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Vertical noir: Histories of the future in urban science fiction

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Stephen Graham


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Unerringly, across its whole history, urban science fiction has offered up imagined cities that operate about remarkably similar and highly verticalised visions. These are heavily dominated by politics of class, resistance and revolution that are starkly organized around vertically stratified and vertically exaggerated urban spaces. From the early and definitive efforts of H.G. Wells and Fritz Lang, through J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High Rise, to many cyberpunk classics, this essay – the latest in a series in City on the vertical dimensions of cities1 – reflects on how vertical imaginaries in urban science fiction intersect with the politics and contestations of the fast-verticalising cities around the world. The essay has four parts. It begins by disentangling in detail the ways in which the sci-fi visions of Wells, Lang, Ballard and various cyberpunk authors were centrally constituted through vertical structures, landscapes, metaphors and allegories. The essay’s second part then then teases out the complex linkages between verticalised sci-fi imaginaries and material cityscapes that are actually constructed, lived and experienced. Stressing the impossibility of some clean and binary opposition between ‘factual’ and ‘fictional’ cities, the essay explores how verticalised projects, material cities, sci-fi texts, imaginary futures, architectural schemes and urban theories mingle and resonate together in complex, unpredictable and important ways which do much to shape contemporary urban landscapes. The third section of the essay explores such connections through the cases of retro-futuristic urban megaprojects in the Gulf and forests of towers recently constructed in Shanghai’s Pudong district. The essay’s final discussion draws on these cases to explore the possibilities that sci-fi imaginaries offer for contesting the rapid verticalisation of cities around the world.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Graham S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action

Year: 2016

Volume: 20

Issue: 3

Pages: 389-406

Print publication date: 01/09/2016

Online publication date: 01/07/2016

Acceptance date: 01/01/2015

ISSN (print): 1360-4813

ISSN (electronic): 1470-3629

Publisher: Taylor and Francis


DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2016.1170489


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