Last week, The Kitschies hosted Invisible Cities, a discussion about the use of cities in fantasy. The evening was the latest in the organiser's irregular series of themed evenings.
Invisible Cities took place at Foyles and featured a panel of Mark Charan Newton, Tom Pollock and Kate Griffin. It was moderated by Tom Hunter who, as the editor of LondonCalling.com and the director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was well-placed to lead the discussion.
The Kitschies, sponsored by The Kraken Rum, are the award for 'progressive, intelligent and entertaining' genre literature. In the past, events hosted by The Kitschies have focused on trends like the Gothic, steampunk and young adult fiction - so why did we choose cities?
Kate Griffin, the author of the Matthew Swift series and Stray Souls gave us her opinion on the matter. Having been born and raised in a city, that’s what she knows – and she admitted that she’s completely out of her element in the country. No surprise there really as, according to the latest census, over 80% of the UK lives in an urban area. The bucolic landscapes of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Holdstock may still resonate culturally, but those settings may now seem doubly fantastic to most readers.
During the course of the panel, Mark Charan Newton, author of the Legends of the Red Sun series, confessed that he feels the exact opposite. Mark sees urban construction as unnatural: modern, cold and artificial. Initially, this seemed at odds with his own creations - the stunning cities of Villiren and Villjamur in his novels. But his approach is layered throughout his entire series. The cities are indeed artificial (if fascinating) constructs; ephemeral things, mere speed bumps as his world’s new ice age extend across the planet. At the start of his latest book, The Broken Isles, the reconstruction of Villiren is discussed as a matter of economic, not social, necessity. This stands in stark contrast to Kate Griffin’s London, a spiritual ecosystem so complex as to merit its own shaman.
But even with his chilly (pun intended) approach to cities, Mark stated that he gets nervous whenever his characters leave one. All the activity of the city - the hustle and the bustle and the people - is what helps him both start the story and move it along.
Tom Pollock, author of The City’s Son, perhaps captured this point the best. Cities simply contain more stories - they’re filled with nooks and crannies and people and, most of all, secrets. The wide-open spaces are just that - wide open. Tolkien had breathtaking vistas and epic approaches. Modern fantasy takes place in corners and alleyways and shadowy places. It isn’t smaller - it is denser, allowing for millions of stories crawling atop one another.
That’s not to say that the wide-open spaces have been left behind, there’s always room for books with big, clear visions. But, right now, the shelves are groaning beneath the weight of paranormal romance, low fantasy, occult detection, near future SF and steampunk - and these are all urban genres. Like the cities themselves, they’re bustling, busy things, formed by other literary genres living together in close spaces.
There’s always something new in the city, and, thanks to authors like Mark Charan Newton, Kate Griffin and Tom Pollock, there’s something new in genre as well.