We Built This City…

Catherynne M. Valente • November 27th, 2007 @ 4:35 pm • City of Saints and Madmen, Culture

Hello all! *taps mic*

I’m Cat Valente, and I’ll be your server for the duration of the week. I will take this opportunity to present you all with the obligatory exhortation to read my books, particularly In the Cities of Coin and Spice, the second and final book in The Orphan’s Tales series, which came out early this month. No reason to be falsely shy about it–I like to eat, you like to read, it’s a match made in gastro-optical heaven.

Now that’s done, what I thought I might do this week is talk about literary dark matter that comes up in both Jeff and my novels. What I mean by dark matter is the stuff that holds it all together but that the reader doesn’t see. The computer screen and the written page are terrible windows which are perfectly transparent, but have a bitch of a time-lag. The author peers out, staring at an empty world for a long while. A couple of years later, the reader comes along and lives in the world, peering in at the author’s house, which the author has long since vacated, moving on to other books, other worlds, other empty vistas of readerless landscape. So we really only get to talk to each other, readers and authors, outside the structure of the house and the window and this incredibly over-thought metaphor. Interviews and blogs and such. But even between authors, a lot of the thought process–which is to say, the way we think about the content of our novels, as I have no interest in getting into what kind of laptop I use and whether or not I am currently in a cafe and what sort of font I prefer–is pretty opaque. Dark matter. It must be there, or the universe wouldn’t hold, but damned if you can find it.

So. Let’s talk about cities for a bit, shall we? Ambergris is one of the most successful single-city settings in fantasy, and I…well, there’s cities in my book, too. See how everything is connected? Or not. Anyway.

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.

So what makes, not a Topeka, not a New York, but a great fantasy city? What are the great fantasy cities? (That’s one for the comments–I’ll throw out Minas Tirith–though Bree feels more lived in at times, New Crobuzon, Ambergris, and Ankh-Morpork just to do the light lifting for you and get the obvious out of the way.)

The cities I created as part of The Orphan’s Tales–there are, I believe, six major ones–were not intended to be high-resolution realistic–they are fairy tale cities, and so I could indulge my passion for thematic living, hopefully without falling into that distasteful genre pitfall of the single-culture city/continent/planet. The basic ideas were various: an architectural innovation, dominant crop, mineral desposit, or local fauna, geographical situation, economic situation, etc. I usually then blew one of those attributes up into a huge issue–how does a culture form around the dominant foodstuff, in the way of, say, Midwestern beauty queens sculpted in butter? What bizarre cultures can I pull out of a city of doctors, or a city where spice is the cash crop? How can I make these cultures feel real? (The answer to that is, surprisingly often, to make them as small as possible, habits of families and quarters of a city, neighborhoods and unions. So many fantasy cities seem to stop when the page turns. They hide the rings or the crown and milk some cows or kill some tourists and that’s about it.) How does an economic boom or crisis skew the development of a city, and in a fairy tale world where consequences are so incredibly dire, is recovery ever possible? How do you translate real world issues such as immigration, urban blight, or soil depletion into a fantasy setting? By the time I’ve answered all of this, I usually have the basic idea of a city in my head, like a blueprint. One of my favorite things to do in the context of my books is to force heroines to deal with fairy tale crises in realistic ways, and force fantasy worlds to undergo post-industrial crisis in utterly non-realistic ways. We all have our kinks.

Of course, what makes Ambergris so compelling is the authoritative history set forth in City of Saints and Madmen–we are hard-wired to take a pedantic tone seriously and nod along with the professor. So it is not only a genuine and serious rethinking of urban development, but the tone with which the city is presented that makes it the kind of place that reviewers will say is another character in the book. How one chooses to present the necessary urban exposition–which is a bit like urban exploration, dragging your readers through blasted-out buildings and promising them that if they just come a little farther they’ll see something really cool.

I suppose fairy tales and traditional fantasy are necessarily, if not urban fantasy, rural fantasy. And yet…I’d love to see fantasy that treats the issues of rural life with the same seriousness that Perdido Street Station gives the city. I wonder if some of the criticism leveled at fantasy doesn’t come from a perception that we do not treat with even our most beloved tropes seriously–it is easy to make an elf with pointy ears and preternatural beauty, but so much harder to make hardcore elfhood, something real and bloody and chewy and challenging. Even the fetishized long fields of fantasy, the bakers and farmers and horse-herders, they always feel like set-dressing. But then, I live in the Midwest, where rural issues are lack of work, government subsidies or lack thereof, vanished industry, dead soil, crops you can grow but can’t eat yourself, pesticides, pollution…not exactly the Shire, is it, Sam?

But wouldn’t it make a hell of a story? At the end of all this rambling I think I’ve figured out what I’m trying for, and looking for: Kantian fantasy. All people, all cities, are ends in themselves, not means to an end.

16 Responses to “We Built This City…”

  1. S.E. Martin says:

    Gormenghast strikes me as one of the most successful single-city settings in fantasy, too.

  2. Larry says:

    In a totally different sense than what you outline above, I’d argue that M. John Harrison’s Viriconium works in part because it takes that sense of an ordered space and just blows it up. But this has given me something to think about whenever I get around to re-reading your two most recent novels.

    But now a related question comes to mind: that of space and place. Some of the more captivating fantasies that I have read have played around with these two things, distorted and warping the reader’s sense of “proper” space and place for cities, events, people standing next to each other, etc. I wonder if something could be argued at length as to their impact on the field?

  3. MattD says:

    Cat, so your conception of The Orphan’s Tales is that it’s urban fantasy (i.e., “I suppose fairy tales and traditional fantasy are necessarily, if not urban fantasy, rural fantasy.”)? This is interesting, I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. What I noticed is that you preserved the common fairy tale division between “civilized” (typically human) and “wild” (the monstrous: the monsters, witches, etc. that live off the beaten path, in the dark of the forest). But unlike typical urban fantasies — which concentrate on uncovering the wild and monstrous in how cities are created and maintained — you instead brought a large dose of “civilized” to the “monsters” who live outside civilization’s borders.

    In that sense “urban” and “rural” fantasy both tend to be “local” fantasy, where the characters learn that the (civilized) place they thought they knew has (wild, or seemingly wild) layers they were unaware of. Your Tales really seemed to be “super-local”: a rewriting of the whole world, from creation myth on forward, to allow characters to move toward a place that can openly accommodate both their civilized and wild aspects. Which perhaps cities can, but not (it didn’t feel like) necessarily or exclusively.

    Oh, and re: obligatory exhortation…bought the book, loved the book, plan to be at your reading on Saturday.

  4. Cheryl’s Mewsings » Blog Archive » Cities of Myth and Magic says:

    [...] in case anyone reading this doesn’t also read Jeff VanderMeer – Cat Valente guest-blogs on the subject of cities in [...]

  5. Catherynne M. Valente says:

    MattD: I think the second volume is very much urban fantasy–Shadukiam and Ajanabh are front and center, title characters, and much more than the first, the second volume is about the natural lifespan of cities and what dwells beyond them. (See you Saturday!)

    S.E. Martin: I guess I think of Gormenghast as single-estate fantasy. ;)

    Larry: Can you float some examples?

  6. Larry says:

    Sure thing. One of those being Viriconium, of course, which has so many different angles to that space/place. Another would be Borges’s City of the Immortal in “The Aleph,” where the angles are skewed and the entire sense of insanity is given based on the placement of angles. In Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series, there is a few scenes where the placement of mirrors creates such a skewed image as to distort, shrink, and remove the “distance” between objects, creating this altered sense of space/place as to make the entire episode feel “otherworldly.” Jeffrey Ford in his second book in the Physiognomy trilogy, Memoranda, used the concept of memory palaces as a basis for constructing an internal system where the spaces/places Cley had to travel within the Master’s mind altered and became something “different” due to the knowledge that the reader received that in such a locale, symbolic and “real” were both one and the same.

    But yet these exotic “land”scapes (in some cases, “dreamscapes”) are not often, if ever, brought up when readers (and occasionally the writers themselves) talk about “worldbuilding,” or in your examples, “citybuilding.” These alterations in our presumed assumptions about space/place (it takes X amount of time to cover Y amount of space and right angles are 90º and rooms ought to be full of right angles or have corners where the angles are hidden but yet still can be detected with little effort) make the reader confront the narrative and question just what sort of “craziness” is about to happen next. Inversions and transgressions of expected “rules” is always fun, no?

  7. Paul Jessup says:


    I suppose fairy tales and traditional fantasy are necessarily, if not urban fantasy, rural fantasy. And yet…I’d love to see fantasy that treats the issues of rural life with the same seriousness that Perdido Street Station gives the city.

    I would suggest running out and getting Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddlemaster books post-haste. The start is a very realistic rural farming kingdom, and the main character is a pig-prince. It’s great because the first chapter is basically about selling and trading things like wheat and beer, and about a prince come back from a riddling school, who has won a crown from a ghost.

    Fun stuff.

  8. Paul Jessup says:

    By pig-prince I don’t mean literal pig-man creature, but rather is a prince whose castle is also the home to pigs, since it is partly a big farm.

  9. Catherynne M. Valente says:

    Paul–I actually started those books this summer, so I’ve at least read the part you’re referring to. I guess it just didn’t ring much more of a hardcore-awesome bell than the Shire did for me…

  10. Paul Jessup says:

    Well, I would be lying if I said I read all of the books- or even anything after the second chapter. Although I did love Beasts of Eld….and I thought the world building was better than the shire in the aspect of detail of what it takes to run a small, agrarian kingdom.

    Hmm. I’m trying to think of any rural fantasy landscape that is interesting- guess nothing comes to mind. Of course, then again my experience in fantasy of that variety is very limited- mostly to Tolkien, McKillip and Le Guin. And that was all from my childhood, years ago.

  11. Paul Jessup says:

    Hmm- I think part of the problem is the utopian feeling attributed to the rural landscape in most fantasy worlds- this idyllic Amish style society where the men plow the fields and women bake bread and all’s well and blah blah blah and the characters are all expressionless creations that exist only to create some sort of Norman Rockwell vision of small town life.

    I think that’s why I brought up Riddlemaster- because in some parts, it didn’t feel like some sort of dream of rural happiness- it felt dirty and gritty. But at the same time it didn’t ring an “awesome bell” for me either.

    I think really, to get beyond such things it would be better to change the time, the landscape. Colonial America and right after the revolutionary war (or even during the civil war)- there are many stories set in these time periods (non-fantasy mind you- but what the hell- ficiton is fiction, and all fiction is by nature un-real) that are dirty, gritty, real, and carry on a life of their own. Maybe we need to step outside of the common fantasy mindset to explore such places. Remove the tropes for a bit, and see the scaffolding beneath. Maybe a bit of cross pollination is in order.

  12. MattD says:

    Paul, since you mention Le Guin…it’s been about 15 years since I read it, but I think I remember Tehanu as having a bit of that “rural fantasy” feel, the hardships of farming and such. I’m a city boy, though, so a little may have gone a long way for me: I can’t speak to how “serious” her treatment was.

    As for cities, I always thought Calvino did them very well although we could argue about whether his cities were really “fantasy.” But I see in his work something I also see in Jeff V’s and Pratchett’s and yours, Cat, that the memorable cities are typically the ones we get to experience through multiple points of view. It’s funny, despite the “new weird” labeling, what I think appealed to me most about China’s PSS was the sense of recognition I had, as a city dweller, of the diversity and fragmentation of city life. Of all different races and systems and such crammed together under a single name, that only actually all identify with that name in times of great crisis or joy. (Of course with New Crobuzon it was slake moths; for Boston it’s the Yankees.)

  13. Larry says:

    Paul,

    Are you suggesting something along the lines of incorporating elements of Southern Gothic (namely, the way that history and land usage plays into creating the backdrop), similar to what Flannery O’Connor did to great effect? I grew up in the South and I certainly could see the attractions of having a fantasy landscape where there was this sense of tragic loss mixing in with bitterness under a surface of gentility. I know Lucius Shepard captured this feel in an updated form in his recent book, Softspoken. It’d be nice to encounter that use of landscape to create a mood in other fantasies/SF tales.

  14. Paul Jessup says:

    Yes! that is a perfect example (the Shepard book) and Flannery O’Conner (as well as Faulkner) were exactly what I was thinking. Exactly.

  15. Catherynne M. Valente says:

    Paul–the thought crystallized as I was reading your comment that while I read all kinds of fiction, I’m really only interested in writing non-realism. There are many hardcore depictions of rural life in literary fiction, but I’m ultimately most interested in my genre, in how to bring that unrelenting view of life into fantasy–because fantasy often communicates internal states to me better than realism, I want to see it communicate external states with the same sensitivity and beauty. I want it to strike bells of awesome so loud no one can deny its power.

    Fantasy is my Red Sox, to pick up MattD’s metaphor–and I do believe all it takes is patience and love. ;)

  16. Paul Jessup says:


    Paul–the thought crystallized as I was reading your comment that while I read all kinds of fiction, I’m really only interested in writing non-realism. There are many hardcore depictions of rural life in literary fiction, but I’m ultimately most interested in my genre, in how to bring that unrelenting view of life into fantasy–because fantasy often communicates internal states to me better than realism, I want to see it communicate external states with the same sensitivity and beauty. I want it to strike bells of awesome so loud no one can deny its power.

    Right- but when I meant cross-pollination, I meant it. I know exactly what you mean- I can’t write realism. I gets bored with it. But what I meant was borrowing from other things- like a magpie. Stealing the good stuff and lacing it with fantasy.

    For example- Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is perfect seeds for a secondary fantasy world. Hell, it’s a completely made up county with it’s own history and lifestyle. The only thing missing from it is magic and high weirdness. Throw in some occult, some spiritualism, maybe a dash of southern snake charming- and bam! you could have some new little fantasy world.

    I think that’s it for me- I think fantasy (esp secondary world fantasy) is so untapped right now! We have Steampunkery and Mediavilism and that’s it. I mean- why? Why not make a secondary world fantasy that is something like America in the 1800’s? 1600’s? Why limit things to England and it’s landscape? it seems to me we are still stuck in the English Empire when it comes to writing fantasy and secondary world fantasy.

    But I digress.

    What I simply meant was- we should borrow. We should steal. There are other places that we can take it and change with the mist of the fantastical.

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