Saturday, 27 February 2010

Thoughts from an Unreal City

The other week we went out with some friends and  found ourselves in the pub at the top of the Kirkstone Pass. In the bar there was a shelf of old SF books and a collecting tin: they were selling the books to raise money for the mountain rescue. I restrained myself and only bought one - a hardback collection of short stories from the seventies. I'm still reading it. So far, the highlight has been a text by Frederik Pohl - not a story, but an "afterword" to another book, a book about cities. In it, he considers the importance of cities to civilisation (a word itself derived from the Latin civitatem, meaning "the city"). What he says is prophetic, and worth quoting:

I do not think that civilisation...can survive without cities. In some form.

I am in some doubt about the form. I know the arguements of those who think that the form is not important. I like the idea of the world as an exploded city -"Don't commute, communicate!"- in which everyone does his own thing in his own place, linked to each other by electronic media rather than physical proximity. Maybe this is the wave of the future for city building...
For most of us, commuting is superfluous.We...endure an hour or so on the train and arrive in a cubicle in a building from which most of our activity has to do with reading pieces of paper that cross our desk (why not read them on a cathode ray tube from Biloxi or Saskatchewan?)... Insofar as "the city" represents to most of us the place where we work,...clearly it can be replaced by wires and microwave relays.
Yet that is not all that a city does. You can dial an associate on the phone and talk to him. But you can't run into him on the phone... You don't need to go to a concert hall to hear a concert. But there is a joy and a purpose to being physically present in a place with other people who are like-minded...

For these reasons, I think that city life is a failed experiment that we will never give up on.
Frederik Pohl: Afterword to Future City (1973), ed. Roger Elwood
 Food for thought.

12 comments:

The Solitary Walker said...

I like that pub.

On the Camino I found myself looking forward to getting to the towns and cities - Merida, Cacares, Salamanca, Zamora - just for a complete change and some different kinds of stimuli. Like most things in life, variety is the spice, and even though wide open spaces of flat pasture land dotted with holm oaks are great, you don't want them all the time.

Niamh B said...

Interesting alright... Did you ever read Ben Elton's Blind Faith? It has an interesting, and entertaining take on the future if we continued with increasingly living online.

Niamh B said...

In fact, that might be what people said about Frederik Pohl originally... hmmm

the watercats said...

wow... "a cathode ray tube"... I've got to get me one of them!

Get Off My Lawn! said...

I still say science fiction, at its best, is the highest and most important form of literature. Isaac Asimov said that it is the only art that prepares us for mind shattering discoveries in science and rapid advances in social evolution. This post is an excellent exapmle. Only a science fiction writer can wonder what it will be like when cities become obsolete. But I think you could ask people who live in northern Saskatchewan about that. There are no cities up there.

Lyn said...

We are practically at the point where we may never have to go out..electronics will put everything in front of us....
..but I'd still like to run into my friends at a pub, or bookstore..
The failing city keeps shifting, is always in the throes of a messy rebirth, will go on, unless we reach McCarhty's "Road".

Susan at Stony River said...

I've always wanted to visit that area -- I hope you're having a terrific trip.

When I was younger I loved cities and wouldn't live anywhere else; now that I'm older I can't stay out of them long enough, I'm very uncomfortable in them now. The digital age had me hoping too that we'd all be connected more by technology than geography, but it's interesting to speculate about the future as one continuous city, or without them at all...

Definitely food for thought, you're right.

Titus said...

I can't survive without the smell of concrete and tarmac and car fumes and the noise of people, people everywhere. Have to get up to Glasgow at least once a month for a fix. I love the man-madeness of it all.
I don't do country, I just live there.

John Hayes said...

As someone who's lived both in cities, including one large one, & the country, I must say there's a lot of appeal to the hurly burly of the city. & I will say that the internet has been wonderful for living in a part of the United States where there aren't as many like-minded souls as there would be in a more urban setting!

Dominic Rivron said...

SW: It is good, isn't it? Some pubs make you wonder why everyone doesn't just go to the off-licence. Not that one.

Niamh: No I haven't. Thanks for the suggestion.

watercats: I just took one to the tip the other day.

GOML: I think it is no accident that a number of modern novelists have written "science fiction" but have dodged calling it such! It is often said that SF can explore so much that is denied the "conventional" modern novel, as it has evolved.

Lyn: Yes. Could we not also end up in the dreadful world of The Machine Stops?

Susan: Thank you. It was good - but it only lasted a day (it's just up the road and over a couple of hills).

Titus: I can relate to that. My trouble is, when I'm in the city, after a while I need the country, and vice versa.

Dominic Rivron said...

John: I can certainly relate to that!

tony said...

Tis A Shame That Sci-Fi isnt as popular at the moment.I blame the aweful covers!
When younger I loved the hustle&bussle of The City.I prefer my hustling these days on a smaller scale!