This is a fortnightly column which places two books – one science fiction or fantasy, the other nonfiction – in conversation with each other.
First, a short primer for why this column even exists, when science fiction/fantasy (SFF) and nonfiction seem to make for odd bedfellows. This column is mostly trying to think about SFF as a genre that has always provided and continues to provide answers to the questions that nonfiction poses: after all this history and analysis of our current affairs, what does our future look like? What can it look like? SFF is a genre that, at its best, imagines worlds of alternate histories and alternate futures, presenting humanity in all its richness and strangeness. It’s also a genre that defamiliarizes with world-building and new internal logics. Digging deep enough often reveals not the anxieties of alien civilizations but our own, obliquely reflected but more piercing for how, eventually, they are revealed to be deeply felt truths.
Today’s books, the Craft Sequence (which is actually five books, oops) by Max Gladstone and A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook, would probably be shelved on opposite ends of the bookstore. The former is a series of loosely interlocking stories, set in the same post-industrial, post-war fantasyland where magic, also known as Craft, is surprisingly familiar and modern, and understood more in the language of economics, finance, and litigation than that of potions and mystical forces; it is a world where priestesses are also investment bankers and legal contracts, drawn up three-dimensionally with Craft, literally bind their signatories to a new version of reality. Meanwhile, the latter book is a socio-historical guide through four larger-than-life cities—St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai—that articulates how the interweaving of colonialism, internationalism, and the anxieties over modernity and national identity in a globalized world culminated in these cities as explicitly state-building and state-strengthening projects. What these books have in common is their use of cities as a framework and battleground in which the most pressing concerns of our society are played out. In fact, the urban spaces illustrated are not just empty settings, but characters in and of themselves, representing and demonstrating the worldviews of its creators or residents and arguing for their way of life.
Gladstone’s books are concerned not with Arthurian quests or big battles between Good and Evil; rather, their conflicts sound like they could have been lifted from a history textbook or even today’s newspapers. In Last First Snow, Temoc, a veteran warrior-priest of the God Wars, clashes with his old opponent, the King in Red (an immortal Craftsman) and his consortium of investors, when they plan to redevelop an impoverished part of the city of Dresediel Lex. To do so, they would have to remove the old protection wards laid down by the Gods Temoc and his fellowship believed in, and replace them with bonds of Craft. As the civic protests organized by Temoc and his fellow community leaders strengthen, lawyers are brought in to negotiate a settlement between the current community and the encroaching forces of capital and commerce. It’s the story of gentrification and rampant developmentalism we see in our cities today, but with necromancers and human sacrifice thrown in. Likewise, the latest installment, A Ruin of Angels, is the story of conservationists and the indigenous people of a war-torn land who reclaim their colonized city—sometimes literally, through a process called delving, where, in places where reality is worn out and history seeps through, one can slip into the suppressed alternate reality of their home that has been precariously layered over by the invading Iskari empire’s own strictly controlled version.
Using the wholly ‘unreal’ conceits of magic and necromancy, gods and rituals, Gladstone dismantles our modern day’s discontents with globalization and homogeneity, crass commercialism, the struggle between late-stage capitalism and authenticity, and our colonial hangovers which have festered unacknowledged, all with a deftness that leaves you blinking at the end, surprised by the roundabout familiarity of it all.
A History of Future Cities is the perfect accompaniment to the sharp-edged mythos of the Craft Sequence. Common themes of modernization, cultural imperialism and supremacy, and globalization-as-Westernization run through the narratives of the four “dis-orient-ed metropolises” that Brook guides us through. The book traces the cities’ artificial lineages, starting with Peter the Great’s master plan of recreating Europe by scratch on the banks of the Neva, a marshy swampland completely inhospitable to urban life, to Dubai’s towering accomplishments that, lost in the clouds, obscure the realities of the people who toil beneath them. At the same time, he lays out a meta-narrative of global developmentalism that exchanges thoughtful design with sustainable dwelling in mind for the bragging rights of the biggest, shiniest, and tallest. He describes the rapid proliferation of the homogenized global city, where distinguishing between two cities in two completely different countries is almost impossible; void of local elements, which are often seen as folksy or backward, the new city is a metastasizing bug, self-replicating over and over again to valorize their nation-states in the race for global status.
Brook asserts that these four cities are “ideas as much as cities, metaphors in stone and steel for the explicit goal of Westernization,” and its residents must contend with the potential to “untether oneself from the past and build the future” in their new, modern cities even as they question what they have lost—autonomy, authenticity, ancestry—in the process. Similarly, the characters in the Craft Sequence must grapple with the complexities of their history that is often embedded in the cities that have emerged from the ashes of the Wars; from our own histories, we know that things are rarely as simple as we’d like them to be. Are the people of Alikand right to remain tethered, quite literally, to the past, when the new Iskari empire promises stability and economic growth? Is Temoc, a priest who used to sacrifice his own congregation to his strange and capricious God, so clearly the David against the undead Craftsmen’s Goliath? These are questions that play out most dramatically and potently in the theatre that is the urban space, a space that also serves as a microcosm for our global community.
Henri Lefebvre first coined the term “the right to the city,” the freedom to not just build and dwell in the city, but the freedom to change it and have it change oneself. The Craft Sequence uses world-building and fantastical metaphors to illuminate the central urban and socio-economic ills we face, while A History of Future Cities stitches together the melancholy pasts and the brimming future possibilities of its very real cities to ask us what we want our urban spaces and lives to look like, but the quest for “the right to the city” is something that shines through in both.