Invisible Cities — Settings In Search of Story

I have an imaginary city, and I don’t know what to do with it.

I’ve been building it, on and off, for years. It’s a setting without a compelling story attached. I’ve considered using it for a TTRPG campaign. I used it as the backdrop for a not-very-interesting NaNoWriMo attempt. I’ve thought about giving up on it and putting it on the shelf forever, but I don’t really want to. So I’ve been on the lookout for ideas; interesting ways to use a city like this in my fiction.

The best examples of cities in fiction still place the city secondary to the characters and plot: Ambergris, New Crobuzon, Ankh-Morpork—they are all intricately crafted cities, but they’re still backdrops to the real action. Ambergris is probably closest to the city as a character, and Vandermeer even includes a fairly dry history of the city in the original book. But the city is mixed up with a much larger milieu of interconnected characters, events and ideas (including the author himself) that that loop around each other in a kind of metatextual Ouroboros.

I picked up Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities because I hoped it would be a guide. It is a book about many imaginary cities, as described by the explorer Marco Polo to the emperor Kublai Kahn. I hoped that it would show me some interesting new ways I might use my own city.

An Endless Road Trip

I hoped that a book about imaginary cities would be unabashedly focused on setting, but it really isn’t.

With the exception of occasional short dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn, every page describes a city. And yet, I couldn’t name for you any individual city, or tell you what’s interesting about it. Despite being a short book, it feels like an endless montage of places without any meaning or context.

The descriptions of the cities are well-written, and many of the cities are interesting. They are described not just in architecture, but in the culture of the people who live there, and sometimes even more vaguely, as the “character” of the city, the way it feels, without any explanation as to why.

There’s a city on stilts. A city dominated by a huge aquarium, where the people perform auguries by the movements of the fish. A city where the inhabitants pick up and move to an entirely new place periodically, leaving a series of municipal corpses in their wake.

Fifty-five cities come and go in this way. It’s a road trip with no stops, passing through city after city with only a brief observation, and then forgetting about it as soon as it’s in the rear-view mirror. It feels a bit like traveling a great distance, but not experiencing any of it.

No Resolution

Ultimately, I didn’t finish the book. I found myself less and less inclined to read it, and it sat on my desk for weeks.

I got to the end by skipping over at least a dozen cities. I skimmed the descriptions, hoping that some sort of connective tissue would become apparent—something that would tie these disparate places and ideas together. Finally, I just read the remaining dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn. Maybe they would discover some deeper meaning in this endless stream of cities.

Unfortunately, they did not. Even at the end, the dialogue between the explorer and the king didn’t come together in a satisfying way. There was no resolution, because there was no tension. I was given no questions to ask, so there were no answers I cared about. No last-minute revelation to salvage the thing.

In reading the glowing reviews of Invisible Cities, there is a lot of talk about the mingling of prose and poetry. I can’t help but feel that this book falls into the category of literary fiction that I find insufferable: fiction where the mechanics matter more than the content. It is a book full of beautiful writing, and many inventive descriptions of imaginary cities and cultures, and I can’t bring myself to give a shit about any of it. The characters have no depth, the plot is barely existent, and I find nothing to relate to on a personal level.

Setting is Not Enough

Invisible Cities was not the guidebook I was looking for. It didn’t give me any magic formula to craft fiction focused on setting. If anything, it reenforced my belief that a setting by itself—no matter how intricate and deep—is not enough to be interesting.

Author: Samuel Johnston

Professional software developer, unprofessional writer, and generally interested in almost everything.

2 thoughts on “Invisible Cities — Settings In Search of Story”

  1. It took me decades to realize that the same thing applies to RPGs. Taking people on a guided tour of a fantasy land you created isn’t enough for a fun game. Stuff has to actually happen. Interesting stuff if you can swing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s really unfair that everyone else isn’t as excited about the things in my head as I am… 🙂

      I saw a great quote recently that said something like “a good RPG world is full of the beginnings of stories, but not the endings.”

      The players will pick what interests them, and the story has to come out of that. If you try to guess in advance, you’ll probably be wrong. (Maybe not for all groups, but that’s certainly been my experience.)

      Liked by 1 person

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