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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New York, Lorca, and Movies

There are whole essays written on Federico Garcia Lorca, whose work has appeared on this blog before and who continues to be an important part of my literary education, mostly because all of my literary education of note has occurred in Spanish and El Ogro, soul of my soul, professor of the highest order, may he rest in peace, taught me most of it. I doubt this will be the last time I talk about Lorca. He influenced  Neruda, and was influenced in turn by Whitman, two of my favorite poets. He was a powerhouse, and he died far too young, victim of a fascist regime that targeted him for his words and his sexuality.

One of his most studied collections is Poeta en Nueva York, or Poet in New York, which chronicles the poetry that he wrote in and about New York City in 1929 and 1930. New York is an old city, and profoundly important historically. Yet I rarely feel the depth and vivacity of it in film. This was no less true on Thanksgiving when I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I have critiqued thoroughly here, and critique of which brought me to reread some of Lorca to find his depictions of New York.

Lorca visited New York in 1929, as the United States was falling into the Great Depression. It was the end of the Jazz Age, which is relevant to the aforementioned Fantastic Beasts in that this movie was based in the Jazz Age. Other writers will better speak of the history and context of the body of work that he produced there, including the loss of the original manuscript in which it was compiled. I’m not your girl for that, and that’s probably not what you’re here for. I’m a science fiction and fantasy buff who also really happens to like Spanish, seeing as I got a degree in it, and reads a deal of poetry from time to time. And I’m also a person that, as mentioned, was really unsettled to see the total lack of believable, historically accurate setting in a movie meant to appeal to a wide audience of predominately young people and young adults who might not know better than to take at face value that New York was a bastion of whiteness.

There is a poem in Poeta en Nueva York called “El rey de Harlem,” “The King of Harlem.” It is not about whiteness. It is about los negros, the black people to whom Lorca writes one of the longest and most vivid odes within this work. There is, indeed, a whole section of this collection entitled “Los negros,” dedicated to the black people who lived in New York City. It is telling that a Spanish poet who visited during this time found that black life and existence within New York was so impressing, so large a portion of the fabric of American life, that he dedicated three poems specifically to them. The refrain of “The King of Harlem,”or my rough translation of it, is particularly poignant in this context, as black Americans were ubiquitous as service members in many parts of the city.

“Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem!

There is no anguish which compares to your oppressed eyes

To your blood strewn within this dark eclipse

To your pomegranate violence, deaf and dumb in the shadows,

To your great king, prisoner, within the jacket of a doorman.”

Lorca’s depictions of black residents of New York were certainly not without their problems. But he did depict them, he did not shy away from the diversity of the city – perhaps because he himself often ventured into Harlem for the more selfish reason of trysting with lovers and other such activities. This was the time of Prohibition, after all, when much happened behind closed doors. It was a messy, chaotic time that birthed “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot, The Great Gatsby, and other such classics. It was also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a fact conveniently glossed over in many depictions of 1920s New York, including that of Fantastic Beasts.

I am not a scholar of this time. There is no way in this brief blogpost that I can effectively encompass and illustrate all of the complexity of New York in the 1920s, and I know that I have missed things a more thorough student of such things would know. But I can leave you with the words of Langston Hughes, whose New York should have shaped the setting and plot of this movie, and hope that Hollywood might remember them the next time it seeks to whitewash the seat of black urban culture. And if you’re fed up with this lazy storytelling, I recommend “The Ballad of Black Tom” or watching some Luke Cage to get the taste out of your mouth. Let’s all hope for more depictions of our history that seek to include instead of erase.

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