Monday, 19 November 2012

A Modern Babylon

Invisible Cities: An Aftermath

On Saturday evening in the attic space of Foyles on Charring Cross Road, three authors of urban fantasy came together under the same London roof to discuss their books and their thoughts on “Invisible Cities: Great Imaginary Cities.”
It was a night that resulted in more satisfying questions than answers. But that is a good sign, for answers frequently signal the end of a conversation, questions the start of a new one.
Being authors, the panel enthusiastically spent the evening being wrongheaded about everything. Do cities exist? Mark Charan Newton didn’t think so. He was perniciously wrong, of course, as a glance outside the windows might have proven. Can cities be characters? Tom Pollock stated emphatically - and mistakenly it goes almost without saying - that they should not be considered as such. Kate Griffin was wrong about something or other, I have no doubt, perhaps or perhaps not, involving lighting design in the metropolis.
All three were asked if placing a fantasy in urban surroundings changed more than just the setting. The panel seemed sceptical. But it was a silly question, to judge by the authorial response, and the audience moved on to more impertinent ones.
A person in the audience with all the marks of a social agitator asked where the working classes were to be found in urban fantasy. Once it looked unlikely that the ruffian would be ejected, there was a brief bout of head-scratching over what if any was the urban fantasy novel’s representation the urban proletariat.
Did they exist as more than a lumpen threat, or an underclass for the everyman and everywoman protagonist to rise above? Hairy subhumans - alien rat people, if I might suggest a broad metaphor - necessary only to unblock the sewers? Some, albeit limited by the demands of time, squabbling on the point ensued, but the consensus among the authors was that they were sufficiently egalitarian in their own approach. They then sat back in their chairs and discussed which portion of the underclass made for the best pets.
Very little was mentioned about Italo Calvino. There was a quick notation made regarding his vividly imagined cities as found in the titular novel of the night’s theme. But then no one in the room was qualified to speak intelligently of Italo Calvino. Such a person may not exist anywhere among the living, Gore Vidal aside. So we mostly spoke about Italo Calvino by not speaking of Italo Calvino, which is the only way in this case to say anything sensible about his monumental contribution to literature.
So that gives a sense of the questioning nature of the evening, but what of the answers? However wrongheaded they might be? What of them? And what of the promise of rum, so cruelly bandied about to so little result?
Well, firstly let us look at Mark Charan Newton’s dismissal of cities, that they are only a collection of people, and that one is better off grubbing up pumpkins in the countryside, really.
It’s a very modern take on urbanity, of course. A 20th and 21st century view of the hyper-conurbations that stand in for cities these days. A reaction against their Kafkaesque tyranny over us perhaps, coupled with a bone deep fear of all things progressive and hygienic.
Wrong, because historically, cities have shaped those who have created them, at least as much as the cities themselves have been shaped by the hands which built them in situ. The impulses and needs of those among our ancestors who chose to live behind walls, within the confines of those first formative urban spaces, represent a major sea-change in the human psyche.
Once brought into existence, there was no going back. This was perhaps as radical an upheaval to the way humans not only lived, but saw themselves and the world around them, as the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry. The ur-cities of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Romans and all the latter great civilizations of the globe, ensured this.
Everything about a city informs the life of the citizen who dwells within one. The transformative power of organized spaces for worship, trade, protection, learning, justice, and leisure, is almost unimaginable outside of it. These institutions however now distributed and replicated along smaller communities, have their modern genesis in these first and subsequent cities.
It is telling that what we typically consider to be cornerstones of civilized life, disappear almost entirely, or at least change in radical ways, wherever and whenever cities disappear from the map of the world.
But I believe Newton knows this, and typical of his writerly sort, is lying to us when he says that cities are purely figments of our imagination. If they are the latter, they are as powerful and affecting ones as any other human delusion.
It would be difficult to imagine Mark Charan Newton’s novels in the Legends of the Red Sun series, without the important role played by the city - several cities in fact - and how it informs his characters and their world-view. Social unrest, labour unions, strikes, street gangs, masses of refugees seeking refuge behind the walls of his crumbling city-states from a freezing boreal wilderness  - none of this would be the same in a world where the forms of human - and inhuman - life were limited to the Romantic pastoralism of Tolkien and his inheritors. Though they both seem to have a predilection for giant spiders.
As for cities as characters, a trend which Tom Pollock scoffs at and warns against, it seems impossible to avoid. As well as significant aggregations of diverse human populations, cities have their own personalities as well. Moods and atmospheres which seep into and from the stones. Caryatids that sing popular tunes to the passerby in exchange for lumps of sugar pressed to their stone lips. Both overall and more readily delineated along wards, districts, neighborhoods, and boroughs within and dependent on time, size, and historical founding, great cities stamp themselves on their citizens.
It is impossible to write of London for example, without being influenced by its strong representation as an urbi et orbi for the British Empire, or its many incarnations as a strong character in previous works of fiction.
Cities in fiction, from the many fictional Londons to M. John Harrison’s Viriconium and others of more recent coining, almost always emerge - intentionally or accidentally - as important characters not just urban landscapes.
Tom Pollock’s mention of liminal spaces within a city, or the city as a vast liminal space itself was one of the few worthwhile observations made, if possibly for the wrong reasons or uttered in a moment of distraction due to acute dehydration. His interest lay there, he claimed, not in the city as a presence itself on the page, but as a space of ambiguous dimensions, serving as a gateway between a mundane visible world and a hidden magical one.
To strike a balance was necessary, so that the credulity of the readership was not unduly abused, he insisted. Not that I’d thought that a particular danger. Or that the same liminality should not be broken and the two cities flood into one another. I’m not convinced this is a necessary fear either. 
The startling transformation of a city such as occurs in Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side or Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch, is phantasmagorical and yet their inhabitants take it much in stride, no matter how much weirdness pierces the veil. I think readers are no more susceptible to this than are fictional characters. We experience many strange events in our own urban lives and shrug them off with aplomb.
Mundanity and magic was a theme brought up next by Kate Griffin. A warden searches for his hat, and a doom is brought down on a metropolis. Small and closely observed weeds can thus blossom in the cracks of a large city, better really for a wide range of reasons, than they might in the open countryside.
In a village or amid scattered rural communities, everyone knows the business of everyone. In a city, dwellers can live both as part of a wider community and insulated from it. City inhabitants are used to setting up walls between themselves and their fellows; they are familiar with partitioned space, specialized activities, and with moving sometimes unseen within a monolithic structure.
While cities bear the stamp of modernity, they are human constructions and hidden in the foundations are always human concerns, fears, and superstitions. Just as ever home not with an infant’s skull secreted in the corner brickwork first touched by the sun is destined to all manner of ills and disaster. The familiar here can become as strange and alienating as the horror of the primordial forest.
In Stefan Grabiński’s short story The White Wyrak the unsettling disappearance of chimney sweeps is eventually tied to the malevolence of old soot. Cities can become, as we all half-suspect and fear, carnivorous in their habits. There are good reasons why the gas-lighters and white spirit peddlers keep the lamps burning all through the night.
They also entomb us, and it is very hard not to view a city, however broad its avenues and shining its towers, and not see the imaginary prisons of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. A reversal of Bořivoj Čelavský’s famous claim that “A prison is solely a prison when viewed from outside; inside it is a society; a city...” seems just as likely, and that all cities are prisons, only with varying policies applied to their gates.
In such a location, Kate Griffin suggests that she is compelled to write about the city - or sections of the same - that is well known to her, even if such areas represent only a portion of the larger metropolis in which her books are set. But I would suggest that we do not need to write about what is true, in order to write truthful fiction. As Newton remarks, in his own novel some places are psychological states, not actual streets or even modeled after real spaces.
I’ve never found a more vividly realized New York City than that described by Franz Kafka in Amerika: or The Missing Person, and this despite Kafka never setting foot in America. I will forever expect to see the Statue of Liberty holding aloft a sword and not a torch, should I enter the harbour.
Returning to the masses: if the archetypical city of English urban fantasy is some version of London, it isn’t surprising that urban fantasy with rare exception, deals poorly with matters of class.
Novels, are in the large, a middle class product, fascinated with middle class concerns, middle class fears, and laden with bourgeois characters. Charles Dickens is formative in this, and his portrayals of the poor only rarely veer from the caricatured or the demonized.
Not that his very English fear of the mob, a tendency strengthened in the wake of the French Revolution and its terrors, is unique to Englishmen. Louis-Ferdinand Céline for all his disgust with the rich, saves his greatest venom for the poor. Cicero was there long before either with his “Nihil est incertius volgo.” And for all the reliance on and courting of, the lower class urban population of Rome, those on the margins and on the corn dole were despised and feared almost universally by their rulers. Nero was often condemned most fervently by Roman critics and rather strangely considering his many other vices, for his reciprocal love of the lower classes, actors, prostitutes, and entertainers chief among them.
Despite all the ancient and modern claims of “Fex urbis lex orbis” more often the underclass is seen as a simmering depository of violence and stupidity. They are either provoked to rioting or criminality, or else stand in as heaving masses for the protagonists to save, penetrate, or emerge from - very rarely to they become the focus of what is at heart a middle class novel. Genre hasn’t moved far from this either.
Not that this is an unforgivable fault. For writers of the novel are on the whole, selected from the middle class as is their readership. Certainly this is so in fantasy, urban or otherwise. Science fiction has been more welcoming as whole to the working classes, by the barest of margins. Fantasy has taken a longer time to shake off the influence of its Romantic roots.
There are a few authors who regardless of their own origins in the class structure, have made it their business, wrongheadedly or otherwise, to involve the proles more actively in their fantasies. But I can only think of two, Mark Charan Newton and China Miéville, who are asking these questions in their work at the moment. One receives every award given in genre, the other preserves his own ketchup, so the signals for this trend remain mixed.
Indeed when compared to the chivalrous romantics and pastoralists which predate Tolkien and those who have lingered on churning out thirteen volume trilogies involving orcs and dragons, modern urban fantasy seems primed to do more than transfer Anglo-Saxon and feudal concerns to a cosmopolitan background. That it often fails to do more than this, may be a limitation of genre, or a limitation of its middle class roots - and market. So we do not escape the shadow of nobility in disguise, hierarchies of privilege and power, and the self-involved dalliances of Romance - or the Lonely Mountain without risk.
A shame, or at least a missed opportunity for creating a greater diversity of story and a deeper degree of social engagement. But as the boundaries between sub-genre are growing increasingly porous, it is perhaps not too optimistic to hazard this may be changing.
One question not asked, though an important one, is the role of race and gender in urban fantasy. Any answers forthcoming I suspect would have been depressing, so perhaps this was for the best.
In the whole it was a well spent evening, for those with books to flog to the easily led, and the young man with his first growth of facial hair who came in at the end and slipped away with a jug of gratis rum. Hair of the kraken I suppose, though I’d have not taken him for a shaver let alone a drinker had not the light caught his face in just the right way.
The rest of us were left only with questions and visions of improbable cities, unsettling our minds and leading us into labyrinths of speculation long into the night.


E. M. Edwards is the author of Invisible City - Tales From A Hidden Metropolis, possesses no sense of humour, and hopes to one day be at least as published and twice as wrong as the authors discussed.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Invisible Cities

Cities of Our Imagination

Imaginary cities are not limited to popular speculative fiction. As a western tradition, they go right back to the foundation of the idea of the city itself, to the dream of urbanism that changed forever the human landscape.

It was in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia that the city was born. Among a wealth of innovations ranging from agriculture to writing, the city perhaps, was the Mesopotamians' most enduring legacy.¹ Certainly in terms of its impact on the number of humans living in antiquity and today who have been shaped by its unique environment, the city ranks among its most revolutionary contributions. 

Eridu was the formative city, and is important to our discussion of imaginary cities because it was both a mythical place and a reality. In the creation stories of the Sumerians it was the first city raised among sweet waters bounded on all sides by the primordial sea. It was formed when the gods spread mud upon a reed platform and made both their temple and their home there. The first city then, is both a functional dwelling in the midst of a challenging environment, and a sacred space where gods and men come together to set the rules down for their harmonious co-existance.

It is telling that the first Eden is not a garden, but a city. A place purpose-built, and neither natural nor unplanned in its construction. It is not simply a temple or a temporary gathering where early agriculturists come together to worship or engage in barter and trade - it is a haven made to house the gods, and the men and women who have been made to worship them. And to give sweetness to a life in the midst of a dangerous, even if tamable, wilderness.

If the Mesopotamians wove urbanity into their foundation myths, the myth of the city continues to be an important tale throughout antiquity. Not simply the civic pursuits of the Greeks and Romans - but the idealization of the concept of the city and what it means to live as part of one. Myth and reality are hard to separate, as the Troy of Homer shows us much later on, and in the founding of such important cities such as Rome by fratricidal wolf-reared twins.

Indeed our earliest ideas about 'utopia' come from this quest to delineate the perfect city and pry it from the hands of fable. Not all perfect cities are as unreachable or humorous as Aristophanes' Cloud Cuckoo Land. The imaginary polis of Plato's Republic might be ruled by philosopher-kings but it isn't merely an airy, intellectual exercise; it is meant to be shaped by and in turn shape, all layers of its proposed society, one founded on justice and the perfect forms of social and political organization that would not just make a perfect city, but raise its citizens to their highest human potential. It is a story, and a serious philosophical quest for improving humanity, all at once. If it is an imaginary space, it is one which the author hoped all civilized Greeks would in time fill and emulate.

If the cradles of civilization in Asia, the Mediterranean, and in great Egypt founded our pre-occupation with cities in the west, the inheritors of the trans-Mediterranean world continued to be fascinated with them. The Greeks and Romans of the classical periods despite their oft declared love for pastoralism, remain faithful to the city.

In Western Europe, that flame faltered for a time. It is telling that our most famous city from this period is no longer Rome, however diminished, nor unbowed Constantinople, or even Theodoric's Ravenna - but the Camelot of King Arthur. We've gone from the city as the centre of a rich tapestry of communal life to petty tribalism and barbarous warlords holed up in fortresses only slightly better than cramped hill forts.

That lamp of urbanism doesn't go out entirely. Ancient cities like Eboracum - or York - though Londinium itself goes dark for nearly four hundred years, never lose their lure or their populations entirely. Charlemagne's brief flicker in the west highlights what is mostly a long slog to the Renaissance, framing a period in Europe that isn't the most conducive for the city in fiction. Most of what is found, is the ideal and idealized, and now lies only in the realm of God not man. 

This dualism between the perfect and imperfect, is important to understanding the flights of urbanism we engage in when we re-imagine these spaces. As is the dynamism that exists between the real and imagined. The tensions between these opposing forces give rise to drama and the longevity of the concept. St. Augustine of Hippo's City of God and his Worldly City, are reflections of each other. Just as all the impossibly imaginative cities detailed in Calvino's Invisible Cities are revealed in the end by his narrator Marco Polo to be reflections of Venice.

Of course Venice is the perfect imaginary city. For what exists in the present is more artifice than living metropolis, a well preserved dream of what Venice was imagined to be by its past inhabitants and by those who were told its stories. Like Kublai Khan we are unsure what is truth, and what is utter invention. What we are left with is not strictly history or entirely myth then, but a blending of these two streams. We can find its reflected form in a thousand different fictional places.

Perhaps this is why the sinking, tourist choked remains of La Serenissima remain my most cherished urban space. It is an fabled ur-city, raised on platforms over the mud and surrounded by waters both sweet and salty. Almost everyone is a visitor here; even if they live in the Venice of the present, few if any can trace their tenancy to the Venice of the past - a past which the city has sought to preserve over any forward progression as a metropolis. Just as Marco Polo insisted all cities were Venice, when in Venice I always experience the need to argue that we are all Venetians. 

Not all cities in fiction come from this liminal space between the real and the imaginary - but they share a portion of its magic. The Utopia of Thomas More has been transformed from a biting satire of our failings to a quest for a perfect urban society. It has left the misty "nowhere" of its secret location for a reality that however farfetched, is earnestly pursued even today.

Of course, not all utopias turn out to be perfect cities when we find them in literature. Borges' city of immortals is a terrifying place where the long lives and boredom of its inhabitants have rendered a Piranesian nightmare, an empty Malpertuis - not a golden city of God and eternals as envisioned by St. Augustine. The Swiftian flying city of Laputa and its quest to dominate the lands over which it flies is likewise at once both magnificent and comic. Juvinus' cautionary tale beguiles us with its strange city of Cynocephali and Hemikunes - but is it meant to be a fiction, or it he repeating the just-so-stories laid down by Hesiod and Herodotus? We will never know for certain. 

But still we and our fictional selves pursue the mirage of the perfect city. Prester John's capitals of Susa and Nyse, the Eldorado of Voltaire and others, inspire but remain tantalizingly out of reach however much they glitter. The theme of cities being hidden away from the undeserving or uninitiated is another element of the tradition. The idea of hidden cities, invisible cities, cities which have either placed themselves behind walls or at the literal and figurative ends of the earth is a fascinating one. In such locales we combine both the ideal of the self-sufficient city-state of the Mesopotamians and the ancient Greeks and the idea of a secret, sacred omphalos where the space between the worlds has thinned - or revolves. It takes us full circle to our earliest conceptions of what a city is, and the idea that the hidden city is not just a sacred place, but a dwelling place where the sacred and the everyday must learn to co-exist.

I wasn't surprised to find that one of my favourite recent fictional cities, the New Vencie of Jean-Christophe Valtat's excellent Aurorarama, is described as a "Boreal Bohemia" and is set atop the icy pole. Or that China Miéville's award-winning The City & The City hides one fictional city behind or within, another. Or that in the even better Finch by Jeff VanderMeer, the imaginary city-state of Ambergris is being literally taken over by another fungal reality which is consuming it from within.

With the re-birth of cities, comes the resurgence of imaginary ones. Paris and the urges of free cities eager to throw off their vassalage and imperial yokes become synonymous with learning and writing. A sense of modern nations being more than just a king or an emperor's domain add to the importance of civil centres that are no longer just feudal castles. Much later, Charles Dickens' victorian London is born as much a blend of the fanciful and faithful as was Thomas Hardy's bucolic Wessex.

For myself, I find that the city represents both the beginning, and the near end of human striving. It is the classical gift of our first city-dwellers, and it is the progressive and liberalizing thrust of modernity. It is likewise a break with the dominance of Tolkien in popular fantasy, that supreme pastoralist and medievalist, whose books hardly contain any great cities at all - and if they do - they are passed by in favour of ruins or the open countryside. At the heart of his Middle Earth is the shire, and at the heart of the shire is the country-squire. There is good reason then, to see the rebirth of the city as a place for our imaginations to take flight as a rebuff to the reactionary and rather conservative call contained within Tolkien's fiction for a return to village and county. But also, it is part of a continuous thread of urban myth-making that has never fully died out.

Mixed in with these freedoms of course, is the price that is often paid for their possession. Crime, pollution, plague, overcrowding, fire, murder, theft, and all deeds foul and terrible - these are coin that cities demand in exchange for their concentration of riches. At the end of Albert Camus' The Plague, we are reminded that all civic displays of joy are imperilled in a metropolis where the bacillus awaits for "the day (which) would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city." None of this is a bar to fiction, of course - to the contrary, with the cynicism of the post-industrial, post-great war societies, and the birth of horror, these are often jewels in the rough for the shrewd fabulist and author to polish.

So there is every reason to be confident that the dream of cities will provide fertile space for our imaginations to build new conurbations, just as their pull, both concrete and imaginary, will continue to shape our expectations of life lived within them - or within their pages. And for those multitudes who dwell there, past, present, and future - real or fictitious - until civilization itself passes away perhaps under the pressure of melting poles and rising waters - it is hard to think of a more important setting for fantastical fiction than the city.

We are all Venetians now, and all cities Venice.


¹ Leick, Gwendolyn - Mesopotamia, The Invention of The City, 2001, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press