The City as Character

In some fantasy or science fiction stories, a city actually is a kind of character.  The clearest example—as the title indicates—is N.K. Jemisin’s 2020 novel The City We Became. (Page references are to the hardcover edition, New York:  Orbit, Hatchette Book Group, 2020.)

Since I need to discuss some details of the novel to make the necessary points, I’m flying a

Spoiler Alert!

However, I’ll try to keep actual story spoilers to a minimum.

The City We Became

Jemisin gives the premise, as quoted in a review:  “The city of New York comes to life—literally, as in, the city has developed sentience and an ability to act on its own.”  This quickening takes place through the medium of human avatars.  The city chooses a human being to be “its . . . midwife.  Champion.”  (The City We Became, p. 304.)  In the case of New York, there are actually six avatars:  one for each borough, and one for the city as a whole.  (305)

The City We Became, coverHow does this happen?  A “real city” will “make a weight on the world, a tear in the fabric of reality” (7).  This metaphysical weight comes from the accumulated “strangeness” of the people who come there (8).  A city’s unique load of strangeness—its identity—isn’t a pre-established thing; it develops over time.

[Cities are] organic, dynamic systems.  They are built to incorporate newness.  But some new things become part of a city, helping it grow and strengthen—while some new things can tear it apart.  (46)

This incorporation of newness is especially true of New York.

The city needs newcomers!  He belongs here as much as anyone born and bred to its streets, because anyone who wants to be of New York can be!  (47)

Even the legends and lies about the city contribute to its essence, its distinctive identity—what makes it a “real city.”  (166)

The broader reality in which the weighty essence of a city tears a hole is an alternate-worlds multiverse (165-66).  Not only are there many worlds:  “Imagining a world creates it, if it isn’t already there” (302)—a kind of World as Myth notion.

The tearing isn’t purely benign.  The “hole” that “punches through” actually causes harm:  “The process of our creation, what makes us alive, is the deaths of hundreds or thousands of other closely related universes, and every living thing in them.”  (306)  In that somewhat curious postulate, the story reflects the popular contemporary focus on the destructiveness of progress or expansion.

The newborn New York has an Enemy:  a type of city so alien as to be fundamentally at odds with human cities, which wants to invade our world.  Several characters refer to the anti-city as an “eldritch abomination,” a term characteristic of H.P. Lovecraft and similar early twentieth-century horror writers.  (16-17, 38, 167-68)  But New York also has allies, elder siblings, such as São Paulo in Brazil, and Hong Kong.  Apparently there’s even a community of cities (“the Summit”).  (10, 21-22)

We will hear more about this:  there’s going to be a series, in which this novel is billed as “Great Cities #1.”  The novel itself was developed from Jemisin’s short story “The City Born Great,” a Hugo award winner for 2017, which constitutes the prologue to the novel.  It’s “urban fantasy” in the strongest sense.

The aspect on which I want to focus is that distinctiveness, a civic “personality,” is what makes a city alive.  Thus, in the opposite direction, the Enemy gains a foothold through the interpolation of chain businesses like Starbucks.  “They’re destroying everything that makes New York what it is, replacing it with generic bullshit.”  (357)  The avatars constitute—or express—the “spirit of the place,” the genius loci.

The Personalized City

It’s not unheard of in F&SF to give a city consciousness, though seldom in so full-tilt a manner as Jemisin’s.

Cities in Flight, coverIn James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, much of the action centers around the star-traveling city of New York.  New York aloft has a perpetual Mayor, John Amalfi, and a City Manager, Mark Hazleton (in the last two books).  But it also has a “server farm” of a hundred-odd computers which collectively make up “the City Fathers.”  That term, generally applied to municipal officials of some venerable sort, indicates authority.  But the balance of power among the Mayor, the City Manager, and the City Fathers is rather complicated.  Amalfi generally gets his way, but sometimes this involves working around the City Fathers—on one occasion, turning them off completely for a period.

While the City Fathers might be considered an intelligence for the city as a whole, they’re not much of an intelligence by modern standards.  Rather, they come across impersonally, a 1950s idea of what a giant computer would be like:  a pure logic.  Their dialogue is rendered in all capitals in the text.  Blish lampshades this typographical indicator in A Life for the Stars (1962), where young Chris DeFord reflects on first acquaintance:  “. . . he would never have mistaken it for a human voice.  Whatever the difference was, he thought of it as though the device were speaking all in capital letters.”

Thus Blish’s City Fathers are almost the polar opposite of Jemisin’s cities:  impersonal and generic rather than distinctive.  In a similar way, while Blish gives some details about the flying city of New York—naming subway stops and the like—he never makes the city “come alive” even in the merely literary sense, to my mind.  The focus is all on the human characters; the city is simply part of the landscape.

An entirely different tack is taken by Anne McCaffrey and S.M. Stirling in  The City Who Fought (1993).  This novel belongs to McCaffrey’s “shellperson” or “Brain & Brawn Ship” series, which originated with the stories collected in The Ship Who Sang (1969).  Here, infants with severe physical disabilities but competent brains may become

an encapsulated ‘brain,’ a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions.  As such, [they] would suffer no pain, live a comfortable existence in a metal shell for several centuries, performing unusual service to Central Worlds.  (The Ship Who Sang, first page)

Most of the Brain & Brawn stories are about shellpeople who are the animating controllers of spacecraft.  In The City Who Fought, however, we see a case of a “brain” partner who inhabits a space station, rather than a ship.  In that sense, Simeon, the hero of the novel, can be seen as the persona or “soul” of a spaceborne city.  But since the shellpeople are in fact normal human beings, in terms of their minds and personalities, the unique character of the city reduces to the uniqueness of any human being.

Presence

A city can also have a presence, a kind of personality, without actual consciousness.

So You Want To Be a Wizard, coverIn Diane Duane’s So You Want To Be a Wizard (1983, rev. ed. 2012), the heroes are translated from their familiar New York City to an alternate, darker New York:  “a shadowed island prisoned between chill rivers and studded with sharp spikes of iron and cold stone” (ch. 2, p. 65).  In this dark-side version, machines like taxicabs are sentient (and vicious); even common objects like fire hydrants are alive.  The character of alternate-NYC is evident from its dramatic contrast against the everyday version in which the rest of the story takes place.  The characters can feel the foreboding threat of the place even before they begin to run into hostile beings.

Charles Williams employs a similarly alternative London in All Hallows Eve (1945).  Here, however, the effect is the reverse of Duane’s.  The main character, a young woman who has recently died, finds herself in an uninhabited alternate London redolent of peace and a mysterious overawing holiness. Meanwhile, ordinary London, including her friend and widowed husband, is threatened by a black magician.

In Williams’ presentation, the city does exert a kind of agency:  the last chapter is titled “The Acts of the City.”  Here, though, the city acts rather as a conduit for the divine than through a consciousness of its own.  Its specific order has numinous importance.

This was a regular theme in Williams.  His friend C.S. Lewis observed:

Williams was a Londoner of the Londoners; Johnson or Chesterton never exulted more than he in their citizenship.  On many of us the prevailing impression made by the London streets is one of chaos; but Williams, looking on the same spectacle, saw chiefly an image—an imperfect, pathetic, heroic, and majestic image—of Order.  (C.S. Lewis, “Williams and the Arthuriad,” in Taliesin Through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, Arthurian Torso (1974), p. 289)

 

The City as Background

In most stories, a city is not so literally personified as in the above examples.  Normally its “personality” merely serves as a colorful background setting, giving a story or series a distinctive flavor based on the milieu.

G.K. Chesterton observes somewhere that in Charles Dickens’ novels, London is practically a character in itself.  It’s not that London is somehow animated or ensouled; it’s that the locale is described with such well-observed detail that it plays as central a role in the story as the actual characters do.  As Lewis noted above, a number of Chesterton’s own stories evoke a similarly distinctive London.  While Chesterton does not provide the wealth of detail Dickens does, the same affectionate appreciation for the city is expressed in a more impressionistic fashion.

Rex Stout’s numerous Nero Wolfe detective stories perform the same service for New York.  Narrator Archie Goodwin is constantly running around the city, intimately familiar with its nooks and crannies, and as we follow him, it begins to seem a familiar place to us too.  Well-known landmarks, both real and fictional, help give the place a sense of concreteness and aid our suspension of disbelief.

To All the Boys: Always and Forever, movie posterMore recently, in the Netflix movie To All the Boys: Always and Forever (2021), high school senior Lara Jean Covey “falls in love” with New York on a school trip.  Her attraction to the place is strong enough to lead her to change her college plans and throw her romance into disarray.

Interestingly, in the book, it was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that attracted Lara Jean’s attention.  UNC-CH also has a nice campus, but the screenwriters seem to have felt that New York would be a more obvious candidate—and we can see why.  Some cities are famous for having more “pull” (or, as Jemisin put it, “weight”) than others.  I recall that, when I was going to law school in Cambridge, two friends were talking about going down to “the city,” and I was puzzled why they’d make such a big deal out of running across the river to Boston.  But that wasn’t the city they meant.  They were New Yorkers; even if you’re next door to another big city, “THE City” is NYC.

The Black God's Drums, coverOf course, it needn’t always be New York.  Most of Andrew Greeley’s novels are set in Chicago; and by the time you’re read a dozen or so, Greeley’s particular version of Chicago has “come alive” as much as New York.  I have a notion that The Black God’s Drums (2018), by P. Djèlí Clark, was aiming to do something similar for New Orleans, although one can’t go as far in a single novella as one can in a whole series of novels.

The Small Town

If big, brawling cities like New York or Chicago or New Orleans can become characters in their own right, what about small towns?  Certainly a story often invites us to become attached to a small town in the same way that we are to these big cities.  The question, I think, is whether we can find the same sort of distinctiveness in a habitation built on a smaller scale.

In Hallmark romances, we are constantly being introduced to a cozy, adorable small town, usually the site of a struggling local business.  We’re meant to find this municipality lovable and charming.  In most cases, though, the locations seem to be too generic to attract our interest.  The bakeries and bookstores and Christmas tree lightings all seem to blur together after a while.  True, these short films don’t have much time to develop an elaborate background identity.  But that’s not the only factor—because some two-hour films do manage to make a small town real.

Doc Hollywood movie posterMy favorite example is Doc Hollywood (1991), in which Michael J. Fox, a newly-minted doctor on his way to a high-paying plastic surgery job in L.A., gets stranded in Grady, South Carolina.  The whole story is about whether Fox’s character Ben Stone will shake the dust of Grady off his feet as soon as possible and decamp to the big city, or decide he likes it where he is.  For this to work, the town has to be vividly realized.  The actors, director, writers, and composer do a nice job of showing us enough quirky characters and local traditions to convince us that Stone’s inevitable decision makes sense.  Other rom-coms like Murphy’s Romance (1985) and Coffee Shop (2014), in my view, pull off the same trick.

For a more bookish example, we can look at Jan Karon’s long-running Mitford series (1994-present).  The dozen or more stories set in the village of Mitford, North Carolina (the first of which is tellingly titled At Home in Mitford), afford plenty of scope to develop the landscape, landmarks, quirky characters, and history of this hill-country locale to the point where it becomes a familiar retreat one can revisit at will.  As in Jemisin’s New York, it’s primarily the people who make the town what it is.

Conclusion

It appears that both big cities and small towns can become distinctive enough to rise to the level of being a quasi-character (or sometimes an actual character) in a story.  But the end results are different.  The big city tends to be distinctive by being roaring and stimulating; the small town, by being homelike and comforting.  It would be interesting to see if those characteristics could be reversed:  a cozy metropolis, an exciting village.  But those two types of place may be inherently linked to the number of citizens.  We can think of the reversal as a challenge for future writers.

6 thoughts on “The City as Character

  1. I dunno. Cities make vital backdrops for detective series (plural), whether it’s Wolfe’s NYC, Holmes’ London, Spenser’s Boston, or Travis McGee’s Florida.

    But in sf/fantasy, I’m drawn more to ones based on a more archetypal feel. (Is that the right word?) Dave Duncan’s A Rose-Red City, or Zelazny’s Amber. (Hm, both of those are basically fantasy. Oh well.)

    Excellent entry (as usual), by the way!

    Like

    • Thanks!

      Detective stories — yes. I don’t read much in those circles, so I’m not aware of all the possibilities. But Holmes’ London, certainly. London, like New York, is one of those iconic cities that one can appreciate even as a non-native. (In Jemisin’s story, London is a “great city” that could have been — a failed birth.)

      “Archetypal” may be the extreme form of “unique”: the pattern for all others, as in Zelazny’s Amber. Charles Williams’ ideal City is similar in a way, though out of a very different metaphysics. Duncan’s story I haven’t read. Yet.

      I wonder what we can say about those cases: Is an archetypal city the ultimate in distinctiveness, only approached by individually quirky real cities — or is it the literally general ideal of the city-as-such?

      Like

  2. Maybe the word I was looking for is “eternal.” I dunno. I’ve had a harder time than usual putting my thoughts together to comment here.

    For all that I’ve written sf novels set in cities, when I’m reading sf/fantasy, I want to get away from crowds, be somewhere different and new and not yet teeming with population, where an individual’s deeds still count. Maybe that’s it.

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    • That too is a good thing. One of the things we seek in F&SF is the “final frontier.” And while high fantasy may stop over in Rivendell or Lorien, its major activities often seem to occur in areas not yet teeming with population.

      And who knows, someday someone may yet speak out in favor of the suburbs. 🙂

      Like

  3. Cool rec, the Jemisin book — I’ll order it, seems nicely “New Weird”-y 😉

    And indeed, the OG NW guy who I might have mentioned a few times, one China Mieville, has a book where London is sort of “ensouled” (the sea definitely is, London is … more debatable). This book is Kraken, and it is teeming with Mieville’s usual variegated fancy though, perhaps, the kind of thing he wants to portray is a bit beyond his grasp.

    Back to cities as gestallt entities, how come this isn’t a more common trope? Hobbes’ Leviathan book (way back from … what century did Hobbes live in again?) is often associated with the image of a monarch made up of a multitude of subjects. Turn of the century caricature would often feature nations portrayed as human beings, or at least dogs. Certainly, the iconography of Uncle Sam, or Lady Liberty, or Britannia, or Germania etc. is fairly old.

    Clearly, there is this intuition that bringing a mass of people under a common purpose is somewhat similar to how cells come together to form a body. Jemisin seems to be exploring it. Mieville tries to explore it, where the bodies formed are not so much cities but ideologies and religions. But beyond that, what is out there? I think this kind of gestallt-entity-view is at the heart of historian Turchin’s view of cliodynamics, but we’re getting into nonfiction territory now.

    About the character of small locales in fiction — here’s a random take. What if such places seem less distinct, less filled with character in films and many books is because … the kind of people making films, and probably many writers too, are cityfolk who just don’t get villages? Stephen King often gets praised for inventing locales that feel alive and distinct at least — is he a hayseed by any chance?

    Cheers!

    Like

    • Bland — fascinating remarks!

      When we expand from ‘hypostatizing’ a city to making a composite or a symbol out of a nation, Hobbes-style, I feel as if we’re in a different trope; maybe because a nation doesn’t feel like an organic whole to the degree that a city might be. (Or does it?) Of course the two converge at the level of the “city-state,” as in ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy.

      The hypothesis about writers and filmmakers sounds pretty plausible to me, but I don’t know enough about the industry to gauge how prevalent that sort of background is. One *imagines* writers circulating in a kind of bohemian downtown setting 🙂 — but that might be just a cliche.. I don’t know about King’s background.

      Lots to think about here . . .

      Like

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