Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The Unnatural City (2017-04-02)
Last year I wrote two interrelated essays, Touch Me Not and Books Are Sharks. The former is more of a meditation than a classic essay, considering the perhaps unexpected relationships between current social attitudes towards the sense of touch and physicality in north american mainstream culture and imaginings of what technology will be like in the future. There I found, and perhaps this is no surprise when among the various tech moguls it is considered unproblematic to refer to the evolutionary marvels at the ends of our arms as "meat styluses," that minimizing touch, minimizing a sense of physicality in the world is central to most tech visions. This is not exclusive to people busy trying to persuade us that the internet of spying things is just what we always wanted. It is a surprisingly strong trend in north american science fiction as well. Not an exclusive trend by any means, because like anyone else I can immediately think of impressive exceptions (Jeff VanderMeer, anyone in the anthologies edited by Athena Andreadis...). But still, it's there, and heavily reinforced by the current crop of tech marketing.
A key reflection of this trend is the unnatural city, or perhaps I should label it, the uber-unnatural city. Cities are incredibly problematic socially and environmentally, and I say this as someone who lives in one. In science fiction, or to be more ecumenical, speculative fiction worlds, the current problems we wrestle with in cities are either somehow magicked away, or the city is a complete dystopia. Regardless, these fictional cities often share an extreme version of the real thing, in that they are described in a way that indicates they were built by completely tearing apart the land they are sited on. Hills levelled, gullies filled in, terracing applied, rivers straightened or enclosed and redefined as sewers. Followed of course, by the endless, grinding work of keeping all that together against gravity and a thousand other factors as the land struggles to get loose again.
Hence pictures like the one illustrating this thoughtpiece. Not only are there more roads, the roads soar through the air, physics be damned. Though I suppose this may be somewhat more plausible than everybody having individual hovercars. There are often no plants or trees, unless they are restricted to flower beds and that sort of thing. If you spend some time browsing the site this picture is quoted from, soon you'll bump into that perennial favourite, the city under a giant glass or other transparent material, sealed off from whatever horrors the weather can throw at it. One of my favourite versions of this happens to be from a programme I have already referenced many times on the Moonspeaker, Doctor Who. The fancier version comes from the reboot, versus the original which tended to lack the budget for pretend aerial shots by the time the planet Gallifrey became more of a location. The city isn't just under a dome, the dome has an extra chunk of city sitting on top.
The representations of enclosure and sealing off are important for the unnatural city, perhaps because this suggests an imposition of order. A place for everything and everything in its place, as the awful cliché runs, yet it also reiterates Mary Douglas' definition of pollution as "matter out of place." To exist and function, the unnatural city must make a place, though I think it would be more accurate in the real world instances to say that the unnatural city first unmakes a place, and then imposes a type of space. "Space" in the sense of something abstracted, think a grid along which all streets and buildings are arranged regardless of intervening things like those pesky hills, gullies, and rivers. That's an easy easy example with considerable antiquity. But that's not the only abstract space available for imposition. Other types have been based on specific interpretations of texts considered to have divine origins, or reflect a scaled up version of a key type of building, or even the apparent arrangement of the local zodiac.
It isn't necessary for the city to be unnatural in our imaginings or in reality, though I concede if we start building places for ourselves to live that don't start from a basis in destroying the places that were already there and the assumption that there's bound to be another site to move to when this one is spoiled, those may be so different from cities as we know them now that we are forced to call them something else. We may even get to call them "natural" since I suspect if we manage to build such places, we'll also have finally overcome the illusion that we humans are not animals with the supposed right to destroy any other beings that aren't human as we see fit.