Representations of the City in SFF – a Nine Worlds Panel

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.

Different Cities

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.

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.

All cities great and small

I love cities. From the sprawling metropolis of London, to the picture perfect heart of Durham, to the relaxed comforts of Norwich, I’ve lived in some of the most contrasting British cities, and loved them all.

I love them as settings to write in as well. I think the reasons for that are the same reasons I love them as places to live – it’s the potential. In a  city you can always find something new. Whether it’s a dusty secondhand bookshop down a street you never wandered before, a real ale rock bar hiding round the back of a chain pub, or some slither of history preserved between a shopping centre and an office block.

You can usually find what you want as well. The large populations of cities, and the people travelling in from all around, mean they can support specialists – oriental supermarkets, comic shops, novelty tearooms, jazz bars, and a hundred other things too specialised to survive in even a decent sized town. Museums? Check. Libraries? Check. Galleries? Check. In the same half mile of Manchester I can browse back issues of Batman and balls of double knit wool, then go drink coffee while Victorian art.

These same things that make cities great in life make them great for writing – you never know what you might find, but you can always find what you want. In a city you can throw in the crazy and the extreme, and whatever niche you need filled in your story, you’ll find a way. They also make great settings for odd characters, people who might seem out of place elsewhere – an astrologer, a steam mechanic, a smuggler of dragon eggs, they each have a few other settings where they might be found, but they can live shoulder to shoulder in a city. And yet, if you need to make them uncomfortable, challenge them with something unfamiliar, just have them take a wrong turn and within two streets they can be in the dreaded district of the existentialist spiders.

Sure, not every story fits best in a city. But as sources of inspiration, as places to write, and as places to write about, I’ll always love cities.