taCity

Conceptualising Fictional Cities

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Coruscant, capital of the Galactic Republic, an ecumenopolis with a population of 1 trillion

Technology is reproducing cities very rapidly. Or shall I say producing cities? Not artificial cities, but experiential cities that are pure hyper-reality, a simulacrum space par excellence (to mesh Baurdiallardian and Deleuzian language). Reproducing cities is as easy as driving a car with a camera mounted on top and putting the results online, but virtually producing entirely new cities from scratch requires a certain technology that can interpret the most creative of urban planners/builders; a technology which has only really been available in the last few decades or so. Visual arts technologies are creating architectural masterpieces that we immerse ourselves in, allowing us to exit the desert of the real and enter an avatar-populated hyper-reality which invokes upotian, but often dytopian fantasies of excess, violence, hedonism and inequalities. Film and computer game technological production techniques are at the forefront of this process and our cultural landscape is awash with these hyper-real cities that we can plug into and add to our memories of mental cityscape construction (a notable exception to this is the wonderfully crafted Ecstacity by Nigel Coates which exists on the pages of it’s Guide Book). But given this increase in the variety of destinations, which city is the best one to visit? Liberty City? Caprica? How can we analyse these fictional hyper-real cities, and how can we navigate them to fully comprehend the multiplicities of narratives, read the layers of urban palimpsests and listen to the heteroglossic voices? This post tries to find out….

Mega City One

With a population of 800 million (before the Apocolypse War in 2104 halved it’s population), it is safe to assume that you’ll have a no trouble finding someone to talk to. Incorporating much of the Eastern seaboard of what was the United States, Mega City One consumed the old cities of New York, Washington D.C and Boston and continued to extend Southward (a detailed history of this gargantuan city-region can be found here). Mega City One however is infamous for it’s dictatorial regime of Judges. Having done away with the US constitution in 2070, they have the power to execute criminals on the spot, with no legal recourse. Caffeine and nicotine are illegal (although smoking is permitted in the 1 only Smoketorium in the city)  as are many other drugs, as is sugar. Despite this authoritarian and quasi-fascist state, crime is still a real problem in Mega City One. The oppressive architecture of striation has a Panopticon-esque effect on the psyche of this sprawling megalopolis’ inhabitants, and in the lower-levels of the city, crime and social unrest is rife. It is not until you reach the upper echelons of the mile-high skyscrapers that you can start to relax in your surroundings. The smooth space attributed to those who can afford to glide omni-directionally through (and across) the city is liberating from the oppressive striation below – both in terms of the aesthetic physicality as well as the social oppression by law; the Judges don’t do heights. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) noted that smooth and striated spaces are not in absolute opposition to each other per se, but different manifestations of the self’s alignment with space and they are simultaneous and anachronistic. Speed and movement are key tenants of the nomos (the population of smooth space), and Deleuze and Guattari also note that the act of ‘smoothing out’ striation is enacted by war machines (1987: 426); and it would difficult to argue against the Judges, and indeed the criminal leaders of Mega City One as war machines in their attempts to resist striation. Indeed it is a literal war, with deaths on both sides, which can only lead us to the conclusion that the striation is total, except for those wealthy enough to escape. So, like the Greek polis, Mega City One is indeed the striated city par excellence.

Zion

This subterranean city is the last bastion of humanity against destructive malevolent machines bent on the eradication of the human race, but not a lot else going for it. With an absence of sunlight and a constant dry heat, Zion is an uncomfortable place to be stranded. It is however, where those unplugged from ‘the Matrix’ go and as a result the city has a great deal of libertarian values. Those people bred by the machines on the surface who rejected the ‘reality’ that was given to them; those who questioned their existence and had an inert fascination and/or subconscious intimation and prescience; these are the people that tend to have a more liberal and progressive view on life, and hence Zion is populated by intellectuals, spiritualists and minorities. The raw hedonistic energy that pulsates from the Temple area is bordering on the orgasmic; but the lack of cleanliness and living quarters for a quarter of a million people that are prison-like (and the irk of an army of killer robots destroying the city every 100 years) means the people here are generally pessimistic (this may also be to a lack of Vitamin D). The city is vertically structured, with the ‘dock’ area nearest the earth’s surface, with the living quarters below, and then the ‘engineering level’. This oblique zoning technique would have Jane Jacobs spinning in her grave (I’m sure she would have been unplugged almost immediately). The lack of mixed-used zoning breeds little in the way of collaborative action and community spirit which is probably another reason why the population of Zion are generally dissatisfied. The city’s economy is purely subsistence, no currency exists other than goodwill. While technologically quite advanced, it’s societal infrastructure is surprisingly pre-historic. Of course this is to be expected from a city that is built miles underground and has to rebuild itself every century or so, but given the intellectualism and community-enabling spirit that must be one of the first criteria of freedom from the matrix, Zion is surprisingly stuck in the ways of modernist thinking. Le Corbusier would no doubt have approved of Zion given the living quarters bare all the hallmarks of his Immeubles Villes. However, since the ‘truce’ was called with the machines, the city is now (fingers-crossed) free from it’s centennial destruction cycle, and hopefully it can develop beyond this ‘Le Corbusien’ stage of development and flourish into the collaborative, multifarious city that it’s inhabitants deserve.

Liberty City*

“Did they die of natural causes?”
“I suppose… A bullet in the head is as close to natural causes as anything in this city”.

Liberty City is a violent place. Probably the most violent city in America, more even than New York which it bares a striking resemblance to (as the video above will tell you). Indeed, the wonderfully Koyaanisqatsi-inspired machinima offering (complete with Philip Glass soundtrack) of the above video belies the fact that Liberty City is full of crime, social unrest and violence. The streets are confusing; apart from the typically North American gridded layout of Downtown Algonquin, streets double back on themselves with back alleys and gardens providing a means of short-cutting longer journeys. The city is over-run by feuding gangs – Russians, Italians and Irish families are caught in conflicts, robbing each other and killing each other, mostly through the notorious hitman and general misanthropist, Niko Bellic. The city’s labyrinthine layout and it’s archaic but efficient public transport system however make for the ideal opportunities for modern flâneurism. Taking a walk downtown, you can explore all the sides streets and some of shops at will, and feel free to have a look inside any unlocked door – a true psychogeographers dream.  Indeed, if you manage to commandeer a vehicle (which is fairly easy as car-jacking is a way of life), then you can perform dérive in the car/van/truck/bus/helicopter/boat and go wherever you can fit the vehicle – no one will bother you, and  if they do, just run them down. I’m not entirely sure this is the sort of performativity that Charles Baudelaire had in mind when he described the flâneur, but nevertheless, Liberty City is perfect place just to wonder and drift – and don’t worry if you run anyone over and accidentally kill them while doing so, no one seems to bat an eye-lid, and the police seem to have ‘radial blindness’, in that if you can escape to a certain distance away from them, they seem to ignore you. And even if you do get arrested, the corruption is such that you can probably ‘get bail’ depending on how much green you can stuff into a brown paper envelope. Liberty City is then a perfect city to play out your sadomasochistic fantasies – no crime is too great, no amount of recklessness and social antagonism is intolerable and no boundary is impassable.

Libria

If you thought Mega City One was a totalitarian dystopic nightmare, at least you can indulge in culture (of sorts); you can appreciate a piece of art or visit a strip club without fear of ‘disappearing’ into the void. Here in the ironically called Libria, if you so much as glance at a Rembrandt you’ll be reprimanded severely. If you live in this city then you are forced to take Prozium, a drug designed to suppress your  emotions as it is human emotions that are the root of all conflict and evil. As such the crowds in Libria are insipidly dreary, monotone, charisma-deficient and awash with a homogeneity that crushes a multiplicity into a singularity.  Every man in Libria is, as Edgar Allen Poe once said, “a man of the crowd“. And much like Poe’s l’homme des foules, every man in Libria is undoubtedly,  consciously or otherwise, harbours a deep crime like Poe’s decrepit old man, a crime of potentiality. But a ‘crime’ of potential emotional expression is only brought about by the inference and enforcement of the monotone crowd by a dictatorial state. For while the purpose of the repression of emotions is to stigmatise difference and variance, it only serves to increase the scale of violence of any potential (and indeed inevitable) deviation from the imposed uniformity. The ‘crime’ then of Poe’s old man is his incommensurability, his irreducibility to the crowd – something which is not acceptable in Libria and punished severely.

Caprica City

In the Capricorn Constellation, Caprica City is perhaps the most decadent place of the Twelve Colonies, that is of course, until it was destroyed in The Fall. A city that is obsessed with technological advancement, Caprica City was the birth place of the Cylons – the robot race that were designed to help the humans, but instead attempted their genocide. Daniel Graystone, the founder of Graystone Industries has a lot to answer for. Although, you can perhaps understand his reasoning for building artificial intelligence capable of committing a holocaust, as he longed to be with his murdered daughter once more. But, like the majority of the city’s inhabitants, his self-indulgence (perhaps an outcome of widespread polytheism) brings about a city where technology is all encompassing and dangerously ubiquitous. A technology that is affective of an incessant materialism, and hence constructs a faux-utopia; a balanced, yet qualitiative multiplicity predicated on a blinding Epicureanism. Is it any wonder then that the city was the first to be nuked by the Cylons, they must have despised every inch of it.

*For me, Liberty City is the best fictional city ever. Whatever ‘best’ means…

This post was inspired by one the best WebUrbanist posts I have read in a long time…

Author: Oli

I am a career academic with training in urban and economic geography. I have academic interests in philosophy, the creative industries (film and music in particular), urban studies and the viable synergies between them and aim to contribute to these literatures with my forthcoming publications. I am also a keen freelance writer, musician and footballer, with the persuasion to indulge in these activities to excess…

5 thoughts on “Conceptualising Fictional Cities

  1. hard… population will grow… can we make tehnology more mild ??!!??

  2. Good article, Stumbled upon your blog through Google image search.

    I am also interested in futuristic cities and I had visualized futuristic Singapore cityscape for my college degree research.

    and here is link to download my research paper

    http://www.mediafire.com/?1dmyzvwzyig

    thought you might be interested.

  3. fascinating, food for thought, thanks

  4. Pingback: Visualising Cities Part 7: Gotham, A City Devoid of Life «

  5. Thanks for the post for composing “Conceptualising Fictional Cities ”.
    I reallymight undoubtedly be back again for a lot more browsing and commenting in the near future.
    I am grateful, Keisha

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