When you spend time in science fiction and fantasy, you get detailed tours of mythical Shires and Hogsmeades, alternative Londons, dystopian San Franciscos, and steampunk Seattles. But what about the rest of the planet? We asked the Twittersphere, and then gathered up some examples of SFF set in cities far and wide around the world (plus a few other worlds, too).
The Lankhmar series—Fritz Leiber
Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar is a crowded, labyrinthine, smog –cloaked port city, full of thieves, markets, cults, and sentient rats. It is the launching point for many of Fafhrd and the Mouser’s adventures. Lankhmar even has its own golems in the form of mummified former residents. It’s reminiscent of 16th Century Seville, as depicted by Cervantes.
Akata Witch—Nnedi Okorafor
Sunny Nwazue is Nigerian-American, born in New York, who moves with her family to West Africa. She is also albino, and a witch. The other kids call her Akata – a nasty pejorative term for foreigners, especially used against Black Americans. They’re also not so cool with her skin color. Finally, she befriends a small group of fellow pariahs, only to discover that they all have magical abilities, and the group forms a coven. Their adventures will continue in Akata 2: Breaking Kola. Okorafor often uses African setting or themes in her work, including her adult novel Who Fears Death, which is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan.
Drakenburg, South Africa
Tad William’s continent-hopping Otherland series unfolds in a future Earth. While much of the action takes place in an immersive virtual reality called The Net, the first book, City of Golden Shadow also takes us to South Africa, where the action centers on Dr. Renie Sulaweyo, a Zulu college professor and virtul engineer, and !Xabbu, her San assistant. The two live and work in Durban, a large South African port city. As the story unfolds, the two travel to Drakenberg, the escarpment that forms a border between Lesotho and the KwaZulu-Natal Province – the land that was designated for the Zulu people under apartheid.
The Sandman: Fables & Reflections—Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman travels the globe – Morpheus is the King of Dreams, after all, so physical limitations aren’t really a thing here. One story in particular stands out for this list: Issue #50, “Ramadan.” The nested story takes us to Baghdad, during the reign of Harun al-Rashid. Harun makes a deal with Morpheus, asking him to preserve the greatness of his city. Morpheus agrees, and immediately everything changes: Baghdad is now a bustling city like any other, and the Caliph doesn’t remember its magic. Even when he sees his true city preserved in a bottle he doesn’t recognize that that could ever be reality. The story shifts again; we learn that the story we’ve just read is being told to a boy in 1993, who must climb over the rubble of his city to get home.
Greg Egan’s 2010 novel contrasts life in 2012 Tehran with a Tehran of the future – 2027. Martin Seymour is an Australian who travels to Tehran to cover the 2012 election, but ends up marrying an Iranian woman and spending the rest of his life in his adopted city. When an accident takes her life, and he discovers that he has terminal cancer, he asks Nasim Golestani, an Iranian scientist who spent years in exile in America, to upload his consciousness into a “Virtual Martin” so his son won’t have to face life alone. When news of the project is leaked, political and religious factions clash over the idea of a virtual human, and the culture of the city is explored as the very nature of consciousness is discussed.
Metro 2033—Dmitry Glukhovsky
This post-apocalyptic horror, originally published online, has inspired two video games, been translated int0 35 languages, and sold over 500,000 copies in Russia. After a Final War in 2013, humans fled the ravaged surface of the Earth, and a few people managed to make their way into the deepest reaches of the Moscow Metro. Now, a generation later, the last human defend their Station-Cities from each other, and from the mutated creatures the roam the surface world. Other people in other countries may have survived, but no news has been heard from them in years. Now Artyom, one of those born just before the war, must travel throughout the system, and even above, to warn his fellow survivors of a new threat, and try to save humankind.
Bloody Nasreen—Shahan Zaidi
Shahan Zaidi’s Nasreen may be “a heroine any Pakistani girl can relate to,” but she also carries a gun in one hand and a sword in the other, and fights crime without a dhupatta – the traditional headscarf worn by many women in Pakistan. She travels the streets of her hometown, Karachi, fighting social evils like police corruption and human trafficking rather than supervillains.
Aman Sen is smart, young, ambitious and going (metaphorically) nowhere when he boards his flight from London to Delhi, He soon discovers that everyone on his flight now has extraordinary abilities corresponding to their innermost desires, and he finds that he can communicate with anyone or anything. But terrible new forces have been unleashed: businessmen, politicians, criminals, each with their own agenda. Turbulence takes us into the cities of 21st-century India.
The Beast with Nine Billion Feet—Anil Menon
Pune, India is a high-tech wonderland in the year 2040. Tara and Aditya are siblings navigating a world of liquid computers, emotional cars, and synthetic life while getting entangled in a moral battle over genetics that is being led by their father, a superstar biologist. Tara is a serious reader and student, but her brother Aditya tries to spend all of his time in the virtual world. Menon uses the culture clash between the two kids to look at larger struggle between different ways of looking at life and humanity’s relationship with nature. He also brings Pune and its educational system to life (especially the use of VR to liven up history lessons) and gives us a fascinating city of the future.
The Detective Inspector Chen series—Liz Williams
Another near-future series, these are occult mysteries set primarily in Singapore, although Detective Chen and his sidekick, the demon Zhu Irzh, occasionally travel to Heaven and Hell for cases. Det. Ghen is the Singapore Three police department’s resident “snake agent” – an officer who deals with supernatural crimes. There are — books in the Detective Inspector Chen series to date.
Bangkok/Krung Thep, Thailand
The Sonchai Jitpleecheep series—John Burdett
As John Burdett’s Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep points out, Krung Thep means City of Angels, but this series tends to focus on the less angelic side of the city Westerners call Bangkok. Sonchai is a dedicated Buddhist who, as the son of a Thai bar girl and an American soldier, lives between castes and cultures, and makes for highly unusual sleuth. With each book the murders he investigates get stranger and more dangerous, and, in addition to giving a nuanced portrait of modern Buddhism, the books allow room for the supernatural and ambiguous – such as Detective Sonchai’s ability to see people’s past lives, as well as trace his own incarnations back thousands of years. And then there are the hungry ghosts that wake him up in the night…
The City Trilogy—Shi-Kuo Chang
Chang, a professor of Computer Science at the University of Pittsburgh, is considered one of the foremost Chinese SFF authors. Born in Chongqing in 1944, he grew up in Taiwan, and moved to America to attend UC Berkeley. With the City Trilogy, Chang explores how a city can come to represent the aspirations of a people. Sunlon is the center of life on Huhui, and has survived centuries of warfare, but now must become a site of hope as the planet itself begins to die. The novels foreground meditations on history, and many allegories to Chinese culture, over narrative drive.
Cat City, Mars
Cat Country—Lao She
In Lao She’s Cat Country, a Chinese man crash-lands on Mars, only to find that it’s populated by Cat People. He scares some of the aggressive Cat People off with his pistol, and promptly joins up with a rich and powerful drug-dealing Cat named Scorpion. The two go to Cat City, which is a dissolute, chaotic place that has lost touch with tradition. While Lao She chose to take us to another planet in this satire, the corruption and unthinking acceptance of Marxist ideology he lampoons are clearly based in his experiences living in 1930s Beijing.
The Fat Years—Chan Koonchung
The Fat Years was published in 2009, is set in 2013, and concerns the search for the month of February 2011, which has gone missing. Got that? Lao Chen is a Hong Kong writer living as an expat in Beijing. His friend Fang Caodi informs him that all records jump straight from January to March, and his ex-girlfriend, an internet activist, joins in the search for the missing month. As the novel unfolds, the trio learns that the disappearance is connected to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1988, and any contentment he had seeps away. Is the culture suffering from some sort of collective amnesia, or has time been erased?
On the Beach—Nevil Shute
Following World War III, the remnants of humanity have fled to South America, the tip of the African continent, and Australia. However, as radiation clouds slowly spread around the planet, more and more people succumb to sickness or suicide. On The Beach joins a small group of survivors in Melbourne, Australia, which is still semi-functional. The citizens go about their days as normally as possible, trying to dwell on whatever happiness they can find before the end, and clinging to the last vestiges of ordinary life in a city.
Tokyo, Japan/Tokyo of the Mind
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—Haruki Murakami
Including Murakami is maybe cheating a little. Most of his novels are set in Tokyo, true, but it’s a weird, otherworldly Tokyo, where middle-aged men eat spaghetti instead of ramen, and teen girls listen to obscure American jazz instead of j-pop. But even that doesn’t matter, because all good Murakami novels actually take place at the bottoms of wells, at diners at night, under bridges, in dark corridors of human consciousness that can’t stand the light of day. I’m not entirely sure that’s a city, but I am sure that there’s nowhere I’d rather live.
Chatham Islands/Bruges, Belgium/Nea So Copros/Sloosha’s Crossing/etc.
Cloud Atlas—David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas leaps across time, continents, and cultures to tell interlocking stories of hope and change. The actions travels from the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific to Bruges, Begium, to London, to San Francisco to a dystopian future Korea called Nea So Copros, and finally a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.
Brown Girl in the Ring—Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring brings Caribbean magic to a dystopic future Toronto. In the wake of an economic collapse, Downtown Toronto has become a violent slum controlled by a crimelord named Rudy. Rudy begins pushing his power into the spiritual realm, waging a magical war on those who stand in his way. Ti-Jeanne, a skeptical young single mother, must join with her grandmother, the shaman Gros-Jeanne, to fight against Rudy and the evil Calabash spirit that he has unleashed on her city.
São Paulo, Brazil
And Still the Earth—Ignacio de Loyola Brandao
In near- future São Paulo water is scarce, garbage is everywhere, and Brazilians every moment and every thought is monitored by a secret entity called the System. Souza, a middle-aged everyman, tries to create a life in a city where remembering the past is not allowed, and having hope is highly suspect.
While I’m sure I missed a few worthy settings, my dearest wish for this post is for a comment thread filled with your favorite writers from around the world. Do you have an Iranian sci-fi author in your top ten? Or a fantasist from Lima? Perhaps a steampunk epic set in Mozambique? Let us know!