-style when Cole's aspirations to own a successful club take a backseat, due to mob harassment, and his only concern becomes scraping enough money to survive, then to simply surviving and blindly following instructions of the super entity of City, like a computer program. And finally, corporation and government corruption rears its ugly head. The antagonists plot to use a company called ITF who control the ways in which payments and transactions are made. Due to the backroom dealings and corruption any mob enemies can be crippled, financially as well as physically, through the use of this increasingly vital monopolistic system that can monitor users and is essentially the gate keeper to personal wealth.

Shirley adopts an intensely visceral approach in his writing, achieved by systematically describing every new point of interest every time Cole finds himself in a different locale. This keeps you invested with everything that is going on and fleshes out the protagonist by having us see the world from his perspective. The action sequences are well done too, I felt as if time slows down during these encounters just enough for us to process what is going on without the action being disrupted by over-explanation or pointless asides.

Okay, enough jerkin', now on to the problems. The prose in City Come A-Walkin' is clunky to say the least. Too many times the sentences feel as if they are simply cascading on top of each other page after page as John Shirley piles on another sentence to build the atmosphere. Now, don't get me wrong, the scenery creation in this book is very effective and the cyberpunk aesthetic is described in great detail, but the issue is the execution: there are too many instances where the words simply do not flow very well together. When Shirley is describing the streets the protagonist is immersing himself in, the descriptions of the city are stacked together like a police report and this style may alienate the reader from what Cole should be feeling, the enormity and scope of this breathing technological city-beast. I feel as if this novel would have benefitted greatly if more metaphors were utilised. So instead of getting a hundred sentences that compare every facet of the city to a living organism, we would get words that would not make the distinction between the city and a living being, it would simply just be one.

The plot is exceedingly straight forward, and this I consider more of a wasted opportunity than a flaw–though I could see an argument for the latter. Seeing as how the novel places so much emphasis on the elaborate inner workings of the society inhabiting the city, it would have made sense for there to be a couple side stories involving other characters, since the denizens are painted to be such interesting figures. The least John Shirley could have done was have the main characters interact with or have extended dialogue with other people; instead, Shirley opted to use the citizens as mannequins for the subcultures they belong to. The fact that it is only their dress sense that is scrutinised so closely and little else, sums up the shallower elements of the book; too much time is spent concentrating on aesthetic and not enough is done to remove the blanket that obscures the underbelly of a society that has such an eclectic mix of strange people. An aspect that I'm sure you will appreciate is the use of slang, slang that is composed of references to credit cards and debt, e.g. '… that doesn't card' i.e. 'That doesn't make sense' or 'I'm not buying your bullshit.' Small nuances like this prove how much further this novel could have taken its scrutiny of society in a high-tech world. At least Gibson did an excellent job in this regard.

To conclude, I implore you to read this book. Now, every book reviewed on this site is worth reading but City Come A-Walkin' has been so integral to the construction of cyberpunk that I feel boldly enough to consider it an affront to the genre if you call yourself a cyberpunk aficionado without perusing its pages. It would almost be as bad as not reading Neuromancer, the defining staple of the genre. Though the plot is simplistic, the characters lack depth, and the writing style can seem unimaginative, the concepts birthed in this novel are anything but. A special mention goes to the surreal ending that brings about an explosion of possibilities with regards to the way the reader envisions the growth of metropolises and super synthetic entities; all of this achieved without being too vague like the ending of the Sprawl Trilogy. The foreword certainly heaps the correct amount of praise upon John Shirley since it is obvious that Gibson truly owes a lot to City Come A-Walkin', and we, as cyberpunk lovers, certainly owe a lot too, seeing as this novel laid so very many of the foundations of the genre we worship today.

Other References to City Come a-Walkin'