Writing about why I like cities as settings led me to think about some of my favourite examples. Obviously, cities play a large part in urban fantasy – the clue’s in the name – but my choices lie elsewhere.
The most obvious one is Terry Pratchett‘s Ankh-Morpork. It’s a classic example of a city as a place full of the extreme and the unexpected, giving the author a massive sand pit to play in. Pratchett uses Ankh-Morpork to draw comparisons between his fantasy world and our real one, with endless metaphores for the way we live. Whatever you think of his increasing focus on these parallels, there’s no denying that they allow fantasy to comment on reality. But for me the most exciting thing about Discworld’s first city is something more than that. Over the course of many novels, Pratchett has shown us a city as a site of change, a place of accelerating social, cultural and economic upheaval. This is what cities are like, constantly shifting places which act as catalysts for wider social change, and Pratchett’s shifting focus means that his own changing interests are reflected in, and breath life into, the city. Personally, I liked Ankh-Morpork’s city watch best when they were a faltering, run-down institution failing to battle their own irrelevance, but watching their transformation has still been more interesting than if they had stood still.
While Ankh-Morpork shows a city changing over time, the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, described in China Miéville‘s The City & the City, reflect divisions within a city as it stands. Miéville examines the fractured nature of urban communities, where people ignore each other in the street and different ethnic communities can exist in adjacent buildings yet barely interact. By feeding this through the fantastic machine of his mind, he creates something extreme and fascinating, exploring the absurdity and the necessity of the social conventions by which people live. The idea that two cities can exist in the same space just by ignoring each other sounds ridiculous, but Miéville makes it work, and that risk of the ridiculous makes it all the darker and more tragic, while his academic knowledge of the mechanisms of politics and society ensures a convincing extrapolation of this mad idea.
Less removed from our reality than either of these, but all the more terrible for it, is Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s depiction of a war-ravaged New York in DMZ. They use the city as a microcosm for an American civil war taking place minutes into our future. The choice of New York, a place widely shown across our culture, gives it a sense of familiarity even to someone like me who has never set foot in the big apple. The use of a single city gives their story focus and heart by limiting its scale, while also allowing them to show a variety of responses to the war. While it lacks the small town intimacy of Jericho, the nearest parallel on TV, it makes real the speculative elements of the story, and brings home the reality of millions of people already living in warzones like this.
There are many, many more great depictions of cities in speculative fiction. If you’re reading this, and have favourites of your own, please leave a comment – I’d love some more fantastic cities to explore.