Wednesday, January 26, 2011
A spirit of place : cities in fantasy
I love creating cities. Which is perhaps to be expected, since I grew up in them – Colombo, Dubai and Austin. And when they’re inventive and well-depicted, they form much more than the backdrop to a story. They become an integral part of the world and the fantasy, as three-dimensional as a character.
Each fantasy city I remember vividly had something unusual to set it apart. Hart's Hope, in the titular novel by Orson Scott Card, is rigidly divided into districts characterized by their purpose (trade, pilgrimages, etc) and the different gates which lead into them. Calcutta, in Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, is a reeking, overcrowded warren ruled by a goddess thirsty for blood.
I still believe that some places are too wicked to be suffered. Occasionally, I dream of nuclear mushroom clouds rising above a city and human figures dancing against the flaming pyre that once was Calcutta.
The city of Armada, in China Mieville’s The Scar, is made of a thousand ships lashed together and floating across the oceans. Armada has a park, a prison, markets, a library called Booktown and even a Haunted Quarter. All of it protected by airships and small ironclads and menfish who swim beneath the waves.
There’s Deepgate, the city suspended in a net of chains over an abyss in Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, and a floating city called Sanctaphrax in the Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Mechanized moving cities hunt down each other in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. And one reason I bought The Fantastic Art of Jacek Yerka was the beautiful painting on the cover – a giant tree that both grows into and supports a city.
All this is just scratching the surface. Cities can be constructed within huge living creatures which protect them like anemones do clownfish. They could be divided into different time zones – medieval, industrial, modern – where people but not technologies are able to cross over. They can be built from materials that might be extremely common in another world, such as slabs of uncut diamond.
What are your fantasy cities like?