New York

Tagged: Theme

A great City begins long ago, with at least one named founder, like Romulus and Remus founding Rome, or so we are told by the story. London was traditionally founded, or its founding was attended, by the giants Gog and Magog, first instanced as the single giant Gogmagog or Goemagot in Geoffrey of Monmouth's deeply unreliable compendium, Historia Regum Britanniae ["The History of the Kings of Britain"] (written circa 1136; various print versions exist); and they continue to preside. The most attractive version of the founding of New York is, on the other hand, a self-conscious spoof, though infiltrated by elements of genuine history; in Washington Irving's History of New York from the Beginning of the World ... by Dietrich Knickerbocker (1809), the decision where to locate the first settlement on Manhattan Island is made by St. Nicholas, later known as Santa Claus [for Gog and Magog, more on Washington Irving, and Santa Claus see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; he remained, according to Irving, its patron saint:

The good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city, of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the treetops, or over the roofs of houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favourites. [Nowadays he never] visits us, save one night in the year; when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of the patriarchs, confining his presents merely to the children, in token of the degeneracy of the parents.

Though the actual name "Santa Claus" had first seen print much earlier, apparently in the New York Rivington Gazette for 23 December 1773, Irving's evolved vision of a roly-poly pipe-smoking St. Nicholas in his airborne "wagon", appearing only at Christmas, was central to the creation of the full-blown Icon a decade later. One of the few retrospective works of sf interest about New York at this time is Hendrik Willem Van Loon's "If the Dutch Had Kept Nieuw Amsterdam" (in If It had Happened Otherwise: Lapses into Imaginary History, anth 1931; vt If: or History Rewritten 1931, edited by J C Squire), which is relatively inconsequential, and lacks any mythopoeic element. It may be enough here to register "Knickerbocker"'s assertion that the founding father and patron saint of New York is Santa Claus.

This benign sanction has done the city little good in the literatures of Fantastika since, where good news is seldom told; certainly when Irving took the name Gotham – an English village legendarily inhabited by fools – and applied it to New York in "Chapter CIX of the Chronicles of the Renowned and Ancient City of Gotham" (11 November 1807 Salmagundi) – the effect, as with his portrait of the founding elf, was deliberately Satirical. New York was a comeuppance waiting to happen. As sf began to gain focus in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the great cities of the world like New York became natural metonymic focus-points for the planetary Disasters that soon began to be described. London was perhaps less frequently demolished in these years, perhaps in part through the influence of Charles Dickens, who had fantasticated a living city for others to occupy; but the image of – indeed, for agrarian Americans, the very thought of – New York, on the other hand, began to attract contumely and destruction from the earliest years of sf, a pattern of response that continues today.

New York City is a vast agglomeration, the city itself legally containing since 1898 the central five boroughs (Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island), though in reality it also includes a vast urban periphery extending beyond the official city limits into adjacent parts of New York state: eastwards into nether Long Island, northwards into Westchester and Putnam counties; and also north-eastwards into Connecticut and westwards into New Jersey. It is the central ganglion of a single megalopolis that stretches from Boston to Washington, and which is generally known as the North-East Corridor. But for all its various extent, it cannot be thought of as "distributed"; Manhattan remains central to the conglomeration, and most New York tales are set on or in sight of this island, whose heart in Fantastika terms may be the vast École des Beaux-Arts Edifice and Portal [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] of Grand Central Station. From this central point, the island uncovers its shape, both in the mind's eye and literally: a fourteen-mile-long hard-rock Island thrusting southwards down the estuary of the Hudson River towards open sea, with the Statue of Liberty facing it from the waters, just out of reach. It should perhaps not be surprising that a large number of the paintings assembled in The Art of New York (graph 1983) edited by Seymour Chwast and Steven Heller are intimations of apocalypse; after 2001, such images are found even more frequently, with the fallen Twin Towers intensely evoked through their visible absence.

Manhattan is, in other words, inherently dramatic, inherently visible, unlike London which, constantly morphing in the mind's eye, is less often dealt with by a single blow. This visibility of the city, though always evident on the map, came dramatically into focus around the beginning of the twentieth century, with the construction of the first great skyscrapers, many of them with observation platforms, which granted visions from above of the modern world and of the future (for Futurism see Filippo Tommaso Marinetti) which seemed destined to supplant the old world. As Helen Keller (1880-1968) famously said, in a letter written 13 January 1932 after she had ascended the Empire State Building:

The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head! Why, I thought, the sun and the stars are suburbs of New York, and I never knew it! I had a sort of wild desire to invest in a bit of real estate on one of the planets.

Unsurprisingly, this twentieth-century intensity of focus on the specific dramatic qualities of the city made its use as an Icon seem increasingly natural. There are many striking examples. When Orson Welles relocated H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898) to America (see War of the Worlds), he set the central action in metropolitan New Jersey, an example followed by Steven Spielberg, in whose 2005 remake Manhattan can be seen in background. The Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair is a Utopian roadmap of America whose beginning point was a city whose centripetal density already directly contradicted any future demographic shaped around the internal combustion engine. When Superhero Comics came onto the market, mainly produced by DC Comics, it was New York that Superman and his stablemates saved repeatedly, whether or not the city was disguised as Metropolis for stories featuring Superman, or as Gotham City for Batman; or intriguingly, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) directed by Zack Snyder, Metropolis and Gotham City are separate but intimately twinned cites commissured by a river, the first being high-tech and the second noir: which may be seen as a lateralization of the As Above So Below structure typical of the Urban Fantasy [for both terms see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Only with Tom De Haven's It's Superman! (2005) is New York itself named, though beyond DC's cloistral remit, it is specifically New York that is put to the test in Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore's Watchmen.

When the highly urban James Blish, in his Okie/Cities in Flight sequence, wanted to dramatize his central Macrostructure conceit, it was Manhattan he chose to transfigure into a vastly elongated but compact Keep arrowing through the interstellar deeps; and when he wanted to dramatize the Dystopian post-Cold War Shelter culture that dominates Earth in A Case of Conscience (part 1 September 1953 If; 1958), he again focused on the transformation of Manhattan into a great keep, this time a mile Underground. When Eugene L Burdick and Harvey Wheeler needed to destroy an American city in the Cold War drama Fail-Safe (13-27 October 1962 Saturday Evening Post; 1962), filmed as Fail Safe (1964), they chose to inflict sin-cleansing nuclear Holocaust on the sin-eater island. When Osama bin Laden attempted to tip America into transforming itself into a demonic Dystopia, the tip of the island was his chosen fulcrum. When twenty-first century Americans wish to envision the effects of Climate Change on the world, they may evoke the vision of New York, Under the Sea for millennia, that closes Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001); more recently, however, they will probably think of the rising waters that drowned the vulnerable southern part of Manhattan – as so many floods had already done in the sf record – when Hurricane Sandy struck in October 2012, a Disaster that is inevitably evoked by Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 (2017), in which the inherently dramatic iconicity of the island is almost literally transfigured into what might be called the body English of a great Thought Experiment where – carefully segregated from other aspects of planet-wide Climate Change – the proactive adaptation of Manhattan to a fifty-foot rise in ocean levels is narrated in considerable detail.

The first destruction of New York in fiction seems, indeed, to have been by flood: in Nicodemus Havens's Wonderful Vision of Nicodemus Havens (1812 chap), a tidal wave inundates first Manhattan, and then the world as a whole. New York as a focal point for the agrarian hatred of Cities in general, a hatred which persists in America into the twenty-first century, may have been dramatized for the first time in Mark Drinkwater's The United Worlds (1834), a tale set mostly within the Hollow Earth, and featuring a virtually sinless citizenry whose capital, Golden City, has been constructed directly beneath the iniquitous metropolis, which from an early date had featured as a morass of evil-doing in American popular novels, most of them not literally fantastic, as anatomized in David S Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (1988). It is almost certainly tales of this sort that underwrite Herman Melville's Pierre; Or, the Ambiguities (1852), whose nightmarish plot-filled New York hints at the kind of Vastation (see Horror in SF) that later authors – like Robert W Chambers in The King in Yellow (coll of linked stories 1895) (see Decadence) and Thomas M Disch, subtly in 334 (coll of linked stories 1972) or more dramatically in On Wings of Song (1979) – would locate in the city. James Blish's "We All Die Naked" (in Three for Tomorrow, anth 1969, ed Robert Silverberg) is a relatively early sf vision of New York inundated by specifically human-caused Climate Change.

But throughout the nineteenth century, the city is frequently destroyed from afar, though existential horrors may of course typically attend the event, which will typically be described with relish. New York is eliminated, though almost offhandedly, in Edgar Allan Poe's "Mellonta Tauta" (February 1849 Godey's Lady's Book), an early Ruins and Futurity tale, in which the composer of a missive from the future conspicuously fails to understand the past. In Edmund Ruffan's Anticipations of the Future (1860), Manhattan is sacked with glee by an army of the South, presumably generalled by stalwart slaveholders. In "The End of New York" (31 October 1881 Fiction Magazine), a Dreadful Warning tale by Benjamin Park (1849-1922), Manhattan is destroyed by bombs dropped from navigable Balloons in the course of Spain's Invasion of America. In Gotham and the Gothamites (1886) Ferdinand C Valentine (ostensibly translating a work by "Heinrich Oscar Von Karlstein") depicts New York as dominated by frivolous pursuits, though one chapter, "Gotham in 1986", depicts a worker's Utopia with advanced Transportation and sanitary facilities. As its title makes clear, Joaquin Miller's The Destruction of Gotham (1888) describes the burning of Manhattan – for good reason, as it is full of prostitutes. The expedition featured in J A Mitchell's Ruins and Futurity tale, The Last American: A Fragment from the Journal of Khan-Li (June 1889 Scribner's Magazine; 1889 chap; exp 1902), visits the ruins of New York. Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century (1890) portrays a proletarian revolt which burns Manhattan to the ground. The Utopian lectures assembled in Arthur Dudley Vinton's Looking Further Forward (coll 1890) describe the Chinese destruction of New York as an inevitable outcome of socialism. When Garrett P Serviss rewrote The War of the Worlds (see above) in Edison's Conquest of Mars (6 February-13 March 1898 The Boston Post; 1947), it is specifically New York that is devastated.

The destruction continues into and through the twentieth century; though most of his portrayals of Manhattan in Little Nemo in Slumberland are pacific, even Winsor McCay comes close to destroying the city more than once, most vividly perhaps in a one-page episode (29 September 1907 The New York Herald) of the Comic, where the dreaming Nemo, transformed into a giant (see Great and Small), clambers destructively over the skyscrapers of Manhattan; from the beginning of his career, in fact, McCay routinely depicted a mutilated New York as backdrop for his political cartoons. H G Wells first focuses directly on New York in The War in the Air (1908), during the course of which the city is destroyed during an Invasion of America. New York is an ancient ruin in Victor Rousseau's Draught of Eternity (1-22 June 1918 All-Story Weekly as "Draft of Eternity" by V Rousseau; 1924), as it is in Jack Bechdolt's The Torch (24 January-21 February 1920 Argosy Weekly; 1948) (for further titles involving the Statue of Liberty see that entry). The inhabitants of the city are turned to dust in Upton Sinclair's The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000 (19 April-2 August 1914 Appeal to Reason; 1924 3vols). The metropolis that is drowned in Deluge (1993), the film version of S Fowler Wright's Deluge (1927), is New York, which is also swallowed whole by cataclysmic flooding in Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie's When Worlds Collide (September 1932-February 1933 Blue Book; 1933), filmed as When Worlds Collide (1951). The climax of the Purple Invasion sequence by Emile C Tepperman, which dominated the long-running action Pulp magazine Operator #5 during the late 1930s, is a devastating Near Future assault on Manhattan by Chinese hordes. A lesser attack by the forces of "Eurasia" in the Future War film Men Must Fight (1933) destroys such landmarks as the Empire State Building. Several of the poems in Stephen Vincent Benét's Burning City: New Poems (coll 1936) anticipate the ruins of the city in days to come; the ruins of New York are also contemplated across a great river by an adolescent in his "The Place of the Gods" (31 July 1937 Saturday Evening Post; vt "By the Waters of Babylon" 1937). Though the novel is set elsewhere, after the holocaust, New York as a reiteration of the archetype of Babylon is movingly evoked a few decades later in Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959). In both of Thomas Calvert McClary's two exercises in applied Cultural Engineering, Rebirth: When Everyone Forgot (February-March 1934 Astounding; rev 1944) and Three Thousand Years (April-June 1938 Astounding; 1954), new civilizations take root in the ruins of Manhattan.

The pace quickens, as it were, after the success of the Manhattan Project (initially administrated from New York) in creating the A-bomb that brought World War Two to an apocalyptic close, almost immediately generating world-wide spasms of anxiety. Remarkably, the first speculation about the effects of a nuclear bomb on New York appeared – in "Here's what could happen to New York in an atomic bombing" (7 August 1945 PM), an illustrated newspaper article – within hours of the demolition of Hiroshima. Over the next decade or so, many articles, sometimes fictionalized and always illustrated, focused on nuclear death in Near Future New York. Perhaps most vividly of all, Chesley Bonestell's illustrations for John Lear's "Hiroshima, USA" (5 August 1950 Collier's Weekly) are an almost photographic, highly detailed vision of things to come; his cover for that issue became an icon of Cold War fears. A sequel, "World War III: Preview of the War We Do Not Want" (27 October 1951 Collier's Weekly), was even more graphic. By the 1960s, the Cold War figured most vividly in films, like Fail-Safe (1964) and War of the Worlds (already mentioned above), though several novels continued to focus on the Disaster, usually by fire or flood, until a decade or so after World War Two, when nuclear destruction becomes standard; the frequent passing references in Post-Holocaust and Ruined Earth tales to the nuclear destruction of New York during World War Three, sometimes uttered as though the death of millions was good riddance, became almost routine. Some novels, like The Rest Must Die (1959) by Kendell Foster Crossen writing as Richard Foster, directly depict a nuclear Holocaust that destroys the metropolis; others, like Spider Robinson's Telempath (1977), are set in the ruins, not necessarily post-nuclear: in this case, the Mad Scientist who destroyed civilization created his deadly virus at Columbia University. Mike Resnick's Redbeard (1969) is set a millennium hence in a Ruined Earth New York plagued by Mutants. Charles Platt's The City Dwellers (1970; rev vt Twilight of the City: A Novel of the Near Future 1977) is continuously explicit about the causes of the city's death; perhaps more typically of later representations, the nature of the catastrophe is never made clear in J G Ballard's Hello America (1981), in which the sands of the desert have already buried the skyscrapers, nor is it exactly explained in Ryan Boudinot's Blueprints of the Afterlife (2012), which features the replication of a demolished Manhattan (rather like London Bridge) on the Pacific Rim. Mario Puzo's The Fourth K (1990) is a relatively recent example of a novel whose take on the old theme of destruction is anything but straightforward. Max Page's The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York's Destruction (2008), which usefully cites many of these films and books, breaks the concerns expressed in its title into sometimes overlapping thematic categories; because it was published in compliance with the essentialism endemic in the American humanities industry, its attention to narrative and chronology is sometimes casual.

As suggested above, films in which New York is threatened or destroyed or already lies in ruins are numerous, the most famous further early example being King Kong (1933), with Deluge (1933) also being of interest. More recent examples of interest include The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), Fail-Safe (1964) and the Steven Spielberg films already mentioned (see above), Planet of the Apes (1968) and its sequels, What's So Bad about Feeling Good? (1968) – where the threat, troubling mainly to the government, is virus-borne happiness – Meteor (1979), Escape from New York (1981), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Independence Day (1996), Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), whose CGI-rendered Futurama-noir vision of the city in 1939 is visually intoxicating, The War of the Worlds (2005), Iron Sky (2012) and Oblivion (2013). There are many others, including most of the Superhero films of recent decades, almost always based on comics; for these see Batman, Spider-Man, Superman. Less common are sf films, like The Fifth Element (1997), Men in Black (1997) and its sequels, or Monsters, Inc. (2001), in which the city is not destroyed.

As these movies almost unfailingly demonstrate, the destruction of New York, by its very nature, tends to be inflicted from outside. Unlike London – which has been harder to destroy at least partly because it is very much more difficult to visualize, from without, as a target – New York was not in its early years a fertile habitation, neither for realistic works nor for Fantastika. Henry James (1843-1917), a native New Yorker who set one or two short supernatural fictions in the city, famously deplored the paucity of lived depth or texture in American culture, and left for Europe; his sense that America was unstoryable is shared by Arthur Bartlee Maurice (1873-1946), much of whose New York in Fiction (1901) is spent lamenting the lack of it. Melville's Pierre (see above), in which Manhattan is seen as a succession of portals to something like Hell, did not do much to make habitation plausible. Some Utopias and Dystopias are partial exceptions; they include Ismar Thiusen's The Diothas, or A Far Look Ahead (1883; vt A Far Look Ahead, or The Diothas 1890; vt Looking Forward, or The Diothas 1890), Anna Bowman Dodd's The Republic of the Future, or Socialism a Reality (1887 chap), Thomas A Janvier's The Women's Conquest of New York (1894 chap) as by A Member of the Committee of Safety of 1908, Herman Hine Brinsmade's Utopia Achieved: A Novel of the Future (1912), though significantly not Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), which is set in the much more manageable cityscape of Boston, Massachusetts. But their placement in New York tended to be gingerly, without much conviction or verisimilitude.

It is in fact only since around 1950 or so that life in New York has been convincingly depicted without imminent destruction on the books; only then do sf authors begin to find the city a convincing place to embed stories, sometimes for purposes of Satire, without actually destroying their venue: examples include C M Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl's The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; 1953) and Pohl's solo The Years of the City (coll of linked stories 1984); Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (October-December 1953 Galaxy; 1954), which is set essentially Underground and which Asimov tries intensely to render plausible, or Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (August-October 1966 SF Impulse; 1966; vt Soylent Green 1973), where the city seems an ideal forcing-house to display a crisis of Overpopulation, the same function it serves in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968). In Richard Wilson's sardonic "The Eight Billion" (July 1965 F&SF), the titular population figure is – thanks to Immortality – that of New York alone.

More and more frequently in recent decades, New York has served as a kind of compost, a place so intricate almost any life or story can be imagined in it; two of the earliest examples of the city treated primarily as a genuine habitation are Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside (1972) and The Stochastic Man (1974). Even putting the large number of Urban Fantasy tales to one side [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links], examples from this point on, stories where the city is at least initially recognizable as an abode, are numerous. They include Jack Finney's Time and Again (1970), F Paul Wilson's long Repairman Jack sequence beginning with The Tomb (1984), Kit Reed's Fort Privilege (1985), Down Town: A Fantasy (1985) by Tappan King and Viido Polikarpus, most of Richard Bowes's publications to date from Warchild (1986) on, Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things (1987), H F Saint's Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1987), Jack Womack's Terraplane series beginning with Ambient (1987), Ira Levin's Sliver (1991), Steven Gould's Jumper sequence beginning with Jumper (1992), William Hjortsberg's Nevermore (1994), the thirty-six volumes (and counting) of J D Robb's Eve Dallas sequence of noirish, Near Future police procedurals beginning with Naked in Death (1995), Kirsten Bakis's Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997), David Mitchell's Ghostwritten: A Novel in Nine Parts (1999), Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), Jennifer Egan's Look at Me (2001), Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis (2003), Peter Hamill's Forever (2003), Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (2003) and Chronic City (2009), Shaun Tan's wordless The Arrival (graph 2006), featuring a Steampunk-coloured city whose skies are filled with Airships, Kathleen Ann Goonan's In War Times (2007), Colson Whitehead's Zone One (2011) and Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge (2013). More recently, it has become again less common to find habitable depictions of the city, though a Steampunk sequence like Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, particularly in its concluding volume, Goliath (2011) – which also features Nikola Tesla, an Iconic New York figure – renders the city as a place to inhabit. Perhaps because of their tendency to evoke the elaborate architectonics of utterly transfigured urbanism, twenty-first century tales limning Posthuman extravagances are rarely set in anything like a recognizable city; Justina Robson's Natural History sequence, comprising Natural History (2003) and Living Next-Door to the God of Love (2005), in the second of which New York is conceived of as a Pocket Universe in which Virtual Reality Superheroes cavort, may be as close as most tales of this sort come.

Stories that estrange our normal sense of New York, rather than enfilade it with familiar topoi, usually written from the viewpoint of other cultures and tongues, include Franz Kafka's Amerika (written 1911-1914; 1927; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as America 1938), H G Wells's Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928), Anna Kavan's novella "New and Splendid" from A Bright Green Field (coll 1958) Alain Robbe-Grillet's Project for a Revolution in New York (1970) and Jake Tilson's The Terminator Line (1991 chap). They may not provide "trustworthy" extrapolations of the meaning of New York within the American experience, which New York City has shaped, often against the instincts and political orientation of the rest of America; but they turn like compass needles to images of the great city, where so many visions are fomented. New York has become a house of many mansions in the imagination of the world. It has become the central labyrinth in our dreams of City. [JC]

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