Why is the Magic Always in London?

Have you noticed how fantasy and sci-fi set in Britain are predominantly set in London? Especially if it’s set in a city, you’re almost certainly going to be in the capital. Why is that?

Infinite Cities, Yet All the Same One

Darker.jpgI love London. I lived there for a year when I was teaching, and it was a great year. There’s a lot of amazing stuff in the British capital, and the atmosphere in the heart of the city is like nowhere else in the UK.

Similar things can be said of many other British cities. From gentle, sleepy Norwich to cheery, in-your-face Newcastle, to the northern bustle of Manchester. Sure, London has a particularly high density of people and attractions, but any British city has plenty of stuff you could set a story around.

I ended up pondering this as I read V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. Schwab’s fantasy novel is set in several different Londons that lie parallel to each other, accessible by magic. There’s a familiar idea here – the idea of hidden cities alongside the one we normally see, and it’s an idea that seems to be particularly associated with London. From Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere to China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun, the fantastical Londons pile up thick and fast. Not to mention all the mechanically powered Victorian Londons of steampunk.

It’s starting to annoy me. I love London, but I love other British cities too.I want to see the attention spread around more.

So why isn’t it?

Because London’s Important. Duh.

OK, yes, there’s an obvious factor. London is a huge and important place. With seven to eight million people living in the greater London area, it’s several times larger than any other British city, and one of the largest conurbations in Europe. It has a wide variety of interesting locations for writers to shove into the background, or more rarely make substantial use of. It’s hugely powerful – it may not be the global capital it was in the Victorian age, but it’s still one of the most influential cities in the modern world, with a specialist financial sector that punches far above its weight.

Then there’s the familiarity. People have heard of London. They’ve seen it on the TV. They have a good idea of what it represents. Writers, whether for the page or the screen, don’t have to familiarise readers with London every time they set something there.

And that’s where we get into the part that really interests me.

Specialisation Breeds Specialisation

Geographers have long noticed a tendency for local specialisation to be self-reinforcing. There’s no particular reason in the here and now why Paris should be a centre for fashion, nothing fundamental about that city’s location and resources to encourage this. But somewhere along the line, it got ahead of the curve on fashion a little. The fashion industry grew, which meant there were jobs there. That drew in the talent to work for existing fashion houses and meant that when those people started their own businesses they often did it in Paris. Even outsiders started setting up business there because that was where the skilled workers were. That brought in more skilled workers which drew in more business which… oh look, a self-reinforcing cycle! Now Paris is about fashion because Paris is about fashion.

It’s not unique. Look at the tech industry in Silicon Valley or the City of London, that city within a city committed to high finance.

I think we’re seeing the same thing with fantastical Londons. People have got used to the idea that London is a strange and wonderful place. Because fantasy writers have set their stories there, readers are pre-prepared to accept London as a magical place. That gives an advantage to writers who set their fantasies there, as the readers are receptive. That means more London fantasies, which means more readiness for London fantasies, which means… oh look, another self-reinforcing cycle!


And of course much fiction exists in response to other fiction. People who read and like London fantasy will be inspired by it to imagine their own fantasy Londons, to show how they would do it. Which means… you get it.

The Good, the Bad, and the City

So is this focus on London a bad thing?

I guess that depends on what you want. Much like geographical skill specialisation, it lets us build on what’s come before, enriching the discussion about what a single city could hold. But it also means that we’re missing out on potential fantastical depictions of other cities.

It also connects to a bigger issue of London’s relationship with the rest of Britain, and whether politicians are neglecting other regions in favour of the capital. Which assumes that they’re even considering the whole capital, and not just that totemic financial centre. And then we’re into a can of tribalistic worms I shan’t get into here.

Ultimately, this pattern in literature is unlikely to change anytime soon. For better or for worse, London and magic have become intertwined.

What do you think? Do you enjoy reading stories set in London, and if so what’s it’s appeal? Do you have favourite depictions of other cities in fantasy and science fiction? Let me know in the comments.

The myth of the lone artist

The idea that writers create their works in isolation, that novels and other stories aren’t acts of collaboration, is one of my pet hates. Tackling that myth is one of the reasons why I think China Miéville’s talk on the future of books is so good, and why I couldn’t bear to listen to the audience responses. The first few responses were apparently intelligent people, creators in their own right, leaping up and defending the status quo, saying how they didn’t want people meddling with existing texts, how they wanted to carry on working in splendid isolation.

It was reactionary nonsense, scared of facing the future, and indeed the reality of past and present writing.

Not an island

It’s not just that storytelling is becoming more collaborative. I firmly believe that every creative act is an act of collaboration. Even writers, who might seem at times to be working on their own, are really working with others.

No-one stands alone
No-one stands alone

There are some obvious elements to this. The role of alpha readers and editors in helping polish the piece. The cover artists who evoke an atmosphere before the reader has even turned to page one. The people who create fonts.

But there are less direct collaborators as well. Any writer works within the ideas and expectations created by those who have come before. They adapt and build on the ideas of those who wrote before them, and of their contemporaries within their genre. They are not working in isolation, but in communication with those authors through the ideas that they have put into the world.

At the most basic level, stringing together sentences involves working with language others have created, remixing the ideas of others.

The idea of the lone creator, the isolated artist driven purely by his or her own inner magic, is utter rot.

Special snowflakes

So why does this myth persist?

I can see two obvious reasons. The first is a psychological defence. Seeing ourselves as individual creators helps us to feel special. If someone challenges that it threatens our identity, puts us on the defensive. But it shouldn’t. The effective collaborator is a far more admirable figure than the lone wolf – they work well with others and are open to ideas.

The other reason is the ‘great man’ view of history and the world around us. Thinking that the world is shaped by significant individuals and their special abilities saves us from having to make sense of the more complex reality, of intertwining social, political, economic and artistic influences. It takes some pressure off our brains by making the world seem simpler than it is. It’s very soothing.

Busting the myth

But the myth of the isolated artist is becoming ever harder to defend. In an age of remixing and fan fiction, of collaborative cross-media storytelling, of the TV writers room, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps we can now let it go and relish the fact that we are all collaborators.


Picture by Scott Cresswell via Flickr creative commons.

China Miéville and the future of books

China Miéville is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting authors working today. He combines imagination and insight to create worlds that are deep and fascinating, full of characters that interest me. And because he’s also a commentator on and teacher of literature he gets treated surprisingly seriously by the literary establishment, leading to events like the talk below that he gave in 2012.

I think that this is a fascinating talk on potential futures for writers. One of the best things about it is that Miéville isn’t saying ‘this is what will happen’, he’s saying ‘this is what could happen’. Change is unavoidable and can bring great things, and he sets out explore its possibilities.

I recommend watching this if you have any interest in books. Miéville’s talk starts about twelve minutes in and finishes around the half hour mark. I’m sure that there are interesting comments from the audience afterwards, but I didn’t get through all of those.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTb_CCukdnU&w=560&h=315]


So where do you see books going in the future? Agree with Miéville, disagree, not sure? Share your thoughts below.

Empire by Profound Decisions – that’s what I call world building

Writing about working with the core of your world has got me thinking again about world building. We talk about this a lot in fantasy and science fiction literature, but one of the best examples I’ve seen doesn’t come from books. It’s a wiki for a live roleplay game. So today I’m going to enthuse about Empire.


A damn fine game

Empire is a fantasy live roleplaying (LRP) game run by Profound Decisions (PD). It’s a game designed for thousand of players, set in the high fantasy world of an empire on the verge of collapse, with barbarian orcs battering at its borders, the empress dead, and internal machinations capable of tearing the whole thing down.

To support the game, PD have written and published a huge background wiki. This gives the people playing their game an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the world, creating something that’s complex, consistent and completely engrossing. For a LRP, this is great for creating immersion and atmosphere – a point Matt Pennington, PD’s founder, talks about so eloquently that I’ve cited him when writing about teaching.

The aims of a LRP background are somewhat different from those of world building for a novel, but there’s also a lot that’s the same, and that’s what I want to look at here.

Working from what’s known

As long as there has been fantasy literature it has taken features from the real world and from established mythology, using them as shortcuts to evoke atmosphere. If an author shows you a world of samurai and ninjas, you immediately fill in a lot of the gaps around them – geisha, robes, minimalist furniture, translucent partition walls, whatever says medieval Japan to you.

Empire uses that. By creating nations that seem familiar, such as evoking Medieval English yeomanry in the earthy Marchers, they let your brain fill a lot of gaps.

But they don’t just present you with real things. Where would the fantastic be in that? They mix it up, showing how these countries are different from the ones we know, how their magic and history make them distinctive. It’s not some hotchpotch re-enactment of the past – it’s something fresh derived from it.

Working out the detail

One of the things I most admire in China Miéville’s writing is his clear grasp on the deeper structures of his worlds – the economic, social and political elements that hold them up. This applies in Empire as well. Each nation has its own culture, costume, magical traditions, social hierarchy, military structures, and so on and so on. You can even hear what sort of music they like to make, and read about how they treat children. It’s an extrapolation from the starting point of each nation, just like Chew extrapolates from food super-powers, and it’s fantastic. It’s a depth and richness of background that’s pretty much incomparable in its detail.

Which results in…

Of course, by running a game for all those people, PD stop being the sole authors of their world. Every single player contributes. And it’s those players who take this material and, like Layman and Guillory in Chew, push it in all sorts of logical but crazy directions, bringing the world to life.

As a player, I initially found it intimidating. But then I realised that, as with the background to a well written fantasy novel, I didn’t need to know it all. In the same way that a novel can give you just enough information to be getting on with, and let you learn the rest as you go along, this wiki let me learn just enough to get started, then soak up the rest from the atmosphere other players created.

Even if you’re never going near the game of Empire, give their wiki a look. It’s a great example of world building, peeking into what’s hidden behind many authors’ story telling. If you’re the sort of person who likes to read guides to Middle Earth, or who buys D&D supplements just to read about the cities and monsters, then you’ll love this.

Reading Railsea

China Miéville’s Railsea just won a well-deserved Locus award. I imagine his trophy cabinet’s getting pretty full right now, and deservedly so. Railsea is a great story, full of ingenuity and originality, just like most of Miéville’s work.

Railsea is the story of Sham, an apprentice doctor on a mole hunting train. This set-up is analogous to a whaling ship, but in a dystopian world where endless train tracks wind between isolated islands of safety and civilisation. This is a young adult novel, with the inevitable character arc of personal growth, building confidence and learning about the wider world. But that’s not a short-coming. It makes for a strong, familiar arc that helps carry the reader through a lot that’s unfamiliar.

Because the unfamiliar is where Miéville really excels. As with The City And The City, he’s taken a completely different starting point from most fantasy and extrapolated it into a rich and fascinating world, with its own politics, cultures, and of course hazards for the characters to overcome.

Miéville uses a variety of different literary tricks to help build the story. He references other novels – most obviously Moby Dick – in ways that don’t disrupt the story. You don’t have to get the references to understand what’s happening, or to enjoy the parts of the story where they take place. It’s just that, for example, knowing Thomas the Tank Engine gives one scene extra appeal.

If you look, you can see the tools on display here. Cliffhangers, foreshadowing, and the set-up of story elements for later all help build the tension and structure the story. Meta-textual details, such as interspersing the text with illustrations of the story’s wild beasts, help build the semi-Victorian tone and add variety to the reading experience. Again, this adds to the sense of the unfamiliar, of something new and exciting and a bit scary.

This is a book that’s smart, that treats its audience as smart, that encourages and supports the audience in reading in a smart way. It rewards careful reading without punishing those who just want to crack on through the adventure. It proves that fantasy can use radically different settings without losing its audience.

Go read Railsea. It deserves that award, and it deserves your time. And then read some more of Miéville’s books, because the things that are great about this are what’s great about all his work. I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.

Great speculative cities

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.