No brave new worlds
© Getty
July 2018

No brave new worlds

The city in science fiction stories rarely lifts the reader’s spirits. In most sci-fi novels, people are living in cramped conditions of dirty megacities instead of picking flowers on Mars. But why?

​“Here begins a happy day in 2381. The morning sun is high enough to touch the uppermost fifty stories of Urban Monad 116.” This is how “The World Inside” written by Robert Silverberg in 1971 begins – and even if you haven’t read the book you suspect that this is a world of make-believe. “Urban Monad 116” is a three kilometer (1.9 mile) high building inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people who won’t leave it until they die. Should any of them come up with the idea that it might be great to see the ocean for a change, they’ll be condemned for “anti-social behavior.” You can imagine the rest.

Post-apocalyptic worlds

It’s hardly an uplifting vision of the way people will be living together in urban areas of the future, but one that’s pretty typical of how science fiction writers have been describing plans for city life ever since the beginnings of this genre. If you follow their ideas, future generations will mostly be living in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by totalitarian regimes, in claustrophobic megacities, in subterranean cities like in Hugh Howeys “Silo” or underneath domes described by Isaac Asimov, in tiny “Conaps” described by Philip K. Dick or in tent-like “hotellos” described by Kim Stanley Robinson. Not an appealing thought, not a brave new world, and it does make you wonder why the majority of sci-fi novelists paint such a grim picture of the world’s future metropolises.

Doors are not locked in Urbmon 116. At night it is quite proper to enter other homes

From “The World Inside”

A likely assumption is that stories about the future reflect present-day fears. The seventies produced a growing awareness of demographic trends, industrialization, environmental pollution and the destruction of resources. In 1972, the Club of Rome published its report titled the “Limits to Growth” and it was also the year in which the World Environment Conference of the United Nations was held that’s deemed to have marked the beginning of international environmental policy. This was followed by civic initiatives, changes in legislation, a direct effect on urban planning – and on the imagination of writers who in the seventies virtually wallowed in visions of dystopia. Which, of course, would not explain why H. G. Wells and Jules Verne described air pollution, commercialization and housing shortage even as far back as in their day.

The city as the perfect setting for the future

The truth is that ever since the early days of industrialization, the city has provided a perfect setting to portray the consequences of automation – as well as technological progress! Jules Verne in 1863 fantasized about “gas-cabs.” Four years earlier, Étienne Lenoir had filed a patent for a gas engine. Looking at it this way, science fiction writers use the metropolis as a platform to express criticism of the present, to craft a plot – and as a possibility to think inventions and developments through to the end. Unfortunately, it’s usually not a happy ending.

Naturally, we shouldn’t forget that exaggeration is part of the sci-fi genre just like abomination is of horror fiction. “Creation of drama, conflict and suspense” is what academics call this, but it could also be put in much simpler terms: catastrophes are just more fun – especially in cities. A few examples on the following pages illustrate the point …

​​A gentleman was travelling along the pavement in front of them, when suddenly he (…) took a telephone receiver from his pocket and called a number

From “The 35th of May”
© Matjaz Slanic/Getty
Science fiction cities
No brave new worlds

Los Angeles
“Logan’s Run” (1967)

Authors William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson

This is what it’s like there It is the year 2116 – and no, the city is not covered by domes like in the movie from 1976. What it does have is residential complexes and fun parks, plus the neighborhoods are connected by “express belts.” The inhabitants usually get around on foot but are also able to travel around the world underground at “fantastic speeds.” Nature exists to the extent that the extra-urban space is portrayed as a refuge from totalitarian rule.
Would we like to live there? Principally yes, especially since people are living in an affluent society. However, at age 21, they’re eliminated to prevent overpopulation. At least, in the movie, their life span has been extended to 30 years – at which time they’re evaporated in a ritual called “carrousel.”

No brave new worlds

Oklahoma City
“Ready Player One” (2011)

Author Earnest Cline

This is what it’s like there In a nutshell: dismal. In 2044, the majority of the population is poverty-stricken following an energy and economic crisis. In Oklahoma City, people live in trailer homes piled on top of each other called “stacks” – and are spending their time near-exclusively in virtual reality, a digital miracle world in which you can play, work – and learn: OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) serves as a free educational system because the official institutions have become dysfunctional.
Would we like to live there? No.

No brave new worlds

New York
“The Caves of Steel” (1953)

Author Isaac Asimov

This is what it’s like there At the beginning of the 30th century, most of the eight billion people on Earth live in crowded semi-self-supporting domed cities (“caves of steel”). In New York, where the population is over 20 million, the staple food is yeast which also serves as a source of energy. Automobiles do not exist, but expressways and localways – belts moving at various speeds – traverse the city. A popular and dangerous game played by teenagers is “strip running,” a type of race on the belts. By contrast, the so-called “spacers” live in a high-tech parallel society in outer space.
Would we like to live there? If so, then in outer space because on the inhabited planets every family lives in its own dome, plus people there can expect to live for as many as 350 years.

No brave new worlds

“The 35th of May” (1931)

Author Erich Kästner

This is what it’s like there In his children’s book Erich Kästner describes the city Electropolis with awesome prescience: There are cell phones (“pocket phones”), self-driving cars – steered by a sensible connection of an electromagnetic field with a radio center – and autonomous trains. News are projected against the sky and sidewalks are moving belts. Also, there’s a fully automatic cattle conversion line on the outskirts of the city that sucks cows in at the front – and ejects leather goods and milk at the back.
Would we like to live there? Actually, you’d always like to live in Kästner’s worlds – even in this one. At least, money has been abolished and nobody has to work.

No brave new worlds

“Dune” (1965)

Author Frank Herbert

This is what it’s like there The city of Arrakeen is built on rock on the rather inhospitable planet Arrakis, protected by a mountain range to prevent an invasion of giant worms living there. Human life on the planet is entirely focused on collecting and preserving water. Besides that, “the spice” is collected there, a hallucinogenic drug.
Would we like to live there? Maybe those of us who really love sand.

No brave new worlds

“The World Inside” (1971)
Author Robert Silverberg

This is what it’s like there The “Urbmons,” short for “Urban Monads,” are cone-shaped skyscrapers inhabited by millions of people who typically won’t leave them during their lifetime – although speedboats commute between the buildings. “Urb­mon 116” for example is three kilometers (1.9 miles) high and has 800,000 residents. A computer controls the technical infrastructure, garbage and sewage are recycled. The food for the residents is grown in agricultural communes and delivered to the “Urbmons” by courier capsules. This is another place where the rule applies: the higher you live the higher your social standing.
Would we like to live there? Depends on how you look at it. The society is focused on maximum procreation, residents with “anti-social inclinations” (including the wish for fresh air) are thrown down a chute.

No brave new worlds

“The Shape of Things to Come” (1933)

Author H. G. Wells

This is what it’s like there In the 22nd century, the UK has only four megacities with glass-like climatic enclosures and wind turbines rotating on top of them. London has 33 million inhabitants. Rolling streets take the urbanites from A to B, there’s acoustical advertising in the streets, working class people live in the lower sections of the city and some of them have to produce electricity in the “treadmills.”
Would we like to live there? The sentence “The city had swallowed up mankind” doesn’t suggest we would.

No brave new worlds

“The Hunger Games” (2008–2010)

Author Suzanne Collins

This is what it’s like there The Capitol is the capital city of Panem and located west of the Rocky Mountains. The rest of the country is divided into 13 districts that supply the Capitol with raw materials. The architecture (and lifestyle of the upper class that exclusively lives in the Capitol) might be interpreted as a modern adaptation of ancient Rome. The 96,463 residents primarily pursue their decadent lifestyle of a high-tech society with genetically modified animals, force fields and high-speed trains.
Would we like to live there? If you’re into gluttony and gladiators, why not?

No brave new worlds

“Paris in the Twentieth Century” (1863)

Author Jules Verne

This is what it’s like there In 1863, Jules Verne writes about the French capital 100 years later: In 1960, people travel on passenger trains propelled by compressed air, there are so-called “gas-cabs” with up to 30 horsepower and the saying goes: “In Paris there are no longer houses, only streets!” In other words, there’s a housing shortage. The prescience with which Jules Verne even back in his day writes about air pollution and as asides mentions a defibrillator, fax machines or huge calculators is amazing.
Would we like to live there? Perhaps not, if we felt like Jules Verne who laments women’s liberation that has caused “the Parisiennes to evolve into American women.”

No brave new worlds

New York
“New York 2140” (2018)

Author Kim Stanley Robinson

This is what it’s like there In 2140, the sea level – due to climate change – has risen by 15 meters (50 feet). Only the tips of the skyscrapers are above water, linked by sky bridges. There are greenhouses and farming floors in buildings with photovoltaic coatings, cargo airships in the sky, flying communities suspended from balloons and floating cities cruising on the ocean. People move around in New York in “vaporetto” boat taxis or privately owned boats. Here, as well, residential space is scarce and many people live in packable rooms called “hotellos.”
Would we like to live there? Honestly speaking, yes, because the description of the “skimmers” is simply enticing: they ride the waves of the flooded streets on their surfboards.

Wiebke Brauer
Author Wiebke Brauer
Wiebke Brauer from Hamburg is not only a bred-in-the-bone urbanite but also admits to being a sci-fi genre junkie. Even as a child she relished the horrors of movies like “Soilent Green.” While reading the books for this story, she noticed (much to her chagrin) that the frequently described idea of the moving sidewalks has not yet caught on.