“And yet viewing several depictions of even an imaginary city is enlightening in a way.”
— Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, as imagined by Neal Stephenson
Like many prisoners at the turn of the 17th century, Tommaso Campanella had a pretty awful time of it. Accused of attempting to foment rebellion against the Spanish, who were at that time ruling his native Calabria, Campanella found himself imprisoned and tortured in a Neapolitan gaol. His torments, which included the rack and the ‘vigil’ (a technique that the more enlightened torturers of the 21st century would call sleep deprivation) were designed to squeeze out a confession that earned the poor friar the death penalty.
With characteristic wiliness, he torched his own cell in an attempt to convince his captors that he was mad. It was a smart move, as according to the law, insane persons were considered incapable of repenting, which meant that a hanging judge would be responsible for the eternal damnation of their souls. Campanella was instead sentenced to life imprisonment which, given the conditions of the period, barely counted as a reprieve.
All told, he spent almost a third of his life in hard, cruel captivity. Nevertheless, he continued with his mental endeavours and produced a slew of writings, chiefly works of philosophy and theology.
However, doubtless inspired by a desire to leave his physical surroundings in whatever form available, his most famous work is a flight of fancy. His chosen method of escape? He imagined a city.
La città del Sole (City of the Sun) is a classic imaginative city in that it can only possibly work in the imagination. A utopia, it was constructed at the center of seven defensive circles designed not to imprison but to liberate. Campanella’s city was a nourishing place of ‘open squares, baths and leisure’, in which ‘while duty and work are distributed among all, it only falls to each one to work about four hours every day.’ The enlightened citizens of the sun would fill the remainder of their days ‘ learning joyously, in debating, in reading, in reciting, in writing, in exercising the mind and body, and with play’.
An urban balm for the body and mind, the City of the Sun is just one example of the fictional locations described, analysed and eulogized in Imaginary Cities, a heady compendium of the urban fantastic compiled by writer Darran Anderson. His book is a thorough examination of the presence of the city in the creative psyche and a reminder that, whatever the efforts of bucolic fantasy writers, the cityscape is as rich a mental territory as any verdant horizon.
Campanello’s utopia was far from unique, which is partly because his work was so influential (he directly inspired Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, which in turn prompted Jonathan Swift’s conception of Gulliver’s Travels). Nor was he alone in taking the familiar topography of the city as a comfort, or a pathway from personal hardness. Indeed, it’s striking how many of the cities in Anderson’s collection were brought into being by the imprisoned, the falsely accused and the condemned.
Thus we have Plato’s Republic, inspired by the doomed troublemaker Socrates and the cities of The Pilgrim’s Progress, written during John Bunyan’s 12-year imprisonment in a Bedford county gaol. It’s difficult to escape the notion that, contrary to the horrified complaints of rural conservationists, cities are not concrete barnacles on the pristine natural earth, but sites of freedom.
Or at least they would be if they weren’t so effective as prisons, too. Anderson describes the innovative use of a traffic island as a prison in Mega-City One, the comic book setting of the Judge Dredd stories, in which convicts are placed at traffic intersections so busy that the only means of egress is by air. Here the city doesn’t simply host prisons, it actually becomes the prison. The ‘Devil’s Island’ prison of Mega-City One is made possible by the computer automation that enables ‘travel without stop day and night at two hundred miles per hour’. Traffic without pause is barely traffic at all; like the prison, it is the city itself, made constant and unceasing by technology. It is this mutability that makes the city such an effective pattern for the imagination; a city can be whatever the beholder perceives it to be and the same city can look very different when viewed through alternative imaginations.
Appropriately for a work concerned with places of heavy concentration, Anderson’s work is densely packed and digressive. Slipping through thousands of years of history and several entirely separate worlds, Imaginary Cities resembles the disorderly centuries-evolved cities of the old world more than it does the spacious, carefully planned urban centres of the new. The book’s wynds and alleys form themselves into districts, whose signposts describe them as ‘architecture’ or ‘cartography’ in an approximation of order.
These are, however, kaleidoscopic waypoints, rather than milestones. Foolish is the reader who mistakes this book for an atlas; it is the opposite of that. Imaginary Cities is a book to get lost in. More than that, it’s a book to enjoy getting lost in.
This is due as much to the guide as it is the terrain. As a Virgil, Anderson is expansive and as constant and unceasing as the Mega-City One traffic. One reads Imaginary Cities with the growing impression that the author simply has so much to say that there simply isn’t time to gaze in wonder at a ‘golden walled Jerusalem’ before the tourbus sets off for the capital of a terraformed Mars. He skips from M.C. Escher to the Renaissance to modernist painter C.R.W. Nevinson in the space of a single paragraph and places Regan’s Star Wars initiative next to a consideration of the suburbs as a place of refuge. The result is more artbook than guidebook; not so much an attempt to catalog but simply to reflect in wonder.
Cities are sites of freedom. It doesn’t take a prisoner to see that.