Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 19 September 2022. Tagged: Theme.

Icon made by Freepik from


The city is the focal point of our civilization, and images of the city of the future bring into sharp relief the expectations and fears with which we imagine the future of civilization. Disenchantment with metropolitan life was evident even while Utopian optimism remained strong, and became remarkably exaggerated in Dystopian images of the future. The growth of the cities during the Industrial Revolution created filthy slums where crime, ill-health and vice flourished, and a new kind of poverty reigned; thus even the most devoted disciples of progress can and do lament the state of the industrial city, which has little in common with such utopian city-states as Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1637) or the cities of L S Mercier's Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771; trans 1772). A city-dweller like Charles Dickens, on the other hand, envisioned an intensely and multifacetedly livable city in his great London novels, which contributed a century later to the creation of Steampunk. The comprehensive compilations (and analysis) presented in Das Passagen-Werk (1982; trans Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin as The Arcades Project 1999) by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), in which Dickens is quoted extensively, demonstrate the complexity of contemporary responses to the city as it grew and pullulated through the central years of the nineteenth century, becoming in the view of many commentators (as Benjamin demonstrates) the central engine of the new world-order, in which the capitalist drive to increase consumption threatened to distend the empires of the West (see Imperialism) into near-fatal hypertrophy. More clearly, though less knowledgeably, speculative thinkers who were not utopians (nor, frequently enough, themselves city-dwellers), found the evolution of the great cities a powerful argument against progress – a view strongly advanced in After London (1885) by Richard Jefferies, in which the cities have died but their remains still poison the Earth, and in William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), where cities have melted away.

In much early sf the city is the same place of contrasts that it was in reality, with the rich and poor living in close but separate worlds, architectural grandeur masking squalor, though the excitement generated by the great expositions of the late nineteenth century – most vividly the vast though transient Oz-like dream city created on École des Beaux-Arts lines in the Chicago world's fair of 1893 – could be understood as a brief wedding of imperial superbia and genuine Utopian aspiration. A countervailing distrust of the city, and of the class system it exposed, is evident in Caesar's Column (1890) by Ignatius Donnelly, and in "A Story of the Days to Come" (June-October 1899 Pall Mall Magazine) and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) by H G Wells, and in Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1926). Wells, the most determined prophet of technological supercivilization, frequently imagined the destruction of the present-day cities as a prelude to Utopian rebuilding, most vividly in The Shape of Things to Come (1933), where the razing of much of London is conveyed with something like relish. (Many of the real-life urban utopian schemes of the late nineteenth century demanded that cities be built anew, cleansed of their manifest evils; the garden cities of twentieth-century England clearly demonstrate the practical consequences, for good and for ill, of the eradication of urbanity from models of the ideal life.) However, the splendid vision of the city as an architectural miracle which had inspired early utopians was a vision ever-present in early Pulp magazine sf, thanks largely to the artwork of Frank R Paul, who was far better at drawing wonderful cities than human beings; his distinctive images contributed much to the flavour of Gernsbackian sf.

Modern sf has made extravagant use of three stereotyped images of the future city: one exaggerates the contrast between the city and a surrounding wilderness, often enclosing the city in a huge plastic dome (see Keeps), polarizing the opposition between city life and rural life; a second displays once-proud cities fallen into ruins, decaying and dying (see Ruined Earth; Ruins and Futurity); and the third presents a vivid characterization of the future-city environment in which humans move in the shadow of awesomely impersonal and implicitly hostile artefacts. Underlying all of these images is a vision of the city as essentially dystopian; it is no accident that the three greatest twentieth century Dystopias – Yevgeny Zamiatin's We (1924), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – are set primarily in cities, from which genuine escape is impossible.

The theme of stories of the first kind – for which E M Forster's "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 Oxford and Cambridge Review) provided a prototype – is usually that of escape from the claustrophobic, initiative-killing comfort to the wilderness, which offers evolutionary opportunity through the struggle to survive. Simple expositions of the theme include The Hothouse World (21 February-28 March 1931 Argosy Weekly; 1965) by Fred MacIsaac, The Adventure of Wyndham Smith (1938) by S Fowler Wright, Beyond the Sealed World (1965) by Rena Vale, From Carthage then I Came (1966; vt Eight against Utopia 1967) by Douglas R Mason, Magellan (1970) by Colin Anderson, Wild Jack (1974) by John Christopher, The Crack in the Sky (1976) by Richard Lupoff and Terrarium (1985) by Scott Russell Sanders. More sophisticated variants include The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956) by Arthur C Clarke, The World Inside (1971) by Robert Silverberg, The Eye of the Heron (in Millennial Women, anth 1978, ed Virginia Kidd; 1982) by Ursula K Le Guin and Out on Blue Six (1989) by Ian McDonald. Interesting inversions of the schema can be found in Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" (April 1969 New Worlds) and Greg Bear's Strength of Stones (fixup 1981).

Images of the ruined city are often remarkable for their exaggerated romanticism. Early examples include Jefferies's After London, George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn (1914) and Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Place of the Gods" (31 July 1937 Saturday Evening Post; vt "By the Waters of Babylon" in Thirteen O'Clock, coll 1937). The ruins themselves may become charismatic and symbolic, as exemplified by the torch of the Statue of Liberty in The Torch (24 January-21 February 1920 Argosy Weekly; 1948) by Jack Bechdolt. There is a surprisingly strong vein of similar romanticism in Genre SF. Much of Clifford D Simak's work – especially the episodic City (May 1944-December 1947 Astounding, January 1951 Fantastic Adventures; fixup 1952; exp 1981) – rejoices in the decline and decay of cities, here described as "Huddling Places"; as do Theodore Sturgeon's "The Touch of Your Hand" (September 1953 Galaxy), J G Ballard's "Chronopolis" (June 1960 New Worlds) and "The Ultimate City" (in Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories, coll 1976), Charles Platt's The City Dwellers (1970; vt Twilight of the City 1977) and Samuel R Delany's Dhalgren (1975; rev 1977; rev 2001) with its remarkable city of Bellona. This rejoicing is not usually based on any naive glorification of living wild and free; more often it reflects a hope that human beings will some day outgrow the need for cities, though they are sometimes confused in the sf mind with suburbs. Thus Technology-fixated New York and other US cities are quietly defeated and superseded by a rural Utopia based on bioengineering (see Genetic Engineering) in Damon Knight's "Natural State" (January 1954 Galaxy), and an exodus from city life is posited as the direct result of increased human Intelligence in Poul Anderson's Brain Wave (1954).

The probable inescapability of city life is, however, ironically reflected in such curious stories of nomadic cultures which must carry their cities with them as Christopher Priest's Inverted World (1974) and Drew Mendelson's Pilgrimage (1981). Mobile cities also feature in Greg Bear's Strength of Stones (fixup 1981; rev 1988), whose cities' Robot/AI systems allow them to dismantle and relocate themselves; Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines (2001), whose predatory travelling cities include London itself; Charles Stross's Saturn's Children (2008), where crawling cities follow the dawn around Mercury to avoid extremes of heat and cold; Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief (2010) featuring moving cities on Mars (much of the action taking place in one known as the Oubliette); and Catherynne M Valente's Radiance (2015), which transposes the concept to Neptune (see Outer Planets). A Proto SF underlier of all these mobile metropolises – and a direct precursor of James Blish's Cities in Flight sequence, of which more below – is the flying realm of Laputa in Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735) by Jonathan Swift.

The third stereotype involves not merely the representation of city life as unpleasant or alienating but a strategic exaggeration of the city's form and aspects to stress its frightening and claustrophobic qualities. Milo Hastings's City of Endless Night (June-November 1919 True Story as "Children of 'Kultur'"; rev 1920) depicts a horrific Underground Berlin; the "caves" of Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) are literally as well as metaphorically claustrophobic. Cities which cover the entire surface of planets are commonplace: Asimov's Trantor, in the Foundation trilogy (stories May 1942-January 1950 Astounding; 1951-1953), set an important example; Harry Harrison offers a broad parody of Trantor as Helior in Bill, the Galactic Hero (December 1964 Galaxy as "The Starsloggers"; exp August-October 1965 New Worlds; 1965). The impersonality of the megalopolis is ingeniously exaggerated in such stories as J G Ballard's "Build-Up" (January 1957 New Worlds; vt "The Concentration City" in The Disaster Area, coll 1967) and R A Lafferty's "The World as Will and Wallpaper" (in Future City, anth 1973, ed Roger Elwood), and stories in this vein are often outrightly surreal-examples are Fritz Leiber's "You're All Alone" (July 1950 Fantastic Adventures; exp vt The Sinful Ones 1953) and Ted White's "It Could Be Anywhere" (October 1969 Fantastic). In extreme cases the city may become personalized, as in Robert Abernathy's "Single Combat" (January 1955 F&SF), Robert Sheckley's "Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay" (February 1968 Galaxy), Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" (in Bad Moon Rising, anth 1973, ed Thomas M Disch) and John Shirley's City Come a-Walkin' (1980).

The stress of life in a crowded environment is the subject of many stories of Overpopulation, notably Thomas M Disch's 334 (fixup 1972) and Felix C Gotschalk's Growing Up in Tier 3000 (1975). Such novels tend to visualize the city of the future as a conglomerate of vast tower-blocks. Silverberg dubs these urbmons; Philip K Dick calls their individual apartments Conapts; more recently the term "arcology" has become widespread; this encyclopedia generalizes the concept as Keep. Some writers, however, preserve a more optimistic view of life in such edifices, notably Mack Reynolds in The Towers of Utopia (1975) and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in Oath of Fealty (1981).

Outside the Genre-SF establishment, attempts to characterize the city and identify its alienating forces are mostly grimly realistic, but some tend to the fabular; examples include Le città invisibili (1972; trans William Weaver as Invisible Cities 1974) by Italo Calvino, in which Marco Polo offers Kublai Khan an account of the great range of the possible products of civilization, Les géants (1973; trans as The Giants 1975) by J M G Le Clézio, in which the central image is that of the great shopping-centre Hyperbolis, and Alasdair Gray's stories "The Start of the Axletree" (in Scottish Short Stories 1979, anth 1979, as "The Origin of the Axletree"; vt in Unlikely Stories, Mostly, coll 1983) and "The End of the Axletree" (in Unlikely Stories, Mostly, coll 1983).

One striking exception – in which the city becomes the symbol of escape and freedom rather than the oppressive environment to be escaped is in the novels making up James Blish's Cities in Flight series (omni 1970), in which Antigravity devices, Spindizzies, lift whole cities from the Earth's surface to roam the Universe – although even this dream comes to a dead end in one section of Earthman, Come Home [April 1950-November 1953 var mags; fixup 1955; cut 1958], the part first published as "Sargasso of Lost Cities" (Spring 1953 Two Complete Science-Adventure Books). And the charismatic quality of cities is paid some homage in sf stories which nevertheless tend to deprecate – though they sometimes celebrate – the sleazy decadent grandeur of various imaginary cities, their portraits of "sophisticated" urban dwellers tending to focus on Decadent artists in stained-glass attitudes. These include: the eponymous cities of Edward Bryant's Cinnabar (coll 1976) and Terry Carr's Cirque (1977); M John Harrison's fabulous city of Viriconium, first glimpsed in The Pastel City (1971) but far more elaborately portrayed in A Storm of Wings (1980), In Viriconium (1982; vt The Floating Gods 1983) and Viriconium Nights (coll 1985); and C J Cherryh's Merovingen, displayed in Angel with the Sword (1985). Brian W Aldiss's The Malacia Tapestry (1976) is similarly ambivalent about the splendour and sickness of cities. An even more complex, and therefore more realistic, sense of urban splendours and miseries permeates the work of China Miéville, culminating in his impressive tale of urban recognition, The City & the City (2009).

The possible futures of specific real cities are sometimes tracked by sf writers with interest and respect; examples include the Chicago of The Time-Swept City (1977) by Thomas F Monteleone and the New York of Frederik Pohl's The Years of the City (1984). C J Cherryh's Sunfall (coll 1981) sets stories in far-futuristic versions of six major cities. Michael Moorcock's work – including his non-sf – uses many different images of London.

In both sf writing and sf art, the city is one of the most important recurrent images, and carries with it one of the richest, densest clusters of associations to be found in the whole sf iconography. Relevant theme anthologies include Cities of Wonder (anth 1966) edited by Damon Knight, Future City (anth 1973) edited by Roger Elwood, and The City: 2000 A.D. (anth 1976) edited by Ralph Clem, Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph Olander.

Cities given separate entries include London and New York. Los Angeles and San Francisco are discussed under California. For further coverage of individual cities in fantasy terms, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below. [BS/DRL/JC]

see also: Automation; Sociology.

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies