Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fictional Cities

Begun 1/23/09 - I have no idea why I didn't post this then.

I was listening to someone several months [re:years] ago (Wish I could remember who. Drat!) talking about how the downtown center of St. Louis has been used to film post-apocalyptic features because the city center was developed as an industrial zone. Now that the industrial era has passed the area has run down, leaving buildings and empty streets for film-crews to occupy. The city center is no longer a living section of the city, though it is undoubtedly still occupied. It exists as a geographical relic to a time when the world valued different things. It is, like Detroit and other shrinking cities, a testament to how life can improve in ways that leave what society used to consider important behind.

When I read fantasy novels every book has a castle-in-the-middle system of building a capital. Every. single. city. is built like that. The nobility is on the top of the hill, the poor people are on the outskirts in the slums. There's a regimented sectioning of specific quarters with no bleed-over and every square inch is filled with either homes or artisans. Every once and a while I will read a book where the author takes into account other circumstances and occupations, like industry and river-side living and how agrarian society supports various settlements. All very academic and clean, despite descriptions to the contrary. The city is tiered, perhaps, or simply laid out or compact in some way. None of this is really bad, after all there are many real-life examples of cities that characterize various schools of thought (or lack of thought) utilized as a city grows.

What I really notice, though, is that it's all... present. The past seems to be irrelevant. The history of the city is just that, history. It has no impact on how the city is currently built. There's no, "So this was the old quarter... it's basically ruins." Or "The city grew too fast in this section and shrank again, leaving half-empty tenements." There's no slow trickle in or out that continues. It's either a massive movement in or out and the consequences thereof depending on whether there's a war or aliens or other substantial, direct influence on the population.

Most fantasy I've read is: "This is a living city." or "This is a dead city." Very few have dying cities. Very few have cities that thrive with dead flesh sitting in the very core.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any cities that take into account the gradual movement of population depending on long-term societal forces. I'm not ridiculously widely read, though, and this is just my observation of what I have read. I would love to hear of any fantasy or science fiction that does take the movement of people from point A to point B into account when it isn't the result of an immediate disaster. (Oh wait... Ankh-Morpork. A slowly growing city with a history full of basements and a present full of social pressures upon population total. Well, that's one. Go Pratchett!)

I'm just thinking of things like gold rushes, factories shutting down or opening up, the Dustbowl, the urbanization of US culture, industrial revolution, colonization and subsequent cultural upheaval and hegemony, the slave trade, etc. Those are all 'influx' mechanisms that I cannot summon up fantasy population-movement examples for. I can recall whole settings, like Clockwork Heart for the industrialization of cities or Unicorn Highway for a treatment of the Great Depression, but the only whole cities I recall with living/dying aspects closer to realistic are cities based on real world places... and only then because the aspect stolen is romantic.

City construction for most fantasy I've read is just too simplistic.

Anyone have any reading suggestions for cities that are living and dying in interesting fashions?

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