Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Article 3: Cities in Flight.


There seems a belief, ascribed to by many of those writing short science fiction today, that nothing of importance happens unless it is set in the ‘mean streets’ of some city. On the whole the works stemming from this will be based on some student or other urbanite living a squalid existence in a seedy flat, while experiencing either relationship problems, or angst about an inability to have a relationship at all. Often, the writers are displaying a lack of imagination by casting themselves in the lead role in the only setting they have experienced. From the other side, there are many writers of fantasy who cannot step away from the image of their characters questing through the wilderness or some agrarian idyll, though that usually stems only from the secondhand experience gained throught the books they have read. Getting back to the cities though: are the writers of much urban science fiction nowadays suffering from the same delusion as the fantasy writers?

Cities and the country bleed into each other. There are towns, villages, single houses and an infinite combination of everything inbetween; industrial sites in the country; city parks; wastelands being reclaimed by nature; connecting rivers and transport systems; and, fuckit, urban foxes. And of course in both directions there is a continuous exchange of people: wide varieties of commuters and ‘overspill’ and many so-called ‘country’ people moving into the cities to work. The dividing line, unfortunately, is near illusory, perceived mainly by resentful minds. Cities no longer have impenetrable walls around them with gates that are closed up at night and the countryside is no longer filled with Barny Hayseed clones chewing on straws and muttering about ‘tham thar towny buggers’. This perception displays the same blinkered vision as the present urban government, which legislates for cities and against the country – damaging those millions dwelling in between and polarising the attitude of many others – or of those dwellers in a time warp, the fox hunting lobby, who manage to piss off all camps.

Britons live in a huge and wonderful variety of environments. Along our coasts there are many people who have tried to opt out by living in their boats, others divide their lives between boats and often much neglected coastal houses, there are huge transitory populations on the sea on oil rigs and in container ships, many millions inhabit suburbs, large populations live in villages where their only real connection with the countryside is that they notice it from their car whilst caught behind a tractor on their weekly visit to Asda, there are inclusive island populations who don’t even think about any division between city and country, there are towns where the countryside is only a step away and in which the residents truly live their lives in both.

Of course, everything I’ve just written is also blinkered, for I’m describing Britain today. Maybe, an SF writer should be thinking of tomorrow’s Britain or an alternate one, or both. Also, Britain contains only a small fraction of the world’s population – there are actually other countries, and some very different ways of life. As for our urban environments? Even now the computer revolution is beginning to decentralise white collar professions, so what need to live in the city? Robotic manufacture is whittling down the required work force so what future need of industrialised towns? And the financial imperatives that originally made urban dwelling a necessity, will they last? Umph! Still today, still parochial!

What about undersea dwellings, orbital communities, nomadic populations, cave dwelling morlocks, people adapted to live under the sea, people loading their minds into VR, even nomadic minds leaping from artificial body to body? Ach, I could go on and on, but the point is made: urban SF writers, lift up your heads, take a look around and try to imagine yourself somewhere else. Oscar Wilde quipped about how he may be lying in the gutter, but he’s looking at the stars, some people, it would seem, are lying face-down in that same gutter.


Jools said...

I've always enjoyed reading stories with an 'urban' feel, and I've spent most of my life in cities, and tend to feel a bit 'lost' out in the country.

I used to feel that the blade runner style of a neglected acropolis sprawl was the future of the planet, but now I'm starting to wonder if we'd ever actually build that kind of existance given what we know about the human mind, and the social disaster areas we've created.

There was a report I read many years ago as a student which studied a population of rats. They let the rats breed until then overcrowded, then all hell broke loose. The stronger dominant animals killed the weaker ones, and the population then fell back into a stable state again. This wasn't a cyclic thing, it just blew up once, then became self contained. Almost as though a silent switch had been clicked and the resulting population knew the consequences of stepping over the line.

I guess what I'm saying is the social interaction of the population is so much more captivating that the place itself.

Tony Ballantyne captured this rather well in his book Capacity.

There are many interactions in society which keeps things moving, the location is mearly the grease. In my own humble opinion of course !


Neal Asher said...

I think about lines 3 to 9 were the basis of this article - my annoyance at picking up magazines and reading yet another story from that perspective. Anyway, it was one of my BSFA Focus Magazine articles, the series of which had the overall title 'Neal Asher Gets Rabid', so I needed something to get irked about. The stories were Blade Runner chic, but with annoying angst-ridden characters and and without much in the way of plot.