The 10 Greatest Fictional Cities of Film & Literature

fictional-cities (Image: low resolution screenshot via YouTube)

Since the dawn of fiction, writers have loved creating their own cities. Plato did it, Jonathon Swift, Italo Calvino and Angela Carter all tried their hand at it, and Stephen King currently spends his twilight years expanding the legacy of Castle Rock – the quiet town at the epicentre of his creeptastic universe. Some of them, like Gotham City, are masterpieces of mood. Others, like the London of 1984, give us a sideways look at our own twisted world. Here are ten of the greatest fictional cities ever conceived:

Metropolis (Metropolis)

metropolis-fritz-lang (Images: via WikipediaKarl Freund, Günther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann)

If New York had been designed by a tag-team of pulp cover artists, Babylon’s chief architect and Donald Trump, it might look something like Metropolis. In this monument to greed and exploitation, the richest citizens live high above the Earth – while far below faceless workers are sacrificed to the city’s roaring furnaces. By colliding hard-edged futurism with ancient myth, Fritz Lang created cinema’s first great city. Biplanes and skyscrapers exist side by side with Biblical towers. In the decadent Yoshiwara district, local playboys act like they’re witnessing the fall of Rome; while in grimy underground caverns, surly workers plot revolution. Grand, complex and overwhelming, Metropolis is the template for modern dystopias.

Pandemonium (Paradise Lost)

pandemonium-hell (Image: John Martin, public domain)

Raised by Satan in a single hour, Hell’s high capital was said by Milton to dwarf all human cities in its poisoned grandeur. The seat of the underworld’s very own attempt at Athenian democracy – the Stygian Council – it sits amid a sea of swirling chaos, cut off from the world of men. Though designed by God’s fallen architect, Mulciber, to reflect Heaven’s own architecture, Pandemonium is more than a reminder of home – it’s a direct challenge to God’s supremacy over the universe. By fusing classical architecture with scenes ripped straight from Dante, Milton created the perfect seat for his troubled anti-hero Satan: grandiose and powerful, yet ultimately pathetic – a third-rate empire of shit.

Modern Paris (Playtime)

playtime-1969 (Image: low resolution screenshot via Wikipedia)

Director Jacques Tati’s love/hate relationship with modernism came to a head in this film, his third outing as the bumbling Monsieur Hulot. In a 1960’s Paris of angular lines and regimented order, Hulot stumbles from one catastrophe to another; bringing some much needed chaos to the world around him. Although predominantly grey and deliberately soul-destroying, this Paris does have its moments of beauty: notably when the lights come on and its streets flicker to life. Filmed in a specially constructed city (with its own working power plant, traffic system and pair of skyscrapers), Tati’s monster satire so thoroughly ransacked the modernist design book for anything that might conceivably get a laugh it became a minor cause celebre among the very same groups it was meant to target.

The City of Brass (One Thousand and One Nights)

city-of-brass-one-thousand-and-one-mights (Image: Maxfield Parrish, public domain)

A deserted metallic city on the plains of Africa, the City of Brass is the focal point for the One Thousand and One Nights‘ sole horror story. Circled by fearful legends, it is said to contain the spirits of malevolent Jinn who were defeated in an epic war by Solomon many centuries ago. Though captured and held in tiny bottles, the spirits are far from peaceful: coursing through the frozen streets, their anger has reduced the city to a broken, haunted place – one where even the bravest fear to tread. An early example of the mythic city in literature, the City of Brass remains a striking image and one of the Arabian Nights’ best-known tales.

Interzone (Naked Lunch)

interzone (Image: low resolution screenshot via YouTube)

If H.R. Geiger took all of the acid and spent the next week locked in a cell with Franz Kafka and the Marquis De Sade, he might dream-up something like Interzone. Partly based on the ‘International Zone’ that operated in Tangiers until 1956, the city is less a topographical reality than it is a whirlwind tour of William S. Burroughs’ deranged mind. Populated by sexually-deviant caricatures, sadistic drug dealers and strange creatures known as ‘Mugwumps’ the city is characterised by tribal politics, sudden bursts of frenzy and perverted exhibitionism. Home to sociopathic surgeon Dr Benway, billionaire deviant A.J and flesh-eating centipedes galore; Interzone is both the weirdest and most-memorable world ever put to paper.

The Emerald City (The Wizard of Oz)

emerald-city (Image: via Wikipedia, public domain)

A distant shining dream; the Emerald City of Oz was the first taste many of us got of disillusionment. Tall, green and glittering when viewed from afar, up close it’s “no more green than any other city”- the residents being forced to wear green sunglasses to keep up the effect. Built by the wizard when he first arrived in Oz, Emerald City is as flawed as its creator: an impressive screen hiding a disappointing truth. Nonetheless, when it first appears on the horizon (at the head of the winding yellow brick road), it’s hard not to get caught up in the magic. Just like film itself, the illusion remains so long as you’re willing to believe – go looking for the mechanism and it all becomes just so much dust.

Ankh-Morpork (Discworld)

Ankh-Morpork-fictional-city (Images: Amos E. Wolfe, cc-sa-3.0; Horvat, public domain)

A rough and tumble trading town situated alongside the banks of the universe’s foulest-smelling river, Discworld’s premier city is a hive of thieves, assassins, embittered police officers and every other type of fantasy stock-character imaginable. Over 30 years readers have watched it go to war, be invaded by vermin, fall under the sway of corrupt politicians and enter the modern world. From the founding of the University football team to the first newspaper, postal service, band-with-rocks-in-it and sort-of internet; this sprawling medieval market town has satirised the real world with more wit and imagination than any number of highbrow works.

Future L.A (Blade Runner)

future-LA-blade-runner (Image: low resolution screenshot via Wikipedia)

Nothing in cinema can prepare you for the first shot of Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles. Flames belch from vast soot-blackened towers; searchlights cut neon arcs through the heavy air; in the distance tiny lights flicker over the city’s scurrying residents. And from there it only gets better. Giant billboards loom over the population, futuristic pyramids blot out the weak orange sun and lifeless crowds make their way through grimy, rain-drenched streets. It’s Tokyo, it’s New York, it’s Gotham City, it’s Metropolis and the burning Iraqi oil fields all rolled into one. The most influential set design in thirty years still dictates how we visualise dystopia today and marks a bleak high point in modern science fiction.

City of the Elder Things (At the Mountains of Madness)

city-of-the-elder-things (Image: low resolution screenshot via YouTube)

In the cold wastes of Antarctica lies a ruined city. Frozen in ice it preserves a secret older than mankind and perhaps something even more nightmarish in the mountains beyond. Less well-known than his other creations, H.P. Lovecraft’s alien city outdoes even Arkham and Innsmouth in its complexity and frigid atmosphere. Long obsessed by stories of mythical civilisations – and plagued by dreams of unknowable cities – New England’s most inventive horror writer deployed every trick he knew to make this abandoned Southern world creep with dread. From alien geometry to spooky carvings, deep underground caverns and sightless creatures, the disquieting details stack up until the final horror arrives in the closing pages. Dark and superbly Gothic, the City of the Elder Things remains in your mind like a shard of ice long after you’ve finished reading.

Neo Tokyo (Akira)

akira-manga-neo-tokyo (Image: low resolution screenshot via Wikipedia)

Has there ever been another place as diseased as Neo Tokyo? Built on the remains of the ruined Japanese capital, this neon nightmare is controlled by a brutal military, overrun by biker thugs and ruled by slimy politicians. In the radioactive shadow of enormous skyscrapers the population live out desperate lives of addiction, rape and violence – even before the city becomes a battleground for warring gods. Like the love child of J. G. Ballard’s coked-up fever dreams and the ravings of a Japanese hobo; Neo Tokyo empties the world of its dark and seedy corners and crams them all into a single glowing city. The film and six-volume graphic novel set detailing its fate may be the closest modern storytelling has ever come to a genuine science fiction myth.

Keep reading – check out 10 Great Films that Explore the Urban Landscape, and read more of Morris M’s work at Listverse.

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  • John Lee

    I’d add Ankh-Morpork from Discworld

  • Baxter

    What about Minas-Thirith in LOTR and Kingslanding in GOT.

  • Mike Lamb

    No love for China Mieville’s New Crobuzon (Bas-Lag)? Or Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris?

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