Cities contain highly-concentrated human activity. That's why they represent our glorious, high-tech future - and threaten us with dystopian social collapse. This week on io9, our Future Metro section explores the wonder of cities in fiction, art, and real life.
One of the most haunting images from recent science fiction is the garbage city where trash-compacting robot Wall-E has lived for hundreds of years. Abandoned by the humans who polluted it, the Earth has become a planet of skyscrapers made of compact blocks of garbage created by Wall-E and his cohort. But now even Wall-E's fellow robots have become garbage, their bodies good for nothing but scavenging spare parts.
The garbage cities of Wall-E represent a classic fear expressed in both fiction and public discussion about human civilization. Put simply, we fear that the good parts of our cities - the culture and science and progress - will be unable to outrun the waste, crime, and greed spawned by urban decay.
But the city is also utopian, representing the very best that human civilization has to offer. Cities tease us with the possibility of living in a place where clean energy and scientific progress have released humans from the realm of necessity. No longer forced to squabble over scarce resources to survive, the humans in these cities are free to explore ideas, creating new technologies and art.
The density of human life in cities breeds what Fritz Lieber dubbed "megalopolisomancy," or city magic. With so many lives interconnected by time and space in one small area, you're bound to start seeing ghosts. There's something dark and mystical about urban life, where possibility shades into probability without much warning. Spasms of weath generate surreal structures and events; vast communities of artists build imaginary worlds in the middle of the street. If mirrored buildings can disappear into clouds, and shop windows promise perfect bodies draped in gold, why can't vampires lurk in alleys and mutants live in storm drains?
All week long, io9 will take you into the breathtaking, bizarre, and mysterious world of the city. We'll cover everything from great science fictional cities, to cities of the future that already exist today. In art and in stories, we'll explore urban fantasy, urban reality, and urban science. Cities are humanity at its highest concentration. As they stand or fall, so does humanity.