Part 2: Evolution of the City

In Part One of this series I discussed the ways in which the city and its inhabits interact to form the life of the city. In this second part, we look at how cities evolve over time and why that is critical for creating an environment that resonates with your reader.

Credit: Wikipedia
Credit: Wikipedia

If I say “George Lucas,” Wookies and Death Stars probably come to mind. While Lucas created a multi-billion dollar enterprise with Star Wars, his most profitable movie venture (as measured in terms of return on investment) involves neither lightsabers, nor wheezy hero-villains. It is, instead, a very personal story about growing up in America.

In 1973, George Lucas released American Graffiti to critical acclaim. Set in Modesto, California in 1962, the film helped launch the career not only of Lucas, but also of its luminescent cast.

The story has resonated deeply with Americans as the quintessential telling of what it means to come-of-age in small town America. It taps into a universal chord about the magic of passing from one phase of life to another.

Ironically, it succeeds at touching upon the universal by being so deeply personal. The story, to my mind, is the ultimate biography. Lucas divides different phases of his adolescent self up and parcels them out to be played by multiple characters in the film, even as the events of the story play out over a single summer night.  This emphasis on the particular and the personal makes it resonate so broadly.

We must think about cities in the same way.

When we look at cities, we are likely to see a number of common features: streets, sidewalks, businesses, residential homes, civic buildings, parks, etc. Yet, in reality, these similarities are as much dividing lines as common ground. If we reduce them to a generic google map of Everytown U.S.A., then we create a setting that is dead on the page or the screen.

No two cities are exactly alike. The combined elements of time, geography, demographics and culture, interact in endless combinations to render each urban environment unique. While there are universal truths and experiences to urban life, you cannot make these resonate for your reader by painting in broad generic strokes. Every street, every tree, and every twig in every town has a story, just ask Bob Ross.

So how do we show the uniqueness of a city without getting lost in the act of creation? To start, let’s revisit the thought exercise offered in my last post. Think of your hometown and consider each of the following:

What are the streets like (wide or narrow, straight or crooked, well-maintained, or potholed)?

What is the geography like (flat, hilly, hot, cold, etc.)?

Is it different from or similar to the communities around it?

What does its heartbeat sound like?

Is it clean?

Is it safe?

Is it beautiful?

Is it alive?

Is it growing or shrinking?

Does it have a culture?

Does it have a feel?

Is it more rooted in the past, the present or the future?

Last time we looked at some of the subjective dimensions of this list. Today, let’s begin to look at how these thing came into being. We will start with the built landscape of the city.

Built Landscape

Boston View

There’s an urban legend that Boston’s famously nonlinear streets came about as old cow paths evolved into roads. It’s a fun legend, but not exactly true. Boston’s winding streetscape is largely a result of its natural evolution from a small colonial hamlet, to a major metropolis bound by rivers and decorated by hills. When a city grows organically and is bounded by geographic impediments in this way, its streets will tend to reflect the natural obstacles that were encountered in the process of expansion. A road curves as it skirts the edge of a dense wood or the base of hill. Later, as pressure builds, that same forest or hill is developed as well, and often the easiest routes up, over, and through, decide the path roads take.

Compare Boston with Palmanova in Northern Italy. Built in the 1500s, Palmanova from a bird’s-eye view lays across the land like a gigantic Nazca flower. It is one of the finest examples of a planned city.

Credit; Wikipedia
Credit; Wikipedia

Palmanova is a star fort. Star forts were invented in the age of gunpowder as means of creating a fortress or walled city both defensible against cannon attack, and capable of strategically projecting the power of cannons against attacking forces. Its starburst-like projections, low, thick walls, and many other innovations, served a specific defense objective.

Some cities grow very organically, as organically as the path a cow might trod on its way to water. Others are designed down to the brick to serve a particular purpose. Most cities are some combination of the two. For you as the writer, whether you’re writing about a city that is, was or will be, or a city born entirely of your imagination, it is worth giving some thought to this first dimension of organic growth verses purposeful design.

The structure of a city is important. If a city is built with a purpose, then bits of that original goal will likely influence (if slightly or subtly) the culture and governance of the city even centuries after. Likewise, a city that grows in a more organic fashion with a chaotic physical structure will struggle in efforts to “transform” the city, or give it a cohesive feel, approach or objective.

Boston, again, is a great example. Back in the 1970s the city began plans to bury the Central Artery highway. The concept was a good one: take an ugly elevated highway, put it under the ground, and suddenly a city that had been built out for centuries would free a huge swath of space that could be transformed into parks and new business developments, beautified and revitalized, and effectively remaking the city.

The project became known as the Big Dig. It struggled under the complexity of the project, which was compounded by the complexity of governance (who was in charge – the Turnpike Authority? The mayor? The governor? The legislature?) The project ran billions of dollars over budget, was plagued by waste, mismanagement, and corruption. Slated to be completed in 1997, it took another decade before the project was finished. It wasn’t until a ceiling collapse in 2006 took the life of a pregnant woman, that demands for the project to wrap up, and safely, finally forced an end to the project.

The Big Dig achieved its goals, but messily and at great cost. Many factors contributed to the bloated problems of the Big Dig, but not the least of which was trying to undertake a massive project in a centuries-old city as complex and chaotic as the streets that shape it.

Life of the City

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack,
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world,
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile,
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house,
With a beautiful wife,
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

-“Once in a Lifetime,” The Talking Heads

Have you ever found yourself lost in a fictional world? You come up for air after several hundred pages in some amazing book to find your leg’s asleep, outside your window the moon now glows in the sun’s place, and the clocks are all ticking with the insistence of a blacksmith’s forge?

If you’ve had this experience, you’ve probably also felt the existential vertigo that leaves you questioning whether you’ve just entered reality or left it.

The purpose of this new Wordlbuilder’s Cure series is to provide something of an answer to the question, “How do I build a fictional world that is real enough for my reader to get lost in, without losing myself in the worldbuilding process along the way?”

If you want to create compelling worlds, but would also like to finish a book more often than once a decade, this series is for you.


I start this series off with cities because; 1) most stories take place (at least in part) in some sort of urban or semi-urban setting; and 2) I spend most of my waking hours working with cities to understand and solve urban problems.

The following exercise will be our starting point, and I’ll return to it over the next few posts in the series.


Think about the city or town where you live, or the one nearest you. What makes it unique from other cities? In what ways is it similar?

Now consider each of the following with those same questions in mind:

What are the streets like (wide or narrow, straight or crooked, well-maintained, or potholed)?

What is the geography like (flat, hilly, hot, cold, etc.)?

Is it different from or similar to the communities around it?

What does its heartbeat sound like?

Is it clean?

Is it safe?

Is it beautiful?

Is it alive?

Is it growing or shrinking?

Does it have a culture?

Does it have a feel?

Is it more rooted in the past, the present or the future?

Character and Setting

The answers to some of these questions will be quite subjective. “Beauty,” “feel,” and orientation toward past or future are more subjective than questions about cleanliness and street condition. Yet, you will probably find interactions between these two types of questions. The sinuous streets, overflowing trash bins, and cast of colorful characters wandering the streets my add up to a type of wild beauty or a feeling of adventure. Or maybe you see the straight streets, and orderly yards of your hometown as symptomatic of a town without much depth or soul, with a culture keenly geared toward outward appearances.

In other words, you must remember that you and your characters may see the same city differently, depending on how you process it’s physical and objective attributes. For a city to come to life for the reader, you must give careful consideration to:

  1. The objective facts and structure of the city;
  2. How your point-of-view character(s) understand and interpret these aspects;
  3. How the city as a whole, through its leaders and collective unconscious, processes the objective facts of the city (or not) into an understanding of that community.

This last point is an important one. Over my career I’ve had the chance to work for several cities. I will tell you a tale of two of them.

One we’ll call East Gloucester (to protect the innocent and the guilty). East Gloucester is an old New England mill town – cut through with murky rivers, dominated by abandoned textile mills. It has high poverty, high crime, and high unemployment. It has dirty, narrow, snaky streets.

The other community, Let’s call it Kimble City. Kimble City is a western resort town – prosperous, semi-rural, attracting recreational visitors from across the country. Kimble City is high income, high employment. It has straight, well-planned roads and blocks.

Each community had a population of about 25,000.

Do you have them pictured in your mind? Good. Now I worked for each of these cities at different times and for each, early on, I was asked to create a Facebook page for the community and encourage local residents to like the page.

So which town do you think had the most success in garnering likes for its Facebook page?

Go on, take a moment and think about it. I’ll be waiting.


East Gloucester went from zero likes to about 2,000 in under two weeks, with little lobbying from me. Kimble City went from zero to fifty likes after a month of aggressively spreading the word. Kimble City would eventually have to run ads in order to crack the 100 likes mark and beyond.

So here comes what is always the most important question we must ask ourselves, why? Why would a hardscrabble, rundown eye-sore of a town garner so many likes so rapidly, while an idyllic resort town would literally wind up paying people to like its page?

Here’s the answer as I pieced it together. For the folks of East Gloucester, being from that place was a badge of honor. Within days of creating that Facebook page residents who had grown up there but who had moved to far flung locations across the globe rushed to like the East Gloucester page. Moreover, they immediately began swapping old stories – mostly battle stories about fights they’d survived, fires they’d escaped, police officers they’d evaded. To be from East Gloucester carried deep meaning because East Gloucester was something you survived.

Being from Kimble City carried none of that. Certainly residents enjoyed living there, many of them paid a great deal of money for the privilege, but they did not feel the same visceral connection to their hometown as the folks from East Gloucester. Kimble City was a place of beauty, but not a place that carried memories as permanent as the physical scars that marked their toll.

Does a Facebook Page really tell us anything? Perhaps not. Then again, consider this: the Facebook Page in Kimble City was never used for much more than telling people about upcoming events. It was a bulletin board, nothing more.

In East Gloucester we faced historic floods that inundated the town, destroyed businesses, and threatened the lives of thousands of residents. On one stormy night I needed to be in three places at once, and it just wasn’t happening. We needed sandbags in one corner of town in a big way, and I couldn’t get over there. I threw together a quick Facebook post asking for volunteers, and pasted it to the East Gloucester Facebook page. Fifteen minutes later, fifty men and women were up to their knees in floodwater, filling sandbags, and piling them high.

The lesson from today: don’t judge a town by its potholes; building a great fictional town means understanding what it means to the people who call it home.

Part 2 in this series will appear Monday, June 20th. I will look at the evolution of cities, and how small decisions make big differences in how a city develops over time (even short spans of time).



David Brin on the Future of the Future

I interviewed David Brin for my informal study of the impact of Sad Puppies on speculative fiction. He gave a great, detailed response. However, he wanted me to quote it in its entirety or not at all. Fine with me, but it didn’t fit in the flow of the original article. So here it is in its entirety:

Of course I believe 99% of the blame for this imbroglio can be assigned to the Disconsolate Canines, whose macho-troglodytic movement would turn science fiction into a cheering section for neo-feudalism. Nevertheless, all sides in this dismal affair commit one grievous insult against our genre, by assuming there was ever a time when science fiction was not a propelling force for social change.  Going back to Mary Shelley and Jack London and H.G. Wells, SF has always poked at established norms, questioned business-as-usual and – yes – challenged age-old assumptions about race, gender and the “other,” in general. 

Putting aside their bald-faced cheating, the puppies’ romantic twaddle about “good old storytelling” ignores the fact that our best writers — from Bradbury and Zelazny to LeGuin, Anderson, Pohl, Kress, Delaney, Tiptree and Clarke — told tales that both rocked as adventures and confronted us with the inevitability of change.  As bold new authors like Anne Leckie are doing, today.

Where the ‘good guys’ in this controversy go wrong is giving in to the addictive allure of I-invented-justice sanctimony. Yes, we must move forward spreading horizons of diversity, tolerance and otherness!  But to dismiss great SF of the past because it does not meet current linguistic litmus tests? That’s silly.  Judge past people by their efforts in the context of their time! Did they push the conversation forward?  Were they several standard deviations better than their era? Did the feminists, civil-libertarians and environmentalists of those days call our authors of speculative literature allies?

Are we – who keep pushing otherness horizons outward – standing on their shoulders?

By that standard, even Robert Heinlein — whose works read rather sexist today — comes out better than expected. A majority of past Hugo winners do rather well in fact, according to that measure. Moving forward does not require proclaiming “WE invented fiction that’s about tolerance!” No, you are only another link in our chain to the future, using great What-If stories to help humanity to self-uplift, out of darkness and into light.

Sad Puppies and the Future of the Future

Last year I had the privilege to attend my very first WorldCon. Sasquan (each WorldCon has it’s own unique name) in Spokane was noteworthy for wildfire smoke thick enough to eat with a spoon, and for the Hugo Awards that never were. You see, there was a controversy.

It was a political controversy, and as a political scientist I couldn’t let it go by without scrutiny. During the conference and in the months following I conducted an informal qualitative study in order to better understand what each side felt was at stake. I received feedback (in-person interviews and open-ended email surveys) from several authors, all of whom were past Hugo Award winners or nominees.1 I also conducted seventeen interviews with Sasquan attendees to gain a fan perspective.

So what did I discover? I discovered a controversy involving sad puppies, rabid puppies, social just warriors, and the future of the future. Clear enough? No? Let me explain.

Sad Puppies

The Sad Puppies found themselves growing increasingly concerned about what they saw as a disturbing trend toward the Hugo Awards becoming a, “tool of political correctness and identitarian politics.”2

How does a speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy, abbreviated ‘SF’) award do that? The argument goes like this: the Hugo Award’s are akin to the Academy Awards, except less exclusive. You don’t need to be an SF writer in order to vote, you just need to purchase a membership in the World Science Fiction Society. So, theoretically, it’s a fan award, and thus to the ‘Puppies’ the Hugo Awards ought not to have an agenda other than to recognize those works with deepest and broadest appeal to fans of the genre.

The Sad Puppies believed that, rather than the award going to the author who published the most popular work, the Hugos in recent years instead went increasingly to; a) female  authors; b) racially and ethnically diverse authors; and c) authors whose works seemed to advance a social justice agenda through by way of its theme or subtext.

They believed that the award process had become skewed in this way because those attending WorldCon (and those voting as non-attending members) were a sort of cabal – the same faces, year-after-year, nominating and awarding each other, and operating in an echo chamber. They believed this cabal was predominately left-leaning in its politics, thus resulting in agenda-driven adjudication of awards.

The Puppies attempted to challenge this “Hugo Establishment” (sometimes refer to as Social Justice Warriors by the Puppies, or, alternatively, as “Puppy-Kickers”) by putting forth their own slate of nominees for the Hugos. They met with little success until last year when a more militant group, the Rabid Puppies, joined forces. Together they were able to sweep entire categories, ensuring that only Puppy nominees would appear on the final ballot.

Thus the controversy.


The Non-Puppies (NP’s) are an eclectic group. There are those NP’s who embrace the title Social Justice Warrior, yes, but the majority of fans I interviewed at WorldCon expressed opposition to the Puppies not because of their politics, but because of their tactics. Hugo balloting had existed in a genteel, apolitical realm in their minds – a George Washington-style utopia free of factionalism and partisanship.

To these fans, the Puppies’ tactics amounted to poor sportsmanship more than anything.

For others, the Puppies’ were the death knell of the Angry White Male. The misogynistic rant of the powerful witnessing the demise of their unquestioned authority.

For still others, the Puppies’ attacks were deeply personal. “I wonder,” said multi-award winning author Jo Walton, speaking of the Puppies’ lead organizers, “whether they ever stopped to consider how deeply, and personally insulting it is to have them insinuate that I only won a Hugo because I’m a woman. Isn’t it just possible that I actually earned the award?”3

Finally, there is a third group that feared for the integrity of the award itself. This group saw the accusations of collusion, the balloting gamesmanship, and the hard-ball tactics, as destructive to the credibility of an award that has elevated important voices at important times. These individuals see the Hugo Awards and SF playing a key social role that may be undermined by the Puppies’ assault.

“I strongly believe,” wrote Hugo award-winner Allen Steele, “that science fiction stories about the aftermath of global nuclear war raised the public consciousness about the dangers of the nuclear arms race and forced governments to put on the brakes. SF inspired the exploration of space and the digital revolution, and it has also opened serious scientific inquiry into concepts like time travel and multiple universes.”

“If it becomes the general perception that these awards are rigged one way or another, their perceived value will be diminished,” continued Steele. “And if the Hugos are damaged in this way, then general readers will find it harder to discover worthwhile work.”4

Fall Out

On award night, the NP’s sent a very loud message to the Puppies. Trust me, I was there.

In five categories where the combined Sad-Rabid Puppies slate had swept the nomination, the voters chose to give the Hugo to ‘No Award.’ The outcome was variously construed as victory or defeat for either side.

Some feel that the rise in Hugo voter participation (votes for Best Novel increased more than 80% in 2015 over the previous year) was a win for the award, injecting new life into the institution. Others see the controversy as, perhaps, having done permanent damage to the award’s credibility.

Whatever the results of last year, the Hugos have not gone away, and neither have the Puppies. Sad Puppies 4, now focusing on democratizing the awards, and under new leadership, has created a website seeking nominations for the awards. Meanwhile the Rabid Puppies’ leader, Vox Day, is putting forward slates of nominees as before. With the nominations now open, and not set to close until March 31st, the future of the Awards is still an open question.

Moving Forward

Well, I’m not just a political scientist. As you may know, in my day job I run a civic innovation office serving a number of cities in Utah, with partner offices serving the City of Boston and the City of Philadelphia. I’m a civic innovator. At the end of the day, it’s never enough for me just to study phenomenon, I need to do something meaningful with new knowledge.

I’ve been haunted by what Allen Steele had to say, and also David Brin. Think of the social, civic, and technological advancements we’ve made because SF pointed us in that direction? Moreover, think of the dystopian futures we may have avoided because George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. LeGuin showed us what might become with only a few missteps?

The Hugos, I believe, do a play a vital role in amplifying important ideas, concepts, and voices. The future of the Hugos, and of SF, should strengthen that social role, not weaken it.

I don’t think that means the Puppies are necessarily wrong in their claims, but I’m also not that interested in the merits of their argument. Here’s one of my many real concerns: I think the most likely unintended consequence of the Puppies’ campaign is that conservative SF voices may well be marginalized as a result of their actions.

The Puppies’ greatest fear is a world governed by censorship. When you tease out the best, the heart of their arguments, that’s why they exist as a movement. They imagine a dystopian future in which all voices which contradict a left-leaning, multi-cultural narrative will be smothered. They see episodes, like the uproar at Yale over potentially offensive Halloween costumes, as confirmation that society is headed down such a path.

Do you know what I think they should have done about that? That’s right, they should’ve written a novel about it. Instead, whether out of a martyr complex or just a poor understanding of political strategy, I believe they have created their own self-fulfilling prophecy, at least where SF is concerned.

It’s a tragedy, really. Because we need more SF written by conservative authors. We need more SF written from an “identitarian” perspective. We need more perspectives, more voices, more arguments, more concepts. We need to hear all the futures that might be out there so that we can then decide which ones we want to steer towards, and which we want to avoid like the pox.

The graphic below, is adapted from the book Speculative Everything. This image represents us on the left, facing right toward possible futures. These futures are represented as a set of embedded cones. The further out we go, the wider the spectrum of possible futures. Presumably there are futures we’d prefer, and those we would find detrimental, but how can we discover them if we decide to put up blinders?

The Futures

If we are blind to conservative voices, we move forward with blank spots on our futures map.

Blind to Conservative Futures

If we are blind to the voices of female,  Sudanese, Chinese, LGBTQ, or socialist voices, then we wind up with a map of the future peppered with holes.

Blind to Identitarian Futures

I don’t think either one is a good idea.

We need SF to be strong, vibrant, and broadly inclusive. We need the Hugos there, amplifying clarion voices. We can’t do that if we focus on name-calling, factionalism, and the same sort of tactics employed by cable news pundits.

Partially because of these findings, the Utah Valley Office of New Urban Mechanics will launch a project this week designed to highlight just how important SF can be to charting the future. This project, FutureScapes, will harness the future-facing vision of SF writers to create a road map for innovative approaches to big issues like crime, poverty, and climate change, for cities across the nation.

At the very least, I hope FutureScapes will remind us and the world that SF is more than just ray guns and wizards. Escapism is good, and valuable and a cherished part of the genre, but there is more to what we do. As a literature of ideas, SF has a duty to the future.

1I acknowledge and express my gratitude for the cooperation of the following authors: The late David G. Hartwell, Elizabeth Bear, David Brin, Richard J. Chwedyk, Brenda Clough, Vox Day, Ken MacLeod, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Jerry Oltion, Robert Reed, Brandon Sanderson, Allen Steele, Michael Swanwick, Jo Walton and John C. Wright.
 2Correspondence with Brad Torgersen, August 26, 2015.
 3Interview with Jo Walton, Sasquan, Spokane, Washington, August 21, 2015.
 4Correspondence with Allen Steele, September 1, 2015.

Desert Prayer

Staring at the point where the road met the horizon, Michael crammed the last bite of egg sandwhich into his face and ceremoniously dusted off his hands.

“Let’s get going, we’re burnin’ daylight.”

Jeb, still nursing his RC Cola, just nodded. “How much further do you think?”

“In miles or hours?”

Jeb snorted. “With the way you drive? Better make it hours.”

Mike ignored the slight. On a long road trip like this there were bound to be plenty, and they were bound to come sharper and faster.

“I figure four, five hours to L.A.”

Jeb nodded.

Mike’s anger was simmering, but could hit a boil at any second. They’d found a shady spot below an outcropping of rocks, even so it had to be a hundred and ten in the shade. Yet, Jeb didn’t break a sweat, didn’t even glow. He still looked like he was sitting in his cubicle under a wheezing AC vent.

Jeb stretched, threw his cola bottle against the rock, adding its caramel colored shards to the floor of the Mojave.

“Why’d you do that?”

“Anything’s less ugly than this desert.”

Mike nodded, but didn’t agree. He’d listened to Jeb mutter a curse at the landscape every few minutes since they entered Nevada. Mike found the desert profoundly beautiful, especially here in the mojave with its endless forest of Joshua Trees with their arms raised skyward in mighty prayer.

It had the feel of hallowed ground. The broken glass seemed to swim in the sweltering heat giving it motion and adding depth to its colors. For a moment, Mike saw it as Caesar’s blood pulsing across the senate floor.

They hopped back in the Buick, cranked down the windows, and pulled away. The rode rose sharply. Ahead massive twin Joshua trees stood sentinel to either side of the road, their many arms thrust skyward. Guardians of a temple without walls. Mike imagined he could hear their prayers: deep, guttural chants that made his eyes water.

They crested the hill. Mike braked. He was wrong, there was a wall.

The day shone bright and blue, but only for a mile, Then the world ended. Swallowed by the fathomless bowed face of a bruised cloud.