Cities as Fantasy Settings: a panel retrospective

What a panel, friends. I am not kidding. I was so honored to share space with my co-panelists, Gary K. Wolfe, Kathleen Jennings, and David D. Levine. They were very passionate about the subject, and came to the panel ready to drop some serious knowledge.

I’m not going to get everything we talked about in here. It was 50 minutes of seriously dense conversation, so there’s no way I could condense all of it into one blogpost. However, I’ll endeavor to describe some of my favorite conversational highlights. The panelists also gave tons of book recommendations, and I’ve endeavored to include as many of those as possible in a list below.

To start, I asked the panelists a really simple question: what is a city? We were talking about fantasy settings, which is really just a shorthand way of saying speculative fiction settings in this case. Those settings can span a lot of different kinds of worlds. Accordingly, the definition of a city might change from one world to another. Various definitions of a city were discussed. A city could be considered a system, a place where collaboration and innovation were simplified because of relative population density, and a place the creates the illusion of anonymity. Overall, the panelists felt the city could best be described as a social experiment.

So with that nebulous definition, we jumped into the panel.

The theme of the conference this year was “Secret Histories”. There are a lot of assumptions we make when designing worlds, so I wanted to know was kinds of assumptions or inspiration was used in designing their fantastical cities. David started off by referring to how colony domes in space settlements could function similarly to the defensive walls of older European cities, and comparing that to the cities of the United States – often sprawling, spread wide by quick car traffic and flat, fertile lands. Kathleen pointed out that a lot of cities build upwards on top of themselves, each layer almost geological in nature. She mentioned the subterranean tunnels in New York City, sealed up in the early 1900s and forgotten until one was excavated just recently, which were used to bring cattle into the city to be slaughtered. When she was talking I couldn’t help but thinking of the city as a coral reef, building always on its own bones.

Gary pointed out that this building on a given city was something that you could also trace back in literature – it wasn’t just about the new physical layers of the city, but also the story-layers that had accrued. In his words, “When someone writes about New York, they are writing about everybody else who’s written about New York.”

This raised the question of the city as a living thing. The example that came most readily to my mind of a city embodied was “The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin, where the city is literally embodied in an avatar. Kathleen pointed out that there was a difference between a city as a person versus a group or people taking on the genius of a place. She saw the city as more porous, shaped by the people who passed through it as much as it shaped those people.

Discussion turned to other cultures that had inspired city settings in the fantastical, then. We talked, briefly, about how cities in Africa and Asia, for example, have drastically different architectures and designs because colonists often built over existing infrastructure. Cities in the United States, in comparison, and in Australia do not often have that base infrastructure to build on, and are relatively young because of it. The panelists felt that overall, writers are becoming better at depicting a variety of cultures because more material is available about alternate ways of living, thanks to things like the internet.

As might be expected, the topic of urban fantasy as a subgenre came up. After all, talking about fantastical cities inspired by real cities would inherently lead to a discussion of real cities pulled into the fantastic. Several great book recommendations came out of this conversation in particular. One interesting comment made by Gary posited that the city may have replaced the forest as the new wilderness or frontier, which was prominent in much colonial literature. The frontier being conquered, writers were forced to turn to either outer space or to the urban jungle. I personally felt a little uncomfortable with that statement, and asked if that implied an otherization of the city and its inhabitants. To me, describing the city as a frontier implies a certain feeling of antagonism toward the city that might have arisen out of the industrial revolution’s squalor and the collapse of inner cities in the 80s. What about the city feels unnatural or foreign? While we weren’t able to answer that question, I think that it would make a really good research paper, personally.

Anyway, please enjoy this list of recommendations below! I haven’t read most of these so I can’t speak to them, but if you want some of my personal recommendations, you can check out my post from last week. I plan to add quite a few of these to my reading list!


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Getting ready for my panel

Hey friends! This weekend I am in San Antonio for World Fantasy Convention 2017. The theme is “Secret Histories” and I am moderating a panel all about cities as palimpsests! The panel is called “The Role of Cities in Fantasy Settings” and it will be tomorrow morning at 10 am if anyone is in town.

I got to be panel moderator because of my day job, so I thought I might use this post to make recommendation of some of my favorite books about cities for those of you who may not be able to join tomorrow. I’ll also try to do a recap of what the other members of the panel discuss for next week, though we’ll see how on the ball I am tomorrow morning with note-taking.

Imaginary Cities

First, I spent several weeks leading up to this panel reading the book Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. It was a super interesting read, and I recommend it if you are a writer daylighting as an urban planner, like myself. Anderson does a broad survey of the city in literature and architecture, including such famous minds in the urban planning field as Le Corbusier alongside philosophers like Plato and fiction writers like Italo Calvino. It’s a dreamy, memorable survey with a delightful way of looking at things. One of my favorite early lines in the book talks about Le Corbusier’s vision for the city: “It is a city rethought as planetary space, but what can live in a vacuum?” There’s enough fodder in here for all of your storytelling and visioning needs.

The Dervish House

On the semi-fictional spectrum, one of my favorite cities is Istanbul as depicted in Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, a tense and smart techno-thriller meets near-future dystopia meets historical fiction. Yes, there is a lot going on in this book, and it is done so well. The layers of Istanbul sit on top of one another, bleed into one another, and each character carries their own city with them. It’s a book of intensely vivid prose and gorgeous vistas, all contained around a tight knot of action.

The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi has made a name for his near-future dystopias focusing on climate change. Most memorable of these is the Wind Up Girl, which won several awards, but I think the author really comes into his own with The Water Knife. This book takes place in Phoenix, AZ, conveniently enough the city I was born in, and I had a hard time reading it because it was so incredibly believable. As might be expected, climate change means that the setting is absolutely integral to the plot of this work, and that setting is a grim, waterless future indeed.

The Wheel of the Infinite

Really you could pick up any Martha Wells book and get a delightful lesson on building worlds, but why not start with this one? This city hangs parallel in time or space to another, and the big crisis of the book is trying to keep it from being erased by that other place. Wells draws on canal cities from around the world to design Duvalpore.

The Craft Sequence

I left the Craft Sequence for last because there aren’t enough words to explain Max Gladstones adroit use of the city in these works. The first of the books in order of publication, Three Parts Dead, is set in the city of Alt Coloumb, a magnificent place whose infrastructure is literally the body of a god. Every book in this sequence is set in a different city, each more fascinating than the last, with the most recent book focusing on how cities are narratives, communal decisions in how we want to experience our world. If you have any interest in cities historically, urban planning, fantastical zoning law or anything of that nature, you should probably read these books.

Go forth and read, and I’ll see you next week!


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