A writer’s life is not easy. In addition to creating compelling characters and a gripping plot, they must (or should) anchor it all with a convincing setting. It’s not an easy task to create a new world, but when done right, it adds an element that enhances the story in a rather exceptional way. A good setting serves as another character, one that has a unique relationship with each of the other characters.
Worlds are huge, though. I thought it would be fun to look at some of the most memorable cities in spec fic (which has an inherent creative advantage over non-genre stuff). Most of these are safe enough to visit and comfortable enough to live in; though, just like in the real world, it would be better to go as a rich person than a poor one.
In the case of series, I listed the first book but many of these cities have subsequent appearances.
Who: Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur
Why: “Villjamur was a granite fortress. Its main access was through three consecutive gates, and there the garuda retained the advantage over any invading armies. In the center of the city, high up and pressed against the rockface, beyond a latticework of bridges and spires, was Balmacara, the vast Imperial residence, a cathedrallike construct of dark basalt and slick-glistening mica. In this weather the city seemed unreal.” (Nights of Villjamur)
Who: Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen
Why: Ambergris is a sprawling city built by sentient mushroom men who were driven out by humans. There is no government, publishing houses are the titans of industry and the populace erupts once a year, during the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, in an orgy of violence and murder that has something to do with the surviving mushroom men.
Who: China Meiville’s Perdido Street Station
Why: “… a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races [including cactus men, bug people, and spider gods] live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores.” (wikipedia)
Who: Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora
Why: Based on medieval Venice, this corrupt city is half-run by crime syndicates. Filled with mysterious volcanic glass, this island is a place of secrets. It’s a vast, beautiful city with a long history.
Who: Fritz Leiber’s Swords and Deviltry
Why: If the stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser seem prototypical sword and sorcery, it’s because they completely are. (It was Leiber himself who suggested the term sword and sorcery.) Highly entertaining and superbly written, these books would go on to influence everyone from Gary Gygax to Terry Pratchett.
“Lankhmar is richly described as a populous, labyrinthine city rife with corruption; it is decadent and squalid in roughly equal parts and said to be so shrouded by smog that the stars are rarely sighted (the city’s alternate name is “The City of Seventy Score Thousand Smokes”)…Streets in Lankhmar are often evocatively named (the Thieves’ Guild is located on Cheap Street near Death’s Alley and Murder Alley.)…The main meeting place is the Plaza of Dark Delights. ” (wikipedia)
Who: Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone
Why: Decadent capital of a fading Empire, the Dreaming City is the only surviving city on the island of Melnibone. The parallels to London are evident, but the depth of the city is as exotic as any in fiction.
“The architecture of Imrryr is characterized by tall and slender many-colored towers topped with banners. According to tradition, when an emperor dies, a tower is torn down and a new one built to bear the deceased ruler’s name.” (wikipedia)
Who: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation
Why: Perhaps the original fictional megalopolis, this planet sized city of 45 million is not a place for a peaceful getaway. In fact, it’s so built up that residents have to take a special trip to see the sky (though not many appear to do so.)
“He could not see the ground. It was lost in the ever increasing complexities of man-made structures. He could see no horizon other than that of metal against sky, stretching out to almost to almost uniform grayness, and he knew it was so over all the land-surface of the planet…There was no green to be seen, no soil, no life other than man.” (Foundation)
City of Ash
Who: Tim Aker’s The Horns of Ruin
Why: “Ash is a funny city. Not funny, like rag clowns and puppet shows. Funny like it shouldn’t exist. Funny like it should collapse in on itself in a cloud of shattered glass and burning streets.
What is today the city of Ash was once the capital city of the Titans. Their throne, their birthplace, a city of temples and totems and grand technology. The name of that city is lost to us, but it nestled in a crater, like a giant bowl of stone sprinkled with buildings and roads and carved riverways. “
What are some of your favorite fictional cities? Please let me know in the comments.