In university, I took a Literary Traditions course that featured Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times. It tells the story of Coketown, a fictional, industrial mill town in the 1850s where buildings are bland, sooty, carbon copies of one another. Things are overseen by factory owner Josiah Bounderby and rigid, hard-nosed educator Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind’s job is to stamp out any and all creativity from the town’s schoolchildren, thereby creating useful automatons for Bounderby’s factory. The workers get married, have families, and put their children in Gradgrind’s care. Thus, the cycle never ends.
In our first class about the book, the professor asked us who we thought the protagonist of the story was. Since most of the characters are given equal weight, we gave a variety of answers. Most thought it was Thomas Gradgrind, some thought it was his daughter, Louisa. A few thought it was Bounderby, others guessed Stephen Blackpool, a lowly worker in Bounderby’s factory.
Then there was the guy who sat next to me, who gave what would go down as the worst answer I heard in my six years of university. With the embarrassing esotericism that only self-conscious suck ups can muster, he said, “I think the main character is Coketown.”
This answer was stupid for two reasons: 1) he just wanted to appear like an interesting, philosophical contrarian (he was the type to wear a huge scarf indoors in September and glasses without a perscription), and 2) no matter how fleshed out a city is, settings cannot, by definition, be characters (which are, by definition, people).
I bring this up because I just finished reading China Mieville’s setting-rich sci-fi novel Perdido Street Station. Then I read some of the reviews, seemingly written by other non-prescription-wearing, scarf-toting poseurs and my life flashed before my eyes.