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Alien cities

Tokyo at night

Noticed the Shared Worlds discussion of the Top 5 Real Fantasy/SciFi Cities. Of the cities mentioned by the five sci fi cities I have only been to two – London and Venice. I can certainly see where Ursula Le Guin is coming from with Venice, but maybe it has been too long since I was in London, or possibly that I haven’t spent long enough in it to see it as quite as much a fantasy city. Perhaps the sense of alienation or the fantastical about London for me has been muted because I have always visited it as part of a larger exploration of Europe, and it has always seemed the most familiar, most normal part of those trips – and English speaking haven where the customs are the same and the landmarks are as familiar as those of one’s own home town.


The other cities – Reykjavik, Kingston and Marrakesh – do sound fantastical, easily sites of science fiction or fantasy – and are places I would like to visit. I especially like Elizabeth Hand’s description of Reykjavik and its daunting bizarreness.

central Tokyo fishing

My choice as the most fantastical/Sci Fi city would have to be Tokyo. I lived there for a year in 1992-1993 and it is still one of   the  most alien places I have been, one of the most mired in the imaginary. I have visited around 25 countries, big and small, and a wide range of cities for different periods of time, but perhaps it takes living in a place to truly understand its weirdness. Tokyo was so beguiling in many ways – at first it felt less alien that you might imagine as I spent my first few days being oriented in a big international hotel, then the weirdness would set in. The sultry heat which would see me strip off my clothes as soon as I would walk through the door of my tiny Shinjuku apartment and stand in front of the airconditioner with it on full bore; the giant cockroaches that would terrify the unwary; the contrast between the streets where weaving between people was an artform to the quiet, contemplative and near empty expanses of park.

Shinjuku gyoenGoing to see the director’s cut of BladeRunner and walking out into the madness of a rainy Ikebukuro evening was one of the more surreal moments of my life. It was hard to know where the fantasy ended and the city began. The fact that I read a lot of William Gibson, in particular Neuromancer, Burning Chrome, Count Zero and so forth while living there probably added to that seeing of the bizarre and extraordinary in the world around me in a way that hasn’t occurred to me so strongly in other cities. Although I did read Count Zero twice in one day while lying in a bed in a otherwise empty dormitory style room in Da Nang, sunburnt to a crisp from my visit to China Beach the day before, and unwilling to do anything other than read and drink water while the sun was out.

sakura at IchigayaThe final thing that makes Tokyo such a fantasy pick is the people – the impenetrable nature of the culture at times and the contrasts of modern and ancient and weird and normal. When with my other foreigner friends in Tokyo, particularly after a few drinks, one would often act as if alone even when surrounded by people, cloaked in our highly visible anonymity, worried not about being overhead, sure that no one but ourselves could understand the odd patois of English, French and Japanese we would speak both quickly and loudly. Sometimes when you know you are being noticed anyway, drawing attention to yourself is almost defensive and we became our own cyberpunk selves in the days before email and mobile phones and iPods.

I haven’t been back, unfortunately, since I took these photos in 1993, and I long to return, to revel in the familiar and the extraordinary that Tokyo presents.

Shinjuku city hall


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