Politics and the pandemic have changed how we imagine cities

Humanity has migrated to subaquatic domes to escape the lethal consequences of a vastly deteriorated ozone layer. Tremendous advances in solar power have made this shift possible, and an android underclass provides maintenance labor. Sentient but without rights, they are manufactured with organs that can be harvested by humans. Gradually, Momo grows enlightened to the oppression of androids, connecting the dots between a surgery she had as a child and the disappearance of her childhood best friend.

There’s an awful lot going on in this short work: new religions form in this future world, the Pacific Ocean territories are divided between countries like the United States and corporations like Toyota, and then there are the peculiar skin treatments at Momo’s salon. What grounds this overwhelming book is Momo’s addiction to digital media. She spends hours on dial-up bulletin board systems and the early search engine Gopher, loves laserdiscs, and pores over “discbooks” and “disczines.” 

“Real worlds feature real peoples. Therefore it’s important that I not depict them in ways that disrespect or cause harm.”

N.K. Jemisin

The charming old-fashioned digital layer in the book clues the reader into the real-world events that inspired Chi. While the English translation is new, The Membranes was first published in 1995, just a few years after a decades-long period of martial law in Taiwan was lifted. It transformed the culture with a “sudden flood of new ideas, combined with the relative lack of statutory oversight on a whole generation of youth,” as translator Ari Larissa Heinrich explains in the afterword. Chi was part of this generation, newly trading bootleg tapes and suddenly exposed to international films, surfing the web, and delighting in media and technology. The disorienting exuberance of this period is captured in the frenetic spirit of the book: the wild future of T City was a funhouse-mirror image of Taiwan as Chi experienced it.

The Membranes shows that even if a population has regrouped to a city on the floor of the ocean, its communities will continue to make history from a common past. This was a concern of N. K. Jemisin as she worked on 2020’s The City We Became. The book is set in New York City, where the author lives, but in the acknowledgments, she writes that it “required more research than all the other fantasy novels I’ve written, combined.” It wasn’t just the infrastructure and landmarks that Jemisin hoped to capture accurately, but the New Yorkers themselves. “Real worlds feature real peoples,” she writes. “Therefore it’s important that I not depict them in ways that disrespect or cause harm.”

The City We Became found a wide and enthusiastic audience when it was released last year in the earliest days of the pandemic. It introduces superhero-like characters who act as avatars of the five boroughs of New York, both protectors and embodiments of their locations. They battle entities reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft’s monsters, with tentacles and “fronds,” which are manifestations of threats New Yorkers face: gentrification, racism, the police. Jemisin’s research and care paid off; the book struck a chord with readers as their own lives were radically altered. For people whose cities were experiencing a different test of resilience amid the covid-19 crisis, its characters felt true. 

The City We Became cover

One way that science fiction authors have avoided research like Jemisin’s is by presenting familiar cities that are empty besides a handful of survivors. I Am Legend, the 1954 post-apocalyptic classic by Richard Matheson, is set in a Los Angeles that is recognizable by its geography and street names, but a pandemic has mutated its people—with the exception of one man—into shadow-dwelling vampires. 

The novel, an enormous influence on modern zombie horror, channels Atomic Age anxiety by depicting formerly bustling neighborhoods as newly desolate. The last man on earth, Robert Neville, rarely leaves his elaborately fortified house. Instead, he lives a cozy life, listening to piano concertos and drinking alone. There’s no coordinated disaster response in the novel. He doesn’t have to collaborate or negotiate with his neighbors on supply runs. 

As he begins experimenting on the vampires to discover the origins of the disease, I Am Legend poses a thought-provoking question: Is Richard the real monster in this new society? It is suspenseful and deservedly considered a classic, but Matheson offers no real sense of place. The other people have been stripped of their history and are little but bloodthirsty mutants; their motivations and interests are predictable and the culture of the city has no bearing on them. 

Decades earlier, the polymath W.E.B. Du Bois took a rare stab at writing fiction to show how social hierarchies in a city can outlive its own people. His 1920 short story “The Comet,” written in the wake of the flu pandemic, depicts a near extinction event in New York City. A Black man survives, and for the first time in his life, he is able to visit a restaurant on Fifth Avenue without worry. Jim fills his plate in the empty building, thinking, “Yesterday, they would not have served me.” The city of Los Angeles in I Am Legend could be anywhere, but New York is clearly New York in “The Comet.” In just that line, Du Bois provides a snapshot of what life used to be like before the Fifth Avenue restaurant was abandoned. As Jim continues his journey, he comes into contact with a handful of other survivors and finds out that racism did not die when the event took place—and that it will, in fact, persist to the end of the world.