Bruce Sterling And Jeff VanderMeer Offer 2 Lessons On How To Build A Science-Fictional City

Science-fiction fans and writers, alike, tend to think of cities in too simplistic a fashion. Quotes from The Caryatids author Bruce Sterling and City Of Saints And Madmen author Jeff VanderMeer explain how you should really view urban infrastructure.

Bruce Sterling, interviewed by Slashdot's readers in 1999, says that what we think of as community in meatspace is actually a collection of complex infrastructure, and we tend to understimate how vital that stuff is:

Q: It seems that many modern science fiction authors see the future as a time when society gives up on "physical" community in favor of technology. (i.e ruined govt, city states, corporate martial powers, etc..) Do you see this as an amplification of the state of community in today's world, or is it simply a convenient literary device?

A: I think the physical community was a "technology." Irrigation canals, harbors, army barracks, police stations, cathedrals, factories, clocks, forks, running water, that's all "technology."

There are a lot more ruined governments right now than there are sound ones. That's not a literary device. Go try living under a ruined government. Moscow right now — it's about the most William-Gibsonian landscape you are ever likely to see.

And more recently in 2006, BLDGBLOG talked to Jeff VanderMeer about the biggest mistake that science-fiction writers tend to make in thinking about cities and their infrastructure:

BLDGBLOG: How do you achieve – or hope to achieve – believability in an urban setting, giving readers something that (they think) might actually exist?

VanderMeer: As a novelist who is uninterested in replicating "reality" but who is interested in plausibility and verisimilitude, I look for the organizing principles of real cities and for the kinds of bizarre juxtapositions that occur within them. Then I take what I need to be consistent with whatever fantastical city I'm creating. For example, there is a layering effect in many great cities. You don't just see one style or period of architecture. You might also see planning in one section of a city and utter chaos in another. The lesson behind seeing a modern skyscraper next to a 17th-century cathedral is one that many fabulists do not internalize and, as a result, their settings are too homogenous.

Somehow these two quotes, juxtaposed, feel like fruitful ground for some urban world-building. Don't understimate the weight of the past — and don't forget just how much complex technology has gone into building a physical community. Any city, especially a future one, will be littered with the debris of past community-building, and will most likely be broken in some fascinating ways. In other words: don't make your fictional cities too tidy, or you'll be left with a sterile planned community.

Moscow decay image via Seriykotik1970 on Flickr.