Thursday, July 21, 2011


On Saturday, Dundee, Barbecue Man and I got on a bus bound for Boston. Barbecue Man was flying home, to Texas, while Dundee and I would spend a few days in Boston.

While checking into my hotel I noticed my Swedish cell phone was gone. Most likely it fell out of my pocket on the bus or in the taxi to the hotel. D'oh. So I had to deal with that, without any luck (still gone gone without a trace), and then check in before Dundee and I went to Readercon.

Our intention was to sit in on a number of panels, look around and then hook up with a bunch of OdFellows. We missed the Urban (Fantasy) Renewal panel, which could have been interesting, and sat in on Location as Character with Djinni, a panel that turned out to be mindnumbingly boring.

After that, Dundee left for something else, which was his loss because the Cities, Real and Imaginary turned out to be really good.

The subject of the panel was:
Great stories have been set in cities both real and imagined. Does a real city require different writing techniques from an imagined one? How well do you need to know (and research) an actual city? If you're making one up, how do you apply your knowledge of real cities? When can you "cheat"? When do you have to?

The first panel member to speak (I think it was Lila Garrott) has some sort of academic background in analysing cities (I didn't catch what exactly) and opened by saying that whatever strange cities we come up, few if any will rival the strangeness to be found in the cities of this world.

She used Tokyo as an example. The city was built as a spiral, moving out from the Imperial Palace, with those closest to the Emperor and the most powerful living closest to the palace. The form came about because everyone wanted to be as close as their status allowed them to be. This is an example of organic growth of a city, something which the panel concluded is lacking in fictional cities, which are constructed rather than organic.

Personally I would love to create a fictional city and set a series of stories in it, especially if I could start from zero and have it grow along a timeline.

The panel leader, Leah Bobet, went on to say that cities in fiction don't break. There are no subway problems, unless it's important to move the plot forward, and the city doesn't feel like the ecosystem it should be. Because of this, a fictional rarely feels lived in, but comes off as a stage, a backdrop to the story being told instead of an integral part of it.

During the panel, China Miéville's city New Crobuzon was brought up over and over again as an example of a working fictional city. I agree that New Crobuzon has texture, almost as if the smog and dirt and drone of the city leaps up from the page, but as he does so may other times, Miéville takes it one step too far and crams one thing too many in there. Just like Ben & Jerry's. If only those frikkin' chocolate fish weren't there in Phish Food . . .

Back to the panel. They argued that a city of one thing, such as a City of Flowers, where everything is tied to flowers, is one neighborhood in a major metropolis like New York City, and not plausible as a concept for a whole city. Instead of looking at the city and applying Weird to the whole thing, authors should apply Weird to individual neighborhoods. This is something that Miéville does really well in Perdido Street Station (we all agreed), and that more authors should strive for.

As to real cities, it was quickly agreed that the author should spend time in any city he or she wishes to set a story in. This goes without saying, I think, but at the same time there is much to be said for Google Earth and other internet resources. Combined with an actual visit an author can get a clear image of the city.

Lots more was said, but this was all the notes I took.

During the coming year I will work on short stories but also see if it's plausible to set a novel in a fantastic version of Constantinople (Istanbul was Constantinople. Now it's Istanbul. Not Constantinople. Been a long time gone, Constantinople) in the 11th century. If I come to the conclusion that it can and should be done, I will probably go there next year.

Outside the panels, I bought too many books (as in more than none), found a ninja rubber duckie for a friend, talked for a while with John Joseph Adams who lectured for us at Odyssey a few days earlier, and sat down with a dozen or so OdFellows and talked about this and that.

Then we fled, Dundee and I, because the post-Odyssey exhaustion crashed down on us.

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