Cutting Edge: Science Fiction and cities

Japan’s looks beautiful at night. There is no simpler way to phrase it. I have a lot of memories from the year and a half that I lived there but I remember the nights the most vividly. They stand in sharp contrast to any of the European cities that I had visited before Japan. Walking through the city centre in London or Rome I felt that the architecture had a story to tell, I may have not been particularly interested in the story or fully know the details but the feeling is there for any tourist or resident. Japans cities never gave me that feeling with Kyoto being the exception. If Osaka and Tokyo (the two largest cities and the places I spent most of my time) did have a story it would be that it was made to house the highest density of population in the world and to provide clockwork like efficiency. Japan like other East Asian developed countries never had a problem with building a city to be efficient rather than building a nice city.

The philosophy of this ant world approach to city building and the output-oriented result of the cities is that we struggle not to associate this with how all cities will eventually be once we lose the naivety of our archaic customs. Sky scarpers loom over you, housing single residents with 16 square meters in which to live. The luminescent lights from small stores barrage you as you walk down the main street, some leading to underground bars others into faceless buildings where you can dine watching the toy city bustle along below. The famous capsules hotels with a closet of space for you to sleep in as if preparing for your routine after death. It is all very impersonal, void of human interaction and logical.

This may be the reason why Asia has been such a muse to science fiction in the last 30 years or so. Neuromancer the William Gibson novel of 1984 accredited with starting the cyperpunk genre made it clear that this was a world where life was cheap, population was crowded, and large corporations de facto ruled the world. Reading Gibson’s descriptions of the cold heartless but efficient cities and you can only envision some form of Tokyo. Others like “do androids dream of electric sheep” take the spirit of Tokyo in that animals have nearly all died out. People buy android animals to show status and culture but the animals themselves are pointless. Stand inside the roman coliseum and you will be dazzled by the sunlight covering the fighting pits, you can almost hear the gladiator battles. The building itself of course is essential worthless. Like the android animals in Philip K dicks novel it becomes a giant photograph. Its worth derided from reminding us where we came from and how we view or would like to view ourselves. Cultured and with history. But for the science fiction writer culture and history dos not exist so there are no coliseums. Can you imagine watching a film in which the hero’s teleport around the city through some public device, only to reach a museum of natural history filled with relics such as the bank of England and the 02 stadium the male lead saying, if only I was here for the world cup of 2024. No, the future will be better designed and therefore cultureless. The illogical anachronisms of national boarders, deep human connections and aesthetic pleasure will be fixed by the time we set up our first colony’s on the moon. Ringworld predicting the ideology of globalization by a few decades equates the borderless states due to the enhancement of technology as the end of culture itself[1]with the main character lamenting that no city has any personality as they all morph into a hegemonic blob. Sure he can be in Venice in a half a second but that kind of loses the point of going to Venice. The view may be cynical but it is hard to not sympathise with it. Even worse, to hate it but see it as inevitable. After all as Joe Rogan pointed out, look at any city from high enough and it looks like a disease contaminating the earth. Yes the desire to give up sentiment and to head towards the future is strong. It is a quote often used by politicians and intellectuals that out-dated ideas such as the NHS, terraced houses, social welfare and love of your fellow woman simply wont do in our continued civilization.

Standing with my back to the steel barriers facing the steel and concrete hump of Dottonbori Bridge on a Friday night I was reminded of George Orwell’s Road to Wigan pier. And the sensitive peoples distaste for “progress” and the “machine civilization”. The disconnection I felt as I watched the sleek machinery of the world tick by, deaf to my existence. Skyscrapers pierced into the blacking sky outlining the darkness behind it. A full spectrum of colour glared in neon lights illuminating the strip until it was one cascade of colour. To my left giantess 10 storeys high from H&M watched over me. She stood guarding the entrance to shinsaibashi, the main bar and club district. It was backlit with pale white lights that made the shops neon even sharper. In front of me waves of people crashed against the dam of the bridge. As I watched them being funnelled towards their late night destinations, the cries of laughter and stumbles of drunk businessmen were viewed in a detached manner, like it was not me but someone else that was watching it.

Stand in Tokyo, or Soul or Osaka at nights and you feel that you are standing in the epicentre of civilization itself. Its hard not to sympathise with the science fiction writers and the immense pressure they go under when they decide to create a new world. Can there be anything more than this? Everything is smoth sleek and completely unaffected by my existence. The animal spirit of the free market will roar on, the skyscrapers will grow taller until till they arrive at the space colonies and the people, with their noses down will shuffle on in existence.

Science fiction writers often tell their stories under the assumption that technology is on a separate track from humanity and it will march on regardless. Their characters have relatively little agency and are usually acted on instead of having the power to change the future. In the Forever war (a satire on the Vietnam war) the main character fights missions against aliens who he is not sure what they really are and where they came from, every time her returns decades has passed on his home pallet leaving him alienated. This problem is never resolved, instead he clings to the last part of his connection with humanity through his partner who promises to love him no matter how old he is when they reunite. In George Orwell’s own 1984, although the character fights back and has a relationship with another revolutionary it is clear that in the end he has little effect if any on the regime.

Ignoring the beautiful temple city of Kyoto or Nara Japans cities are not very aesthetic city during the day. Heaping steel overpasses block of the view like an steel railing. The brightly light neon signs of the shops look dim and rusted. The skyscrapers are revealed to be grey hulking coffins for their crammed inhabitants. Whenever I think back to my time in Japan its hard not to use the old clichés. It was like living in a dream or being in a videogame. I don’t know how deep the link between our need to develop more comfortable lives and our innate desire to reject technology lies. But it’s a problem not restricted to science fiction. Science fiction- of course is always about current problems that are unanswerable. You only need to read about “ religious fundamentalists” of ISIS or the even more fundamental congress desperate to bomb Iran.

In Christopher Priest inverted world a young man lives upon a motorised city traveling the world under the belief that civilization is dead. Different teams are used to fix the cities giant wheels and creating bridges to cross large stretches of water. When he meets a girl that explains to him that reality of his life. The nuclear energy his city uses has led to mutations to his people, civilization was never destroyed and they are attempting the impossible task of trying to cross an ocean. He of course rejects her analysis, deciding that she must be crazy. While planning how to cross it, he swims in the ocean and looks up towards the distorted smudgy lines that represent his sun.

The science fiction writer understands that the gap between space stations on Saturn and hitting the restart button on humanity is a lot closer than we would like to think. Reality can change very quickly, which may explain why all those writers are shackled to describing Japan like being in a dream. After all, the reality of unemployment and feeling of inadequacy is desire enough to reject the reality that awaited me back home. In japan I was always lonely, I thought it was impossible not to be. Everyone I met no matter what they did or how popular they were had the same air of loneliness. It was like an aura weighing them down, you could see it before you herd them talk. It was probably the only way we could be friends, it drew us to each other. Most of the time I didn’t mind being lonely that much, it was only for a short period of my life. As I caught the high speed train for the last time, passing the rice fields and provincial cities, a polite automated Japanese voice ringing through the train I realised that one reality had ended. The dream was dead.

[1] It is Important to remember that this is the penultimate goal and motive for globalization, the borderless world. No one ever seems to follow this up with the logical, conclusion that states would then become redundant.

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