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?


8 comments:

D L Dzioba said...

The city in my novel This Mad Virtue is on the banks of a large river. As the city expanded the poorer districts were pushed closer and closer to the water until the over took it. Now there is a tangle of stilted shacks rising out of the river in what's known as the muddy district. The poor have to borrow, build, or pay what little they can to rent rafts and boats to get to their homes.

A. Shelton said...

My cities in the country of Imotina are built on large, terraced mountains. Smaller cities and farms towns are in valleys. There are few cities actually populated in Imotina due to a plague the wiped out most of the population and caused infertility in the descendants of the survivors. Most cities are vacant, overtaken by the surrounding forests. In the cities which are populated, they are incompletely populated for the most part; only the capital city is almost completely populated.

JJadziaDax said...

I've always hated writing (anathema i know!) but when I thought about any cities in books what immediately jumped out was (not a city I'll admit) Arthur C Clarke's Rama books. Maybe it's because they were some of the first sci fi books I read after Star Trek novels as a kid but I was fascinated by that ship. There was so much detail, so vivid, it just pulled me in. Each area of the ship, the humans figuring out how it worked, the different bots they encountered. While the humans interacting with each other was interesting, I could have read far more on them exploring that ship.

You have such fun posts to comment on.

Shannon said...

The country I deal with has gone through a great number of changes, including a recent revolution, so a lot of the old buildings have been transferred to new uses. This creates not only a clash of architectural styles but you will also find businesses struggling to make do with buildings ill-poportioned to them. This is also because it's a time of rapid technological change. Due to the distances between towns and cities due to the poor soil and near-desert conditions, the cities are also quite architecturally different from each other though there are a few similarities - sloping roofs for the odd storm and wrap-around verandahs (or loggias in certain areas that must build up rather than out).

Marian Perera said...

D L Dzioba - That was a vivid image. I imagine the pollution must be terrible in that part of the city as well, given the overcrowding.

A. Shelton - I recently watched the original The Hills Have Eyes, and I liked the mountains in those, so I was trying to imagine what the terraced mountains in your story looked like. Maybe I'll Google the term and see what comes up.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Jadzia! I liked that DS9 character a lot, by the way. So disappointing when she died... Ezri just didn't have the same presence.

Shannon - Vertical stratification in cities is a fascinating aspect of their architecture, especially if the inhabitants have unusual ways of getting to the upper levels. Dru Pagliassotti's Clockwork Heart comes to mind.

Stephen M. Swartz said...

Very interesting and informative--especially as I have tried to invent a world full of cities. The challenge is to make them vivid without having either too Earth-like or too "weird alien" style. You've given me some things to consider. Thanks!

Lisabet Sarai said...

What a wonderful post, Marian!

I also set many of my tales in cities, but mostly real ones: Bangkok, New York, London, San Francisco.

I've never read ANY of the books you cite, but now you've really kicked my imagination!