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[GUEST POST] DK Mok on Cities of Smoke and Light: The Appeal of Marvelous Metropolises

DK Mok is a fantasy and science fiction author whose novels include Hunt for Valamon and The Other Tree. DK has been shortlisted for three Aurealis Awards, a Ditmar, and a Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award. DK graduated from UNSW with a degree in Psychology, pursuing her interests in both social justice and scientist humour. DK lives in Sydney, Australia, and her favourite fossil deposit is the Burgess Shale. DK’s new novel, Squid’s Grief, comes out March 8, 2016. Connect on Twitter @dk_mok or find out more at

Cities of Smoke and Light: The Appeal of Marvelous Metropolises

by DK Mok

I was in high school when I first saw the director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the film was a masterpiece of cyberpunk noir: a reluctant bounty hunter in pursuit of rogue androids; a twilight future that fizzled with broken electronics and reeked of dirty rain. I was gripped by the themes of subjugation, mortality and memories, but for me, one of the most memorable aspects of the film was the city itself.

There’s something about labyrinthine cities and mangled metropolises that fills me with excitement and curiosity. In Blade Runner, the Los Angeles of 2019 is a megascape of grim towers plumed with fire; a city more smog and neon than brick and steel. In Sir Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, Victorian London is a rat-run of sewers; a subterranean world running in parallel beneath the churning streets. As a teenager, I drank in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books, including noir classics such as The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. I remember the feel of each city – like grit on your tongue and smoke in your lungs, and I loved the brisk staccato of the banter, the sidle and slap of the dialogue.

Part of the allure of these cities is the sense of exploration, the hints at undiscovered delights and lurking dangers. Many years ago, when I visited Hong Kong, the enormous apartment blocks seemed like dominions unto themselves. I could imagine every doorway as a portal to another story: a charming gallery run by a mysterious curator; a gambling den frequented by assassins; a hidden library full of forgotten books.

In my cyberpunk novel, Squid’s Grief, Baltus City is a fusion of retro noir and near-future tech, where decadence and privation simmer along unmarked borders. It’s a place of secret havens and spectacular monuments, charming nooks and opulent temples, all threaded with mazelike alleys dense with commerce and crime.

But a metropolis is more than just a playground for adventure – it can be a place of absolution. A sprawling city seethes with possibilities and carries the intoxicating promise of dreams fulfilled and mistakes unmade. It’s a place where you can leave behind your regrets and failures and reinvent yourself as anything from a rock god to a bonsai whisperer. You can jettison your past for a shiny new future, or so the theory goes.

In Squid’s Grief, I wanted to explore the idea of the city as a crucible for transformation. Where hoodlums become kings; lawmakers become lawbreakers; and brilliant minds become lost souls. For car-hacker Squid, her world is the crime-drenched underbelly of Baltus City, but she dreams of a normal life in the sunlit malls and avenues: fewer bullets, more biscuits. When she finally scores a chance to break free from her past, all she has to do is carry out one last heist.

Metropolises brim with opportunities, with paths not taken and stories untold. They’re arenas of reckoning, retribution and redemption. But for me, they’re also places of wonder and hope, where people can lose themselves, find themselves, and perhaps, one day, discover a place to belong.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] DK Mok on Cities of Smoke and Light: The Appeal of Marvelous Metropolises

  1. Congrats on your work. I’m with you on Chandler.

    • Thanks, Wolf. I’m long overdue for a reread of his books, but they certainly made an impression on me growing up.

      • Ray Chandler spoke admiringly of Dashiell Hammett, pioneer of the hardboiled dick, notably The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, both of which read remarkably like the movies. Hammett’s other novels like The Dain Curse and The Glass Key are strangely memorable. Hammett’s forte was characterization, Chandler’s the projection of a thickheaded hero that Cannell would later riff as Jim Rockford.

  2. My work projected a thickheaded female detective.

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