There are lots of rules about writing, but few worth paying any heed. But one concept I would argue for is that character is everything—without character you have no story, you have no plot, you have no consequences, no changes, no desires, no obstacles, no goals. Everything—and I mean everything—in a great novel comes from great character.
And character doesn’t need to be limited to those who walk and talk and have their adventures between the pages of your favourite novel. Some of the best books use setting as character—the place in which the action unfolds can be just as important as the people (or robots or aliens or super-intelligent shades of the colour blue) whose trials and tribulation we follow.
Here are five books where the setting—in this case, strange cities—is key.
Our Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Set in Hope City, the domed city deep in the heart of Argentine Antarctica, Our Lady of the Ice combines a steampunk sensibility with a classic crime mystery to produce a masterpiece of innovative world building. As the city begins to fall apart, private eye Eliana Gomez is charged with the recovery of some stolen documents, the fee from which will allow her to flee her increasingly fragile home. Highly original… even if you perhaps wouldn’t want to visit Hope City yourself!
The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
As you might guess, I get asked about The Automatic Detective a lot. Set in the glorious pulpy Empire City, a town full of talking gorillas and green blobby mutants, Mack Megaton, a former robot of mass destruction, is trying to make his way as a private detective. Following the trail of a gang of kidnappers, we explore the wild side of Empire City through Mack’s electronic eyes, and just as everything teeters on the edge of ridiculousness, we learn the very real and very serious reason why everything is, well, how it is. The Automatic Detective is one of my favourite novels, the book that kick-started my long-dormant interest in science fiction way back when.
The City & the City by China Miéville
There are few novels in which setting is as important as it is in China Miéville’s The City & the City. Somewhere in eastern Europe (maybe), the drab city of Beszel is twinned in more ways than one with the glamorous Ul Qoma. But while the two cities apparently overlap, geographically, they are separated by a brain-melting mix of politics and metaphysics, the residents of each locale required to “unsee” their neighbour and its inhabitants, even when the two places physically occupy practically the same place. Throw in the legend of the missing third city, Orciny, and the terrifying secret police force—Breach—responsible for maintaining the separation of the cities and their populations, and you have one of the most original science fiction-adjacent novels of recent years.
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead is famous for his 2016 novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad, but his 2000 debut The Intuitionist is a fascinating slice of noir weird. Set in not-quite-New York, in the not-quite-20th-century, Lila Mae Watson is the city’s first black female elevator inspector. More than that, she is a member of the Intuitionists, the faction within the Department of Elevator Inspectors who investigate elevator faults with, no kidding, psychic powers (in contrast—and conflict—with the scientific principles of their rivals, the Empiricists). Following a dramatic elevator accident—in an Elevator Guild election year, no less—Lia Mae’s investigation turns into a journey of self-discovery, set against the backdrop of this very strange and enigmatic world, where the elevator-obsessed society is on the quest for the mythical Second Elevation.
Okay, I’m cheating a little here, but let’s be honest: Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles is not the Los Angeles of the first half of the 20th century that we know. Sure, there’s Hollywood and there’s downtown, and Chandler’s seven Philip Marlowe novels contain a multitude of recognisable and very real locations. But Chandler also gave his city a twist—Santa Monica becomes Bay City, with its seedy, uncooperative police department, while further afield, La Jolla (the suburb of San Diego where Chandler made his home—not Los Angeles by a long short, but just go with it) becomes the resort town of Esmeralda. Chandler’s vision of LA is one of faded glamour and dark shadows, an alternate version of the City of Angels populated by movie stars and femme fatales and tough guys in sharp suits.
Top image: The Big Sleep (1946)
Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State was SciFiNow’s Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year. The author of the Ray Electromatic Mysteries Brisk Money, Made To Kill, and Standard Hollywood Depravity, Adam’s other novels include Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic and The Burning Dark. Adam has also written the official tie-in novels for the hit CBS television show Elementary, and the award-winning Dishonored video game franchise, and with Chuck Wendig, wrote The Shield for Dark Circle/Archie Comics. Adam is also a contributor to the Star Wars: From A Certain Point Of View 40th anniversary anthology. His latest novel in the Ray Electromatic Mysteries, Killing Is My Business, is available now from Tor Books in the US and Titan Books in the UK.