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Sunday, December 12, 2010

writing: San Francisco, cities, and another report from LOSCON, 2010

I'm in San Francisco this week,and what a joy! To be in the heart of the city for an entire week!

What is it about cities that compels the imagination? Outlying rural or suburban areas exhibit certain regular patterns of not only peaceful patterns of travel, but also of behavior. A city seems to be filled with chaotic babble, and frenetic jostling. Tall buildings and narrow streets lend an aura of mystery - of nooks and crannies to the setting. As if secrets can be kept. Secrets that would be all exposed in a rural or suburban setting.

This brings to mind a panel that I visited a few weekends ago at LOSCON, the convention of literary science fiction and fantasy. I wrote about the panel Is Steampunk Anachronistic? a few days ago. This panel was called Mean Streets as a Setting for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The first thing everyone wanted to know was -- how can you have 'mean streets' in a fantasy? Isn't the point to have a 'fantastic' or magical setting? Why would you need 'mean' streets?

The answer, of course, is to create authenticity for an imaginary place.

The panel brought up two environments - the 'classic' fantasy city/setting vs a real city setting such as London or Chicago (either present or past). Examples of classic fantasy cities include: Oz; Courasant (Star Wars); Mos Eisley (also from Star Wars); Metropolis (Superman); Gotham City (Batman); Gondor (Lord of the Rings). Only a few of these 'classic' cities feel like real cities.

One panelist mentioned that even as a kid, he knew that 'Oz' was not a real city. Why? Because there was no one around to pick up the trash. Who ran the fire department? Munchkinland was more 'real' than OZ because you had a sense that there were different normal/routine functions that were being taken care of. Likewise, Mos Eisley is a 'real' city, while Courasant is not.

Why would Marvel Comics put Spiderman in a real New York City rather than either a Metropolis-like city or a Gotham-like city? Because it adds the extra spice of authenticity that neither one of the other analogs possess.

One panelist mentioned that the best depiction of Rome is in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum- the movie. They had found a set that had already been used for a big Rome movie, and they added a lot of garbage to it - pigs running loose and unsavory types loitering around. These elements added to or implied a 'functionality' aspect of city life that is often missing.

That's not to say that a city is about garbage and pigs and unsavory types. A friend who was with me at the convention pointed out that cities are inspiring and wonderful and hopeful places. This should not be overlooked just to incorporate an underbelly to the setting.

The best answer came from Cecil B. DeMille, movie maker from the classic period of the 1940-1960s. He was once asked what his extras were doing, and replied that each one had a story for what they were doing in each scene. The extras! They had made up a little story. For example, one person was on her way to have the heel of her shoe fixed at the local department store in the scene. She even had a shoe with a broken heel in her handbag. The reporter was astonished at this level of detail that the great DeMille demanded even from the extras. But the result in every scene was a setting that felt 'lived in.'

Tomorrow I'm going to breakfast at a little hole in the wall breakfast place on Market Street in San Francisco. The last time I was there, a suite of construction workers (who'd already been at work a couple of hours before this breakfast jaunt) stood in line behind me. More city people on their way to work will be there. And as mundane as it seems, for those few moments I'll feel like part of a community, living and sharing the same experiences; comfortable as an old pair of boots. What a joy!


  1. Took the time to read your blog tonight: my mom was an extra in a Cecil B. DeMille film (maybe the Ten Commandments??????) Anyway, casting put her in the film to keep her employed between two other jobs--she didn't really belong there. She was supposed to be Jewish, but she has blue/green eyes. She was terrified that he'd throw her off the set. So, every time he came around, she looked down to hide her eyes.
    Have a great week!

    Ha! That is so cool Susan! Thanks for sharing this comment. Those were the days, eh? How cool to be involved in something as creative as a Cecil B. DeMille movie.

  2. I wish I'd known about this convention. Talk to me about it when you get back! S.F. is an hour from me - I really want to hear about LOSCON. Email me at Julia(at)JuliaRachelBarrett(dot)net
    I totally want to hear!

  3. What a wonderful, thought-provoking post. I really wanted to go to that SF conference, but couldn't make it. Thanks for giving us the inside scoop. :)