I’m pilfering internet access at the Boston Logan airport on my way home from Readercon and thought it might be a good time to share some thoughts on the more compelling of the panels I attended.
A number of the Readercon panels this year focused on the role of cities in SF/F. Topics ranged from the way cities (be they real or imaginary) function as characters in their own right, living and changing beyond the confines of the narrative, to how we can create imaginary cities that feel real and authentic to readers.
This latter issue really struck me as interesting. I doubt there’s one of us out there who hasn’t tried their hand at creating an imaginary city, just as I’d bet most of us felt the frustrating two-dimensionality of those places as we tried to breathe life into them. It seems no matter how hard we work at it, there’s a strange, metallic flatness to them, a sense that something is off, a knowledge that they are fake.
One reason for this may relate to the fact that real cities exist for a reason, not just as a location for a story to take place. Real cities sit on harbors that, two thousand years ago, sheltered the first traders in the region. They are located at the confluence of rivers, one gushing down from the mineral rich mountains, the other gliding stately towards the sea. They build up around religious sites, beginning as little more than a cluster of pilgrims’ tents, or are oases in the desert where nomads stop for water, news, and trade.
Very old cities have grown in unpredictable, organic ways. Their streets wander into places of darkness and light, and many parts of them defy logic. They are palimpsests of social and historical intersections and interactions, the character of their neighborhoods shading from one thing to another, malleable in the face of time, economy, and whim.
And cities are much more diverse, complex, and illogical than the imagination of one writer sitting alone at their desk could ever create – no matter how many voices live inside our heads. What brings people to cities, what makes them stay, and the interactions that change and give shape to their lives is diverse and driven by as many different reasons as there are city dwellers.
The shape, feel, and history of our imaginary cities should reflect all this.
So, when you think about it, it’s no wonder we find it hard to bring imaginary cities to life. As seems to be typical at convention panels, few suggestions for defeating these difficulties were offered at Readercon. Just honing an awareness of the complex factors shaping real cities, though, can help us build more authentic imaginary ones.
When shaping words into the illusion of place, we can now start at both ends – at the idea of the city we have in our heads and at the place of its origins. Why did this city come into being? What has shaped its long history, put graffiti on its alley walls, caused its main square to house a gallows rather than a park, or created not just a jewelers row but also a street where, for two hundred years, vendors have hawked ferret’s teeth as a cure for gout?