Hal Duncan’s “The Whenever at the City’s Heart”

Hal Duncan’s latest short story, “The Whenever at the City’s Heart,” is a veritable textual comic book about the unraveling of time held constant within a city at “the end of time” populated with bitmites, humans, and unkin. It’s comprised of sections that follow the actions of one character within a particular context, and these sections are further divided into subsections that remind me of comic panels. Duncan’s style and descriptive word choice add to the feel of the story as a visual work rather than a descriptive one. His layering of multiple narratives are all tied to the “DOOM” sound of the bells in the Watch Tower.

Some interesting aspects of the story include the autonomous floating machines: the bitmites. They sound larger than nanotechnology, and they maintain the city. Additionally, they, as a collective, serve as an omniscient narrator for the action of the story, often referring to themselves as “we.” The unkin, such as the craftsmith and the lawscribe are not exactly human, and are operating in ways to control humanity within the city. Then there is the “Houri’s Eye” within the Mechanism at the heart of the Watch Tower. Through this, the watchman is able to peer through time.

The story is slightly confusing on a first read, because it’s heavily engaged with Duncan’s The Book of All Hours duology comprised of Vellum and Ink. The story is packed with fascinating imagery and ideas, which suggests there may be more to the series than this one short story.

This is the first story that I’ve read by Duncan. Also, he sounds like an interesting fellow according to an interview with him in the pages preceding his story. You can read both in Interzone (Issue 209, April 2007).

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.