MIND MELD: Real-Life Places That Inspire Exceptional World Building
Here’s what they said:
I’d have to pick Istanbul. The juxtaposition of multiple worlds (eras, technologies, religions, trade, history) is unparalleled in my experience. You can get on an ultramodern light rail and get off at Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, modern shopping centers, and the oldest subway in the world…among other things. Women wearing short skirts and tight jeans walking in tandem with girlfriends in full niqabs. Internet cafes housed in ancient buildings built atop Roman sites. Story ideas all but attack you. Amazing place.
The real-life places where I get many of my ideas are not cities, but countries on the African continent: Kenya (for Kirinyaga, Paradise, and Ivory), Zimbabwe (for Purgatory), Uganda (for Inferno), Tanzania (for “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” and Kilimanjaro), Egypt (for “The 43 Antarean Dynasties), South Africa (for Shaka II), and so on.
Cities are trickier. There was a time when I’d have said any city with an exotic or evocative name would do — Maracaibo, Samarkand, Macau, Marrakesh — but most of them are not terribly exciting or exotic once you’re been there. I find that when I write a contemporary fantasy or science fiction story, I tend to use Manhattan (Stalking The Unicorn and 2 more novels and 7 novelettes in that series, 8 “Harry the Book” stories, etc.) simply because its landmarks and habits and affectations are so well-known to most of my readership that ringing in changes is much easier to do (which is to say, I don’t have to work quite as hard explaining why -this- Manhattan is different from the real one.)
There are two cities that come to mind, as a contrast to each other, and the lesson one learns from them is that sometimes planning a city around a particular technology produces disastrous results. Considering how San Francisco and Los Angeles compare with each other has influenced my own worldbuilding.
I was born in LA in 1952. It was a decent-sized city on a subtropical coastal plain. There were orange groves, there were snow-capped mountains, there were lots of little surrounding towns built in a sort of Mission-Revival style. All the little communities– especially the postwar residential tracts in the San Fernando Valley– were a long way from each other, but you could catch a Red Car just about anywhere for a dime (yes, the central premise of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is absolutely true. I remember my parents’ rage when the Red Cars were done away with). LA was a nice place to live. Then the freeways were built and it became a city for people who owned cars. Air pollution became ghastly, of course, but worse was the assumption on the part of city planners that the past didn’t matter and the city of the future belonged to cars rather than people. Historical buildings were routinely bulldozed for parking lots. None of the basic necessities for a neighborhood were built within walking distance of homes. You had to drive to buy your groceries, unless you wanted to take a four-hour bus trip, because the RTD system was unreliable. And it hindered any sense of community. People from the same neighborhoods didn’t work together, socialize, or in fact know one another at all. There are long stretches of streets in the San Fernando Valley where you can walk for miles and never pass another living soul on the sidewalk, and they’re lined with shops you never see anyone entering or leaving. Talk about science fictional! Now that’s Dystopia, second only to another City of the Future, Brasilia, that was built primarily to ensure unrestricted movement for cars and has been a spectacular failure.
Growing up and seeing other cities– San Francisco or New York, for example– was a revelation to me. A car is not a necessity. Rather than one rapid transit system there are several complementing ones, so you can get pretty much anywhere you can’t walk. And you can walk most places you need to go– there’s a corner market nearly every other block, a little restaurant, a hair salon, a laundromat, a shoe repair place, a bar, an art supply store… not out on the edge of nowhere in a strip mall or in a galleria surrounded by cavernous parking structures, but right on your street. Here, the technology focused on what was practical for the city’s inhabitants. The result is a place people care enough about to rebuild when parts of it fall down. Whereas most people, in the wake of a disaster, just get the heck out of Los Angeles.
That question has a lot of answers. Counting only places I’ve actually been (as opposed to, say, Petra or Mohenjo-daro or Adelaide) for pure fantasy setting you can’t beat Veliko Tarnovo, in Bulgaria. The old Medieval city is built on top of a series of rock islands in a narrow walled valley. Think small mesas crammed into a heavily vegetated canyon. Steep cliffs, high walls, bridges, narrow streets.
The most science fictional city I’ve been in, bar none, is Hong Kong. I’m pretty sure they manufacture the future there in sweatshops along Nathan Road and beta test it all over the place. A nascent megalopolis overrun with both high tech and ancient Chinese tradition, you can’t beat Hong Kong for sheer, raw futurepunk attitude and infrastructure.
Thing is, virtually every city I’ve been in, from Omaha to Ulaan Baatar, has strangeness and inspiration and lateral beauty, all there for the discerning eye. The future is everywhere around us, as is the past. All we as writers do is take proper note of it, and fold it into our work.
I feel like I should say “London,” since I’m two books into a series of at least four set there, ranging from the Elizabethan period to the Victorian. Obviously I find the place fantastical, or I never would have stuck a faerie court underneath it.
But — as with many questions of this type — it depends on what you’re looking for in your fantastical or science fictional tale. Because of my academic background (archaeology, anthropology, folklore), the key requirement for me is depth of history; I want the accretion of layers, both physically and socially, the old buildings and traditions jostling up against the newer additions. London has that quality in spades, but it’s hardly the only city that does. You could do fabulous things with Istanbul, for example, playing off the Byzantine and Ottoman strata, or Mumbai (all those islands being mashed together), or Rome, or Tenochtitlan/Mexico City. Newer cities doesn’t have enough layers built up for me, which is the Onyx Court isn’t in New York.
I’m less qualified to talk about what’s science-fictional in a city, but my brain tends to go east, to places like Tokyo or Hong Kong or Singapore. If we’re imagining a future of gleaming technology, which we generally are, then they’re closer to it than we are here in the States — usually with an underbelly of less-than-shiny grime. But I’d love to see a much greener vision, with living roofs and organic tech. Not sure what city comes closest to that, though.
Having said all this, I now recall the first half of the question: using these cities as inspiration for somewhere *else*. In that case — again, because of the anthropology — I have to vote for any city that isn’t built on the standard Western model of highways, suburbs, shopping malls, and so on. Venice, honeycombed with canals instead of roads. Beijing, with hutongs tucked away inside the much larger mass of the city. Coober Pedy; I’m cheating with that one, since it’s way too small, but you’ve got to love a place where most of the residents live underground. Anything that both shapes and reflects the experience of living there according to unfamiliar patterns. Whether it’s fantasy or science fiction, I like seeing the starting conditions set to a different value, and then playing out into a story that could only happen in that specific place.
Venice which seems magical, mysterious, and I just know the Old World is right around the next bend of the canal.
I think all cities are inherently science fictional as ours is an urban genre. Utopia is a city, not a county. Mind you, so is Dystopia. But I think the human story of the Industrial Revolution onwards has been of human migration to the cities, and the culture and cultures that evolve there. We reached the natural halfway point some time ago, when over half of humanity lives in cities, but the trend toward urbanisation still continues. I’m fascinated by cities that are still growing, that are reaching that megalopolis level — a deep, core skiffy thrill, Megacity One — but at the same time I’m also fascinated by cities that are older than nations –the two are not necessarily exclusive. Istanbul is a great example of both. It’s been through four empires and many more cultures.
I like cities with layers: sedimentary cities: the present always contains the past, and the future must always contain the present, in some form or other. I love London particularly for that layered feel, for its glorious haphazardness and its unique personality, which Peter Ackroyd personisifes as William Blake’s Glad Day: a radiant youth with his arms outstretched against rainbow light.
At the same time, because no city is like any other city, I love the urban sprawls of the New World: I genuinely find LA glorious and haunting, those clusters of towers rising out of the smog. It’s very Italo Calvino, the city that is a suburb of itself.
Moving south, Rio de Janeiro is the least probable city I’ve ever visited: it’s an act of bravura urbanisation, a modern city draped over a coastal mountain range. It’s so romantic: as if someone said, it’s lovely here, let’s just build the city anyway. Forested peaks rise from residential areas, beaches curve everywhere, the poor have the best views. I learned there to think of favelas as a solution to urban living. It’s big, scary and beautiful.
Sao Paulo is big, scary and not at all beautiful. It’s intellectually thrilling and terrifying at the same time, even more than LA it seems like city-without-end; endless skinny tower blocks and hurtling traffic.
Manaus, on the junction of the Rio Negro and the Solimoes, where both become the Amazon, is another example of the Brazilian machismo of dropping a city in the least likely place; in this case, a city of three million with only three roads — frequently impassible — connecting it to the rest of the country. A thousand miles up the Amazon, with a port for deep water tankers — that’s how the big stuff gets in and out, by water. It felt bizarrely isolated — yet, when I was there. The next week Ozzie Osborne was playing in the Teatro Amazonas — yet it was an enormous free trade zone where a sizeable proportion of the country’s electronic goods were made. It felt like a first colony on another world, yet friendly and with a sense of purpose and energy at the same time.
I love cities, I love to go to cities, I love to spend time in them and try to get to know them to discover the things they keep for themselves, the little revelations of their spirits. A few years ago we had a weekend in Paris where we went with no plans, no preconceptions, just stepped out of the front of the hotel and let the city guide us. It took us to an insane Brazilian Night after a bizarre journey across the city in search of a ticket shop that mightn’t be there; the next day to the catacombs and a fencing display in the Luxembourg Gardens. I can’t think of any I’ve ever hated.
Every city I write has its genesis in Seattle. Even the Kismet books, which are set in the desert, owe a great deal to that gray, raining place. Seattle’s not science-fictional, but it’s certainly fantastical.
Seattle is a city of gray shades. Even in summer, when the green daily overwhelms the senses, the gray remains in concrete. It just hides. In fall the trees shed their robes, color leaches away, and the city shivers like you do in the shower before the water warms up. Winter is when the tones of gray take on infinitely-slight variations that are almost like colors themselves. And spring comes slowly with little dabs of bright green, like sensation returning slowly to numb limbs. I’ve often thought the popularity of espresso is because we need the caffeine to differentiate the million different kinds of “gray” Seattle’s capable of.
There are several places in the city where the fantastical bleeds through. There’s the lower corridors of the Pike Place Market, where the ghosts are as solid as the “real” people. The statue of Jimi Hendrix on the lower end of University Avenue, cigarettes and bottles and beads left as offerings. Any place the cold fingers of the Sound touch the city’s edges, slippage occurs and magic leaks in. Post Alley, which never seems to open up from or lead to the same place twice for me. The mosque on 15th in North Seattle, set just a half-twist off from the rest of the city. The genteel Scandanavian quiet of Ballard. The cracked slope of pavement downtown leading past the pink granite facing of what we always called the “Washington Mutual building,” its slope always fractionally off so it feels like the building itself is moving. The floating bridge to Bellevue, across a lake that is calm as glass some days, rough and treacherous enough to throw spray onto your windshield on others. The fountain in the rose garden at the University, a warning finger in winter. The other fountains downtown, speaking through harnessed water in a city built on the sea and almost daily drenched by the sky. The noodle shop in the International with giant fish tanks bubbling everywhere, windows fogged and houseplants crowding between the tables. Dick’s Drive In, where you can douse your fries in mayonnaise. The bubbling ribbon of weirdness that is Highway 99, now severed in a few places but still vital. The Hammering Man in front of the Seattle Art Museum-he just appeared one day, and though an artist took credit for it I always secretly thought the sculpture climbed up out of the well of concrete and souls and is even now hammering pegs to keep the door he found wide open.
I spent a lot of time on the streets of Seattle. Wilderness is never far away-the land remembers forests, and our pavements are just a dream to it. Blackberry bushes are always scouting, looking for weak points. Saplings and Oregon grape in vacant lots, grass in sidewalk cracks, if you leave for even a week you can come back to a jungle. The land thinks skyscrapers are just bigger trees, and the smaller structures are always teased and caressed by forest-fingers.
And how could I speak of Seattle without the rain?
There are languages with different words for snow. Seattleites need different descriptive terms for rain, and I’ve often thought we should make a dictionary. There’s the thin fine heavy falling fog that dews your hair and coat, the penetrating cold drizzle of winter and the chill raw flood of spring, there’s the steady winter drumming washing away sharp corners, and the softest thing in the world-fragrant summer rain, the kind you kiss under, and a million other brands and types and species of falling water.
There’s also the cold heartlessness of the rain when you have nowhere to go to get out of its way. That’s when the 24-hour coffeehouses fill up and streetkids old and young cluster together for desperate warmth. The city isn’t unkind, but like every city, it has a cold heart that doesn’t care much for individual suffering. There are always more crowding in to take your place.
For all its fickle hardness, Seattle is still the city I’ve written the most about. Since I discovered it I’ve never moved very far away, and it lives inside my head as a version of the Eternal City, the ones humans have been creating and dreaming ever since we started living together behind walls. I’ve embedded bits of Seattle everywhere, in every book. Those bits are like the wilderness and the rain-always creeping in.
Where to begin? What makes a city SFnal?
Is an SFnal city someplace like Athens, Rome, or Jerusalem, where ancient and modern mix? Or someplace newer and purpose-built, like Washington DC or Tel Aviv or Brasilia, that sprang from the minds of planners? Someplace glittering and wealthy, the embodiment of progress? Or someplace overcrowded and rife with human misery, the embodiment of dystopia? A city like LA, focused on very abstract products, or a city like Detroit that produces-or wishes it could-the physical things people need?
It’s a trick question. Like mono-climate planets (Desert World, Jungle World, Ocean World), no single city is more SFnal than the next. The world-building trap is unexplained homogeneity.
We humans have built cities for thousands of years without standardizing (Starbucks and McDonalds aside). I don’t foresee our cities converging to some SFnal “norm.” Nor do I see that diversity precedent changing when colonists move to a new world. The western hemisphere was once the new world. Seventeenth-century western Europeans created the settlements that grew into Atlantic port cities of New York City, Philadelphia, and Charleston. I don’t think anyone would confuse those three places.
What about aliens? Might they design a one-size-fits-all city? Not, I suspect, without far more homogenized geography, climate, and culture than Earth/humans demonstrate. It could be made to work, surely, but the burden is on the author to explain how things came to be that way.
All that said, I’ll posit an exception: if the cities across a planet merge into a single worldwide megalopolis like Trantor (humans) or Hearth (Puppeteers), in the face, presumably, of enormous population pressures. Geography and climate fade as factors when life moves indoors. Cultural variations presumably submerge when you can never escape the all-encompassing city.
SFnal? Absolutely. Just don’t ask me to live there.
For me, without a doubt, the most fantastical city is Rome. (In Italy, not Georgia or any of the others, great places though they may be.)
A couple years ago, I got off a stop on Rome’s subway, climbed up to the light, and saw in front of me a stretch of the Aurelian wall. Plonk in the middle of the wall, like a white tooth glittering alone in the jaw of a crumbling brown skull, was a pyramid of shining white marble. Some crazy official under Augustus had built it as a tomb for himself, and when they built the wall as a protection from barbarian invaders centuries later they incorporated the pyramid into the wall. There was a medieval gatehouse and a bus stop and an unending stream of little cars and vespas running past.
Had I seen Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser hanging out at the nearby bar trying to cadge a drink from the iron-faced barista, I wouldn’t have been surprised. It was too vivid to be convincingly real, like a surrealist painting.
(Tucked behind it are the graves of Keats, and Shelley, and Gregory Corso, probably still muttering to himself, “Penguin dust! Bring me penguin dust!” You have to wander through some twisty streets and brave about a thousand feral cats to get there, but it’s worth it if you like a good graveyard.)
I mention this place not because it is unusual in Rome, but because it is perfectly usual. You can’t wander around the city without stuff like this biting you on the eyeball constantly: graffiti on the subway cars and ruins from two thousand years ago and broken statues that peer at your with empty eyes and reach for you with broken hands and people who will stop and tell you how to get to the pharmacy (and then will confide in you their political opinions while they’re at it) and walls inscribed in secret languages (ancient and modern), and some of the best ice cream on the face of the planet. I haven’t mentioned the window-shopping, because I don’t give a rat’s ass about that, but I have known people to spend whole days wandering around the stores near the Spanish Steps, experiencing multiple fashiongasms. A few minutes away by the metro, hundreds of homeless people sleep each night outside the train station. Great wealth and intense poverty collide in Rome, power and powerlessness, the dream of empire and the nightmare of colonialism.
Rome is made out of not-clearly-related chunks of the world’s past the way your dreams are made out of chunks of your life. It’s not so much a city as a dream of cities, or a confusing medley of different people’s dreams of a city. Yet it is a city: it has parks, and theaters, and you can buy cheese and coffee and other necessities there, and possibly even sleep, provided you are nowhere near the flower market. (They also have the noisiest flowers in the world.)
But wait! There’s More!
For additional inspiring locales, visit the Shared Worlds site and hear responses from Elizabeth Hand, Nalo Hopkinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, China Miéville, and Michael Moorcock.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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