Shared Worlds: Real Cities That Seem Fantastical/SFnal

Shared Worlds asked Elizabeth Hand, Nalo Hopkinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, China Miéville, and Michael Moorcock:

“What’s your pick for the top real-life fantasy or science fiction city?”

“At Shared Worlds students create fantasy and science fiction worlds to fuel their art and writing projects. But even the strangest made-up place can have some real-world spark. Our own planet is often surreal, alien, and beautifully strange—and cities tend to focus our fascination with these qualities. Sometimes the exoticness comes from finding the unexpected where we live, and sometimes it comes from visiting a place that’s foreign to us.” – from the article

Post our link on your site or blog, pose the question “What city would you choose?”, and help one of the most unique teen “think tanks” in the country, now in its second year. Video from last year’s camp.

Now sponsored by Tor Books, Wizards of the Coast LCC, and Realms of Fantasy magazine!

Shared Worlds is a two-week unique summer camp for teens ages 13 to 18, held at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Creative and fun, Shared Worlds emphasizes writing fiction, game development, and creating art—all in a safe and structured environment with award-winning faculty. Participants in this “teen think tank” meet like-minded students and learn how to work together and be proactive on their own. The first week, the students form teams and create their own worlds; the second week, they create in them. Faculty for 2009 will include Holly Black, co-creator of the Spiderwick Chronicles, Hugo Nominee Tobias Buckell, White Wolf game developer Will Hindmarch, Weird Tales fiction editor Ann VanderMeer, and more.

I will also be there, as the camp’s assistant director.

Also, exclusive to Ecstatic Days, I asked past and present faculty for their thoughts on the idea of real cities with a fantasy/SF flavor. (There’s also a MindMeld on the subject from the nice guys at SF Signal–thanks!)

Tobias Buckell: I’ve always found Singapore to the be something a fantastical city. Not that I’ve ever been there myself, but from what I’ve seen it’s wild. It’s a city that’s an island that’s a country, kind off, as if Manhattan formally declared it’s independence. It has fusion elements of the pacific, asian, and western cultures, architecture, practice, and people. It has a complicated history, a vibrant present, and there are a lot of nooks and crannies that just look fascinating. I’m not the only one who thinks Singapore fantastical, when made the cover art for Metatropolis, featuring a novella about the future of cities in it along with stories by John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder and Jay Lake, the designer used a shot of some of the iconic Singapore business district skyline…

Will Hindmarch: Look at Edinburgh and you’ll see multiple cities, tangled and overlaid, from the soot-blackened medieval metropolis at the feet of a castle built atop a dead volcano to the abandoned warrens tucked under old bridges, where a city’s worth of people died. Coming up out of the train depot, the first thing you see are lovely grim spires looming, encrusted below with next-gen tech and glowing logos, European futurism weaving through breaks in the old stones like glass threads. It’s a beautiful anachronism. The future keeps coming to Edinburgh, like any other city, but there the past refuses to budge.

Ekaterina Sedia: I would definitely suggest Chicago. I was lost in its business part one winter Sunday night, and it felt like something out of “Dark City”.

Jeremy L. C. Jones: I’d been living in a fishing village 300 miles due west, off the road system, on Bristol Bay with a mere 200 people or so. I had a bad case of cabin fever and was dressed for waist-high snow and Syberian blizzards. We flew through winter twilight. The mountains were bright and sharp and looking out the airplane window I could tell the air outside was crisp and sweet. The mountains were so close I could almost reach out and touch the peaks. The airplane flew over an ice-packed inlet and bumped and bounced over Fire Island with its vertical wind currents.

Coming from a village of one-story, wind-swept cabins, Anchorage seemed to stretch higher than the mountains behind it. Everything shimmered in the blue moonlight of the 24-hour night. Everything was big and open. I could go anywhere and do anything. There was that tugging joy of… infinite possibility.

The building were spaced apart like statuettes spread out on a blanket at a yard sale. Air Force jets thundered over-head and cut contrails in the cloudless sky. People wore fur hats and business suits under brightly colored parkas.

But… it was all an optical illusion, a trick of a feverish mind, a product of contrasts.

Today, I look at photographs of Anchorage and I see a small city with tall-buildings, mountains, ice, and brown slush. But then… a 20 year old fresh from the Bush… it was the most wonderful place in the world.

8 comments on “Shared Worlds: Real Cities That Seem Fantastical/SFnal

  1. Liam says:

    Great question. I think Jerusalem is the most fascinating city I’ve visited personally. A bizarre blend of the ancient and the modern, the east and west. You cross from the new city to East Jerusalem and it’s like crossing from Europe into the Middle East in a space of twenty feet. The ultraorthodox Jewish neighborhood is a world apart — you feel like you’re in a ghetto in Poland in the 18th-century. The old city is continuously crossed by all manner of people — Hasidic Jews, Orthodox monks (Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, etc.), Franciscan friars, Palestinian women in various forms of Hijab… The tragic weight of history and belief, and heavily armed IDF everywhere. Fascinating, awesome, beautiful, terrifying…

    On the other hand, I live in New York City, which is pretty amazing as well.

  2. Jeff: What’s your pick, if I may ask? I don’t mind if you say “Ambergris”, it maintains the metafiction after all

    Liam: Yep, Jerusalem is definitely an interesting one! The mix of modernity with old-world startled me at first – you sort of expect it to be frozen in the past in a kind of reverence for its holiness – but people, cities, and life move on. One of the funniest things I heard when I was there was a piece of irreverance from a cabdriver: “the best thing about Jerusalem is the road to Tel Aviv” – because to Israelis it’s not just a grand historic setting but also a city like any other, subject to the same petty rivalries and idiosyncrasies. Until I came there I never fully thought of it as a place where people live.

    New York’s pretty amazing for an outsider. I suppose it’s a cliched one but the image of the steam pouring out of the grates in the winter is the one that’s stuck with me most – it’s like the city’s visibly breathing… It’s Gotham and every East Coast industrial Noir metropolis you’ve ever imagined right there in bricks and concrete. Everyone’s been to New York even if they haven’t – you can’t really say the same about every other city…

    One of the oddest things about London is that it’s such a fractured place: within the historic centre (a suprisingly small area) it might seem like a thoroughly coherent whole but London’s far more than just that part, lots of smaller mini-cities/towns collected together under the banner of ‘London’ but really with very separate identities. It’s so different, and seems so separated, from north to south and east to west that sometimes we get a bit clannish about it: I don’t class myself as a Londoner as much as a South Londoner even though I haven’t lived there for years. Of course, when using it as inspiration for the fantastic these distances and differences tend to become exagerrated… Although ‘The City & The City’ has made me think more about the nature of borders, how they’re more mental than anything else. As China Mieville says it’s a “shoved together” patchwork that’s always growing as the great beast that is London consumes and subsumes its surroundings, taking in new people from all over the place, getting fatter and fatter and more and more of a mishmash.

  3. Heh. Nice comment, Alex.

    I’d have to say Prague because of its dual fantastical/playful nature–and the unexpected nature of its beauty and creativity. It’s what got me thinking about doing this Shared Worlds feature in the first place.

    That’s also because I wouldn’t want to pick a city I’d just read about, but one I had visited. I wrote about Prague for Locus Online recently:


    To us, there may be no more fantastical city than Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, situated on the banks of the Vltava River. Its roots in fantasy go much deeper than Franz Kafka, who once lived in a room in the city’s walls. They also go deeper than the tale of the Golem, one of Prague’s most famous fictitious exports.

    A penchant for the fantastical seems to come naturally to Czechs, perhaps nowhere more in evidence than Jaroslav Hasek’s tales of the good soldier Svejk. In these absurd stories, Svejk’s fabrications become ever more bizarre and grandiose, and yet fool everyone with the sincerity and detail of their telling. In one particular tale, Svejk claims to have discovered such oddities as the Sulphur-Bellied Whale, the Edible Ox, and Sepia Infusorium, a kind of sewer rat.

  4. And also from the piece:

    Modern Prague continues to exhibit this sense of sly playfulness, as evidenced by a major gallery exhibit at the Kampa Museum of Modern Art consisting of huge plastic bears and rabbits, along with a huge wicker chair by the river, suitable for a giant. Not to mention a fine memorial to John Lennon opposite the Old Town, where thousands of people a year come to pay tribute.

    As a modern, thriving metropolis, Prague by day or by night contains so many imaginative surprises that even cynical travelers can be amazed by it. Walking around a corner in the evening, with the old town area lit up like some fairy tale setting, we have stumbled across impromptu concerts, street theater, puppetry, and stunning exhibits of international photography.

    But one discovery exemplified for us the magical nature of Prague. Walking through the gardens overlooking city, we heard faint music coming from a high hedge. We soon found a narrow break in the shrubbery that led to a little beer bar with a radio and seats made from tree stumps with green felt as upholstery. Although it was the summer, holiday lights had been woven through the gnarled trees. In the back lay a delicate gazebo set amidst a forest of vines and strange metal sculptures.

  5. Liam says:

    “Everyone’s been to New York even if they haven’t.” Excellent observation.

    Prague, definitely. My wife and I went there for the honeymoon. I would also nominate Lisbon. And Venice in winter, when the tourists have gone and are replaced by fog.

  6. Heather says:

    What about Barcelona? Maybe not the city overall, but some of Antoni Gaudi’s buildings (esp. Casa Mila, Casa Batllo) are pretty fantastical. Also, for a fantasy setting, I nominate Granada. The Alhambra is a palace right out of the Arabian Nights, and the Albaicin, or Arab quarter, is full of medieval buildings and narrow, twisting streets. I could see a Guy Gavriel Kay novel set there.

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