FEBRUARY 10, 2017
Some of the following was originally published in Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan 2016).
SCIENCE FICTION often gives short shrift to cities. Nothing says trouble, after all, like a great city smashed to smithereens on screen by natural cataclysms, creepy aliens in oversized flying saucers, or even an ill-tempered Godzilla. When cities survive in SF cinema, they’re often places we’d rather not visit — nasty New York in Soylent Green (1973) and Escape from New York (1981), the antiseptic city of domes in Logan’s Run (1976), creepy underground Topeka in A Boy and His Dog (1975), or menacing Los Angeles in Blade Runner (1982).
Blade Runner’s dark and compelling city is a common touchstone for visualizing the urban future. Tell an acquaintance that you’re working on cities in science fiction, and the inevitable response is: “Oh, like Blade Runner.” The film has come to epitomize popular conceptions of science fiction cities because it combines zippy technology, looming megabuildings, and a noir atmosphere borrowed from both Metropolis (1927) and The Big Sleep (1946). Aircars dart among the towers and cop cars hover over the streets. Looking vaguely like 1940s radiophotograph consoles, the corporate ziggurats of the overworld dominate the cityscape. Flames inexplicably vent from the tops of towers. Searchlights zigzag the sky but fail to penetrate to the claustrophobic surface.
Take another look, however, and something else stands out. Blade Runner may be Los Angeles’s “official nightmare,” as Mike Davis has claimed, but this city of 2019 is heterogeneous, disordered, and active. Taffey’s Snake Pit, the bar visited by bounty hunter Rick Deckard, is dark and dangerous, but also intriguing. Women sport retro fashions, pipes are puffed and joints smoked, and masked dancers sway to techno-beat music. The bustling streets teem with vitality, the Asian faces suggesting its attractions for entrepreneurial immigrants. Norman Klein reports that many Los Angeles residents found the scene where Deckard grabs lunch at an outdoor market to be appealing rather than off-putting, and the entire pulsating mishmash of food carts, sushi bars, and discount retailers that line Blade Runner’s streets match one of the standard 21st-century prescriptions for vitalizing bland American cities.
Blade Runner is the launch point for examining science fiction that celebrates the social vitality and cultural dynamism of urban life with its mix of creativity and community. The film is a reminder that the essence of a city is not the physical container but the people it contains. Cities are where deals go down, ideas blossom, lovers arrange trysts, and conspirators hatch plots. Science fiction storytellers would be lost without the bustling marketplace and the crowded tavern — places where a variety of goods and services can be found and where anybody can put in an appearance, meaning trouble and plot complications are just around the corner.
Sociologist Peter Langer suggests that our understanding of cities oscillates between two metaphors: city as jungle and city as bazaar. In both conceptions, cities are places of thick social relations, diversity, and constant motion. The urban jungle is intertwined, crowded, and marked by deadly competition for resources, but the city as bazaar “imagines the city as a place of astonishing richness of activity and diversity […] a market, a fair, a place of almost infinite exploration and opportunity, a center of exchange.” Film scholar Vivian Sobchack offers a variation, proposing “Trashtown” as shorthand for districts or cities that are vibrant, cluttered, and at the edge of respectability.
Science fiction’s theorist of the urban bazaar is Samuel R. Delany. In Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976) he coined the term “unlicensed sector” for districts on the social edge. Here there’s vice and crime, to be sure, but also artistic expression that flourishes where rules don’t apply. The unlicensed sector in Tethys, the novel’s urban setting, has twisting back ways and dark alleys, but Delany presents it as inventive and alive. It is home to both political dissidents and artists like street theater troupes. It nourishes the creativity that can emerge from apparent chaos.
Sprawling and fantastic New Crobuzon in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000) goes the unlicensed sector of Tethys one better. It’s a teeming multispecies city whose chaotic energy generates creative art and radical politics. The book opens in the public city at the Aspic Bazaar, where “all distinctions broke down” in “a blaring mess of goods, grease and tallymen.” The city’s million-plus residents animate its streets, markets, and cafes. Action moves among streets and markets, private workspaces, and bars like the Moon’s Daughters pub, whose “clientele consisted of the more adventurous of the city’s bohemians: artists, thieves, rogue scientists, junkies and militia informants.” After drinks, some of the characters head to Bombadrezil’s Unique and Wonderful Fair whose food, balloons, carnival rides, and games of chance bring out a crowd in which “bankers and thieves mingled to ooh, scandalized and titillated.”
Miéville’s New Crobuzoners enact the role of public space as articulated by design critics and social commentators like Richard Sennett, who argue that community identities are best formed, promoted, and defended in shared spaces. This is not passive observation by one of Walter Benjamin’s flâneurs wandering the streets of Paris, but rather the creation of meaning by the active participation that is required for community life. Michel de Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), argues that abstract plans do not create cities; instead, myriad individuals generate the meaning of urban space by moving through it, using it, and filtering it through their own perceptions and imaginations in ways beyond control and discipline.
Readers quickly grasp that teeming New Crobuzon is a transfigured version of London — both the Victorian city and the late 20th-century city in which Miéville grew up; spiced, he says, with bits of Cairo, Egypt, and New Orleans. We are, very deliberately and explicitly, in a made-up world that serves as the very opposite of Tolkien’s Shire: urban, grubby, and complex rather than rural, cutesy, and socially one-dimensional. The map that accompanies the book resembles the top view of the cerebral cortex, perhaps to emphasize the role of the city as a place of constant information generation and exchange. The city fuses a rich amalgam of neighborhoods sorted by class, lifestyle, and species, but also under continual pressures of change. A typical apartment building houses a jumble of “petty thieves and steel workers and errand-girls and knife-grinders.”
New Crobuzon is chaotic and creative — the two central characters are an eccentric scientist and an eccentric artist. It is a realization of Delany’s unlicensed sector (even with an ever-present militia) and also a riff on John Stuart Mill’s venerable argument that interesting and vital cities are complex cities, places where social uncertainty and cultural creativity are inextricably intertwined. “It is hardly possible to overrate the value,” he wrote in 1848 in Principles of Political Economy,
of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. […] Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.
Nicola Griffith highlights community rather than creativity in Slow River (1995). She opens and closes the near-future novel on the banks of the River Humber in the gritty English industrial city of Hull, a superficially implausible choice for a resilient city. The river is “sleek and implacable,” framing a dark story about fragmented identity and childhood sexual abuse in a near-future city whose noir atmosphere might lead us to expect the worst. The protagonist Lore van de Oest is the daughter of a powerful industrial family who escapes a stage-managed kidnapping to awaken in a lonely alley naked, bleeding, and without her personal identity chip. She is functionally reborn, saved by an information thief and sex worker who helps her assume new identities for three years before confronting her family and unmasking its corruption. As she slowly heals, the river that has shaped the city helps her to reshape herself: “I would spend the rest of my life by the river,” she thinks at the end, “being visible.”
Lore moves among the different social strata of modern urban society — the rich, the working class, the underworld. Talking with friends, she explores the rain forest as a metaphor for the city. She doesn’t see the imaginary jungle of predatory chaos, but rather a layering of ecological niches from canopy to forest floor. Griffith reiterated the same idea in a commentary on her book, defining a city as “a place with a large enough population to have different layers. […] Every citizen will know a different layer, will bend before a different social wind.” Using a metaphor appropriate for Slow River, she described points of social contact as the “irrigation arteries” of a city and continued that “it is from such intersections of different nutrient streams that the energy and the art of a metropolis are born.”
Griffith’s city is robust as well as complex. The plot subjects the city to environmental stress, but not to the sort of environmental disaster that science fiction loves. Sabotage damages the delicate functioning of the sewage treatment plant where Lore works, threatening to flood the city with toxic effluent, but quick action by dedicated workers and emergency responders salvages the operation. As Griffith commented soon after publication,
much science fiction of the nineties destroys some aspect or other of the city. I did not want to do that. I wanted to keep as background the city as I have seen it, as a reader might recognize it. So the city in Slow River hovers continually on the brink of disaster … [but] I posit a technological advance that adds a bit of hope to the mess.
The result is a resilient city to frame the growing strength and resilience of the central character.
Resilience in an even more stressed urban community forms the backdrop for Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998). The plot parallels Slow River in some ways, focusing on a young woman who must come to terms with her family heritage and her own identity: in this case a Caribbean Canadian who must accept spiritual gifts and powers that mark her as different from her peers. Hopkinson sketches a future Toronto whose inner city has been abandoned by government and corporate capital (modeled, she says, after Detroit). In the face of neglect and poverty, residents improvise. Some join drug-dealing gangs, but others recycle abandoned spaces, develop a barter economy, and look after each other. In one corner of “the Burn,” the
three pastors of the Korean, United, and Catholic churches that flanked the corners had joined forces, taken over most of the buildings […] They ministered to street people with a firm hand, defending their flock and their turf with baseball bats when necessary.
In the optimistic ending, the provincial premier promises no-interest loans for the Burn’s grassroots entrepreneurs. Perhaps micro-enterprise will thrive and grow, and the city regenerate.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy (2004–2007) also depicts a much maligned city — Washington, DC — where social institutions fray but hold under the stress of climate disaster. As he did in earlier books like Pacific Edge (1990) and his Mars trilogy (1992–1996), Robinson explores the ways in which personal lives and civic lives interact. He takes the ordinary seriously, describing a city where community is created and maintained. The action builds slowly, especially in the first volume (tellingly titled Forty Signs of Rain), paying close attention to commuting, child care, National Science Foundation (NSF) grant applications, and other quotidian routines. The books intercut the crisis of global climate change with the struggles of managing a family including two high-achieving professionals and two kids. NSF scientists and a senatorial staffer make up the protagonists, trying to make scientific institutions and government work to cope with global climate change and its impacts. Dozens of pages detail committee meetings and bureaucratic strategizing that actually gets things done. (Robinson does for science administration what Gregory Benford did for science practice in Timescape .)
Massive floods and bitter winters pound the city. Robinson describes the physical impacts on the city, but also highlights the continuing importance of social bonds. Volunteers turn out to fight flooding. A group of homeless men create a miniature community in the depths of Rock Creek Park. In the great freeze, civic institutions still work. First responders and hospitals are stressed, but they function. People turn out to help. Hundreds of volunteers coordinate an effort to monitor escaped zoo animals. Park rangers and work crews are upbeat as they clear downed trees and direct citizens pitch in until their workplaces reopen. By taking Washington, DC, seriously as a functional community rather than an aberration, Robinson challenges a knee-jerk reaction among many Americans and highlights his longstanding commitment to the importance of civic life. The books extend his repeated argument that utopia is a process rather than an end state — “utopia is when our lives matter,” as one of his earlier characters says.
By Robinson’s own description, the trilogy is intended as a comedy. Neither the protagonists nor the world are brought low by fate. Instead, wobbling institutions move back toward a center like a ship righting after nearly capsizing. As in the most traditional of comedies (and paralleling the end of Slow River), social order is upheld with the continued strength of one marriage and prospects for three more. Robinson recognizes that cities may sometimes be responsible for their own dissolution by fire, famine, flood, or abandonment, but that cities also have thickly woven social relationships and the social capital that is the source of resilience. Thick civic and social networks support short-term survival and long-term innovation. Rebecca Solnit, in A Paradise Built in Hell (2010), convincingly argues that it is elites who panic in civic emergencies and ordinary folks who cope and cooperate, a result that Robinson dramatizes.
So Washington, DC, survives, like Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake and New Orleans after Katrina. So will its other peers. Despite Kipling’s lines, London, New York, and Tokyo are unlikely to become one with Nineveh and Tyre. Modern cities benefit not only from internal strength but from the sometimes maligned global economy that allows them to draw resources from vast distances far more effectively than premodern places that succumbed to conquest or climate change. Robinson understands the power of social and psychological ties that bind residents to their cities, and he also understands the scale of third-millennium society.
Interesting cities are complex cities — places of possibility intertwined with the problems created by change. New Crobuzon is endlessly fascinating, and Samuel R. Delany’s Tethys remains intriguing. The distributed city of Battlestar Galactica and the teeming space station metropolis of Babylon 5 support richer stories than the thin communities of the Star Trek universe. As science fiction writer Kathleen Ann Goonan has written in Paradoxa,
Cities are, simply put, places where we come together to survive, where the symbiosis and mix of many humans becomes heady and elixirlike, leading to new intellectual, artistic, and emotional realms; leading also to the decay which occurs when old forms — physical and social — are no longer viable but still remain.
Out of those tensions of change and stability come the complex communities of creative and resilient cities that are more common in speculative fiction than the Blade Runner trope might lead us to believe.