An Odd Question About Genre

Just a short post today, but something I’ve been thinking about in connection with my posts about The Just City:
There is a whole subgenre I have noticed among the things I enjoy most. There’s a specific location — it probably has a name like The Village or The City. The inhabitants go there after the end of their mundane lives, either after their actual death or their presumed death. Escape from it is impossible, but also not desired by most people there, although there is usually one person who wants to get out, but it’s a sealed reality away from normal life. Even death may not be an escape, and death and amnesia may be linked in some way. The people there are probably (though not always) living under false names, and they’re probably (though not always) a mixture of fictional characters and real characters from history. There may also be beings serving the function of angels, mediating between humans and some unknown higher power.
The story will revolve around questions of identity, either literally as in a murder mystery or in a more metaphoric sense, and it will also deal with questions of the nature of reality. There will be long conversations about philosophy where another book might have big space battles.
This has some overlap both with Lance Parkin’s “Gray Tradition” and with Menippean satire, but it seems to be its own thing as well. Off the top of my head, Permutation City by Greg Egan, Of The City of the Saved… by Philip Purser-Hallard (and its spinoff short stories), The Just City by Jo Walton, The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, and the TV series The Prisoner and The Good Place all fit this exactly, and The End of Eternity by Asimov, Anathem by Neal Stephenson, and the Doctor Who story “The Mind Robber” fit most of it. The Name of the Rose and some of Borges’ stuff also seem like they *should* fit even though they don’t by the genre description I’ve given above.
Now, as it happens, that’s also pretty close to a list of My Very Favourite Things Evah!, and I’m quite surprised it took me this long to notice this specific pattern.
I have no formal English Literature training past A-level, and I’m *absolutely* sure that this must be A Thing, that there must be more of that Thing out there, and that if someone tells me a name for it I’ll be able to find more of this Thing. So any ideas what this subgenre is?

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13 Responses to An Odd Question About Genre

  1. plok says:

    Hmm, trying to think of the earliest examples of this that I can…

  2. Stupid question: does “Glasshouse” (by me) fit your model?

    (If you figure out the name of this sub-genre, I’d be fascinated to hear it …)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      You know what? It does, doesn’t it, although it’s not one I’d have ever thought of in that context.
      It’s also my absolute favourite of your works, incidentally, which would fit the pattern of this being the subgenre that speaks to me the most.

  3. Andrew Hickey says:

    Comments from elsewhere — Alex Sarll says on Goodreads “The afterlife fantasy element is apparently Bangsian fantasy, which I only discovered after reading tons of works that qualified. But that’s only one of the circles on this Venn, not quite the thing itself. ”

    Jo Walton on Twitter points out that Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld may be where some of this comes from.

  4. I basically never comment but this discussion is far too tantalising – this is pretty much my favourite kind of fiction, though I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen anyone talk about it before, or at least not with this level of specificity.

    First things first: The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien’s philosophical comedic horror novel about a murderer’s surreal journey through a bureaucratic afterlife, is my single favourite example, and is highly recommended to anyone interested in this type of story. It’s more light-hearted than most of the above, and has a rural setting that’s quite unusual in this subgenre, but otherwise it’s an exact fit. Written in 1939 (though not published till 1960), it predates all of the above examples, though I don’t know how likely it is to have influenced any of those authors directly – O’Brien is beloved in Irish academia, and well-known among people with an interest in Irish literature or comic fiction, but I almost never see him mentioned in any other circles. The book can be read in an afternoon, and I’d particularly recommend the audio version performed by Jim Norton, whose ability to deliver incredibly baroque dialogue in a fluent rural-Irish accent elevates the entire story.

    Others examples that spring to mind are Paul Auster’s City of Glass, Alex Proyas’s film Dark City, the Limbo sequences in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the later parts of Philip K Dick’s Ubik, and the middle third of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem (quite possibly influenced by The Third Policeman, as Moore includes references to it in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). A recent example is An Other Place by Darren Shan, which is very schlocky compared to some of these but fits *every* trend you’ve listed above. The Sopranos sometimes strays briefly into the subgenre, most notably with the coma-fantasy arc early in season six. I’ve never watched Lost, but from what I’ve heard it’s at least adjacent to this stuff, and could be one of its bigger mainstream manifestations.

    Since it’s starting to look like this is a primarily literary tradition with occasional forays into film and television, it might also be interesting to look for instances in other media. The video game Undertale fits exactly, while Jonathan Blow’s The Witness might count as a kind of minimalistic edge-case. Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman story “Screaming” is a perfect fit, and I think the Eagles’ Hotel California is a very rare musical example.

    Steven Moffat clearly likes this sort of thing: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is a full-fledged example, and Dark Water/Death in Heaven feels like it’d also slip into the subgenre if only it spent a little more time on the subjective experience of being inside the Nethersphere. Philip Purser-Hallard suggests in his Dark Water Black Archive book that both the Nethersphere and the City of the Saved fit with the Christian tradition of treating the afterlife as an urban environment, and mentions the influence of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, which he traces back to John Kendrick Bangs’s A House-Boat on the Styx, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Aeneid, “and beyond”, but again, that’s only an attempt to chart the lineage behind that “Bangsian fantasy” circle of the Venn diagram. Elsewhere in Doctor Who, the co-existence of the City of the Saved with the Eleven-Day Empire suggests there might be something about the Faction Paradox aesthetic that makes it particularly prone to this sort of thing, but with so few stories actually set in the Empire it’s hard to say for sure.

    Maybe I’ve been reading too much Adam Roberts, but could it be that there’s a Christian or even a specifically Catholic anxiety at the root of the subgenre? Maybe this was too obvious to mention, but a lot of these stories seem to have a distinctly purgatorial aspect, with the protagonists being condemned to their place in the new world as some sort of punishment, either due to a general life of misdeeds or some specific sin they committed. Meanwhile, the preponderance of works in the subgenre set specifically in *cities*, and titled after cities, could perhaps be attributed to the influence of the Book of Revelation, with its detailed metropolitan descriptions of the New Jerusalem – maybe it’s the result of writers taking that version of heaven and extrapolating it into similarly urban hells/limboes/purgatories? I don’t know if there are any examples of the subgenre in non-Western fiction, but if not, that might strengthen the case for a specifically Christian origin.

    While this subgenre is quite clearly A Thing, it seems possible that, much like the Gray Tradition circa 2010, no-one has ever actually attempted to define it before, or done any significant work on it beyond writing the occasional comparative analysis of two or three of the above examples. It could really do with a name though. Maybe something like “The City Tradition”, except, y’know, a bit better.

  5. Haruki Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World is close to your subgenre, if not actually in it. So is Alfred Kubin’s 1908 novel The Other Side.

    The Japanese animated TV series Haibane Renmei belongs in your subgenre, I think, though it doesn’t fit two or three of your criteria. (Yes, it’s anime, but it’s very different from the typical anime.)

  6. prankster36 says:

    I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Neil Gaiman’s “Murder Mysteries”, which is the first story I thought of when Andrew brought up the context…well, after the Prisoner.

    You could sort of make a case for something like Waiting For Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which don’t fit entirely within the definition here but definitely seem like they’re strongly adjacent to the general concept. It seems to be the umbrella of “characters in metafictional space” (even if said metafictional space is disguised as “heaven” or some other mystery-land).

  7. Chris says:

    I know just going “here’s another example!” isn’t very helpful, but Walking on Glass (Iain Banks) seems at least adjacent here, though wanting out is more of a norm in that, and I’m not sure you could really say that identity was a central issue. It feels right though.

    With that and other suggestions above, “glass” seems to be emerging as a recurrent feature of titles, surpassed only by “city”.

  8. plok says:

    In Vancouver where I am, the idea of a “Terminal City” has been particularly attractive since that’s what the city used to be known as. It’s not such a neat idea anymore, as a lot of Nineties retro stuff pretty much colonized the Terminal City thing’s appeal (there’s an obvious line through Mister X to the DC series “Terminal City” in comics, though what predated Mister X in this throughline I can’t quite think)…however a parallel movement at that time was for things like “City Of Glass” as an alternative, and that one is (I think) still going strong. If there haven’t been at least three books so far in this vein called “City Of Glass” I will be very surprised indeed…

    But why glass? Clearly the surface level of that is about a double entendre with skyscrapers and mirrors (or crystal balls), and the fragility of our urban illusions especially as they concern history and modernity and futurity, okay fine, that’s all fine, but it’s always seemed to be as though there was a less-examined allusion in there, a less-examined attractor for the mind seeking a fancy/profound title. Maybe it’s as simple as people having seen The Wizard Of Oz when they were young? The Fortress of Soplitude in the movies is a city of glass too, born from a green crystal, and green being both a faerie colour and an alchemical symbol of the insensate given life…happy accident that the movie Frankenstein was green…and the Hulk…so maybe there’s something there? The secret life of the dreaming city as suggested in green glass, of which there is more and more these days because it works so well for cutting down the absorption of the sun’s heat…

    I dislike that green glass, mind you, because it mediates our vision of nature. Give me the clear glass every time, and just a fan in the window…!

    • plok says:

      John Brunner had a sort of “dreaming city” thing as well, in which the city is the next stage of evolution, gradually becoming an autonomous organism to which all its inhabitants are like cells…

      Uh, spoilers.

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