Fantasy and science fiction writers have dreamed up some amazing fictional cities, from the gleaming spires of Minas Tirith to the rainy neon streets of the Blade Runner movies. A more recent example is the novel Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller, who drew on his background as a community organizer to create realistic politics for his floating Arctic city of Qaanaaq.
“Fiction is definitely one of the ways in which I process my anger at the imbalance of power in a city, and in the world, and how much I want to imagine a place where that imbalance can be addressed,” Miller says in Episode 307 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
Fantasy cities like Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar have always been popular, but that trend has only accelerated in recent years, as writers like Charles de Lint, China Miéville, and Jeff VanderMeer have pushed the genre away from wilderness quests and toward explorations of city life.
“You had people start calling fiction ‘urban fantasy,’ which sort of implies that the default state of fantasy is not urban,” says Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley.
New Orleans resident Bryan Camp, author of The City of Lost Fortunes, believes that the mutability of cities is what draws so many people to write about them. “When you live in a more rural place, it’s much more connected to the landscape. You’re looking at the same mountain that your father looked at, and his father looked at, and so on into the past,” Camp says. “Whereas in a city it’s a constantly evolving thing. It’s a created thing, that can be torn down and rebuilt, and over a period of just a few years it becomes a completely different place.”
Lara Elena Donnelly, author of Amberlough, feels that fictional cities have become too relentlessly grim, and she would like to see more stories that describe appealing cities of the future.
“The Blade Runner city is not a place that anyone would want to live,” she says. “I don’t want to live in that LA, I want to live in LA with mist-catchers and green towers and cool virtual reality set-ups.”
Listen to our complete interview with Sam J. Miller, Lara Elena Donnelly, and Bryan Camp in Episode 307 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Sam J. Miller on homeless people:
“There are a lot of messed-up narratives around homelessness—this idea that everyone is mentally ill and a substance abuser and shiftless and lazy. At the end of the day, all homeless people are are people who can’t afford to pay their rent, and I don’t know about you all, but I am always stressing out about paying my rent. So on the spectrum of people who have a hard time paying their rent, or people who aren’t super-wealthy, I think we’re all on that spectrum, and those narratives about homeless people being creatures that once were men, or alien invaders, or zombies, or violent crazies, really help serve to keep us from seeing our solidarity with them, and coming together and saying, ‘Oh wait, if we all work together we really could flip the script in this city and make it so that housing was affordable.’”
David Barr Kirtley on urban living:
“When you’re talking about things that stress you out about living in a city, one thing that stresses me out a lot is finding parking spots, and that’s another thing that I never thought would be a major concern—coming from the suburbs—but I was actually thinking of a story idea the other night where there’s a guy and he’s driving around at night trying to find a parking spot, and this just goes on for hour after hour after hour, and then he realizes that he’s a ghost and he’s doomed to drive around forever looking for a parking spot. But then at the end of the story there’s a crazy twist where he realizes that he’s not actually a ghost, it just really is that hard to find a parking spot.”
Bryan Camp on New Orleans in science fiction:
“One of my favorite writers is Kathleen Ann Goonan, mostly because she did me the excellent favor of having a future in which New Orleans makes it. I think it was Queen City Jazz, where it’s basically like a giant raft city, where they just float out into the gulf and secede from all the other stuff that’s going on. I have a lot of trouble with being in New Orleans and future cities, because it’s not something a lot of other people notice, but if you go through a lot of the fiction—and it has to do partly with the precarious nature of the city that I live in right now—but if you look at a lot of the fiction, even if it’s not set in New Orleans, one of the ways that they like to show ‘bad things happened in the past and now we’re in this different future,’ is New Orleans is gone in some horrific way.”
Lara Elena Donnelly on the Craft Sequence series by Max Gladstone:
“I started reading them because I heard him talk about his magic system, which was essentially, ‘My books are an analogy for the financial crisis, except the banks are gods, and we’ve killed the gods but semi-resurrected them, and now they only do the bidding of the people who know how to control this god-bank system.’ Which is kind of how money works, right? Only some people understand how to make the banking system—and amounts of money that large—really work for them. … Max’s cities feel real because there is this vast imbalance of power, and some people can make things happen just by snapping their fingers while other people are carried along on tides that they don’t understand and have no control over. And that feels very real to me, that feels like how things work in the real world.”