Apologies for the lack of a post last week; I was in Montreal on vacation before Worldcon, and the blog completely slipped my mind. (Blame the tasty duck sandwiches. No, blame the weather. No, blame…anyway.)
Montreal’s a beautiful city, and completely unlike any other I’ve visited. I was trying to make comparisons for the first couple of days I was there — this part is like that one section of San Francisco, this part is like New York, this is like Paris — but it completely fell apart before long, and I think it’s because I was going about it the wrong way.
Cities can be compared one to another, but each one has its own soul, and it’s sometimes difficult to remember that when writing. Particularly if, like me, you’re from a small town and all cities have that first shock of Too Many People and Too Many Buildings. It’s really tempting to write all of them from that point of view, to assume all cities are like the one city you know well, or just to ignore the individual differences between cities, concentrating instead on the action and treating the tall buildings as just something more for your hero to pose atop.
But readers notice — even if it doesn’t kick them out of the story, they notice when something’s done well. Night Watch wouldn’t be the same without the film of Moscow clinging to it, and I probably wouldn’t like it so well. Last Call captures a sense of Las Vegas that blends with the mythical underpinnings of the story so well that I can’t see pictures of certain casinos without shivering. Neverwhere might be about London Below, but it’s still London. If any one of these were set in, say, New York, they wouldn’t feel right. The city shapes the story.
This carries over into fictional cities as well: New Crobuzon is a very different city from Ankh-Morpork, despite the superficial similarity of “corrrupt and squalid city inhabited by many strange varieties of people.” Riverside is not the same place as Camorr. Palimpsest is not Ashamoil. Tavernel is not King’s Landing. Even though some of the difference we as readers see has to do with the stories that are set there, the cities still have to have their own personalities.
For a city to work — for a fantasy to be urban — it needs to be a character in its own right. And though it can have echoes of other cities, the same way that Vieux-Montreal echoes certain European cities, the same way that many glittering downtowns echo New York, it can’t be just a reflection of one. It has to be an entirely new place — and as with any new place, it’ll give a visitor culture shock.
What cities have come through in what you’ve read? Which would you most like to explore?