Monday, June 20, 2005
Storming Castles in the Air, a Request in D-Minor
[Edit: Superfluous Swaddling Removed]
A broken Mr. Dorrit, recently of Marshalsea prison, moved over the French countryside. Ensconced in his “snug corner,” he
fell to castle-building as he rode along. It was evident that he had a very large castle in hand. All day long he was running towers up, taking towers down, adding a wing here, putting on a battlement there, looking to the walls, strengthening the defences, giving ornamental touches to the interior, making in all respects a superb castle of it...
On the heels of last week’s discussion on alternative histories, I’m inspired by China Mieville’s The Scar to ask a similar question about a similar speculative endeavour: building castles in the air. New Crobuzon’s one of the best realized castle-in-the-air I’ve ever encountered. Its effectiveness, I’d wager, stems from the manner in which it seems not to have been created but evolved. I once spent three months in Urbino and as soon as that city--with its unreal angles and centuries old inhumanly steep streets of inlaid brick ladders--seeps into your brain, the obsession with cities as agglutinate as German concept-nouns inevitably follows. So it has. (So much so I’m even fascinated by Jon Jerde’s excessively colorful simulations.)
For the sake of clarity, I’ll call these “evolved cities,” as “representations of fictional cities earthed in a faux-historical developmental process such that it’s as compellingly complex and un-invented-seeming as Drieser’s Chicago or Chandler’s Los Angeles” sounds deeply stupid. So, yes, literary representations of similarly “evolved cities.” I’ve located a number myself, including Marco Polo’s in Calvino’s Invisible Cities--although I’m looking for fully realized cities, so Calvino can’t really count--William Gibson’s suburb-on-a-bridge in Virtual Light; Gormenghast Castle in Peake’s Titus Groans and Gormenghast; the Orange/Los Angeles/San Diego County mall-complex in Robinson’s The Gold Coast; etc. The unflattering way to phrase this request would be that I’m looking for works which’ll foster the felt-immersion of a fourteen-year-old’s first encounter with Tolkien or an undergraduate’s first flipping of Ulysses.
So come on already! This is a p-a-r-t-y! Your quarter/semester/Monday’s done and what would you rather do than discuss your favorite fictional environs? Don’t tell me you’re all off watching The Scholar.
A Highly Personal (and Possibly Inappropriate) P.S.: If anyone’s ever figured out all the film references on John Vanderslice’s Cellar Door and wouldn’t mind sharing them, I’d be forever in your debt. I’ve connected the obvious--"Promising Actress” and Mulholland Drive and “When It Hits My Blood” and Requiem for a Dream--but outside of the obvious I’m as dense as ever.
Pretty broad Scott. Do you want wholly imaginary cities?
Ehrenrang in The Left Hand of Darkness certainly felt very real to me, when I read it first as a teenager. I’d never seen snow, nor a building more than two hundred years old.
I don’t know—presumably real cities that are described within fantasy don’t count? There are so many reimaged Londons, just to start…
Fantasy in general deals poorly with cities, because so much of fantasy is faux-rural. I think that you’re going to find your city imaginers overrepresented within the cyberpunk contingent. You already have Gibson, but I’d add perhaps Bruce Sterling’s various habitats in _Schismatrix Plus_ (in my opinion his best book). The only problem there is that he doesn’t stay with any one of them for quite long enough.
A minor typo: it’s _Titus Groan_. I don’t know if Gormenghast actually qualifies as a city, though it’s certainly a castle. I’m not dissing Peake in any way, and Gormenghast is a wonderful creation, but it never struck me as an actual place with a history and all that—I thought the point was that they had repressed all of their history, with their drive to make everything an impersonal ritual. For that matter, I like New Crobuzon, too, but I’ve never understood why people think that it has so much economic reality to it. It always struck me as a conveniently chaotic backdrop, suitable for encounters with wandering monsters, where any new subspecies that the author wanted to introduce could have its ghetto conveniently appear without having to be integrated into the rest of the city. When I first read it, I was thinking, “why do they have train lines that still stop at abandoned stations, and that don’t seem to go far outside the city limits? This makes no sense.” But _Iron Council_, which I still haven’t read, may have reimagined that.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m not sure about the “faux-historical developmental process” bit. The cities that really resonate seem to because they in some way embody complex real-world ideas. New Crobuzon is Paris before the time of the Commune, and embodies the same uneasy Enlightment moment of repression, early capitalism, and possible revolutionary change. Gormenghast is the medieval ideal of a sterile, unchanged social order, unsmoothed by modernity. Gibson’s suburb-on-a-bridge is the attempt to make community out of a cardboard condo in the midst of a city designed to minimize human interaction, a kind of premodern revolt at postmodernity. I invite you to rephrase this in some way that makes sense out of it.
Laura and Rich, I realize how broad the question was, but that’s only because I wanted to invite enthusiastic responses and didn’t want to circumscribe some people out of the conversation. I’m fascinated by novels able to create the impression of a physical locale--be it a castle, a city or what-not--with the sense of historical substance common to realist novels but without the real-life referent. I linked that--a bit too hastily, perhaps--to a concept of evolution because that’s what characterizes the worlds/cities/castles to which I refer. Rich, you capture what I meant by the very phrase you question when you say that these cities “in some way embody real-world ideas.” I also associate those ideas with the intellectual history they accompany, thus my contention that they “evolve.” (Or are created to parrot evolution. I mean, The Silmarillion, people, The Silmarillion.) Granted, few authors possess the sheer anality of Tolkien--Frank Herbert’s the only one that pops to mind, although were it not for the day spent grading I’ve no doubt others would--but Mieville comes close.
Rich--I say, addressing you yet again--I included Schismatrix Plus on an earlier draft of this bleg but then decided not to include it because it’s too wide-reaching and...well, you point out the problems with its inclusions as well as I would’ve. (Also, that’s certainly a typo. Shuttling between drafts, the s adorning “Peake” snaked its way into the title.)
Finally, a pair of requests for my pair of comments:
Laura, Le Guin certainly belongs in this discussion, as the narrative of The Lathe of Heaven enacts the very “complexifying” process I’m describing.
Rich, I’d love to hear more about your take on New Crobuzon, as I’m deadly ignorant about anything other than pale pastiches of Paris during the Enlightenment. (I’m also wary of parallels as concisely and elegantly drawn as yours, but that’s only the historicist in me who, despite drifting far from my modernist roots, still thinks the world needs its definitive article because it is, qua Beckett, “the mess.”
Sorry, I don’t actually know more about that Paris than anyone else. It’s more a sense that I have from reading (sometimes obsessively closely) Iain Banks, who is somewhat similar to Mieville in general politics. Mieville writes that:
“For a socialist, an irruption of fundamental social change – the revolution – represents a necessary horizon, a defining part of the social imaginary. Many novelists have depicted revolution. The paradox is that for a novelist committed to the potentiality and necessity of revolution, that revolution is both of vastly more importance than to her/his uncommitted colleagues, and yet is concomitantly, unlike for those colleagues, unrepresentable.” (from the Mieville seminar on Crooked Timber)
So Mieville wants to write about the revolution, yet doesn’t think that can really write about what it would be like after it. I think it’s very difficult for Mieville to take this attitude and *not* harken back to the moment before the first socialist revolution, before anything was known about what could happen.
I too think that concise parallels leave too much out, but I was tired and it seemed easiest to express what I meant by example.
As for Le Guin, I like her early-to-middle books, but I’d have to put her flatly in the faux-rural category. Sure, she can write places that seem real, but that’s not uncommon in the fantasy genre in general. I can’t remember her writing an urban place that seemed real. _The Lathe of Heaven_ has what, three characters in it, all else is a kind of backdrop that is so unreal that it changes throughout the novel.
I’m not really sure how much a “castle” in your scheme has to be a city.
Rich, I probably should’ve guessed Mieville addressed this in the CT seminar, but I’m avoiding that until I read Iron Council. Good to know some of what I’ll find, argument-wise, when I get there without risk of spoilage.
You’re right about The Lathe of Heaven, but what I meant to say was that it belongs because it’s about imagining other (in this case, better) worlds. It’s an odd anti-New Left/anti-utopian and, well, incredibly conservative novel about allowing society to evolve instead of forcing it to by creating, say, large-scale New Deal-like social programs.
Nessus, in some ways.
I don’t understand what you mean about _The Lathe of Heaven_ belonging because it’s about imagining other worlds. Wouldn’t that take in most of the SF/fantasy genre?
By the way, if you haven’t already read it, an amusing meditation on alternate histories of a city-place is in _Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster_ by Mike Davis. He made an exhaustive survey of every disaster novel in which Los Angeles was destroyed, and argues that _Blade Runner_ is in a sense the official dystopia of L.A.
Oh, I see what you meant about _The Lathe of Heaven_, about the narrative. I didn’t see it because I didn’t see the narrative of that book as “complexifying” anything at all, because of its solipsism.
If you want works in which characters rather self-referentially create other literary worlds, perhaps _Sandman_. Or the “Above Paradise” chapter of James Branch Cabell’s _The Silver Stallion_.
Timothy Trueman’s Cynosure in Grimjack
Spider Jerusalem’s city (does it have a name?) in Transmetropolitan
Urbino? I can see that, although Siena was a closer eery match to my own Standard Dreamed City.
In fiction, my favorites include Harrison’s Viriconium, Flaubert’s Paris (in “Sentimental Education"), Delany’s Bellona(s), and, of course, Joyce’s Dublin. For some repressed reason none of the Londons have really put their hooks into me as Londons, and the New Yorks of nonfiction and movies have been more assertive than the New Yorks of novels.
How about Patrick Hamilton’s London in “20,000 Streets under the Sky”?
Chris, thank you for the pointer—Hamilton’s trilogy sounds well worth seeking out.
Well, it depends on what level of literature you’re looking for....
In the 1980s there was a group project by a bunch of fantasy writers, led by Robert Asprin, to create several shared milieu, the most successful of which were the city Sanctuary, aka Thieves’ World, and Heroes in Hell. Both were very detailed, evolving, and urban.
Gaiman’s Neverwhere may not qualify in terms of detail, but his reimagining of the London underground is fantastic. And there are a few cities in the Sandman graphic novels including the Necropolis and Baghdad, which are very rich material.