The OF Blog: "Citybuilding"

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Over at Ecstatic Days, Jeff VanderMeer's blog, Catherynne M. Valente has begun her week of guest blogging with an interesting take on an old argument. Instead of just tritely using "worldbuilding" as a sort of self-explanatory beginning, she posits instead that what most fantasy writers are engaging in is a sort of ersatz "citybuilding," with two main models being that of an imagined view of New York of decades past or of a rural, almost bucolic early 20th century Topeka-type presentation.

The city is the political unit of fantasy literature, probably because of the ostensibly medieval setting. Cities offered protection, shelter, commerce–and ideas about the countries which contained these cities were vague at best for the entry level peasant. When fantasy writers talk about worldbuilding, what they often mean is citybuilding–creating consecutive cities that might be plausibly part of the same region one after the other. But there isn’t a lot of Federalism among dwarves, if you catch my meaning. The city-state is the dominant mode, even in kingmaking dramas, where the capital is the source of power and object of urban longing towards which the kinglet travels with unrelenting focus. The epic fantasy usually bounces between several (cf. George Martin, Tolkien, et al.) with one designated as the capital and a whole lot of flyover country making up the rest of the world.

It seems to me that most of the general fantasy cities are either Not!1983NewYork or Not!1910Topeka. Let me explain. New York City is no longer the terrifying, jewel-jawed behemoth set to devour your children and get your poodle addicted to crack. It’s far more likely to force your poodle into indentured servitude in a film-turned-Broadway-musical or sell your children exclusive Metropolis-only Disney products. But New York as a model for urban fantasy is forever stuck in that darkest and dingiest Alphabet City era Big Apple, full of magical heroin, prostitutes of whatever race skeeres ya most, and enough trash to bury Minas Tirith in an avalanche of Pepsi cans and lettuce.

The other fantasy city is Topeka circa 1910–bucolic, fertile, full of basically good natured country folk with carrots to sell and ancient artifacts to undervalue. Quasi-communist, ridiculously nuclear families, and all the women baking things for adventurers instead of smashing the patriarchy.

I think this is something worth considering when it comes to the construction of cities, although part of me thinks there needs to be a more explicit admission that reader fears/expectations also play a role in how we interpret this issue. Also, it'd be interesting if we could explore at length the roles that Space and Place play in this. Perhaps that'll be something for the near future. But for now, Valente's presented something well worth considering.

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