Fantastic Cities

The pervasiveness of the American city in popular culture and especially (audio)visual texts cannot be overstated. Indeed, we tend to conceive of the United States as a vast city recreated from half-remembered fragments of films, television shows, music videos, video games, and advertising images. In short, American cities appear to be all around us, from the flashy opening credits of the various incarnations of CSI and the foreboding geography of Washington, DC, in the title sequence of House of Cards (Netflix, 2013-2018) to the desolate urban wastelands of The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013) and the Fallout video game series. The final two examples demonstrate that reflections, refractions, and reimaginings of the American city provide the template for the bulk of urban spaces in the western fantastic imagination. With cities such as Metropolis, Coruscant, Gotham City, Mega-City One, Panem's Capitol, Basin City, the Sprawl, Caprica City, Nos Astra, and the Citadel serving as a non-exhaustive list of examples, it becomes clear that the fantastic teems with American (and Americanized) urban environments. Film scholar Vivian Sobchack has defined the American city in science fiction cinema as a "hypnogogic site," which is "more than a mere background," since it provides (a) "a significant and visibly signifying shape" and (b) "a temporal dimension, a historical trajectory," which is oriented toward the future.

Despite the prolific presence of American(ized) urban environments in the fantastic and despite the groundbreaking research of scholars such as Sobchack, no book-length study of fantastic cities across 'traditional' boundaries of media and/or genre has been published. Moreover, many, if not most, critical takes on fantastic American cities are severely limited in scope: They remain within one fantastic genre, often limit their focus to one medium, and/or fail to traverse the institutionalized borders that still hold sway over the individual 'discipline boroughs' that make up the megalopolis of the academe. While most of the earlier studies address and even succeed in probing the "visibly signifying shape" (as Sobchack puts it) of the American city, more often than not, they fall short of penetrating the visual allure and disgust held by what seems to have become an exclusively visual topos due to the dominance of visual media. This comes at a cost that is twofold: (a) non-visual media tend to be underrepresented and (b) the emphasis on urban aesthetics leads to ignoring the specific historiocultural historiocultural/ mythological American (con)texts that Sobchack's "temporal dimension" points to.

However, attempts to read any city (and especially the palimpsestuous character of the American city) are fraught with difficulties that make necessary a disclaimer about the power and importance of discourse. As Roland Barthes reminds us, the city is "an inscription of man [and woman] in space." Consequently, in labeling a diverse conglomerate 'the (American) city,' we ascribe to it a coherence and/or integrity which is not intrinsic to its character. The discourses employed to this end are not about the American city per se, but rather they construct it for us as readers/viewers/gamers, not to mention the human beings moving in and through urban spaces. Hence, any reading can only be temporary—like a polaroid, or, to use a more contemporary format, an Instagram snapshot. In simple terms, it is difficult to make the American city, in general, and the fantastic American city, in particular, hold still for any length of time, especially within a limited scope.

Our proposed collection aims to offer a corrective to the status quo in a set of decidedly synoptic, transmedial, and interdisciplinary essays. Taken together, they appraise— (con)textually, conceptually, historically, visually, ideologically, mythologically—the American city as a fantastic geography which both connects and transcends 'discipline boroughs' and forms an interdisciplinary sprawl constrained neither by media nor rigid genre boundaries. Our edited volume builds on a mix of theoretical and methodological tools which are drawn from criticism of the fantastic, media criticism, comparative mythology, cultural contextualization, and, of course, American Studies and Urban Studies.

Sobchack's definition of American urban environments in sf films also points to a quintessential dualism at the heart of the American city. When reading the American city synoptically, we come to understand that a number of overlapping dualities make the American city difficult to comprehend, such as high vs. low, center vs. periphery, inner city vs. suburb, vertical vs. horizontal, virtual vs. 'real,' uptown vs. downtown, feminine vs. masculine, nature vs. culture, rich vs. poor, and dark vs. light. In the American context, this duality has repeatedly been expressed in diverse cultural artifacts. John Winthrop famously imagined the New World as a "city upon the hill," and William James, Sr., praised American cities for their "courage, the heaven-scalding audacity … and the great pulses and bounds of progress," while Thomas Jefferson feared that cities were "pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of men."

Our collection rests on a firm and clearly marked trajectory through historio-mythical (con)texts, from Winthrop and Jefferson to Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward (1888) and the American city of the future, as showcased at three world expositions (1893, 1939, 1964). Less constrained by realist conventions, fantastic genres are able to 'real-ize' more fully that which is normally confined to the abstract, metaphorical, and/or subjective. Consequently, both Winthrop's aspirations for and Jefferson’s anxieties about the American city became literalized in the fantastic urban geography. As such, the Fantastic City has served to speak to the promise and subsequent failure of modernism’s aspirations in the form of urban destruction, emptiness and exhaustion, as well as postmodern exhilaration, and (post)millennial vertigo. This dualism points to the fact that visions of what the American city should become will always inevitably include that which it should not become; it has the seeds of its own decay and failure already built-in. And yet, imaginations of the American city have retained a latent modern(ist) semblance of utopian promise. In other words, the New Jerusalem coexists in a palimpsestuous relationship with the New Sodom and Gomorrah. By bringing together a balanced mix of contributors, our collection will discuss American urban spaces in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. It will embrace the genres' diversity by featuring contributions on cosmological horror, vampire and superhero movies, zombie fiction, future noir, and young adult literature, as well as more straightforward science fiction. Likewise, our notion of 'American' urban spaces will be rather expansive and will include (a) representations (or simulations) of 'real' American cities, (b) fictional cities located in the United States, and (c) cities whose geographical location is unclear or even outside the sovereign territory of the United States, but whose representations are enmeshed in the (trans)American urban imaginary.