In the middle of designing a city for a story, and struggling with the repetitive tropes involved in cities. I know many of these tropes directly relate to architectural precedent, and the architectural precedent often has a very informed purpose, but when appropriating the city typology for use in a story, the act of choice instead of actual historical evolution casts a different light on the matter.
terraces/levels (steep topography): often necessary in history because of limited arable land, need to be close to water ways, better defensible location, limited ability to terraform, better views! Storywise, this almost always becomes a framework to describe class structure.
walls within walls: again, defensible structure. Feudal. City starts with the ‘citadel’, which was an original family with some power/military call. Others come to the city to service the citadel family, when enough cluster around the wall, maybe a couple of wars where the houses are burned down, the ruling family feels obligation to protect those who service them, hence a second wall is built. Those who service those who service the ruling family arrive, clustering outside that second wall, until a third wall is built, and…again, we have a city structure defined by class.
density: the richer you are, the more land you own. the poorer you are, the more dense the area to live in. again, class structure. density in ‘affluent’ areas reaches a tipping point, the rich move out and start a new hub elsewhere, and what was once a mansion becomes a mass tenement. water: either becomes a resource, vulnerability or a weapon (for example, a city which floods on command as a defence structure - flood zones become slums, high points become ruling family housing / key seats of government).
All of the above as setting become a part of literary conflict: say the story involves any kind of struggle against something, the cityscape itself is representative of a subtextual or textual class struggle, an ongoing dialogue re resource, presence, prestige. (If you could just get into the next level up…) This presence/repetition is not unusual because I’m hard pressed to think of a story which didn’t either neutrally present class structure as a given (physical city structure is also presented neutrally, but also does not contradict the classism) or directly involve class struggles (and use the physical structure of the city as a clear representation of this class division).
Ok, says my brain, but speculative fiction now. How about cities without class. Cluster of standardised housing typology, mid density, communal ‘village hub’ on the ground floor for each residential cluster, easy access to amenity for all, rules about density, no walled enclaves. Government initiated housing placement, so you get residential villages of mostly doctors and nurses close to hospitals, mostly farmers and vets and mechanics near agricultural land. Would it have to be within a culture that never had class to begin with? There would have to be an abundance of resource. No fight for survival. A benign climate. But in such a situation then who steps forward to drive people who are otherwise content to produce at great effort a structure which will only perpetuate an existing contentment? No notable improvement or improved chance of survival. Spaceships land on untouched planet and construct these to fit a model preconceived, to avoid ‘mistakes of the past’. Ok. A series of Corbusian blocks on a grassy terrain. But how does a story pan out if the environment itself is not a risk, if cities exist for no real reason except humans are lazy and social and this way is the easiest way. Do the characters all ‘slot into’ their roles in the environment like submariners into their roles — if someone fucks up, everyone’s life is at risk, so there cannot be a struggle against the mechanism they are within because if there is then all will die. But in a benign environment, what is that struggle against? What drives the need to work together? (This is sounding less like a communist city than a bureaucratic city). If there is conflict with the environment, then does it become yet another typical struggle between stasis (represented by the submariner’s utopia — as long as everyone plays their part nothing will go wrong) or change (which necessitates struggle, achievement, the opportunity to win and the risk of losing - becomes the usual utopia is actually dystopia).
But say, take the question about why people live like this away, even as a background this would seriously impact the kind of believable, realistic character actions and thoughts which could occur. The city is an inherent representation of the culture, and the city then informs the bounds within which the culture can develop, even if that development is in conflict with the city-culture, etceteceasdkjfhsadlhfljkdfbsd.
I do not know where this is going, except as a complaint that I’m finding it difficult to break away from stereotypical representations of class divisions using physical city infrastructure, and beginning to wonder if setting a story in a city will automatically shape the story into one with an inherently classist text or subtext.
OKAY I HAVE SO MANY FEELS let me try to work backwards. It’s been a while since I whipped my critical thinking and/or urban design hats on, so this is going to be rough.
Taking the idea of a classless city: what does that mean? Assuming that everyone is, for a given value of equal, equal, I assume that means (speaking sort of like an economist here) something like equal access to technology, basic (and tertiary) amenities, currency, so on and so forth. That sounds to me like the platonic form of a post-scarcity economy; so you can do anything and be anything and build anything, in any way you wish — so what?
- The greatest barrier to living becomes transportation: presuming that teleportation or whatever doesn’t exist and is not universally available, how do you get to where you’ve built whatever you’ve built?
- Allowing for 1 — the design of cities abandons functionality and tends towards being entirely aesthetic? After all, if you can both access and do anything within your universe’s realm of capabilities (some may invent spaceships; other may just want to build a fire; who knows what the upper/lower bounds of technology or societal advancement are - it doesn’t matter), then designing for convenience seems utterly pointless after a while.
- Not allowing for 1 — with transportation as a barrier, doesn’t class come back into play all over again? Access to better transportation than others will necessarily create regions (or classes) of more/less privileged people. Here, I have access to a swimming pool and you don’t, sort of thing. How to combat this? Either you build a thousand million cities and distribute the population so that the marginal distinction made by access issues becomes negligible, or… You end up with people fighting over resources.
OKAY STOP ALLOW ME TO ILLUSTRATE with the best example of speculative/sci-fi writing I know with regards to this issue. /whips out Iain M. Banks’ The Culture, a purposefully post-scarcity space opera, complete with AI and a general attitude of, ‘why not?’
From Look to Windward, chapter 9 (Pylon Country)
Reblog for more interesting commentary. Agreed on post-scarcity society being the only society where infrastructure can be at least tending away from classist structures, but at some point the “why / why not” divide still becomes a matter of whose “why not” has more power than the “why”.**
I read a story a few years ago which had an alien planet where everyone was effectively “haves” — and they did have instantaneous transportation. Except the instantaneous transportation was the only thing which cost a lot of money. The 1980s Thatcher-era human transplanted into the alien world was suddenly and instantly relieved that thankfully, amidst all this smug, superior centralist utopia of nil discrimination, equal access to resource, freedom of choice so on, there was some evidence that these non-humans were human after all.
So perhaps to write a city without class is to write a city which isn’t human.
Interestingly, back to the Banks’ tangent where AIs are recognised as independent lifeforms, their approach to building (and travel, which they combine by operating as giant, enormous city/planet Ships) is, Really, Why The Hell Not?
You have the option to be cremated and turned into a vinyl record full of your favorite music?
i’m not going to join the black parade
i’m going to become the black parade
Your memory will carry on
I JSUT SCREAMED HOLY SH IT
this means so much to me. so much
Okay but like actually this is the most thoughtful gift IN THE WHOLE WORLD.
It might seem to make more sense to give Ron the precious family heirloom (remember that Molly’s brother Fabian died in the First Wizarding War; Molly has held onto his watch out of sentimentality since then). But Ron is the sixth son in his (canonically financially-struggling) family. He’s been forced into hand-me-downs his whole life. If he’d gotten the watch with a dent in the back, he wouldn’t have appreciated it; he’d only have seen the flaw. And if his mum bought Harry a new watch instead of getting Ron one, Ron would have resented that. A new watch was a worthwhile expense to get Ron a rare taste of the luxury and individual attention he has always craved.
Harry, though. Harry has money; Harry has new things. What Harry does not have is family. Harry is an orphan. Other than one photo album and the invisibility cloak, he doesn’t have anything that came with family history attached. What Molly does here is give him that; she makes him part of the family, symbolically, by giving him an emotionally significant if physically imperfect item. She gives him love in a tangible form.
This makes me CRY
realization: the hufflepuff common room/dormitories is a freaking hobbit hole.
to make my point clear, this comes up if you put “hufflepuff common room” in google images:
which is, you know, Bag End.
but also here:
this, combined with the fact that our dormitories are right next to the kitchen leaves me with one conclusion:
hufflepuffs are, in fact, hobbits.