Life in the big city

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?


6 Responses to “Life in the big city”

  1. August 12, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    One of the first cities in a fantasy novel I really loved was the main city (whose name unfortunately slips my mind after all these years) in S.D. Tower’s “The Assassins of Tamurin” It had some elements of Venice in its canal structure, but blended with unique Asian-reminiscent influences, it was very much its own. Tower let the reader see the whole city, from the squalid and seamy to the shining and beautiful. I loved seeing it as a living, breathing city, rather than a few recurring scenes within a city. That’s something I try to bring to my own cities. I love developing them and making them unique, and really try to flesh them out as much as possible to satisfy my own desire to explore them, and hopefully incite the same in others.

  2. 2 nojojojo
    August 12, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    I’ve been hyping this one for months, but I’m in love with the London of Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels. She writes it as squalid and surreal, polyglot and megamulticultural, brightly-colored and sepia-toned. It sounds magical — which is the point, since the story is about a sorcerer who uses the magic in everyday items. But I want to go to London now like I never did before.

  3. 3 2.0
    August 13, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Not fantasy or science fiction, but Dostoevsky captures St. Petersburg perfectly in Crime and Punishment. You can walk the same streets today that Raskolnikov did and they haven’t really changed–the soul is still there.

    Also, more recently, City of Thieves brought siege-era Petersburg (Well, Leningrad technically, whatever) to life. It’s weird, because I know the city so well, and I would identify with where the characters were, but because it was during the blockade it was like the entire city had this whole extra layer to it. You only really sense it there now in certain places.

  4. 4 mlronald
    August 13, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    …You know, I think it’s time that I admitted I’m using these posts just as a way to get recommendations.

    Hayley, that’s one I’ll have to look up now. Thanks!

    Nora, I’m now trying to remember where I’ve heard that recommended before. Another one to pick up! (By the way, Sky also has a soul all its own — and the rose was a perfect introduction to it.)

    And 2.0, would you recommend City of Thieves? My knowledge of St. Petersburg is spotty and pretty much all dependent on you (no pressure), so I’d be curious to learn more.

  5. 5 2.0
    August 15, 2009 at 6:46 am

    I’d say read it immediately, but God knows what kind of stack you’ve got in front of you at the moment. But it is an incredibly quick read (Dad read it in a day!) and it’s worth it.

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