Cities and Cities

To ameliorate the misery of my daily commute, I’ve taken up audio books again. I did this years ago, when I had an hour-long commute, then fell out of the habit after moving closer to work and cutting my drive to about 15-20 minutes. Over the past few years, though, the trip has gotten increasingly worse. I might as well have stayed in my old city, because it takes me a good 35 minutes now to make the 15-mile trip to work. Usually worse going home.

At any rate, I’ve churned through China Miéville’s The City & The City. So good. I can add it to the list of his books I recommend, along with all the others. There is an excellent interview with him here.

I’m a huge fan of cities that actually work. I live in Texas, where cities are looked down upon, and the denizens of cities insist on arranging everything according to an ill-conceived order that favors cars over people, and ends up with a place untenable for either. The distant corporate chain is worshiped, and no building is built to last for more than five or ten years, because in a little while they’re going to pick up and push further out from the city center, insulating themselves from any culture that isn’t tied to fast-food convenience. Sidewalks and buses are detestable signs of poverty, and to suggest that maybe it would be nice to be able to bike somewhere other than a park is the worst kind of sedition. Walking somewhere is sure to get you inquisitive looks and offers of help from people who assume your vehicle broke down somewhere. The car culture is even reflected in our houses, which from the street are basically just garages with a shed for sleeping attached to the back.

This has all led, among other things (like bad air quality and an increasingly obese populace), to a situation where you see a line out the door for an Olive Garden or Chillis off the highway, but two blocks away an excellent locally owned restaurant sits empty. Legions of idiots defend this living arrangement as though it is the essence of freedom, instead of the opposite. Anyone wondering how to fix America would do well to look at this first.

As a general rule, I only vacation places where I don’t have to drive. Not just because I hate driving, but because this is indicative of a place where I might actually enjoy my time and the people there. San Francisco, New York, these are my places. Places I could never afford to live because I’m already in so much debt for these cars and their constant need of maintenance and repair.

I could go on, but there are people who explain it all much better than me.

Anyway, the book and all this urban planning stuff that I’ve been looking at over the past couple years is making me think about cities and how I’ve used them in my fiction. When I write cities, I tend to default to New York. I’ve been there a couple times, but more importantly, so has everyone else. It’s been the setting of so many stories, in prose and film, that it’s an easy place to envision, and an easy place to emulate. But it feels lazy.

In “Shades of Red”, my superhero story, I made up an unnamed metropolis that is basically New York with different street names so I don’t have to worry about being faithful to a real place, and don’t have to worry about someone saying, “Hey, that Museum is on 5th, not 8th!” or whatever. It’s poor man’s world building.

Thinking back on the story, I think I did a decent job painting a picture of a few different, varied parts of the city, casting certain areas as being affluent, others as run down. There’s a building that comes to life as a dark god and tries to eat our hero. It’s a whole thing. So that’s pretty cool, I think.

The other story that jumps out at me is “Four Liars”, a flash piece that uses two different versions of London to portray some time-paradox hijinks. The story was inspired by this clock tower in Ireland, though I don’t think that comes across unless you were already familiar with the place. Still, I liked using the steampunk fantasy London versus real London to show a shift in the space-time continuum.

Notice the similarity, though? Not here.

In Miéville’s work cities are living, breathing characters, and understanding how they work and their development is crucial to understanding the stories, whether it’s London or New Crobuzon. I envy his capacity to do that. He lives in London, so he’s got a rich tapestry to work with. What am I going to write about. Who cares if a monster knocks over a McDonalds? This character worked at Wal Mart? Wow, what a unique experience shared by millions of people in the exact same copy-paste store across the country. My suburb is a haven of suppressed rot and dysfunction? Guess what: they all are, and have been for decades, and better people than me have written about it a hundred times over.

It’s something I’d like to work on. Create a city that feels local. Or just use the local city, try to pry some culture out of it in spite of its best efforts. So that’s what’s been on my mind, writing-wise, lately, aside from simply trying to find a time to write. The writing group is planning our annual “Story Every Day” event for this month, so I’m hoping to get something down in the next few weeks.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go sit in traffic for 40 minutes. Now listening to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Urban zombie apocalypse.


2 thoughts on “Cities and Cities”

  1. A-grade grumpery, Alex. Couldn’t agree more. San Antonio ain’t perfect – once you get out of the downtown/northside university bubble, it’s a lot like every other city in this forsaken state (not totally, but pretty much like). But at least we HAVE this BUBBLE. I can walk or bike to bars, parks, restaurants, and grocery stores. And it’s made such a difference, in money spent on motoring, and in general quality of life. Totally worth living right next to the train tracks.

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