Urban planning and speculative fiction


John Shirley was present at the beginning of what has been called cyberpunk science fiction. When he wrote City Come A-Walkin’ in the late 1970s, he was as far into the punk scene as you could go and still produce a coherent novel–rock musician, omnipresence in the underground scene in Portland, wildman, writer. Fellow novelist William Gibson (2000) has called him “cyberpunk’s patient zero, first locus of the virus” of hot-edged, plugged-in science fiction.

Why should serious scholars of American urban development pay attention to an overwritten piece of pulp fiction that is stuffed with gratuitous violence, padded with extraneous chase scenes, and permanently stranded in the genre ghetto of science fiction? The answer is that City Come A-Walkin’ and much other science fiction has important clues to the ways that Americans think about urban life and urban development. Science fiction is not really about predicting the future. Instead, it’s a format for serious and sometimes outrageous reflections about the past and present. Like other imaginative writers, SF practitioners hold up mirrors to their own experiences and [-p.123] social surroundings. The difference is that science fiction uses mirrors that are distorted with extrapolation and speculation. The result is like a fun house—reflections that obscure some aspects of “reality” but highlight others.” (122-123)

“Readers have long known that the problems and worries of the day quickly find their way into science fiction: stories about technology as a cure for economic depression in the 1930s, allegories about the Red Menace in the 1950s, responses to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, environmental disaster scenarios in recent decades. These connections are a staple for science fiction criticism, which pursues the lines of influence and argument among politics, social change, and fictions of the future. Writer and critic Samuel Delany (1999, 343) has argued that “SF is not about the future . . . . It works by setting up a dialogue with the here-and-now, a dialogue as rich and intricate as the writer can make it.” Thomas Disch (1988, 91) writes that “science fiction is not about predicting the future but about examining the present.” Those who ignore the past, in other words, can have no conception of the future.

As the fun house metaphor suggests, there is a special value in looking at science fiction. Science fiction writers utilize accepted narratives of the past and common understandings of the present to frame their visions of the future, but they do so in extreme forms. Their futures are far reaching in time, crammed with speculations about new technology, and full of serious and satirical extrapolations of social trends. Just as historical analysis is one of the tools available for real world planning (Abbott and Adler 1989), imaginative analysis of future histories can play a role in framing planning issues. Science fiction is thus a particularly interesting and useful way to surface some of the implicit understandings that lie beneath the surface of our society, and even our scholarship. One specific goal of this article is to suggest ways to introduce such theory to students and readers by using fictional sources in conjunction with the standard academic literature. A second is to highlight one of the ways in which the ideas of planning and social science make their ways into popular culture.” (123)

Ref: Carl Abbott Cyberpunk Cities : Science Fiction Meets Urban Theory Journal of Planning Education and Research 2007 27: 122

Note also: concluding this article, Abbott explains: “This article tries to show that the exaggerations, extrapolations, and distortions of science fiction give us clues about the implicit understandings that lie beneath the surface of our culture, and even our scholarship. Because it places its [-p.129] characters on the margins of society, the particular subfield of cyberpunk fiction adds additional twists to more common space opera and galactic adventure stories of the Star Wars variety. At least since the middle of the nineteenth century, journalists and novelists have assumed that visits to society’s margins (e.g., Orwell 1937) and characters living at its frayed edges (e.g., Crane 1893) offer the opportunity to challenge the stories that validate the established hierarchies of class and race. With protagonists who have fallen from the middle class—or never quite reached it—many cyberpunk stories are implicit criticisms of the power of large economic organizations built on their ability to control flows of information. [/] In many of its facets, cyberpunk also celebrates the power of the “Los Angles school” of urban studies, sharing the interest in finding a new urban model to replace old industrial Chicago, and they find that model in metropolitan California. Science fiction has always had an affinity with American mythologies of the frontier. Some writers simply transport the metaphor into the future, some structure plots around a westward quest, and others buy into the expectation that the relatively young and flexible society of western North American is the most natural place to locate stories about social and cultural change (Abbott 2003, 2006b). They see the Pacific Rim and its cities as the sites where civilization will change—for better or worse—frustrated by the end of old frontiers, revitalized by the unfolding of new ideas.” (pp.128-129)

These writers also share the postmodern/L.A. school fascination with the problems of communication in a fragmented and contingent society. Its imagined cities are big, bad, bifurcated, and baffling. But they can also be spirited and specific, sometimes sinful, sometimes suspenseful, but always stimulating. Cities are great machines for facilitating and channeling communication—and for frustrating communication when race and class intervene.” (p.129)

I thoroughly enjoyed this article!


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