I am having an immense amount of fun discovering the work of Pat Murphy. Aside from laudatory comments picked up from other writers, I first ran across Murphy as one of the editors of the James Tiptree Award Anthologies. (Strangely enough, she had no stories included in those collections, which is, I think, our loss.) When the chance came to review some of her work, I smiled and said "Sure!"
I started off reading The Shadow Hunter and decided I wasn't ready for another "last Neanderthal" story right then, so I picked up The City, Not Long After instead. As it turned out, I don't think there was a wrong place to start with this group.
City offers a good example of why people (meaning publishers, bookstores, fans, and even hard-pressed reviewers, who can always come up with a label) find it hard to categorize Murphy's work. (For no particular reason, I'm resisting calling her work "slipstream," even though that fits better than most labels -- not perfectly, but close.) I tend to put her in "speculative fiction," which is where she seems most prominent, but you won't necessarily find her in the SF/Fantasy shelves at the bookstore. Check "general fiction," which is where I finally found her.
At any rate, City takes place in a post-Apocalypse northern California, mostly in San Francisco. The apocalypse itself, a virulent plague, was the inadvertent result of a symbolic gesture by peace activists, only the first of the many ironies that pepper the book. San Francisco, viewed then as now by some as "Sodom on the Bay," has pretty much been taken over by artists -- poets, dancers, musicians, painters, and some who practice less definable disciplines -- and has become a freewheeling place, living in dream as much as waking and alive itself, in a way. This happy chaos is threatened by General Miles, who awarded himself his stars and is determined to include San Francisco in his warped vision of a resurgent America. Being artists and (mostly) pacifists, the San Franciscans fight back in their own way, with a little help from the city.
The question of the appropriate relationship between order and chaos is given a lighter treatment in "A Flock of Lawn Flamingos," a story originally anthologized ten years ago and now reissued as a chapbook. Joan Egypt, an anthropologist between field trips, moves into Live Oak Estates, "a pleasant little townhouse development in a pleasant little California town." It doesn't take long at all for Joan to encounter Mr. Hoffer, head of the Live Oak Estates Homeowners Association, the kind of officious apparatchik who seems all too prone to accept such responsibility. It becomes a game of one-upmanship -- within the Association rules, mind you -- on the kind, size and number of lawn ornaments allowable. Mr. Hoffer's problem is that Joan is both smarter and more imaginative than he is.
I did go back to The Shadow Hunter, which, as you might guess, turned out not to be a typical last Neanderthal story at all. Sam isn't really the last Neanderthal, he just happens to be the only one around now. "Now" itself is somewhat fluid: Amanda can see what has happened, Cynthia can see what will happen, and Roy Morgan has found a way to get there. Sam, however, can see an emptiness in life as it is lived now, and sticks stubbornly to the ways of his people -- not altogether strictly, but enough that others begin to see that reverence of spirit is at least as important as anything else in dealing with life.
After reading Shadow Hunter, I thought again about the other two books. They all pose as a central theme the question of the validity of our separate realities, which in itself forms the basis for all questions from the morality of killing to the best way of living with the earth (and those two questions themselves are inextricably intertwined in both The City, Not Long After and The Shadow Hunter).
I could mention the standard things about characters and momentum, pacing and climaxes, but they don't really matter. They're all exactly where they need to be when they need to be there. Murphy's what I call a "strong writer," in such command of her medium that those questions become pretty much irrelevant. These books all just sort of flow over you, even if you're not in the mood for another last Neanderthal story.
So -- great fun, amazing substance. Who could ask for anything more? Find Pat Murphy's books and read them. You're in for a treat.