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.


Mark Newton said...

I like to think the notion of mine, that cities did not exist, were from two fairly strong angles of approach:

1) That inherently cities did not exist as separate entities. That they came about from a collective expression of its people (or indeed people from other places) in architecture, design, politics and so on, as some emergent property; and that none of these things were, in fact, genuinely of the earth.

2) That the city you see is not the city I see. So which one is the city?

They were, admittedly, riffs on emptiness, but the point is worth making: what is this [insert city here] of which you speak?

And this is not necessarily being deliberately provocative or derogatory about cities, but hopefully fertile grounds for further discussion.

Mark Newton said...

But of course, I'll happily be derogatory about cities. :)

Eric M. Edwards said...

I've been told never to respond to authors responding to critics who are responding to authors who *may or may not and no one will ever know unless a breathalizer was utilized by court order on the night in question* be drunk at the time they were speaking.

And I'm not a critic, just someone who was looking for a seat for an hour and some free rum.

Otherwise, I'd say you have some fine points there. Deserving of their own post, even.

Now I'll let you get back to grubbing up those root crops or wandering the forest collecting acorns or whatever it is you rural squires get up to when you're not farming 'rabbit tobacco.'

Eric M. Edwards said...

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