Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Making a City Work: A worldbuilding hangout report

This hangout was a continuation of last week's discussion on Cities, simply because we felt like we had a lot more to talk about (let's face it, most of these topics are endless!). It was also my biggest turnout yet! I was joined by Glenda Pfeiffer, Janet Harriet, Brian Dolton, Jaleh Dragich, Elizabeth Arroyo, Rebecca Blain, K Richardson and Bryan Thomas Schmidt.

I started us off by talking about City of Ember. Now, I haven't read the book, I confess. But I saw the movie and found it wonderful, and the thing I really picked up on was how solidly they grounded the workings of the city. The story wouldn't have worked at all if readers/viewers couldn't believe in the possibility of this city working. The operational detail was provided in the "pledge of allegiance" which made mention of the "mighty flowing river" beneath the city, and in the Assignment Day where new adults received their jobs by pulling papers out of a bag. The first one is great because the river actually provides critical plot points later (in addition to explaining how they maintain power etc.). The second is great because you get to see all the jobs that people get to have (or at least an excellent selection thereof) and by watching the kids' reactions, you get a read on their judgment of those jobs. It's a glimpse into how the city is run, and into its' culture. Examples: they have an enormous hydroelectric power generator, and working there is seen as fun and a privilege. Pipeworks is important but considered dirty. Mold-scraper is not good news but there has to be one. Greenhouse assistant explains something about the sources of food. It's great stuff and you get it all up front in one simple scene. Then you go further following the characters and you get to see the main parts of the city in the eyes of the Messenger, and the dank, dirty underbelly of the city through the eyes of the pipeworks laborer.

Rebecca spoke to us about a city she has created, on a cliff face above "the Rift." It has both underground water and water from above, but is characterized by extremely harsh terrain. It's really critical if you're going to establish a city to know:
1. Where its water comes from
2. Where its food comes from
3. Where its electrical power (if any) comes from
4. Who keeps things running
5. How the critical roles in city maintenance are filled and how they are regarded (this will deeply affect the lives of individuals filling those roles).

You can always add depth to a city by considering its history. Things are built for a reason (utility, art, politics etc); and those things that have been built tend to be preserved, unless there is a specific reason why they would be removed. What is built and where it is built depend on the available resources and the city conditions. For example, my underground city of Pelismara has five levels, each with a considerable layer of rock in between, but you'd be a fool to dig every time you wanted to hide pipes or cables; eventually the city would collapse. So those have to go elsewhere, and they do (in dedicated alleyways).

You also need to figure out how the city deals with its garbage. Does it recycle? How much waste does it produce? Does that waste get piled somewhere? Burned? Buried? Pelismara does some burning, but mostly recycles like crazy. This has caused them some problems, because once long ago they had a wired phone system and when they moved to wireless, they recycled all the wires. So now that the wireless phone system has failed, they have nothing to fall back on and must resort to people running messages (yes, I love to pull tricks like this). There's a ton to learn about cultures from their garbage, so don't forget to take a look around at the midden heaps of Vikings and Native American Indians for inspiration. (They even track the colors in the dirt to trace the locations of ancient buildings etc). And don't forget that people die: you'll have to deal with the dead bodies too. It's easy to have people bury them if your city is small and not that crowded, but if it's underground? Or if people die a lot? What happens then?

Brian mentioned Leviathan Wakes and its generation ship full of mormons, thinking of it as a city. Indeed, large groups of space travelers can be considered to live in "cities" - you'll see that one of my commenters has written a report on how the Starship Enterprise can be considered a city. In the case of a space ship, as Brian said, there can be no tolerance for loss of material. Chances are that disposal of any sort will be strictly monitored.

In Tokyo they have a strange phenomenon surrounding garbage collection. Because there is no room for large plastic bins, garbage is put out in plastic grocery bags, and because the garbage workers have to come to work on the train before they can go out to pick up, garbage pickup happens after the sun comes up. This results in a field day for crows. Watch out for them, too - they are large and they will steal your food right out of your hand if they like.

This got us all going on different methods of garbage collection. Jaleh has to drive to the dump; there's no pickup because she's in rural New York where homes are too spread out. Recycling is free, but you pay a fee for the trash you drop off. Janet has trash pickup where she lives in Ohio, but there's no centralized garbage company, only a lot of little companies. Control need not be centralized; there are a lot of possible models available here. Brian mentioned that whole communities of people live on trash, taking from what others throw away. Bryan told us about trash being taken back from El Paso into Mexico for processing, and Glenda mentioned a designated bulk trash day for large items like appliances.

Off garbage now, and back onto resources. We shouldn't forget trade, which brings resources to an area, allowing cities to form spontaneously. Somehow, resources have to converge. When that convergence is disrupted, the city can starve and die. Janet mentioned her town is at a railroad intersection that was a booming steel town 80 years ago, but the money has now gone away and there is not much left to sustain services. A similar thing happened with Radiator Springs in Pixar's "Cars" movie.

I mentioned that there is a sense of isolation among farmers in France, which is drawing people (another kind of resource) away from the rural areas. In fact, there's now an internet dating service specifically geared toward lonely farmers. I find this rather delightful.

Our last major topic was the way that these resource and service underpinnings, and population conditions, can affect society and its laws. In Rebecca's city, because conditions are so dangerous, murder is heavily punished. Women stay in the city while men are foragers and hunters. Women are expected to produce as many babies as possible, so there's no institution of monogamous marriage. Murderers are tried by horses (ridden by women, apparently) and murderers cast into the Rift. Pelismara experiences a number of different kinds of population pressure: the Venorai laborers work in very dangerous conditions, so they never go anywhere by themselves, and it has become an expression in the general language ("Venorai never walk alone"). The nobility's population is shrinking due to attrition and inbreeding, so women are incredibly oppressed in the name of getting them to produce more offspring. Overall, however, the population is not changing measurably because of the lack of growth or decline in resources. Brian mentioned that in a case of overpopulation, murder might become a sanctioned activity rather a than an illegal one. Wars might also be used to divert overly large numbers of aggressive young people into pursuits that will simultaneously keep them occupied and reduce their numbers.

At the end of the discussion we decided to talk about diet, food and culture at our next hangout. Since that one has already occurred at the time I write this, I'll try to get it written up this week, too. Tomorrow's hangout will be at 11am PST on Google + and we'll be talking about the culture of oppression. I hope you can join us.


  1. I read through the numbered list and immediately thought that sanitation should be added -- sanitation technology/knowledge restricts city size -- and then you went into it in depth. I'm glad you write these up; I get to participate a little even if I'm not present.

  2. Yes, MK, I probably should have put it in the numbered list, but I did get it into the report. I write these up because it would be unfair for them only to benefit the people who have time to attend (people who work usually can't make it anyway). I'm glad you enjoy the reports.