cities in sci-fi and fantasy novels
July 2, 2018 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations of science fiction and fantasy books (or short stories) in which the city settings are central or at least important to the story. Utopias, dystopias, segregated or in space, am looking for all kinds of stories.
posted by spamandkimchi to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like this is my answer to every "recommend me a book" question these days, but it sounds like Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence would be right up your alley, in particular Last First Snow which has a magical zoning dispute as its central conflict, and Ruin of Angels in which the plot revolves around a band of rogue archivists rescuing books from the cracks between the city they remember and the city that a colonizing power wants to impose on them.
posted by firechicago at 8:37 PM on July 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

China Miéville's novels usually heavily involve the cities.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is full of fantastic cities
posted by nickggully at 8:42 PM on July 2, 2018 [8 favorites]

Zone One by Colson Whitehead. It's the waning days of the zombie apocalypse in Manhattan and some military and paramilitary teams are trying to rid the city of any remaining infestations in the skyscrapers.
posted by fuse theorem at 8:52 PM on July 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Manhattan Transfer
Starts with Manhattan being cut out and lifted into an alien ship that also houses other alien cities.
posted by Sophont at 9:17 PM on July 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch has a very evocative take on a fantasy Venice that is a big part of the story.

Seconding the Craft books - lots of good city settings in them.

London in the Ben Aaronovich Rivers of London books is pretty fantastic.
posted by PussKillian at 9:31 PM on July 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might try The City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennet. The city is such a weird, oddly evocative place where bits of the divine have changed it in odd ways. The other two books have less sense of place (imho) but are still excellent reads.
posted by ninazer0 at 9:39 PM on July 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

Anything in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, but especially the ones set in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

It's been a lifetime since I read The Seekers of Shar-Nunh, but my dim memories are of Shar-Nuhn being a well-described city in the same way as London in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:51 PM on July 2, 2018

Oh, and there's Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which I consider to be fantasy as well as horror.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:56 PM on July 2, 2018

Real and imagined cities are central to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.
posted by Jellybean_Slybun at 11:21 PM on July 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Clifford Simak spends a lot of time in his books on rural vs. City settings. He actually had a book called City. He's great if you don't already know his work.
posted by frumiousb at 11:35 PM on July 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

In oldies, try Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (and the earlier Against the Fall of Night on which it was based). Perhaps Asimov's The Caves of Steel has something as well, though more city-as-background than character. John Brunner is not to my taste, but if you fancy it, The Squares of the City was well-regarded in its day. Kathleen Goonan's under-appreciated post-apocalyptic nanotech quartet, beginning with Queen City Jazz, is very much about mutated cities of the future (and as I recall, is interesting in itself as 90's zeitgeisty greygoopunk that should've spawned more imitators). Certainly China Mieville's The City & the City, Perdido Street Station, UnLunDun, and many others. Peter F. Hamilton's Void trilogy features a sort of techno-magical city in its fantasy parts. I'd say the Gateway asteroid in Pohl's Gateway is a pretty thoroughly-rendered city.

(This feels like a question with a thousand and one answers, but I'm mostly only thinking of books with "City" in the title, suggesting I'm not thinking nearly hard enough.)
posted by mumkin at 11:53 PM on July 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Artemis, by Andy Weir (known for The Martian) is set entirely in the moon's one and only city, consisting of domes near the Sea of Tranquility. The city's economy, crime, infrastructure, and layout are all uncovered in the plot.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:06 AM on July 3, 2018

The Years of the City by Frederik Pohl is a collection of 5 connected novellas that chart the evolution of New York City in the 21st century (the "future" when it was written in 1984!).
posted by elgilito at 1:09 AM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn.
The Other City by Michal Ajvaz.
posted by misteraitch at 1:25 AM on July 3, 2018

Martha Wells' City of Bones is set in a very thoroughly developed, unique city, which is central to the plot. Wells has a background in anthropology, and I think it really shows in her worldbuilding.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 2:23 AM on July 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

From the old-but-weird-but-good department:
Samual R. Delaney's Dhalgren
Christopher Priest's The Inverted World

Also John Meaney's Tristopolis books (#1, #2) are pretty good if you're looking for a sort of Grim Fandango meets The Chronicles of Riddick noir detective story...
posted by pipeski at 3:29 AM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ambergris features prominently in several books by Jeff VanderMeer, the best of them the short story collection "City of Saints and Madmen".

From Wikipedia:

The stories of City of Saints and Madmen are set in Ambergris, an urban sprawl named for "the most secret and valued part of the whale" and populated by humans after its original inhabitants—a race of mushroom-like humanoids known as "gray caps"—were violently driven underground. These creatures, though removed from the eccentricities of daily life in Ambergris, continue to cast a shadow over the city with their unexplained nocturnal activities.

Highly recommended!
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 6:40 AM on July 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka is about life in a pretty wonderfully realized Soviet-esque dystopian off-world colony city.

Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are a go-to MeFi recommendation. All of them feature vastly intelligent massive habitats in one way or another—be they ships or more sessile orbitals—but from recollection, I think The Player of Games, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata may linger on them more than others.

(Oh, and I see Annalee Newitz gives Queen City Jazz big ups in your dystopian link, so perhaps Goonan’s not as under-appreciated as I thought!)
posted by mumkin at 6:48 AM on July 3, 2018

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch has a very evocative take on a fantasy Venice that is a big part of the story.

The next book in Lynch's Gentleman Bastards series, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is less city-centric, but the third book, Republic of Thieves, is in a different-but-similar city that is also practically a character.
posted by Etrigan at 7:20 AM on July 3, 2018

A frequent recommendation from me: The Cassandra Kresnov series by Joel Shepherd has a thoroughly developed city, Tanusha, which is not perfect but on the utopian spectrum. Here are the author's own comments on the city.
posted by Botanizer at 7:25 AM on July 3, 2018

Although Gene Wolfe's works don't necessarily read like SF, and they are challenging reading no matter what, the built environment of the city is important in both the Book of the New Sun and the Book of the Long Sun.

China Mieville wrote The City & The City, in which, the city is obviously important.

I recently read Folding Beijing, where the city is central.
posted by adamrice at 7:26 AM on July 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

I want to nth the commenters mentioning Mieville - The City and the City, Embassytown, Perdido Street Station. I found Embassytown to be amazing.

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer takes place in a ruined city following a biotech apocalypse.
posted by ftm at 7:32 AM on July 3, 2018

+1 to Mieville, +1 The City and the Stars, +1 Invisible Cities. I haaaated Dhalgren but it definitely fits the criteria, lol. Probably also Eon and Stand on Zanzibar would count.
posted by hishtafel at 8:18 AM on July 3, 2018

Nthing China Mieville, especially The City and the City, and, if you're open to YA, Un Lun Dun.

Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest definitely fits the bill; make sure you have time to sit down and read this one closely, though. I tried to do my usual "pick it up whenever I have 5 minutes in a noisy public place" and hoo boy did that get confusing fast.

I adored Daniel Polansky's A City Dreaming; you just have to go into it with the understanding that it's a series of interconnected short stories rather than a novel.

I don't think I knew enough Russian history or folklore to truly appreciate Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow but I could tell it was objectively a good book and definitely fits the theme you're looking for.
posted by brook horse at 9:05 AM on July 3, 2018

Best answer: Not a book but an amazing short story about cities: N.K. Jemisin's The City Born Great.
posted by mulkey at 9:07 AM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A Madness of Angels and sequels by Kate Griffin are set in London and the rhythms of the city are crucial (and magical).

Also, Mieville, as recommended above.
posted by esoterrica at 9:20 AM on July 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Here to second the recommendation of Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs. Love that series, and the city is amazingly well-drawn.
posted by suelac at 10:18 AM on July 3, 2018

Best answer: metatropolis edited by scalzi.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:42 AM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Definitely Mieville. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stuff. And Steven Brust's Dragaeran books have a great sense of place/materiality/history in general and dwell a lot in the really vividly put-together city of Adrilankha.
posted by implied_otter at 12:16 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is about a New York City transformed by rising sea levels.

Ken MacLeod’s The Stone Canal (part of the loosely-connected “Fall Revolution” books, but can be read stand-alone) largely takes place in the lone city on a planet colonized by humans and intelligent robots. It deals quite a lot with the city’s politics and governance.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:06 PM on July 3, 2018

London features prominently in V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic (the first in a trilogy). In this book, there's not just one London - there are others. There are other worlds, but each of them has a city of London. There's more to it, but I don't want to spoil it. I just finished reading this thoroughly enjoyable trilogy, and I recommend it to others.
posted by cleverevans at 1:42 PM on July 3, 2018

Most of Paolo Bacigalupi's books (The Windup Girl, and Ship Breaker series), and Alestair Reynolds Revelation Space books (especially Chasm City and Elysium Fire) might be worth a try. They're also great and can easily be read in any order.

If you have an interest in alternative histories, Reynolds' Century Rain, not part of that series, also has a lot of the city in it.
posted by eotvos at 2:03 PM on July 3, 2018

Cities In Flight by James Blish.
posted by Lynsey at 2:28 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another London one: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, which takes place in the hidden magical realm of London Below.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:55 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

And I've just remembered another one: Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle. It takes place in a divine city where cities can die of plague and architecture can warp or create reality (and vice versa).
posted by ninazer0 at 4:37 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

If the net you're casting includes comics, see if you can get your hands on Les Cités obscures (Cities of the Fantastic/Obscure Cities in English) drawn by Francois Schuiten who has a unique hand with cityscapes. They're gorgeous.

Also when I hear "The City as a character," I immediately think of Transmetropolitan.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 4:48 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

'Riders of The Purple Wage' by Philip J Farmer is about the society of the Ellay Arcology. The purple wage is a description of a sort of basic income, and he describes levels and pods in the city. There is a note where Farmer mentioned that he described the city in more detail, but which was later edited out.

Arcology article on Wikipedia also mentions Silverberg's 'The World Inside'.
posted by ovvl at 6:17 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

+100 to the suggestion for N.K. Jemisin's "The City Born Great." It's an astonishingly beautiful story.
posted by rhiannonstone at 7:08 PM on July 3, 2018

Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring is centered around a dystopian downtown Toronto.
Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria is a fantasy novel that is, in large part, about a small-town merchant's encounter with the wonders of a large city of culture.
posted by duffell at 7:26 PM on July 3, 2018

Jan Morris, Hav.
posted by huimangm at 9:04 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

(It's too long since I've read Hav!)

Martha Wells' Wheel of the Infinite is in a fantasy city based on Angkor Wat, with sacred geometry and divine politics.
posted by clew at 9:24 PM on July 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sarah Monette's Melusine books are phenomenal. Disregard the covers, they do not reflect the books very well.
posted by zoetrope at 9:26 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Metatropolis was mentioned once earlier but is rather explicitly framed around the idea of an SF city in the near-ish future after it's all gone to hell. Like many anthologies the tone can swing a bit in the collection but for the first volume I did like all the stories except the opening bit by Jay Lake well enough.

Pure mind candy, but the Heartstriker series centers around the dragon-free zone in urban fantasy Detroit. It's now ruled by the spirit of the Great Lakes returned and got really pissed.
posted by mark k at 10:49 PM on July 3, 2018

Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief is substantially set in a Martian city called Oubliette. The city walks around the planet on massive legs, has an unusual economy, and a fascinating technological enforcement of privacy. It's the first of a trilogy, and I haven't read the others, mostly because I want to re-read this one first.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:24 AM on July 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

A bunch of books referencing London already... one more I'll mention is Paul Cornell's Shadow Police series, starting with London Falling. The city plays a pivotal role in the book, I won't say anymore so as not to reveal any spoilers. Also: Neil Gaiman shows up as a character in the series.
posted by kovacs at 6:44 AM on July 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Concrete Island is sort of sci fi that meets your criteria, plus it will lead you to plenty dystopia if you read more of Ballard’s work.
posted by Agent X9 at 2:48 PM on July 4, 2018

Some of Neal Stephenson's work is solidly grounded in cities. The Diamond Age happens in a Hong Kong and other territories transformed by nanotechnology. Reamde happens only partially in cities, but each location has, to me, a strong sense of place, so the cities are very real, as are the wilderness areas.

Seconding the Blish recommendation above, which is the first thing that came to mind, as well as the Mieville books. You might some satisfaction in William Gibson's work; like Stephenson, his sense of place is strong, and the place is usually a city (or two). His Blue Ant novels are very urban, between New York, London, and Vancouver, and even his earlier cyberpunk works like The Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, of course) and the Bridge Trilogy (Virtual Light) treat cities almost as characters.
posted by lhauser at 6:13 PM on July 4, 2018

I wonder if Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson might interest you. I have not read it myself, but it got a very good review from A.V. Club.
posted by merejane at 4:11 PM on July 7, 2018

Oh, also -- I would say that a fantasy version of New York City plays a very important part in Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, which happens to be one of my favorite books ever.
posted by merejane at 4:18 PM on July 7, 2018

In Sheri Tepper's The Companions, Earth has been almost completely covered in mega-cities.
posted by Lexica at 5:19 PM on July 8, 2018

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