Sunday, 2 June 2013

London Down the Rabbit Hole

In his rather cutting review of Tom Pollock's The City's Son in Strange Horizons, Martin Lewis briefly touches upon London as the setting for so much fantastic literature:
So debut novelist Tom Pollock is telling a story with a familiar shape, a story of secret London. The daddy of such books is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996), adapted from the BBC drama he devised with Lenny Henry, and it still casts a long shadow. Once I would have said that there was perhaps a need for this sort of story to be retold every five years or so, but now, of course, urban fantasy is ascendant and every city has a secret soul. The City's Son may ride this wave but it fits more comfortably into a slightly more specific tradition. After all, London is a bit special. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I went to an interview with slipstream writer Nina Allan. At one point, she mused on her distance from the core of the science fiction genre and rather wistfully remarked that she'd like to be a space writer but always seemed to end up as a time writer. Listening to her I was struck by how perfect London is as a setting for such fiction. After all, the city is a type of time machine; the past and the future sandwiched against each other. This history—this density—imbues the city with a crushing psychic weight. It is virtually a singularity. As one of Pollock's characters puts it: "You see, this city is built on a lot of things: brick and stone and river clay, but under that, under everything this city is built on bargains" (p. 236).
London, it seems he is arguing, is such an optimal setting as it is both space and time: it is simultaneously the sewers of Mieville's King Rat and the weird bleeding of memory into present in Cornell's London Falling.

Of course, the history of London can only help this idea. London is the birthplace of the novel: in the coffeehouses of mid-to-late 18th Century London were Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, William Godwin's Caleb Williams. While ostensibly character portraits, all take London as their setting, and argue a politicised or philosophical point, where both character and setting have vital roles to play. From Shakespeare to Dickens, Wells and Orwell to Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi, London has had a rich literary history, purely by the happenstance of being the capital of the largest empire the world has ever seen, via being the birthplace of the most spoken language in the world. It is ineveitable, therefore, that it will have a special place in literary history, and its cosmopolitain make up an impact on the plots of stories the world over.

It is only natural, therefore, that it also has an impact on contemporary speculative fiction. The sheer amount of names that can be conjured off the top of ones head tells its own story: Mieville, Sinclair, Aaranovitch, Gaiman, Griffin, Pollock, Stroud; not to mention those canonical works by the likes of Ballard, Gibson, Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Moorcock and the like. All of these authors use London as their jumping off point, offer their own perspectives of London as a place of wonder, of metaphor. The destruction of London, in Wells' The War of The Worlds, or Ballard's The Drowned World is often used as metaphor for the destruction of civilization: because London is civilization. When it is explored within its current bounds, it often the weird and secretive sections that come up trumps: the Underground, both literal place in the Sewers of Mieville and the Underground railway system of Gaiman, or history in the battle, and eventual resolution of Pollock's Blankleits and Sodiumites, representative of present and past streetlighting. The nature of London is blurring, polymorphous.

But why is this proliferation so telling? Why are, say, New York, Seattle, Tokyo or Paris not beset by fantastic works? Partly its the literary history above, but its more than that. Despite these city's being universally hailed as astonishing, containing what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the "wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world." This certainly true:the sense of place of New York, or Paris, or Tokyo, can be conjured with ease by television pictures: they have their own famous skylines, but, more than that, you can tell you're in them from street level. Neon lights everywhere? Tokyo. Grand sweeping Hausman apartments? Paris. The sight of  dilapidated, graffiti-strewn concrete jungle or the skyscraper canyon? Either Brooklyn/Queens or central Manhattan. As a result, these places lend themselves to a visual medium with ease: they give a sense of place without apparent effort. Its a repeated visual effect: the way Central Park is used in Friends, or You've Got Mail, the way the Seattle waterfront is used in Frasier or When Harry met Sally, or the way that Montmartre is evoked in Moulin Rouge, or futurism is predicted with reference to Tokyo in Blade Runner. These cities conjure images that they are automatically associated with, and can be played with in some stunning works. American Psycho is set in New York for a reason.

However, London doesn't do this. It lacks a central image. Yes, the tourists get Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, the BT Tower and, lately, the Gherkin and the Shard. But they are disparate images. There is no singular London skyline, no singular London identity. Instead it is the ultimate in cosmopolitain, inclusive cities. This is 'the crushing psychic weight' Lewis is talking about. Nowhere else in the world does Caribbean meet Bangladeshi meet Polish meet Lebanese meet Greek meet English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, creating what we call Britain. There is no denumeration of place: district blends into district, race into race, style into style. Past becomes present becomes future. You can walk out of Aldgate station, past the newest of the City of London's buildings, occupied as they are by the newly moneyed white middle class, down Commercial Road, dilapidated sixties dwellings, occupied mainly by Bangladeshi families, under the ultra-modern-seeming DLR, to Sixteenth Century Tobacco Docks to St. Katherine's Docks with its delusions of grandeur, Ferraris parked beneath in its underground car park, the Royal Barge afloat at anchor, with old aristocracy and new moneyed Arabs, and within sight of the marvelously Gothic Tower Bridge, where every denizen of London crosses at some point on their journey to the South East. All in less than half a mile.

Beyond the physical and social blurring, there is also the secrets that London hides. The thought of what is actually in the underground tunnels? The sewers. The rooftops. The canal. Hell, the Islington tunnel, where the canal goes underground. The River. Southwark, Westminster, the City. The difference between West and East, North and South. Camden and Kensington. Hackney and Tooting and Brixton and Walthamstow. London is all cities and none, it contains every possibility at all times. You are an individual and yet invisible amongst the seething throngs of King's Cross-St Pancras commuters. You are an individual and yet invisible amongst Shoreditch's Hipsters. You are an individual and yet invisible among Streatham's gangs.

With so much occurring, and no single narrative thread, is it any wonder why there are so many stories set in London? With so much potential for secrecy; the ease from which the magic of one ethnicity or sub-culture blends seamlessly into another, and the conflict or integration that is involved; the mysteries of history and future, above and below: is it any wonder that London's rabbit hole is dived into with such regularity, imbued with a magic entirely of its own creation?

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