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.