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.

Arthur’s Eternal Triangle

Assessing the Problem

The “Eternal Triangle” gets its name from its reliable omnipresence as a romantic trope.  Two men love the same woman, or two women love the same man; and the two may themselves be friends.

Triangle illustration (Pixabay)There’s endless fuel for drama here.  As Wikipedia observes, “The term ‘love triangle’ generally connotes an arrangement unsuitable to one or more of the people involved.”  As a result, some kind of resolution seems to be needed.  (In the Western tradition, at least, simply setting up a menage à trois isn’t generally regarded as an option.)

Typically, a storyteller resolves the situation by having one “leg” of the triangle win out.  It’s easier to do this if the third party, the one left out, is painted as undesirable or disreputable—they deserve to lose.  But, on the other hand, the dramatic effect is heightened when the competing persons are each worthy of respect.  Thus Aragorn says of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings:  “Few other griefs among the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.”  (Return of the King, V.8, “The Houses of Healing)

We’ve touched lightly before on the central role of the Eternal Triangle in the Arthurian tales.  One of the reasons we continue to be fascinated with the Arthuriad is the unresolvable romance at its center.  Typically we like and admire all three characters—Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot.  But there seems to be no way to bring about a happy ending for everybody.  This part of the tragedy tends to preoccupy modern audiences more than the political or social tragedy of the fall of Camelot; it’s more personal.

The ways in which various authors have tried to manage the matter thus provides a useful survey of ways to address a romantic triangle generally.

Tragedy

Camelot movie posterOne perfectly viable option is to give up the idea of a happy ending and treat the story as an unresolvable tragedy.  This is how the basic Arthurian story works in Malory.  T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) follows the same path.  White’s sympathy for all three characters is evident.  But he doesn’t allow them an easy out.  The story concludes as a tragedy—and a very good one.  I believe the musical Camelot (1960), based on White, follows a similar course:  no romance survives the ending.

The thoroughly weird movie Excalibur (1981) also follows Malory in this respect and accepts the tragic ending.  Lancelot dies.  Arthur, of course, dies too—or at least sails off to Avalon; as usual, whether Arthur will actually return in some fashion remains a mystery.  (In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra (1943), Arthur is mentioned as residing with other luminaries on the paradisiacal planet Venus, awaiting his return at the Second Coming.)  Guinevere joins a nunnery, as per the basic legend.  The characters are disposed of, but no romance remains.

There is, however, a curious scene toward the end of Excalibur, at about 1:59, in which Arthur visits Guinevere in her nunnery, just before the final battle.  She says she loved him as a king, sometimes as a husband.  He says that someday, when he has finished his kingly duty of making a myth that will inspire later generations, he likes to think that he could come back to her, to meet her merely as a man.  She nods.  The scene hints that the romance might somehow be resolved after their deaths.  We’ll consider that idea further below.

Taliessin Through Logres coverBut the distinction between Arthur’s roles as king and as husband also illustrates a different approach:  one can write the story in such a way that Arthur transcends romance.  This seems to have been Charles Williams’ view in his uncompleted essay The Figure of Arthur (published in 1974 in the combined volume Taliessin through Logres; The Region of the Summer Stars; Arthurian Torso).  In Williams’ view of the myth, Arthur “was not to love, in that kind, at all” (p. 230).  Arthur may be destined purely to serve as a model of the Good King, not to fall in love.

Yet the romancers continue to treat Arthur’s and Guinevere’s marriage as a love story.  The triangle is not so easily disposed of.

Saving a Romance

First Knight (movie) - Arthur, Guinevere, LancelotIf we do want a genuine romance, one way is to give Lancelot and Guinevere a happy ending, and essentially write off Arthur.  We see this in First Knight (1995).  Arthur, played by the redoubtable Sean Connery, seems genuinely fond of Guinevere (Julia Ormond).  But he’s much older than she is (Connery was 65 at the time, Ormond 30).  Lancelot (Richard Gere), much nearer her age, plays his usual role in rescuing Guinevere from various distresses.  When Arthur dies, he commends Guinevere to Lancelot’s care.  At the conclusion, contrary to the usual storyline, those two seem free to pair off, giving the audience the qualified satisfaction of a fulfilled romance.  (Exactly what would have happened to the polity of Camelot in this alternate Arthurian history isn’t discussed.)

Another way is to dodge the issue entirely by simply leaving Lancelot out of the triangle.  King Arthur (2004) depicts Arthur and Guinevere as true lovers, what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.”  After adventures, heroic last stands, and the arrival of The Cavalry, the movie ends with the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere.  Lancelot is in the band of knights, but he doesn’t yet have a crush on Guinevere, or vice versa; so we have the rare case where the Arthur-Guinevere relationship is preserved.  It’s a conventional happy ending, but it requires a considerable departure from the basic Arthurian story.

Arthur’s Alternative

A different way to resolve the triangle is to add a fourth party, who can take over the member of the triangle who’s left behind.  I’ve seen a couple of cases where the author gives Arthur an alternative love, letting Lancelot and Guinevere fall where they may.  Ideally, the alternative is really Arthur’s first love, predating the whole Guinevere-Lancelot thing.  Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon (1988) has Arthur growing up with a strong and admirable girl named Morgan—a complete rewrite of Morgan le Fay, who usually serves as a villain.  Arthur falls in love with this Morgan, and she with him.  Things look bright until, just after pledging their troth, they discover that Morgan is actually his half-aunt, too closely related for marriage.  Oops.

Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere is a political necessity; it’s not a betrayal, because he cannot marry Morgan.  In this version, Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar) is a not-especially-likable nonentity, who finds her love with Bedwyr (or Bedivere), a historically earlier version of Lancelot.  While the story cleaves close enough to the myth to prohibit a really happy ending, Arthur does at least find his true love, of sorts, with Morgan.

Mary Jo Putney takes a more romantic tack with her short story Avalon (1998).  This time “Morgana” is identified with the Lady of the Lake, the mysterious personage frequently depicted as giving Arthur Excalibur.  She dwells in Avalon, a faerie realm set apart from the mundane world.  In this story, Arthur sleeps with Morgana at the beginning, long before his political marriage to Guinevere, and returns to her at the end, at his “death.”  But he can be healed in Avalon, as some of the older tales suggest, and thus survives to a genuine “happy ever after” with Morgana.

The Fionavar Tapestry

I’ve saved for last this powerful and daunting trilogy (1984-86) by Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien prepare The Silmarillion for publication.  Kay’s approach is unique:  he takes up the tragedy head-on, but offers a strange kind of hope at the end.

Fionavar Trilogy covers (Tor)

Five college students from our world are transported to another universe, Fionavar, which is said to be the first or most fundamental of all worlds—a little like Roger Zelazny’s Amber.  To win the battle against evil in Fionavar, they must summon “The Warrior.  Who always dies, and is not allowed to rest” (Summer Tree, p. 123).  He fights in many worlds, because of “a great wrong done at the very beginning of his days,” but can only be called at darkest need, by magic, by his secret name.  This Warrior is Arthur, and his secret name (rather unexpectedly) is “Childslayer”—based on an episode from Malory (Chapter I.XXVII) that is usually omitted from an Arthurian tale, in which the young Arthur, panicked at discovering that Mordred has been born, orders a whole set of newborns sent off in a ship to their deaths, rather like Herod.

It’s revealed in the second volume, The Wandering Fire, that one of the five students, Jennifer Lowell, is actually a reincarnation of Guinevere.  Moreover, it becomes necessary to summon Lancelot, as well, awakened from an enchanted sleep.  These three have met and fought the Dark heroically in many worlds, but always suffering in their doomed triangular relationship, as a punishment for their several sins (Arthur here is guilty of an even worse crime than his betrayal by the other two).  All three love each other; “making all the angles equal, shaped most perfectly for grief” (Wandering Fire, p. 122).  Indeed, theirs is the “[s]addest story of all the long tales told” (Wandering Fire, p. 187).

Kay doesn’t blink the tragedy.  It would be an understatement to say that there’s enormous suffering and sorrow in this story.  But there is astonishing moral and physical courage and heroism as well—as in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  And Kay stresses (in his idiosyncratic way) the factor of free will in the “weaving” of the universe.  Even the fate of Arthur and his companions is not forever foredoomed.

Once the threat to Fionavar has been vanquished, a new way opens.  All three of them can leave the worlds forever, together, and fight no more.  In the most Tolkien-like moment of the story, the three sail off into eternity, rising along what Tolkien called the Straight Road into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 332).

The scene is so moving that one hardly notices Kay has not actually resolved the romantic triangle at all.  Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are surely worthy of Paradise—but we have no clue as to who ends up with whom.  Is the only way to resolve this triangle to transcend it to some conclusion beyond mortal comprehension?

Lancelot’s Alternative?

I want to mention one possibility that I haven’t seen tried in a modern story (although, in the innumerable variations on the Arthuriad, it’s quite possible that there’s an instance out there).  Instead of coming up with an alternative for Arthur, one might try presenting an alternative for Lancelot, allowing Arthur and Guinevere to come back together as true lovers—perhaps sadder and wiser after what, in such a plot, would be a temporary breach of faith among the three of them.

The concept can in fact be found in a very old source:  Williams mentions a French lay called Lanval (ca. 1170-1215), in which a Lancelot-equivalent, desired by the queen, ends up himself riding off to Avalon with a fairy mistress.  But this is a quite different version of the Arthurian story.  Is there an opening for a Lancelot-mate in the more canonical range of variations?

Lancelot and ElaineThere’s Elaine.  In Malory, Elaine falls in love with Lancelot and tricks him into sleeping with her thinking she’s Guinevere.  Their son is Galahad, and in Malory they actually live together for some time as man and wife.  Could something be made of this?

White’s Once and Future King treats Elaine as a weak and helpless character, hardly worthy of Lancelot.  But she could easily be amped up to modern standards as a stronger individual.  If Guinevere can be a Celtic warrior maid or a Canadian college student, Elaine could certainly be revised to an inventive author’s taste.  Her relationship with Lancelot need not be the failed, one-sided romance depicted by White; she could become Lancelot’s real love.

Actually, there’s an interesting hint in The Fionavar Tapestry.  A seemingly pointless side story concerns a kind of Luthien-figure, the supernally beautiful elf Leyse of the Swan Mark.  She meets Lancelot briefly in the woods and falls in love with him—but of course he’s otherwise occupied.  Leyse then herself sails off into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 233).  It occurred to me that the name “Leyse” faintly resembles “Elaine”; and in preparing this post, I noticed her description on Wikipedia specifically refers to Elaine—although not necessarily the same Elaine (there are several characters by that name in the Arthuriad).  If she too ends up in the West, the Isles of the Blest, or whatever unearthly paradise Kay’s world accommodates—is it conceivable that she provides a quadrilateral solution to the Eternal Triangle?

There always seem to be more possibilities to be explored—which is what makes this myth so fruitful.