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Urban Studies
2015, Vol. 52(5) 923–937
Ó Urban Studies Journal Limited 2014
Vertical cities: Representations of Reprints and permissions:
urban verticality in 20th-century DOI: 10.1177/0042098014529345
science fiction literature

Lucy Hewitt
University of Glasgow, UK

Stephen Graham
Newcastle University, UK

This paper seeks to intersect two recent trends in urban research. First, it takes seriously the
recognition that established traditions of research concerned with urban space have tended to
privilege the horizontal extension of cities to the neglect of their vertical or volumetric extension.
Second, the paper contributes to the resurgence of interest among social scientists in the validity
of fiction – and especially speculative or science fiction – as a source of critical commentary and
as a mode of knowledge that can exist in close reciprocity with non-fictional work. From these
two starting points the paper develops a reading of the dialogue between the representations of
vertical urban life that have featured in landmark works of 20th-century science fiction literature
and key themes in contemporary urban analysis.

science fiction, spatial representations, urban theory, verticality

Received October 2013; accepted March 2014

Introduction: Science fiction and doormat . but plunge several storeys deep
the ‘vertical turn’ in urban social into the earth’. A few years later, the archi-
tect Auguste Perret imagined a Paris of the
future with ‘avenues 250 meters wide and on
It requires little excavation to uncover the either side houses that reach to the clouds’
fascination that vertical urban structures (1920, quoted by Passanti 1987: 56). While
have held for modern architects and plan- Le Corbusier – an iconic figure whose
ners. The Italian Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia
(2009 [1914]: 200), for example, envisioned
Corresponding author:
cities where ‘elevators [would] swarm up the Lucy Hewitt, University of Glasgow, Urban Studies, 25–29
facades like serpents of glass and iron’ and Bute Gardens, Glasgow G11 7ET, UK.
where the street would ‘no longer lie like a Email: Lucy.Hewitt@glasgow.ac.uk
924 Urban Studies 52(5)

preoccupation with verticality and aeriality is addressed in only the briefest form (see
have cast long shadows in modern urban Allen et al., 1999; Massey et al., 1999; Pile
and architectural history – expressed his et al., 1999).
ambition to remake the urban landscape of Cities have been widely explored in terms
the future as ‘a vertical city . which will pile of distributions, concentrations, stretched-
up the cells which have for so long been out topologies, corridors, networks, sprawl
crushed on the ground, and set them high and extending urban regions. Such a dis-
above the earth, bathed in light and air’ course indicates a strong tendency, particu-
(1987 [1927]: 280). larly in urban geography, to normalise the
Interest in the development of the vertical top-down aerial or cartographic gaze as a
urban axis has, therefore, been a central dominant representational device through
strand of the modern architectural imagina- which to perceive and analyse cities and sys-
tion and alongside this imaginative preoccu- tems of cities, and that normalisation has
pation, supported by the engineering tended to privilege relations across the sur-
innovations characteristic of the period, pro- face of cities and systems of cities distributed
cesses of urbanisation have also extended across the planet’s surface. While this domi-
over the vertical axis. In the course of their nant horizontalism has bequeathed a rich
growth and extension, urban development vein of scholarship, it has also established an
processes have excavated downwards, creat- epistemological and empirical bias towards
ing subterranean urban landscapes domi- geographies of the surface. The metaphors
nated by the infrastructural plexus that is and vocabulary we routinely deploy in dis-
the prerequisite of modern urban life. At the cussions of urban growth – for example,
same time, they have stretched far into the sprawl, extension, hyper-urbanisation, the
spaces of the air and sky, signalling corpo- megalopolis, the recent discussion of plane-
rate status, political and economic centrality, tary urbanisation (see Merrifield, 2012) and
and technological mastery as they reach for so on – have thus implicitly but overwhel-
ever-greater vertical extension. mingly been used to define the changing
Vertical aspects of the production, experi- urbanisation of space in horizontal rather
ence and representation of urban space are than vertical or volumetric terms.
clearly fundamental to the nature of modern However, there is now a growing recogni-
cities. Steve Pile, for example, in assessing tion among contemporary social scientific
what physical attributes might be exclusive urbanists and geographers that traditions of
to cities, as compared with other places, sug- scholarly research have tended to privilege
gests ‘skyscrapers, underground railways, the horizontal dimension of space at the
street lighting (maybe), and not much else’ neglect of a three-dimensional conceptuali-
(1999: 5). As we have agued elsewhere sation. Such a recognition is particularly
(Graham and Hewitt, 2013), however, criti- timely, given the continued and deepening
cal social science has long prioritised a flat, urbanisation of the world, rising urban den-
planar or horizontal imaginary of urban sities and increasingly ubiquitous interests in
space over a volumetric or vertical one. In engineering ever more volumetric and verti-
the collections of essays that follow Pile’s cally stretched urban complexes. Thus, writ-
observation, for example – books which are ers such as Heidi Scott have responded to
currently a key reference point for urban the prevalence of horizontalism by challen-
scholarship and, particularly, education – ging contemporary scholarship to arrive at
the specific and crucial contribution of verti- ‘stronger theorizations of verticality’ (2008:
cality to the spatiality and intensity of cities 1858; see also Weizman, 2002). Such calls
Hewitt and Graham 925

for a ‘vertical turn’ in urban social science contemporary urban thinking. Furthermore,
(see Graham and Hewitt, 2013) have been in adopting this focus we also recognise, as
prompted by the recognition that knowledge others have done before, that fiction can
of the processes of modern and contempo- provide a powerful vantage point for insight
rary urbanisation will remain incomplete and critique. Marc Brosseau (1994), for
and inadequate while urban social science example, has argued that the use of fiction
largely fails to engage with the increasingly can been seen particularly strongly through
vertical and volumetric nature of the urban the humanist tradition of geographic
environment and experience that is at the research, which has sought to refocus scho-
core of contemporary urbanism. larship on human experience as opposed to
Research that directly or indirectly prioritising quantitative analysis, and
addresses this problematic has already begun through the radical tradition of geography
to demonstrate how important and how which has viewed literature as having an
fruitful it is to challenge the past dominance political function.
of the surficial, planar view. Arguably, a In this paper, we are concerned with the
‘vertical’ or ‘volumetric’ turn is already complex ways in which fiction depicts plausi-
underway. Writers such as Gandy (1999) ble near-future urban scenarios that overlap
and Kaika and Swyngedouw (2000) have with and relate to the extending verticalities
begun to unearth the urban subterranean; of modern and contemporary metropolitan
Adey (2010) and Cwerner (2006) have space. Given the critical commentary that
started to highlight the social politics of has become particularly visible in 20th-cen-
vertical urban splintering; and Dorrian tury SF (Claeys, 2010) and the powerful way
(2011) and Munster (2008) have pointed to in which fiction and contemporary theory
the complex visual and cultural politics of can be brought together (Lewis et al., 2008,
the aerial view, not least as it is now popu- 2014; Tyner, 2004), we are also interested in
larised by Google Earth. In addition, there the ways SF has animated some of the politi-
is a growing acknowledgement that, like cal and analytical themes that now, increas-
horizontal space, vertical spaces can mani- ingly, interest contemporary thinking about
fest the inequities and secessionary tenden- cities. This contribution to urban social
cies surrounding processes of splintering science’s vertical turn therefore emerges in a
urbanism (Graham and Marvin, 2001). context in which social-scientific studies of
This paper therefore joins a growing field SF (and fictional representations more
of scholarship interested in challenging the broadly) increasingly demonstrate that, as
overly surficial focus of existing urban well as speculations about the future, it can
geography. offer powerful commentaries on, and cri-
Our focus in what follows falls on the tiques of, the nature of the contemporary
widespread imagining within science fiction social life.
literature (hereafter, ‘SF’) of the last century Crucially, too, writers have begun to
– exemplified in the work of HG Wells, JG argue that the epistemological boundaries
Ballard and William Gibson – of future separating fiction from non-fiction are far
urban complexes structured around extremes more porous than often recognised. Both
of vertical extension and distanciation. We Carl Abbott (2007) and Nic Clear (2009)
focus on these three authors because in com- have suggested that such boundaries are
bination they offer both a temporal and a breached particularly clearly in the case of
thematic breadth that is particularly valuable urban planning, architectural design and SF,
for our examination of and engagement with since the ‘visionary’ element of the
926 Urban Studies 52(5)

architectural and planning disciplines is a we recognise that the relationships between

strong, even a central, part of traditional architecture, planning and science fiction are
activity. There has been little focused explo- not straightforward, it is nevertheless worth
ration of this shared ground, but Abbott noting from the outset that an ongoing dia-
(2007) has argued that what we might call logue has been, and remains, clearly visible.
‘design science fiction’ shares the same pur- According the Ester da Costa Meyer (1995:
pose as SF, namely that of speculating about 137), for example, Antonio Sant’Elia,
what the future might look like if certain ten- with little formal training, drew more on the
dencies were developed, and is, therefore, imagery of contemporary SF than on the
itself a type of science fiction. Clear (2009) architectural theory circulating in early
also follows this argument, however he also 20th-century Italy. Further, the relationship
suggests that the tendency of architects to between contemporary urbanism and cyber-
locate their speculations in a ‘better’ future punk SF – with its extremes of social polari-
has undermined the plausibility of architec- sation, highly technologised circuits of social
tural design. ‘The architectural work,’ Clear control and cyborgian blurring between
argues (2009: 6–7), ‘has proved completely social, organic and technological life – is
incapable of suggesting what the future may particularly multifaceted (see Burrows, 1997;
hold’ and as a result, in comparison, it is the Davis, 1992). Norman Klein (1991: 147) has
visions of SF that ‘are often more believable’. given the much noted example of five ‘lead-
Further, as Rob Kitchin and James ing urban planners’ publicly expressing their
Kneale (2005) have argued, there is a reci- hope that Los Angeles might eventually
procity to the relationship, with contempo- resemble the landscape depicted in the film
rary urbanism shaping SF, which in its turn Blade Runner (based on Philip K Dick’s
works in complex ways to effect the imagi- influential novel, Do Androids Dream of
nation, experience and construction of con- Electric Sheep, 1968). And to complicate the
temporary urbanism. Specifically in relation connections still further, Ridley Scott, the
to geography, Kitchin and Kneale argue film’s director, admitted that his iconic
that SF particularly helps to establish an depiction of a near-future Los Angeles –
interplay between its writers, its readers and replete with extraordinary vertical architec-
the development of space; it becomes part of ture, gas flares and endless rain – owed
a popular and professional imagination much to his childhood in the steel and chem-
that feeds into practice (see also Abbott, ical town of Middlesbrough (see Gold,
2007). Various illustrations can be cited 2001).
that demonstrate this observation. William The discussion that follows falls into four
Gibson, for example, indicates the impor- parts. The first uses an analysis of two semi-
tance of certain contemporary cities for his nal SF novels – HG Wells’ The Sleeper
fictional urban worlds in recent writing. Awakes (2005 [1910]) and JG Ballard’s High-
Describing a trip to Tokyo, taken ‘to refresh Rise (2006 [1975]) – to explore how SF com-
[his] sense of place’, he explains that the city monly deploys vertical spatial and architec-
‘has been my handiest prop shop for as long tural metaphors to symbolise, posit and
as I’ve been writing: sheer eye candy’ (2012: expose deepening inequalities and social and
158). class distinctions (which are themselves often
Our interest in examining and theorising traditionally labelled ‘vertical’ within urban
the vertical aspects of urban life through the sociology). The second part of the paper
lens of SF literature is motivated by pre- continues to explore Wells’ and Ballard’s
cisely this kind of dialogue. Further, while writings to engage with the ways in which
Hewitt and Graham 927

the top-down gaze of the high-rise dweller Speculation about the future of London
on the city and population below is used to was often a theme for HG Wells and the
symbolise wider structures of privilege, elit- potentiality of a vertical future appeared
ism and power. The paper’s third section under the spotlight in his novel, The Sleeper
strikes out into the profoundly verticalised Awakes. Published first in serial form in the
imaginaries of cyberpunk SF. Here we focus late 1890s, Wells rewrote the piece for publi-
on the architectural bricolage of William cation as a novel in 1910. The timing of its
Gibson’s writing. We show how his vertica- writing and publication therefore corre-
lised urban imaginaries work to muddy the sponded with early experiences and debates
conceptual waters of modernist political about how high-rise living could be inte-
thought whilst still invoking deep metapho- grated into and might change the social and
ric connections between urban verticality built landscape of the capital. The narrative
and social and political power. The paper’s of The Sleeper Awakes concerns Graham, a
conclusion reflects on how our analyses help character who, at the outset, has been suffer-
to extend understanding of the complex, ing from insomnia so severe he considers sui-
recursive relationships between the vertica- cide. When he finally falls asleep, the sleep is
lised urban imaginaries of SF an the vertica- a trance in which his body suspends the nor-
lised spaces of contemporary urbanism. mal aging process (even his hair stops grow-
ing) and from which he is never expected to
wake. He does awaken, 203 years later, to a
Vertical space as hierarchical world that is transformed and a London that
space: Wells, Ballard and stratified has grown along profoundly vertical lines:
[Graham] went to the railings of the balcony
In the late 19th century the rise of the sky- and stared upward . His first impression was
scraper charged the architectural imagina- of overwhelming architecture. The place into
tion and altered the skyline of those cities which he looked was an aisle of Titanic build-
that were then at the centre of urban devel- ings, curving spaciously in either direction.
opment. Yet, the vertical city, both as it was Overhead mighty cantilevers sprang together
conceived by architects and as it began to across the huge width of the place, and a tra-
materialise, was not simply a transformation cery of translucent material shut out the sky.
Gigantic globes of cool white light shamed the
of space; it was fundamentally connected to
pale sunbeams that filtered down through the
new forms of social organisation. For exam- girders and wires. Here and there a gossamer
ple, in London, mansion flats, dubbed by suspension bridge dotted with foot passengers
EM Forster as ‘Babylonian flats’ in his 1910 flung across the chasm and the air was webbed
novel Howard’s End, were explicitly mar- with slender cables. A cliff of edifice hung
keted as social experiments (see Dennis, above him . (Wells, 2005 [1910]: 42).
2008). As Richard Dennis has noted (2008:
240), with their communal facilities and var- As the novel progresses, this vision of
ied, mobile populations, these early high-rise extraordinary architectural scale is gradually
residential buildings were described in The revealed as the embodiment of an acutely
Times as ‘very novel and, socially speaking, segregated society in which Graham himself
revolutionary’. But, as Dennis also demon- is implicated as the unwitting symbolic and
strates, high-rise buildings could also be sub- economic figurehead. The functionality of
ject to strong criticism and the topic of this socially stratified London relies on a
heated political debate. workforce for whom the city is a labour
928 Urban Studies 52(5)

camp from which they cannot escape. industrial population dwelt beneath in the tre-
Indeed, the only possible escape route, pay- mendous ground-floor and basement . of the
ing for ‘Enthansay’, is beyond the means of place. (1900: 101)
most of the workers – ‘for the poor there is
no easy death’ – and they are, rather, con- In this vision of the city Wells presented a
demned to a life of hard labour and ill powerful piece of ‘cultural prophecy’
health in the city’s subterranean labyrinths (Crossley, 2007: 361). It reflected his own
(2005 [1910]: 162). The underground spaces political concerns, particularly his antipathy
of the city are not visible to Graham as he for unregulated industrial capitalism, and,
initially experiences the city, but he is even- thus, the city appeared as a closed system –
tually led down to witness the plight of the ‘a world of dire economic struggle’ – built
urban masses, his description evoking the on exploitative social relationships. Indeed,
poverty and deprivation of the 19th-century the functionality of the vertical metropolis
slum: which Wells animates through his writing
relies on a workforce of labourers who par-
They penetrated downward, ever downward, take in none of the privilege available to
towards the working places . through these those further up the social and spatial scales.
factories and places of toil, seeing many pain- However, The Sleeper Awakes also reflects
ful and grim things . Everywhere were pillars Wells’s interrogation, through fiction, of the
and cross archings of such a massiveness as
nature of modern culture. In 22nd-century
Graham had never before seen, thick Titans of
London, the political and media institutions
greasy, shining brickwork crushed beneath the
vast weight of that complex city world, even have become both powerful and unaccoun-
as these anaemic millions were crushed by its table and the novel is pervaded by an esca-
complexity. And everywhere were pale fea- lating sense that the city manifests the
tures, lean limbs, disfigurement and degrada- signals of a moral decline that must lead to
tion. (Wells, 2005 [1910]: 193 and 196) violent crisis (for example, 2005 [1910]: 57).
Appearing 65 years after Wells’s specula-
In its characterisation of urban social rela- tive engagement with the capital was pub-
tions, The Sleeper Awakes reflects the con- lished in novel form, JG Ballard’s High-Rise
viction, prevalent at the time Wells wrote, (2006 [1975]) offers a second iconic piece of
that the modern city embodied a new politi- writing about the nature of metropolitan
cal and industrial order, and that urban soci- urbanity. The context with which Ballard
ety brought a greater degree of social engaged was significantly altered from that
polarisation as the city exploited its work- which immediately framed The Sleeper
force (see Lehan, 1998: 153 and 158).1 Wells Awakes. From 1956, in a deliberate political
explored the same distribution of privilege attempt to precipitate high-rise building,
and deprivation over the vertical axis in his subsidies for flats in blocks over 15 storeys
novella, ‘A Story of Days to Come’ pub- high were three times more than those for
lished in an early collection, Tales of Time other forms of affordable housing and,
and Space (1900). For example: until the Ronan Point disaster 12 years
later, tower blocks were built rapidly in
In the twenty-second century . the growth of major cities across Britain (Hall, 2002:
the city storey above storey, and the coales-
241). However, by the 1970s, the high-rise
cence of buildings, had led to a different
arrangement. The prosperous people lived in a
was becoming synonymous with unsuccess-
vast series of sumptuous hotels in the upper ful mass social housing and carried a raft
storeys and the halls of the city fabric; the of negative connotations as the tower
Hewitt and Graham 929

blocks built to alleviate housing problems building formed its middle class, made up of
began to degenerate both materially and self-centred but basically docile members of
socially (Glendinning and Muthesius, 1994). the professions – the doctors and lawyers,
Ballard’s fictional account of high-rise living accountants and tax specialists who worked,
was a direct engagement with this deepening not for themselves, but for medical institutes
and large corporations . Above them, on the
trend in urban planning and his exploration
top five floors of the high-rise, was its upper
of the social implications of high-rise residen- class, the discreet oligarchy of minor tycoons
tial building and its material failure explicitly and entrepreneurs, television actresses and
referred to contemporary development. For careerist academics, with their high-speed ele-
example, he pointed specifically to the now vators and superior services, their carpeted
famous infrastructural and architectural staircases. (2006 [1975]: 53)
innovation at the Park Hill estate in Sheffield
– titling one of his chapters, ‘Danger in the This plausibly rendered vision of deeply
Streets of the Sky’ – of building walkways unsettling dysfunction involves a cast of pro-
outside the front doors of flats that were fessionals, entrepreneurs and intellectuals
wide enough for milk floats and thus nick- who band together in groups that take on a
named ‘streets in the sky’. tribal and ultimately violent character. In
Yet Ballard penned a vision that is at Ballard’s dystopic high-rise this social strati-
least as startlingly relevant today than it was fication fuels resentment as confrontations
to the context in which he wrote: Ballard’s develop between floors and intimidation
Highrise is an ultra-modern, technologically escalates into violence that takes on an
sophisticated, luxury enclave – clearly evoca- increasingly brutal and irreversible quality.
tive of what De Cauter (2005) has recently Indeed, as the atmosphere becomes brittle
called a ‘capsular’ urban space – which is with tension, residents form raiding parties
powerfully reminiscent of the verticalised, and protection groups, elevators are
elite and gated communities that now pepper hijacked, cars are smashed and assaults take
the world’s metropolitan spaces. The build- place.
ing is ‘a small vertical city, its two thousand Despite their differences, both Wells and
inhabitants boxed up into the sky’ (Ballard, Ballard powerfully animate the social rela-
2006 [1975]: 9). Yet, despite the overall sense tionships they analyse through the spatial
of privilege, the social stratification among metaphor of verticality, and in doing so they
inhabitants is a central feature of the novel. dramatise an observation that is currently
The 40 floors are divided along social and being explored in urban and spatial theory.
economic lines that quickly become solidi- The use of the vertical axis to explore social
fied as the ‘natural social order of the build- divisions appeals to a symbolic gesture that
ing’ (2006 [1975]: 14): is frequently grounded in the metaphor of
spatial geometry. In social terms, the vertical
In effect, the high-rise had already divided implies hierarchy; deployed in spatial terms
itself into the three classical social groups, its the vertical highlights and concretises
lower, middle and upper classes. The 10th- inequities.
floor shopping mall formed a clear boundary Cultural and urban historian, David Pike,
between the lower nine floors, with their ‘pro-
in particular, has developed this point. He
letariat’ of film technicians, air-hostesses and
the like, and the middle section of the high- argues that the use of such conceptual order-
rise, which extended from the 10th floor to the ing can be traced back to medieval
swimming pool and restaurant deck on the Christendom, where the ‘vertical cosmos’
35th. This central two-thirds of the apartment located ‘good above and evil below’ (2005: 5;
930 Urban Studies 52(5)

see also Stallybrass and White, 1986). The paradigm of all future high-rise blocks’
symbolism reappears, Pike observes, in a (2006 [1975]: 70). Royal’s penthouse loca-
variety of forms, pairings and tropes – high tion, at the pinnacle of social and spatial
and low, up and down, upper and lower, scales, with an abstracted vision of the whole
light and dark, north and south – each con- in the form of his plans and architectural
taining powerful imaginative and conceptual drawings, appeals to a unique positionality
connotations beyond their identification of a on the vertical scale. Indeed, it seems that
space and its relative location. Furthermore, the ultimate embodiment of power comes
Pike has argued that wherever it occurs verti- from what Topalov (1993) has called the
cal space is always hierarchised space (2005: ‘zenithal’ position and the view it affords.
90). This argument highlights the cultural Ballard uses that view, and the sense of dis-
connotations and moral associations that are tance created through it, to frame the
frequently subject to spatialisation, but even increasing detachment of the high-rise resi-
more than Pike’s observations, the use of dents from the world surrounding them. For
vertical space to ground the class-based soci- Robert Laing, another central figure in the
eties of the speculative futures examined by drama of the high-rise and the only survivor
both Wells and Ballard signals the political of the narrative, it is this mode of perception
potency of high-rise building. What De that explains his removal from his everyday
Cauter (2005) has recently described as ‘the life, his work and the city around him:
capsular’ nature of contemporary urban
space suggests that our current (and future) Laing made less and less effort to leave the
ability to build up may be increasingly able building. He unpacked his record collection
to sustain extreme forms of social secession and played himself into his new life, sitting on
through vertical splintering. his balcony and gazing across the parking-lots
and concrete plazas below him. Although the
apartment was no higher than the 25th floor,
The aerial view: Power, distance he felt for the first time that he was looking
and the experience of verticality down at the sky, rather than up at it. Each day
the towers of central London seemed slightly
At the top of Ballard’s dysfunctional vertical more distant, the landscape of an abandoned
enclave we find Anthony Royal, one of the planet receding slowly from his mind. (2006
building’s architects. Royal’s positionality [1975]: 9)
‘on top’ is a source of intrigue and tension
for the other residents of the high-rise. He is Like Ballard, Wells also utilises the elevated
‘well-to-do’, arrogant and defensive, ‘deter- position and the aerial view that it permits
mined to outstare any criticism’ of the build- to illustrate an experience of profound
ing he helped to conceive (Ballard, 2006 detachment, this time the detachment of the
[1975]: 15, 27). He is also, ultimately, impo- powerful from the city they rule. In Wells’
tent, able only to limp through the building novel the streets and houses of Victorian
as it crumbles materially and socially and London have been replaced by a ‘vast city
destined to die rambling and starved structure’ and, while the labouring popula-
amongst the human and architectural tion live in its depths, the powerful, the city’s
debris. Council, occupy an elaborate complex
However, early on, from his penthouse nestled beneath the domed roof of the city
apartment, Royal is allowed the conceit that onto which Graham makes an early escape
he may act as ‘mid-wife’ to ‘a pattern of (2005 [1910]: 69). This first experience of the
social organisation that would become the highest points of the city and the view they
Hewitt and Graham 931

afford causes Graham to experience paralys- viewer occupying the architectural heights
ing vertigo (2005 [1910]: 70), but later, when from the teeming city below – in the centre
he goes in search of greater knowledge of of attention. Recent contributions to the the-
the city he finds himself master of, he is orisation of the aerial view have emphasised
shown to ‘the crow’s nest of the wind-vane that this technique of visuality, characteristic
keeper’ from which the city, despite being of modern cartography and photography, as
gripped by violent conflict looks serene, its well as urban planning, has a significant
‘luminous landscape undisturbed’ (2005 impact on the perception and subsequent
[1910]: 125). Indeed, viewing from this posi- relation to space. Adnan Morshed, for exam-
tion Graham: ple, is among those who have pointed to the
centrality of this vision in the most radically
could almost forget the thousands of men lying interventionist programmes of modernist
out of sight in the artificial glare within the architecture. Using what Morshed has called
quasi-subterranean labyrinth, dead or dying of the dieu voyeur (the voyeur god), ‘twentieth-
their overnight wounds, forget the impover-
century urban planning sought to fulfil the
ished wards with the hosts of surgeons, nurses,
and bearers feverishly busy . (2005 [1910]: modernist dream of transforming the city
125). into an object of knowledge and a govern-
able space’ (2002: 204; see also Boyer, 2003).
For both Ballard and Wells, then, the mode Similarly, in his pioneering work on the cul-
of perception offered by the aerial view rep- tural history of the aerial view, Mark
resents an experience of profound detach- Dorrian has argued that the perspective of
ment in the fictional worlds they explore. distance, abstraction and power secured
The social life of the High-Rise degenerates through ascension has been a key narrative
into a violent dystopia as its inhabitants in Western modernity and that the aerial
retreat from their wider social relationships view ‘is conceptually linked to notions of
and become the voluntary captives of the transcendent subjectivity, futurity and
apartment building, complicit in and protec- abstraction that have the potential to license
tive of their collective withdrawal from the a violence directed towards the surface’
world around them.2 For Ballard, such a (2006: 20).
removal from the surface and detachment The work of both Morshed and Dorrian
from the conventions of ‘normal’ sociability deepen the observations and analysis made
are the prerequisite that allows the violence by De Certeau in his iconic reflections on
of the narrative to spiral towards ruin. Wells The Practice of Everyday Life (1988). In
uses the aerial view to further his explora- those essays, De Certeau drew attention to
tion of the social stratification and antagon- the ethics and experience of the distanciated
ism of his 22nd-century London. In The top-down view of the city, seen from the top
Sleeper Awakes it is the aerial view and the of the World Trade Center, in opposition to
pinnacle location that emphasises the with- the enmeshed corporeal worlds of the walk-
drawal of the powerful from contact with ing city below. De Certeau’s concern to
the labouring population of the city, the dis- recognise and examine the relational implica-
tance between the two segments of society tions of perceptual positionality have formed
and the subsequent invisibility both of the a current of critique, which is visible among
poor and their exploitation. contemporary writers such as Morshed,
Such an emphasis places the ethics and Boyer and Dorrian; that same concern is
the politics of the aerial view – the view dramatised in the fictional worlds created by
which vertically distanciates the top-down Wells and by Ballard, and these, too, provide
932 Urban Studies 52(5)

insights into and reflections on the social the past by deploying those dreams as hallu-
ethics of vertical spatial separation. cinations in his short story, ‘The Gernsback
Continuum’. In this engagement with the
‘design science fiction’ of the past, Gibson’s
Cyberpunk verticalities protagonist, an unnamed photographer,
Over the later 20th century, keeping time takes a job documenting the architectural
with its technological and philosophical con- traces of 1930s American pop culture.
text, SF underwent a series of profound Becoming absorbed in his task as he drives
changes in terms of both subject matter and across America photographing aging factory
narrative form (see, for example, Levy, buildings, motels and gas stations, he starts
2009; Merrick, 2009). For some, through its to see traces also of ‘a shadowy America-
engagement with the trajectories of the pres- that-wasn’t’ (1995: 41). Appearing first in
ent, the emergence of cyberpunk has offered glimpses, and then in disturbingly convin-
a radical departure and a valuable vantage cing three-dimensionality, the city of fictions
point. Kitchin and Kneale, for example, past bears a striking resemblance to the cine-
have pointed out that cyberpunk is ‘one of matic depictions of Lang’s Metropolis (1927)
the first forms of literary genre to recognize, and Menzies Things to Come (1936). The
reflect and explore the postmodern condi- protagonist is frightened by this American
tion’ and that, as such, it offers ‘privileged dream, with its towering spires and soaring
insights into the contemporary’ (2001: 22). roads and polished blond inhabitants who
Indeed, as commentary and discussion have ‘all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler
ground, cyberpunk narrativises some of the Youth propaganda’ (1995: 47). Indeed,
key critiques that have been made of moder- Gibson’s protagonist hopes the vision is only
nist philosophy. Thus, the traditional bin- an ‘amphetamine pyschosis’ (1995: 46), but
aries of self/other, nature/technology, order/ as the narrative resolves, he retreats into tra-
chaos, and so forth, are collapsed by the shy television and the daily rehearsal of cata-
post-human, technologically driven and strophe found in newspaper headlines; the
volatile worlds of cyberpunk. Furthermore, image of the totalising society imagined by
in relation to space, this has significant con- the past, he decides, is far worse than the
sequences for the landscapes imagined. The ‘near-dystopia we live in’ (1995: 50).
spaces of cyberpunk leave little room for the The vertical spaces of Gibson’s futures, in
stable geopolitics, the stasis and the essenti- contrast, share none of the modernist clarity
alism characteristic of the accounts of space exemplified by the landscapes of Metropolis
given by modernist philosophers and writers or Things to Come; they are fragmented, vio-
alike. Instead, the landscapes of cyberpunk lent and vulnerable. Furthermore, as Gibson
are more in keeping with the kind of space paints them, Nighttown, the San Francisco
theorised by writers such as Doreen Massey Bridge and Hak Nam each provide imagery
(2005); they are heterogeneous, relational that is strongly at odds with early and mid
and lively. They also, echoing a theme in 20th-century architectural visions. Gibson’s
contemporary critical urbanism which Steve vertical worlds are captured and repurposed
Graham (2010) has powerfully underlined, enclaves offering the protection of chaos,
emphasise the privatisation and the militari- random accretions materialising an impro-
sation of urban space. vised and provisional architecture.
William Gibson (1995) explicitly signals Nighttown’s Pit, for example, is where
his distance from the dominant modernist Johnny Mnemonic goes to hide when he is
architectural and science fictional dreams of hunted by the multinational Yakuza,
Hewitt and Graham 933

because in the Pit ‘any outside influence gen- a central space of the plot and a heuristic
erates swift, concentric ripples of raw device for Gibson’s social and spatial reflec-
menace’ (1995: 22). It looks like a ‘disused tions, the bridge represents something radi-
maintenance yard’, spirals up to the geodesic cally different from both the landscapes of
roof structure where the Lo Teks (the local the past and from the privatised, militarised
gang) ‘leech their webs and huddling places urban splintering that surrounds it. The
to the city’s fabric with thick gobs of epoxy’ bridge emerged out of an act of opposition,
(1995: 29–30). And Johnny stays there, but not an act those involved are willing to
secreted away from view, becoming part of designate as ‘politics’. As Skinner, one of
the social, spatial and technological network those who initiated occupation of the struc-
that makes the Pit tick. Neil Campbell ture, explains ‘‘‘Shit happens. Happened that
argues these architectural figures in Gibson’s night. No signal, no leader, no architects.
work are spaces of resistance and possibility You think it was politics. That particular
reminiscent of the Bakhtinian carnival dance . that’s over’’’ (1995: 86). Indeed, the
(2000: 160–161). The exemplar of this ima- social commentary embedded in Virtual
ginary appears in Gibson’s much quoted Light in the form of Yamazaki’s (a Japanese
account of the San Francisco bridge: student of existential sociology) reflections
indicate that the bridge is a manifestation of
Its steel bones, its stranded tendons, were lost a qualitatively different experience, one that
within an accretion of dreams: tattoo parlors, partakes in the sense of a fissure in the
gaming arcades, dimly lit stalls stacked with nature of the times:
decaying magazines, sellers of fireworks, of
cut bait, betting shops, sushi bars, unlicensed Skinner’s story seemed to radiate out, through
pawnbrokers, herbalists, barbers. Dreams of the thousand things, the unwashed smiles and
commerce, their locations generally corre- the smoke of cooking, like concentric rings of
sponding with the decks that had once carried sound from some secret bell .We are come
vehicular traffic; while above them, rising to not only past the century’s closing, he thought,
the very peaks of the cable towers, lifted the the millennium’s turning, but to the end of some-
intricately suspended barrio, with its unnum- thing else. Era? Paradigm? Everywhere, the
bered population and its zones of more private signs of closure. Modernity was ending. (1995:
fantasy. (Gibson, 1994: 58–59). 89–90)

This structure is at the centre of the plot of Gibson’s spaces, then, problematise the
Virtual Light, the first of Gibson’s bridge metaphorical shift between conceptualisa-
trilogy. The novel tells the story of the theft tions of social organisation, particularly
of glasses that contains visualisations of a social class, and vertical space because they
virtual model, a masterplan for San do not seem easily to accommodate the
Francisco that would remake the city’s land- modern categorical project of class distinc-
scape in a cliché of modernist destruction. tions and hierarchies. Thus, the sense that
The San Francisco bridge stands as the social divisions can be mapped through
embodied antithesis of this vision. It is a bri- space with clarity and confidence is lost, and
colage of fragments patched together, ‘a car- what we seem to be left with is a critique of
nival,’ reminiscent of ‘the favelas of Rio’, the metaphorical alignments explored earlier
with ‘a fairy quality to the secondary con- in relation to Wells and Ballard. The socio-
struction’ that has built up over the ‘vertical- spatial hierarchies are certainly at moments
ity of the core structure’s poetry of replaced by something more dynamic and
suspension’ (Gibson, 1994: 58, 1999: 18). As unstable, more creative and provisional, yet
934 Urban Studies 52(5)

Gibson also highlights the vulnerability of science, we suggest that drawing SF into a
these spaces and points to their creation out dialogue with urban social science demon-
of necessity. In the case of the Bridge, its strates important critical and analytical
inhabitants build upwards because they have common ground.
little or no space on the surface. Thus, while In each of the examples of SF that we
Gibson’s vertical spaces step well beyond the have examined, the narratives have featured
architectural orderliness of the modern high the vertical growth of the urban landscape
rise, and while the social hierarchies of the and identified the ways in which that upward
late 19th and early 20th centuries do not growth reflected, and had implications for,
map readily onto the landscape Gibson inequalities in urban social life. Urban social
depicts, there remains ground for common- science is beginning to recognise and docu-
ality. In particular, there remains a strong ment those development processes which
sense of social bifurcation in Gibson’s narra- have excavated downwards and stretched
tives and his vertical spaces can be read as upwards so rapidly over the past century of
an architecturally creative solution to the urbanisation, but analytical engagement
militarisation, privatisation and control of with that material growth remains embryo-
the surface. nic in comparison with the systematic treat-
ment of urban horizontal extension. What is
made clear in the novels we have discussed
Conclusions here is that urban life distributed over the
In a recent discussion of the way 20th-cen- vertical axis, built through increasing tech-
tury literature has represented sociologists nological and engineering capabilities, and
and sociology, Diane Bjorklund (2001: 36) made desirable and necessary by the increas-
argued that novelists and sociologists are ing density and inequality of urban popula-
competitors, their choice of discipline sig- tions, is one powerful way in which the city
nifying differing epistemological convictions can function to spatially differentiate its
about how it is possible to engage with, ana- inhabitants. Indeed, in the spatial metaphor
lyse and represent social life. Her suggestion of verticality deployed by Wells and Ballard,
points to questions that are important in the the fictional high-rise provides the material
current context, when interdisciplinarity frame for explorations of precisely those
holds a reified position, but the argument social inequalities. Furthermore, what both
that literature and social science are oppos- writers identify through their fictional repre-
ing forms of knowledge is difficult to sus- sentations of high-rise living is, today,
tain. As we noted at the outset of this paper, increasingly visible in the verticalities of elite
the relationship between SF, architecture urban living.3
and planning, and the development of urban Such fictional accounts of the future help
space is complex, but fully visible, reciprocal us to raise questions about the experiences
and longstanding. Like Kitchin and Kneale and imaginaries of our contemporary metro-
(2001, 2005), we suggest that the critical politan landscapes; from a historical dis-
commentaries of SF offer considerable util- tance, they nevertheless offer critiques of
ity to contemporary urban social scientists. present inequalities. They also suggest that
Furthermore, in our view, though SF to be located and to look down from above
literature and urban social science represent is not ethically neutral. The unproblematic
different ways of investigating and commen- and unreflective acceptance of the carto-
tating upon urban modernity, rather than graphic view in urban social science, particu-
the oppositional epistemic modes of art and larly urban geography and planning, which
Hewitt and Graham 935

has been related to the treatment of cities as broad field of urban social science. In the
horizontally extending entities, should also temporal breadth of these literary accounts
be subject to critical scrutiny as our focus of we see very clearly that the recognition of
enquiry shifts towards attempting an under- this theme by social scientists comes late,
standing of that vertical relationship. The and that it has been prefigured in the critical
epistemological and empirical bias of the commentaries of SF writers. The analytical
top-down gaze becomes ethically question- themes and the historical grounding for an
able as we interrogate the nature of the dis- extension of the contemporary vertical turn
tanciation on which it is predicated. can be, therefore, well supported by a wider
As a commentary on and critique of con- engagement with other types of knowledge.
temporary processes, our selection of novels Certainly, in addressing the sociologies and
also highlights the vulnerability of urban power geometries of the verticalisation char-
space as privatisation, violence and sophisti- acteristic of contemporary cities, urban stud-
cated technology work to intersect in influ- ies can gain much by excavating the deep
encing the functionality of cities. The shift imaginative histories that have attended ver-
away from a metaphorical alignment of tical cities within literature.
space and social structure, exemplified in
this paper by Gibson’s narratives, also Funding
brings important analytical themes to the
This research received no specific grant from any
foreground. The violence common to all
funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-
three novels is pushed further by the cyber-
for-profit sectors.
punk imaginary and accompanied by the
necessity to build upwards, by a denial of
space to those with the least resources. The Notes
writings we discuss here share important 1. He also developed an account of the ramifica-
commonalities in their subject matter; all tions of this in The Time Machine (Wells,
deal with social bifurcation and with the way 2005 [1895]), articulating a vision of the future
urban space both animates and concretises in which humanity had diverged into the tech-
nologically advanced, but subterranean and
those distinctions. Yet the move into the ter-
predatory, Morlocks and the child-like and
ritories imagined by the cyberpunk genre,
innocent Eloi, their prey.
and in particular by Gibson, is important 2. For example: ‘A police car approached the
because it complicates, presses our thinking perimeter entrance. A few residents were leav-
further, encompasses the militarisation and ing for work at this early hour, neatly dressed
privatisation of the urban landscape which is in suits and raincoats, briefcases in hand. The
detectable in our present, asks that we take abandoned cars in the access roads prevented
seriously the right to space in the city. the police from reaching the main entrance to
In addressing these themes, what is per- the building, and the officers stepped out and
haps most striking is the way SF literature spoke to the passing residents. Usually none
of them would have replied to an outsider,
has been consistently interested in analytical
but now they gathered in a group around the
and spatial themes that have only recently two policemen . Clearly they were pacifying
become prominent in urban theory and the policemen, reassuring them that every-
research. We argued in our opening discus- thing was in order, despite the garbage and
sion that the ‘vertical turn’ discussed by broken bottles scattered around the building’
some contemporary writers is an important Ballard (2006 [1975]: 131).
corrective to the surficial preoccupations 3. For example, Gabriel Mascaro’s exceptional
that have dominated so much work in the 2009 documentary film Um Lugar ao sol
936 Urban Studies 52(5)

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