Along the Dystopia Line 1: I am your density

The first in a series.

Today’s theme is ultrahigh density, the prospect of which looms large among the many possible trajectories for the near-future development of the Western city.

There are so many credible drivers of higher density arrayed before us at present that it can come to seem a little overdetermined, whether it emerges from a conscious process of “urban infill,” as a way of wresting the highest possible efficiencies from extant infrastructure, or as a consequence of massive immigration from failed states and/or regions of ecological collapse. Whatever the cause, there are sound reasons to argue that we’ll soon be seeing higher human concentrations in the cities of North America and Western Europe than have tended to be the norm for the past century or so.

(To put things in their proper perspective, it’s worth remembering that things have not always been as they are now, even here. In relative terms, the peak density observed on the Lower East Side – 440,640 people per square mile at the 1905 census – may not hold a candle to the highest recorded in human history; compare that of Kowloon Walled City circa 1990, at 3.5M/sq.mi. Nevertheless, in absolute terms, it is much, much higher than Manhattan’s average 1998 density of 88,300/sq.mi.)

Science fiction, by and large, teaches us that crowding in and of itself is a breeder of social pathology. Perhaps reflecting subconscious anxiety over postwar prosperity’s transformative impact on an island nation, it was a common enough trope of the British New Wave, from beginning to end. J.G. Ballard‘s “Billennium” (1962) sees housing in a densifying city mercilessly subdivided and subdivided again, until people are living in closets and interstitial circulation spaces; the psychological impact gives new meaning to the word “quartered.” (We’ll be returning to the topology of Ballardian space in a future installation.)

The preoccupation is even embedded in the very title of John Brunner’s 1968 magnum opus Stand on Zanzibar: at the book’s start, a Dos Passosian chapterlet announces that all of humanity can still fit comfortably on the eponymous island; by the end of the novel’s action, roughly a year later, we’re collectively up to our ankles in the Indian Ocean.

Zanzibar‘s spinal thesis is that we have met the enemy, and they are us. Brunner’s l’enfer, c’est les autres stance is brought to its fullest expression in a particularly memorable set-piece scene in which an exhausted police captain explains to the hapless protagonist – who has just inadvertently triggered a fatal conflagration, merely by strolling through the ever-thronged Lower East Side – that the densepacked city now constitutes such a volatile fuel-air mixture that he considers a random wander indistinguishable from incitement to riot:

Donald forced himself to his feet, trembling. He said, “You mean a man can be forbidden to walk the streets of his own home town nowadays because something might happen to him like happened to me?”

“You calculate the odds,” the captain said. “So far, we have evidence of one hundred per cent certainty that it does happen.”

In the unlikely event that it should escape the reader, the theme is reinforced throughout by repeated quotations from the works of Chad C. Mulligan, another of the pop-sociologist figures Brunner deploys as kind of a Greek chorus in each of the novels of his “apocalyptic quartet.” Though his storytelling method is beautifully braided, in the end Brunner’s message is straightforward: too many people in too constrained a space means trouble with a capital T, at a level so visceral and even pheromonal as to be beyond even the possibility of control.

Contrast this to the treatment in Brian Aldiss‘s hard-to-find 1968 short story “Total Environment,” in which a long-running UN research project seals some 75,000 souls in a single fifty-story megastructure, somewhere in India.

Although there are profound problems with the story, inherent to its ventriloquizing of the brown Other, it at least betrays a recognition that culture is likely to play the decisive role in any given population’s response to conditions of high density. Though Aldiss depicts the life of Environment as improbably debased – four human generations emerge over the experiment’s twenty-five years, with each successive generation shorter in stature and reaching sexual maturity earlier – the Hindu and Buddhist notion of “dharma” is seen to play a greater role in forming the occupants’ subjective understanding of their world than the fact of massive population stress.

of urbmons and conapts

On this side of the Atlantic, Malthusian concerns with crowding and density animate the action of 1971’s The World Inside. Robert Silverberg stashes his world’s multibillions in “urbmons,” vast, self-contained and all-providing megastructures not so different from those seriously proposed by Buckminster Fuller or the Tokyo Metabolists at the time. Silverberg’s disposal of the, well, monadic urbmons in a landscape otherwise entirely given over to agricultural production recalls the Corbusian ville radieuse, pursued to its logical conclusion. (This scenario also has strong resonances with arguments about planetary carrying capacity published more recently – as provocation, I devoutly hope – by MVRDV.)

Silverberg’s maxed-out urbmon planet is admittedly an extreme; the Portland of the first, pre-dream segment of Ursula K. LeGuin’s lyrical The Lathe of Heaven is a more typical depiction of the claustric city. Heaven‘s treatment of housing is reminiscent of “Billennium”; protagonist George Orr’s apartment has been recuperated from a decommissioned parking garage, and all its floors slope and smell faintly of oil. LeGuin’s is a world in which the human response to hyperdensity is to get by and make do, rather than rely on heroic technological/infrastructural interventions to carry the load.

Another period work that betrays its concerns from the title forward is Harry Harrison’s 1966 Make Room, Make Room, later filmed as Soylent Green (1972). But for the fortified aeries enjoyed by the very few wealthy and powerful enough to live above it all, Harrison’s New York City of thirty-five million is an unrelievedly grim place:

Its trees were burned decades ago, its hills levelled and the fresh ponds drained and filled, while the crystal springs have been imprisoned underground and spill their pure waters directly into the sewers…Unable to expand outward, Manhattan has writhed upward, feeding on its own flesh as it tears down the old buildings to replace them with the new, rising higher and still higher – yet never high enough, for there seems to be no limit to the people crowding here. They press in from the outside and raise their families, and their children and their children’s children raise families, until this city is populated as no other city has ever been in the history of the world.

Although Malthusian stress is both the prime mover and efficient cause of the things that take place in it, it’s clear that the world in Make Room has suffered a more comprehensive collapse, one that will be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Jim Kunstler’s “Long Emergency.” Internal combustion has been replaced by human-powered “tug trucks” and “trishaws”; Western Union messenger boys enjoy great demand for their services, presumably because there are no longer any trees to provide the paper for message slips; Manhattan’s surplus population is domiciled on a flotilla of rusting ships, moored across the full span of the Hudson.

Amidst this Kolkatan grime and grit, Harrison treats his city as a cheek-by-jowl mixing chamber, a place where accident cannot help but leap from life to life, in a tragic and rather Altmanesque cascade. It lends the book a melancholy and force that’s nowhere to be found in Soylent Green.

The population of Soylent‘s New York City has been pumped up a notch to (a more worrisome?) forty million, and the action moved ahead to the suitably futuristic date of 2022. Most of Harrison’s detailed texture has been stripped away to make room for the weak rogue-detective-in-love narrative, although we do see people living in cars and on stairways, and claustrophobic scenes of a market panic are effectively counterpoised with the spatial extravagance of the fortified executive quarters.

Although it’s mostly implied rather than shown, this New York clearly relies on more or less heavy-handed social control measures to manage its millions: a loudspeaker announces “first stage removal” – “Streets prohibited to nonpermits in one hour” – while human-scooping plows are used for riot control. The jazzy, crosscut explanatory montage that opens the film remains the best thing about it, although Edward G. Robinson’s performance as police “book” Sol Roth has a genuine poignance. (Roth’s single offhand comment about a suspect “cross[ing] the city line into Philadelphia” does more to convey the reality of unchecked sprawl than any cheesy matte painting might have.)

The most enduring filmic depiction of high-density dystopia is, of course, Blade Runner, the 2019 Los Angeles of which has been so thoroughly mined for significant implications (most notably by Mike Davis) that I’m not going to get into it here. Ironically, in the Philip K. Dick novel on which the film is based, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the world has become depopulated by war and ecological collapse. The Phildickian “kipple” that fills both page and screen is presented in the former as the entropic result of the world’s abandonment. In this, it compares to the Bellona of Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren: the city at low ebb, emptied by the hallucid ruptures – epistemic and physical both – that wash across it in succession.

Rather than choosing to depict this desolation on screen – charitably, we can imagine that perhaps it wouldn’t have struck quite the right mood – Ridley Scott built Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles from his own experience of late-Seventies Hong Kong and Tokyo. Despite the overwhelming beauty of his creation, it’s this sense of the everyday life of the Other framed as chaotic, degraded and inherently inhuman that finally leads the sensitive observer (OK, this sensitive observer) to break with SF tradition.

billions and billions served

The relentless emphasis on high urban density as driver and incubator of pathology I encountered in the SF of my youth now strikes me as more than a little parochial. Much if not most of humanity dwells uncomplicatedly at levels of concentration higher than those the genre routinely depicted as catastrophic – and has for decades. To offer a single developed-nation example: Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station at its sleepiest is about as crowded as the busier sidewalks of Manhattan at peak load, rarely dipping below LOS-D, at least during daytime.

And if the high-density favelas and sprawling squatter colonies Robert Neuwirth explores in his impressive Shadow Cities can hardly be said to offer “wholesale hope,” they do at least constitute a surprisingly stable way of life for a billion of us.

So of all the perspectives we’ve seen here, LeGuin’s in The Lathe of Heaven probably gets closest to the observed reality. People adapt. They make do. Or at least they do so swimmingly, if their culture equips them to.

It’s not quite like Brunner made it out to be in Zanzibar, in which crowding past a certain threshold, wherever and whenever encountered, spontaneously breeds murderous “muckers.” Peel away his – SF’s – ethnocentricity and it becomes easier to see that surviving high-density crowding is entirely a matter of socialization and acculturation.

None of which means we’re quite out of the woods with respect to our densifying places. What I see is that contemporary American culture fits us out with precisely the wrong instincts to deal with concentration. We bristle when crowded, because we feel instinctually that space is a zero-sum game – and we, fabulous rockstars manqué that we are, deserve it all.

Neither has science fiction, that I’ve been able to see, been particularly sophisticated about the interiority of people living under such circumstances. Inasmuch as it confronts us with the practical inevitability of being exposed to one or another sort of surveillant gaze, big city density also offers the comfort of the crowd, of anonymity. There’s a kind of solace that can be taken from magna civitas, magna solitudo, and if there’s a work in genre SF that explores this subjectivity I remain unaware of it. But then, maybe that wouldn’t properly be a dystopia anymore.

It was either Ben Bova or the most regrettable Jerry Pournelle who pointed out that the classic midcentury political dystopias, consciously or otherwise, depicted worlds lacking space exploration programs; the argument was that efficiently pervasive repression requires the absence of a planetary escape valve. It’s a canny insight, at least as it applies to the mood and psychology of literary dystopia; the only exception I could think of, both off the top of my head and for years afterward, was Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, whose “namebered,” heavily doped, genetically optimized and deeply creepy Family of Man has at the very least established a viable Mars colony. (Maybe that wasn’t sufficiently canonical.)

Whatever its merits as a bargaining chit in the testosterone-drenched rhetorical swamps of mid-Seventies SF, this is an argument we’ll all of us soon be putting to the test. It’s pretty clear by now that we’re not getting off of this rock, certainly not in significant numbers. It might not be such a bad idea for us to learn to get along with one another.

31 responses to “Along the Dystopia Line 1: I am your density”

  1. The Necromancer says :

    Thoughtful essay. Stand on Zanzibar is an interesting piece, particularly effective for the way Brunner peppers the setting out to the reader through a spicy mix of jingles, ads, press releases, and “wire” stories. An interesting study in urbanism and media.

  2. AG says :

    Yeah, it’s a technique that was pioneered by John Dos Passos in his sprawling, three-volume U.S.A., which I unreservedly recommend. I’m not aware that anyone’s attempted it since Brunner, though.

    The Dos Passos is magnificent. Sui generis, at least until Brunner came along, but irreplaceably wonderful as a document of a time and place.

    Just as an aside, I’m not superkeen about folks commenting pseudonymously here unless there’s some pretty heavy justification – for example, that your job was at stake, or something along those lines. I wouldn’t go nearly so far as to say it’s a rule, but think of it as a strong preference of the house.

  3. ryan says :

    Wonderful essay, Adam. If SF generally contends that “high urban density as driver and incubator of pathology,” I’m curious how that compares to the horror genre, which tends to rely on the hackneyed conceit that the truly horrible things live in the dark, emptied-out corners of our well-lit world.

  4. AG says :

    Oh, that’s easy. It boils down to this: you’re fuxx0r3d either way.

  5. Enrique Ramirez says :

    The idea of “high urban density as driver and incubator of pathology” is more reminiscent of Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England or even H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air.

    I am a little skeptical when it comes to the manichean division of utopia versus dystopia. I think it is easier to identify a piece of art as being “dystopic.” However, things that are “utopic” often end up being “dystopic.” Perhaps Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing is more emblematic of this turn than not.

    I guess that the main point to be interrogated when dealing of issues of utopia/dystopia is that these books are first and foremost representations. The task of using 60’s and 70’s SF to identify urban pathologies is not unsimilar to what Leo Marx was doing in 1964 when he was trying to use works by Hawthorne, Twain, Melville, and Fitzgerald to identify seismic shifts in the American zeitgeist vis a vis technology. It is a method that is as often derided as it is criticized. Even Marx admitted that the whole project was problematic, writing in 1964 that “Though poetry and fiction are not very helpful in establishing the historical record as such, they are singularly useful, I learned, in getting at the more elusive, intangible effects of change – its impact on the moral and aesthetic, emotional and sensory, aspects of experience.”

    I guess then, when dealing with utopic/dystopic representations, the issue is one of practice. In other words, it is what these works they say about the here and now. This may seem like a truism. Yet consider Frederic Jameson’s awe-inspiring Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. If the book is of any consolation, and if we are to buy its arguments (which I do, by the way) then we look to SF as a way to negate or criticize the present. Jameson, if I remember correctly, labels SF’s critical praxes as “the future as disruption.” In other words, dystopic fiction is a type of utopic fiction.

    The trick, then, would be to investigate how Aldiss, et al., may have been familiar with the Lindsey administration’s follies, or perhaps with William H. Whyte’s films about the city. I wonder then if we could see how exactly these authors were trying to consider issues of density.

  6. Kazys Varnelis says :

    Enrique is, of course, completely correct about dystopia/utopia. My response to him would be… well, I have the new Jameson book on my shelf and I need to read it, but what strikes me is that the most visionary SF of our day (take, Gibson’s Pattern Recognition as the dominant SF book of the time) has abandoned a vision of an alternative future for realism. And you could look to Terminator 3 or even the Matrix for slight inflections of that. It seems that the future is now.

    Which, I suppose might lead someone like Zizek to say, ok then, enjoy your utopia! Or is it a dystopia?

    But on to some urban matters… I’m not so sure that massive urban. growth is in the cards. I’ll try to post this, but given that it’s WordPress, it will likely not work…

    Year Total Manhattan Bronx Brooklyn Queens Staten Island
    1790 -99.4% -98.6% -99.9% -99.8% -99.7% -99.1%
    1800 -99.0% -97.4% -99.9% -99.8% -99.7% -98.9%
    1810 -98.5% -95.9% -99.8% -99.7% -99.7% -98.9%
    1820 -98.1% -94.7% -99.8% -99.6% -99.6% -98.6%
    1830 -97.0% -91.3% -99.8% -99.2% -99.6% -98.4%
    1840 -95.1% -86.6% -99.7% -98.3% -99.4% -97.5%
    1850 -91.3% -77.9% -99.5% -94.9% -99.1% -96.6%
    1860 -85.3% -65.1% -98.4% -89.8% -98.5% -94.4%
    1870 -81.5% -59.6% -97.5% -84.7% -98.0% -92.6%
    1880 -76.1% -50.0% -96.5% -78.1% -97.4% -91.2%
    1890 -68.7% -38.2% -94.0% -69.4% -96.1% -88.3%
    1900 -57.1% -20.7% -86.3% -57.4% -93.1% -84.9%
    1910 -40.5% 0.0% -70.7% -40.3% -87.3% -80.8%
    1920 -29.8% -2.1% -50.3% -26.3% -79.0% -73.6%
    1930 -13.5% -19.9% -14.1% -6.5% -51.6% -64.4%
    1940 -6.9% -19.0% -5.2% -1.5% -41.8% -60.7%
    1950 -1.5% -16.0% -1.4% 0.0% -30.4% -56.7%
    1960 -2.8% -27.2% -3.2% -4.1% -18.8% -49.9%
    1970 -1.4% -34.0% 0.0% -5.0% -10.9% -33.5%
    1980 -11.7% -38.8% -20.6% -18.5% -15.2% -20.6%
    1990 -8.6% -36.2% -18.2% -16.0% -12.4% -14.5%
    2000 0.0% -34.1% -9.5% -10.0% 0.0% 0.0%
    Peak Population 2000 1910 1970 1950 2000 2000

    See for more.

    Manhattan seems to have quite a long way to go before it really gets dense. My hunch is we’ll see more places like Inwood densify and … don’t forget about Newark. You may scoff, but people used to scoff at Brooklyn and now look. The only Mies buildings in Northeast with a view of the skyline on a fast train line 20 minutes out from Penn Station a half hour from EWR for 1/3 the price of a Brooklyn rental? If I were young and childless, I’d be there in a minute.

    Moreover, you know my position toward New York: if L. A. has anything over it, it’s that scholars and hipsters alike understand the suburbs and the city as one. Over here, there’s still quite a divide between “the city” and everything else. That’s what’s going to disappear over the next decade, both for the hipsters, who will be looking for larger places to spread out in and who will grow weary of living on top of an urban shopping mall but crucially also for recent immigrants. Check this out:

    Not only is the city going the way of Los Angeles in terms of whites being a minority, it’s also going the way of Los Angeles in that the bounds of the city are no longer the first stopping point for immigrants. What would Louis Wirth think?

    You’re right to observe that the levels of density in the West are far from what you get in Asia, but I don’t see this changing anytime soon.

  7. Paul Mison says :

    A tangential thought on density, sparked by your musings on favelas: Tate Modern had an exhibition on global cities which featured models showing population density across various cities.

    Creative Review’s blog has a good set of images that let you see how much more crowded Mumbai is than Mexico City, let alone London (which is itself dense to almost all Americans, I expect).

    A good list of SF books to read, anyway (although I have finished off Stand on Zanzibar; the Le Guin is probably the most tempting.)

  8. AG says :

    Paul, those models are fabulous, thanks so much for sharing them with us.

    There’s a potent argument in there, somewhere, about digital representations, rapid prototyping & fabrication tools, and the latent-becoming-visible, but I’m too tired to articulate it just now. : . )

  9. wishnevsky says :

    I think you forgot “The Space Merchants,” Kornbluth and Pohl back in the 50’s. Got your rickshaws in NYC, overpopulation, synthetic food, global monopolies, vertical addition to junk food, and people sleeping on individual steps in the ancient Empire State Building.

  10. AG says :

    Oh, right on. You’re absolutely correct to call that out, although it’s a little before the period I’m most concerned with. (Wasn’t part of the plot of Alien also lifted from “The Space Merchants”?)

  11. Sean Sakamoto says :

    Great essay, thanks!

    I used to live on the Lower East Side, and I spent many afternoons at the Tenement Museum. I often pondered the fact that my neighborhood was much, much more densely populated and wondered what that must have been like.

    I had the chance to meet the man who lived in my apartment 70 years ago, when it was actually two apartments. He lived in about 400 square feet with his entire family of six. They had a coal stove for heat.

    I lived in 750 square feet, and my wife and I felt like we had no choice but to leave when our son was born. I asked this guy how it was that he never felt crowded. He had some very interesting thoughts. One thing he mentioned was that everyone lived like that, so nobody felt any lack.

    That jibes with the theories of happiness that I’ve read that say that people only feel poor or rich relative to their neighbors. But now the guy lives in a big house in New Jersey. I asked him what’s changed in our culture, and his answer really got me.

    He said that he thought the media, and particularly advertising had gone a long way to making people want more. He said that in his youth, everyone was packed into tiny apartments, but they didn’t know any better. Television brought the awareness and then the expectation of more room, more material goods, etc.

    I have to mention that this guy was not a grumbling, nostalgic “back in my day!” kind of guy. He was congenial, and he didn’t seem at all bitter, he was just shooting the breeze with me.

    I think you’re right when you say that we can adapt through acculturation to much tighter quarters, but I think wonder how that’ll happen within a consumerist culture that constantly diddles our lizard brains into wanting more space, and more stuff to put it in.

    It is a heck of a lot easier to move up the luxury ladder than it is to move down it.

  12. AG says :

    Wow, Sean, thanks for that incredible story. I too love the Tenement Museum, and have had many of the same thoughts while shouldering through those incredibly narrow hallways.

    I think you (and your elderly acquaintance) are spot-on about the impact of mediation. It doesn’t have much specifically to do with density, but I remember the major impact the advent of cable television (an under-studied technological break, if you ask me) had on the Tri-Lakes region of Adirondack upstate New York.

    Before cable came to Saranac Lake, broadcast television signals were sporadic at best, with St. Regis, Whiteface, and all the rest of the Adirondack chain playing hob with reception. When the atmosphere was just right, you’d occasionally be able to pull in the strong Burlington or Montreal stations, but otherwise even the much nearer Plattsburgh station was staticky and not much fun to watch.

    One result (or correlated observation if you’re not comfortable with the ascription of causality) was that Saranac Lake’s culture moved slowly, to rhythms that were only lightly marked by the shifting of big-city desires and global supply chains. Local patterns of cuisine, substance abuse, media consumption, political belief and so on were just that: local.

    And then came cable, and a year or two after that, MTV. Not so long afterward, the same kids who’d belonged to the 4H or the FFA, and who looked and sounded every bit the part, began to take their style cues from Venice Beach and the King’s Road, however many times stepped-on and cut for worldwide consumption. (And not too long after that, you could stand in the parking lot outside the Grand Union and hear one of these blanch-white kids hail another as “my nigga.”)

    It wasn’t just the kids, of course. Piped-in Dallas and Dynasty between the two of them cast sudden harsh shadows on the North Country’s Chevy pickups, “Watering Hole #3“-type bars, J.J. Newbury’s department stores, and so on. Those things all had strong roots and in some cases there was a genuine logic behind their survival, but it was just a matter of time before perceptions of their worth were measured against desires manufactured hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

    The North Country, now, is nothing like the one I remember from the mid-1970s. It’s crawled into its own postmodernity as a raw condition of economic survival. Of course, in many ways this means that it’s a more comfortable environment for a cosmopolite like me…but that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of feeling a sense of loss at everything that began to be plowed under the moment reliable near-real-time imagery from the global culture became available locally. And wondering what the implications might be for a place like the New York City I now live in.

    Uh, wow, you really set me off there. Thanks for swinging by. : . )

  13. John Lawless says :

    Interesting thesis, but dated I fear. The anxiety about overpopulation seems so 70s because the relevant science has moved on from then. Even by 1980 it was apparent that the birth rate in developed countries at least was falling fast, and now we are seeing a similar trend in developing countries too. An average of six children per family in Kenya still is high, when you consider the population replacement rate is only 2.2, but it used to be ten. It won’t be until mid century that the lump will pass through the middle of the bell curve, and that will be as high as ten billion people, but after that it could go down and down and down. Forget about “Stand on Zanzibar,” read “Children of Men.”

  14. AG says :

    John, I might narrowly agree that Malthusian panic is less relevant to our own age than it was in the 1970s, but density is a different issue altogether.

  15. fartron says :

    I take issue with your reading of Blade Runner’s density; while the conurbation has been greatly built up in LA 2019, large sections of the city are off limits and empty, and those that are left in the city are immigrants, the impoverished and those who couldn’t pass the off-world physical, such as JF Sebastian. While we are shown crowded clubs and markets, we are also shown vacant and desolate buildings. Sebastian comments “There’s no shortage of housing ’round here.”

    I think the vacancy of earth from the book is implied in the film, if only faintly.

  16. Christopher Fahey says :

    The Fifth Element‘s depiction of urban density is hilarious. Every scene in Bruce Willis’s acompartment is worth watching. I just re-viewed it recently and confirmed my initial delight in the pacing, style, and humor of the whole thing, especially the production design details like the cigarettes that are 90% filter. Either the production design or the storyboards, you’ll recall, was by Mobius. Anyway, the hotttness of Mila balances out the hackneyed plot, too, so check it out.

    I do agree with fartron that Blade Runner did not actually portray urban density at all. Even the “crowded” marketplaces were pretty barren compared to any real street market. The movie did, however, communicate a sense of claustrophobia in the tight and cluttered interiors of the buildings and vehicles, as well as with the effect of the constant rainfall and darkness. But I don’t recall ever seeing a gaggle of actual people at any point, or even a bustling sky of flying vehicular traffic (like you’d see in the Jetsons or, to great anarchic slapstick effect, in The Fifth Element). Even the Tyrell corporate ziggurat appeared to have only one actual person in it (Tyrell himself), accompanied only, it seems, by his replicant secretary.

  17. AG says :

    But I don’t recall ever seeing a gaggle of actual people at any point



  18. Christopher Fahey says :

    You call that a gaggle? That looks, at best, like Canal Street at 3:00 AM on a Sunday night.

    This ain’t Times Square.
    This ain’t the BQE.
    Lights are certainly on, but nobody’s home.
    No red velvet rope at this nightclub, eh? (nice to see the defunct Schlitz holding up the BR curse, though.

    There seem, however, to still be a lot of land-based cars.

    (That last link, admittedly, approaches gaggledom. But still. Nothing compared to a quiet day on any corner of Manhattan.)

  19. AG says :

    That’s probably my single favorite Mead image (complete with the requisite Meadism, “DWNTN”). I must’ve linked that a jillion times.

    Oh, that DWNTN! Those lozenge-y rounded triangles! What these things did to every drawing I did between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five cannot be calculated with any engine known to Man.

    (You’re right that the scene depicted looks like Mott Street at 3:00 AM just about any Wednesday.)

  20. Sean Sakamoto says :

    Thanks for your thoughts. I had a similar experience growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I think cable had a huge impact on our local culture, and I agree that it’s an under-examined phenomenon. I’ve read about how the automobile changed our society, but cable TV had a huge impact too.

    Regarding density, and the revised population models, it’s interesting to note that we’re also undergoing a massive population shift from rural to urban areas, and that will increase density in areas.

    I’m trying to move to rural Japan with my wife, and whenever we tell people of our plans they ask how we’ll afford Japan. What’s surprising is how incredibly cheap life in rural Japan is. The countryside is depopulated, and the trend continues.

    Also, I remember an article in the New Yorker about a megaslum in Africa. It was the most fascinating read I’ve encountered on this topic. The concentric rings of power in various fiefdoms within an ad-hoc slum of millions with little infrastructure and no central government to speak of was very interesting.

    I’d love to read a novel set in a place like that. It made Gibson’s sprawl seem like Disneyland.

  21. Greg Borenstein says :

    I have to say I agree with John Lawless on the lack of density as the dystopia that currently packs the most wallop. Even LA is caught up in a move back to the urban center and it’s cities like Detroit and Baltimore whose urban cores seem permanently hollow that are being given up for dead in mass media horror stories.

    Relatedly, I found your take on Blade Runner vs. Do Androids Dream especially interesting since I just watched The Final Cut and it didn’t even occur to me that Scott had reversed the issue of density in the way you describe. Granted the streetscapes are crowded and chaotic, but the buildings are hollowed out ruins (Sebastien has that little speech he gives Pris about there being “plenty of room” when they enter the Bradbury Building for the first time and he later goes on to explain that the only thing that’s kept him from leaving for the colonies is his rapid aging disease). It’s a vision of Hong Kong or Shanhai turned into Detroit: abandoned and left to rot after a life as dense megalopolises.

  22. Sean Sakamoto says :

    Hey Greg,
    Interesting point about dense cities vs. sprawling cities. I remember New York City in the 80s, when there were entire neighborhoods of bricked up buildings and empty lots, and the Bronx had arson fires daily. The so-called “white flight” out of the city caused vast swaths of urban NYC to become nearly uninhabitable, closer the the PKD version. Apartments that now cost $600,000 on the LES changed hands in the ’70s for under a thousand bucks!

    Remember Escape from New York? It seems like our migration is now more like a European model, where the city center is for the rich, surrounded by rings of poverty, vs. the other way around. It could reverse though, if municipalities run out of money. The urban renewal is a trend of the last ten years or so. I have no idea which way things will go, but it’s not inconceivable that some other pattern will emerge, changing our landscape again? Just a though.

  23. AG says :

    In this context, it’s fascinating for me to re-read Jane Jacobs on the blunders and misguided orthodoxies of urban redevelopment thought in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when “blight” and automotive traffic were the prime issues.

    I found myself underlining (well, digitally, anyway) a lot of the passages where she discusses the prevailing redevelopment mindset, and wondered what a contemporary, post-New Urbanist equivalent might be.

    You’re absolutely right, Greg, to point at cored-out Detroit – it’s been an object of urbanist fascination for the last several years, what with ridiculous swaths of downtown literally returning to grass. I don’t think we quite know yet what’s gonna happen there.

  24. John Lawless says :

    I agree that density and overpopulation are not necessarily the same thing, but density itself doesn’t have to be bad. You mentioned Japan as an example of extreme density and urbanization, and that is certainly true (339 people per vs. 31 for USA). At the same time though Japan is consistently rated as one of the world’s most livable countries (check the Human Development Index).

    Although densely packed cities, with their attendant poverty, perversity and violence, are mostly viewed negatively in contemporary SF, originally they were envisioned as a good thing. William Gibson may have helped build this more recent image in his works, but what I think is one of his most interesting short stories (The Gernsback Continuum) considers the earlier utopian view of future cities that were prevalent from the 30s to the 50s. I think that could come back if certain technologies were developed or at least conceived in SF.

    Perhaps the most delayed of promised SF technologies is the air-car, that wondrous Jetson’s ride that moves like a JTF yet is as practical as our present cars. If it could be realized it would profoundly alter how people live throughout the world, like the original car did. There would still be cities of gleaming high-rises to accommodate the central business district and the folks who prefer the buzz of living downtown. Instead of highways and viaducts though, the air-cars would be constantly flitting around the towers like gnats. Also in the bowels of these dense urban areas, beneath all the landing pads, there could be the underclass, now huddling on the disused streets. What would be missing from this whole view is the suburbs, because if you had a car that could commute thousands of km a day you wouldn’t need to live near the city at all. The middle class could spread all over the hinterland, in houses on any terrain because they wouldn’t need to be connected by roads, power grids, aquaducts, etc. Your place could be perched on a craggy mountain top with your own mini reactor, rain cistern and everything else you needed, and you could hop into your car and be anywhere on the continent in an hour or two. This ultra low density living would enable many new kinds of SF dramas.

  25. AG says :

    LOL – John, you should totally take a look at MVRDV’s Skycar City.

    Also, don’t get me wrong, I agree about the upside of density. I myself thrive on it (at least up until the point that it defeats me entirely, and I collapse.)

    It’s a definite rush, and, what’s more, it’s a much more complex and nuanced thing that most depictions suggest. Here’s what Jane Jacobs had to say about the kind of privacy that only dense big city life can afford us:

    Privacy is precious in cities. It is indispensable. Perhaps it is precious and indispensable everywhere, but most places you cannot get it…In the city everyone does not [get all up in your business]…it is a gift of great-city life deeply cherished and jealously guarded.

    We actively practice privacy in the metropolis because we have to. We mind our own. As my wife is constantly reminding me, this is one of the definitive qualities not so much of urbanity as of urbane-ity. (Here is also the source of my sharp disagreement with Abe’s comment above: becoming-urban is never merely a matter of size or density.)

    Fortunately, privacy can be constructed from the simplest of props – see Kenichi Fujimoto’s work on keitais as “territory machines,” for example – and has at least as much to do with will as it does to do with walls. And for my money, anyway, we find that will most often by being pushed to it by the weight of others around us.

  26. Greg Borenstein says :

    It’s worth noting that the hollowing out of cities was a direct effect of the victory of Corbu’s Modernist vision for the city that’s so often reflected in these sci-fi visions (and that Jacobs criticizes): density through monolithic super-high rises, huge centralized arteries that emulate flying carways as much as possible etc. The problem is that the places where these became real they turned out to be blights: the contemporary name for domestic neighborhoods built of clusters of towers is “the projects” and they’ve left a lasting legacy of poverty and weakend community in many struggling citties like Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago. Have you ever taken the 101 to the 5 to the 10 through Downtown LA at night with light traffic? It’s the closest you can get to being in a flying car outside of disneyland as the freeway swoops down between the high rises…unfortunately the other 20 hours a day all three of those roads are more like parking lots than rivers of flying cars and the cities cursed with huge freeways as their main centralized transportation routes (LA, Huston, Seattle, etc.) are not usually listed amongst the most livable.

    There’s a reason that the cities that are most desirable to live in right now (Portland, San Francisco, New York, etc.) are ones that avoided undergoing big bursts of development when Corbusian ideas held so much sway at mid-century. Like in many other cultural areas, modernist city planning/architecture was really an historical outlier — a kind of mania that made people forget most of the lessons learned from the previous few hundred years of life in ciites. Jacobs (and the New Urbanists that picked up here call) weren’t really imagining a radical new vision of the city so much as restoring sense and long learned wisdom where it had been lost. While New Urbanism has become so successful that it’s styling has become kind of a default for post-modern architecture and urban design, the larger urban planning lessons it embodies will be, I suspect, much longer lived than the modernism replaced, if only because they also lived for a long time before it arrived.

    One last thing: in a Jacobian/New Urbanist world (or real life Portland, Oregon) the vehicle of fantasy isn’t the flying car, it’s the bicycle!

  27. JL says :

    My 2 cents
    The pop. of LA quoted in Blade Runner
    (don’t remember it) but it was some way outrageous amt. I guess it’s been cinematic license and made in 1984 pre global warming /drought time. I dunno how there could be that amount now there would probably be limits set because there just ISN’T ENOUGH WATER for that unless they desalinate and recycle in a big way. As it is now LA has to cut back on water deliveries due to drought and to comply with restoring Mono Lake. And to take even more from the state water project and the Colorado River will probably not happen
    due to divvying up water to save fisheries and other states drawing their limit on their allocation of the Colorado River which is now in a period (and probably due to global warming) of persistent drought. BTW I have NEVER seen Lake Mead so LOW.

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