I love cities. Maybe it’s a symptom of my suburban childhood, when the only way to find interesting things was to head into town. Maybe it comes from reading too much cyberpunk in my youth. Or a reaction against all that Tolkien. Who knows. But one thing’s for sure, if you put on a panel about cities at a sci-fi and fantasy convention, you’ll get my attention.
And the panel on cities in sf+f at Nine Worlds was well worth that attention.
A Mix of Perspectives
The best commentary usually comes from jamming together ideas from different fields. That’s why I love Idea Channel videos so much – where else would someone use jazz and Magic the Gathering to comment on each other?
This panel did a great job of creating that mix. The chair was Amy Butt, an architect. There were two authors, Verity Holloway and Al Robertson. And it was rounded out with Jared Shurin, an editor and reviewer whose work in marketing gave him some fascinating insights into how the environment shapes how we think.
I’m not going to try to reproduce everything these smart people said. But I made a lot of notes, so here are some highlights…
The Nature of Cities
The way that cities shape and are shaped by our behaviour was a recurring theme in the panel. Who is allowed to go where and under what circumstances? How do we move through space? How do we use it to negotiate power relations?
As Jared pointed out, just moving into a place changes our behaviour. Marketers use the effect of the environment on behaviour to sell us things. But as writers, there’s a lesson here in how character shifts with circumstances. Entering the city could make a huge difference to your character’s comfort and confidence. Moving around the city might transform who they are.
Al talked about how we get into habits. From a writer’s point of view, this means that characters won’t notice their surroundings until they’re shaken out of their familiar routine. But it goes beyond that. Amy mentioned Foucault’s concept of the panopticon*, of the awareness of observation changing our behaviour even when we aren’t actually being observed. For me, this was one of the most useful things to draw attention to. The expectation of being watched is unavoidable in a city. It shapes social norms and makes the city a hotbed for transforming human behaviour.
Both Victoria and Al talked about how we’re always being watched in cities. This can create a paranoia that’s great for horror or noir. There’s a paradox that moving to the city is a way to lose yourself, yet someone can always find you there. It’s a dichotomy of anonymity and observation that Jared highlighted and that I’m still caught by a week later.
The different experiences people can have of cities came up a few times.
In the early modern era, cities were a place you could go to reinvent yourself. Before modern record keeping, no-one could prove that you weren’t who you said you were. To some extent, reinvention is still a possibility, but in the age of the computer, your data trail now follows you. So a Victorian city has different meaning from a modern one.
Similarly, cities are different at night from during the day. There’s an invisible infrastructure there, people with secret lives that most of us don’t see but who ensure that you can buy McDonalds at 4am and wake up to clean streets.
At one point, the discussion highlighted a really interesting contrast in the way people approach cities. Victoria talked about Corbusier, who saw the city as a living thing to be perfected through design and who tried to do away with such useless elements as decorative art. In contrast, Al raised the interesting issue of how we deal with ruins and the old. Any city a writer creates should have remnants of the past. How they show will make a big difference to how a city feels.
Constructing Fictional Cities
After lots of fascinating talk about cities in general, the panel came around to talking about how they’re constructed in fiction. From a practical point of view, Al pointed out that mundane details are often the best way to make a city seem real, while Victoria highlighted the need to know the city’s past – what it used to be, what it wants to be, and what it doesn’t want people to remember.
There are limits to how real you can make a city. As Jared pointed out, reading a novel is an orderly, linear process, while living in a city is messy, confusing, and conditional. Few books will ever capture that feeling. You just get as close as you can.
But it was a comment from Victoria that, for me, really nailed down our relationship with cities: “Writing and art is a way of making something your own, especially if you don’t have control over it.” This is part of why we write cities, trying to bring them under control. But it’s also a feature of cities, something we can show in fiction. From political authorities throwing up statues to youths daubing a park with graffiti, art within cities is almost always, on some level, about that control of space. When we make art about cities, if we show the art of cities then we can humanise the struggle to live in and control them.
Cities shape us, but we also shape cities.
* This won her my undying favour. Foucault is my all time favourite philosopher, and not just because he was a cool French bald guy. His theories transformed the way I understand power and human interactions. He is, as they say, the man.