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
I 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.