Along the Dystopia Line 0: Backgrounder
I’d be flat-out lying if I tried to insist that the reason I spend so much of my time thinking about human cities and their near-term future has anything much to do with teaching a class on the subject. If anything, it’s almost certainly the other way around: I’ve been obsessed with the urban next since early childhood, and was winning prizes in essay competitions on the topic by the time I was a fifteen-year-old überdork. Essay competitions – that’s what we had in Philly, instead of county fairs.
Anyone who’s spent time around children knows that it doesn’t take a whole hell of a lot to get a certain kind of weird kid obsessed with skyscrapers, subways, cop cars and fire engines. What’s perhaps a little more unusual is an enduring interest in how they all fit together…and especially how they might fit together, after a few more years have elapsed. (Any concern for the actual human beings populating these environments took a much longer time to develop; at the beginning, it was all about volumes, masses, frictions, velocities. And sound effects, naturally.)
I can’t imagine but that I came to this interest through science fiction, delivered initially via library paperbacks and Saturday-afternoon TV. Cities were everywhere in 70’s SF: domed cities, underground cities, cities in flight. Being exposed to them was how I learned to see and to read the actual city around me, if only to question why we still had trolleys instead of transit-pod tubes.
Big cities, and the problems of overcrowding, pollution, and racial, ethnic, and class antagonism they seemed to simultaneously epitomize and exacerbate, were outsize figures in the imaginary of the era. Conurbations like New York and Los Angeles were portrayed and understood by all as unmanageable, inherently prone to breakdown along multiple axes; this was, after all, the Abe Beame era (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”), the energy crisis of 1972-’73 had served as a warning that the cheap energy from which the putative American Century was forged wouldn’t hold out forever, and Detroit, Watts, and Newark had all burned almost to the ground not so many years before.
A straight-line extrapolation – and that’s generally what you got from futurists of the period – suggested that tomorrow would hold more of the same, in every sense. Since we hadn’t as a society yet quite cottoned on to what has become the conventional wisdom that “more is different,” from that vantage point the urban future was often portrayed as a race between the soulless, punch-card rationality being peddled by systems analysts and operations researchers and the terrifying prospect of a general breakdown in social order – that breakdown generally arriving in the person of people who were young or dark-skinned, or both.
And since SF is, famously, always about the present day, it should come as absolutely no surprise that all of these fears play front and center in the era’s culture of the fantastic as well. “Realist” films like Death Wish perhaps best captured the sense that the “ordinary, law-abiding middle class” had lost control, that Something needed to be Done, but it was in science fiction that urban anxieties were fleshed out in the most nightmarish sort of detail – and for that very reason, possibly even exorcised.
By way of seeing if I can’t recover some present-day value from the many, many hours I logged utterly immersed in this stuff, and generating shoutouts to some enormously important forebears and personal heroes along the way, I thought I’d try a series of brief pieces exploring how a variety of urbanist themes have been treated in dystopian science fiction, particularly that of the Sixties and Seventies.
Why dystopian? It has something to do with testing the ligatures, I guess, pushing the assumptions undergirding urban normality to their extremes and seeing just where and how they break down. (I wish I could dig up an interview I remember reading with the legendary visual futurist Syd Mead – probably in the Guccioni-owned Omni – in which he explains the manifold attractions of “high-tech default” as a mode.) Perhaps it’s a matter of personal predilection, but dystopias feel to me as if they have more to teach us – and in most cases, however grim, they bear a far closer resemblance to the lives we actually lead than Roddenberrian fantasies of unlimited technological mastery and universal brotherhood.
Coming tomorrow, then: the first in a series of occasional essays, “Along the Dystopia Line.” For this shakedown cruise, we’ll be looking at ultrahigh density and its consequences. I hope you enjoy it, and the ones that follow.