Urban density and world design in my science fiction book Splintegrate

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As I’m working on Splintegrate,  the world of Lyndir is very present in my mind.  Lyndir is mentioned in my book Mainline: it is where Reva does an assassination hit in the opening scene of that book.  It is also where she goes to party and buy the latest fashions, and it is the homeworld of the decker FlashMan.

Port Oswin Cityscape

Most of the action in my present work takes place in Port Oswin, a dense urban landscape that consists of many connected clusters of domes. They are massive constructs, shimmering like half-bubbles of soap, arching over complex high-rise urbitats, many of them (in our measurements) easily a mile in diameter. The apex of these is a half-mile above the city streets in a typical dome, but they don’t all share that configuration, nor do they stand alone.  The multiple half-globes of this city cluster together like soap bubbles, their edges blending and mutually reinforcing where one hemisphere gives passageway into another.

These structures are typical of all urban areas on Lyndir.  The vast majority of this planet’s population lives in these enclosed urban spaces, for this globe is draped in a high-pressure, clinging hothouse blanket of atmosphere tainted with sulfuric volcanic gases.  It is unpleasant and oppressive to unprotected or genetically unadapted humans, leading quickly to physical distress and often death.  Too, the domes are needed to protect from the ever-present, aggressively encroaching jungle on this miserable hothouse world.   That it was settled in the first place was a bad command decision compounded by catastrophic landings of the original colonists. In short, the original inhabitants were stranded on Lyndir and had to make the best of their uncomfortable situation.

 Urban Culture

Lyndir has become a booming economic capital due to its history as the political and commercial center of the once burgeoning Confederation of Allied Systems. It has built its local wealth on the cornerstone of biopharmaceuticals harvested from the hostile jungle. Now annexed into the Sa’adani Empire, Lyndir is at the heart of the CAS Sector, and sets the tone for what has come to be known as Cassian culture in the larger Empire.

It is an inward-focused, intense, frenetic urban milieu. Fashion, music, art, design houses, entertainment of all sorts flourish here.  The city never sleeps, and anything a person is looking for can be found 26 hours a day.  The cult of celebrity is huge, business is cutthroat, and fantastic political scandals rock the establishment periodically.  Derevin – organized crime that had its roots in street gangs, but have become a culture unto themselves – have moved in from the Sa’adani Empire and now control the gray market activities of this world and many more.

Earth Analogs

Lyndir raises the question of how people live when they reside in densely populated contained areas.  We see something of the beginning of this today:  in megalopolises such as Tokyo or Mexico City, tens of millions of people live densely packed in one continuous urban area.  In Singapore, “apartments” are rented that provide little more than a dorm-room-sized sleeping cubicle. Some people live in these tiny warren retreats for decades, for housing is too expensive and the luxury of larger square footage to live in remains an unattainable dream for certain economic segments.

Yet none of these Earth-based experiences quite approaches what I see on Lyndir.

Bladerunner city view

Bladerunner city view

A visual setting like that offered in  Bladerunner (sans rain) is closer to it:  the grit, the crowds, the sense of glitzy new beside delapidated decay, and older styles redone as retro-chic:  there is something of that in Lyndir.  The Bladerunner conceptualization could also reflect the out-dome dwellings of Lyndir, like those that lie in the shadow of the Port Oswin domes:  these are the ‘shantytowns’ of the domed city, where backstreeters and jungle-adapted humans cluster, too poor to afford dome-space to live, or too criminal to risk being confined in the urbitats.

But these people are invisible to the inhabitants of Port Oswin inside the domes. They are very self-centered, self-focused. Because the people don’t go out, they don’t look out. Why bother anyway, when there is nothing but monotonous, unchanging  jungle to see, past the polarizing UV filter screens of the domes?  Oswinians know all the world is right here, within the domes, within their grasp. Or if they can’t possess it, at least they can follow it obsessively on the Net.

Short Story Fodder

Splintegrate does not focus on the questions and issues of this kind of  self-feeding, inner-directed urban frenzy.  That element is there, but soley as distant backdrop to more immediate events of the story.  And yet this kind of urban setting raises some questions I think worth exploring.  For years I’ve studied what the Germans call “urbanistik”, and what we know here as “urban studies” (I like the German word better; it suggests more of a gestalt to Things Urban than does our pale scholarly term for it.)   I have a continuing fascination with what we do in cities, and how they shape us as much as we shape them.

Probably the first science fiction book I ever read that turned my attention squarely to these matters was Robert Silverberg’s remarkable The World Inside, happily re-released in 2008.   In it he introduced “conurbs”, massive buildings where people live stratified by class and function in an overpopulated world.  There is something of the conurb notion lurking in the subtext of Lyndir’s urbitats, I suppose: but then, any place we pack hundreds of thousands of people into buildings in a small area, we must be echoing some element of stratification, and re-ordering how people relate to their world as well as to each other.

Urbanistik and World Design

So what kinds of issues does this dense urban stew bring to mind? That risks being a scholarly chapter, so for now I’ll just hit some obvious and relatively mundane highlights.  They are things that anyone doing world design for fiction or rpgs should be thinking of in this regard.

First, there are the practical concerns of how one supports such an environment. What is the infrastructure for power, sewage, atmosphere (in enclosed domes protecting from external air)?  Where does their food supply come from?  (These and related issues I’ve already worked out; perhaps I’ll write about them some time in some background material for Splintegrate.)

Then come the soft-science/cultural issues.  What about crime, deviance, the police? What kind of class and status differences exist, and are emphasized or underscored by the urbanscape? (In Splintegrate, you’ll see some of this illuminated with a retrospective glimpse into the life of a rich fashion designer and his daughter; the contrasting down-scale side, though, is not apparent in that book in detail.)  How do politics, business, civil service, military service and other complex structures work in this setting, and what kinds of social problems do they cause or alleviate because of the peculiar nature of life in a relatively closed system?  What cultural currents come in vogue, why, and does the concentrated environment skew them in any way?

There is a lot more, but those are some obvious starting points.  They may lead to not-so-obvious challenges and solutions in how the Lyndiri live.

 A Galaxy Far, Far Away…

For the record let me state that my Sa’adani Empire setting, and the people and cultures in them, are most decidedly not “Earth and Earth humans in a distant future,” as some reviewers have speculated.  This is a galaxy far, far away. The people there are predominantly homo sapiens, yes;  but they come from a different background, and have their own history. It is not ours.   And yet: many of the challenges they deal with are, I think, universal to the human experience. Certainly our experience, but perhaps also to any group of homo sapiens that lives socially and tends to cluster in resource-rich areas.

I think I will be exploring some of the challenges that grow out of dense urban living in some short stories to come. After this book is out of the way, there is one short in particular that I want to finish. It is about the experience of Zendo, a hired netrunner gone missing who is mentioned in the first third or so of Mainline. (It is his absence that gives Vask his in to work closely with Lish.)   Life on the complex streets of Port Oswin took its toll of Zendo.

I know what happened to him, and soon, I hope, you will too.   :cool:

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