The Greatest (Worst) Urban Sprawls in Sci-Fi

coruscantThe megacity: an urban sprawl so huge, so monolithic, that it eats up most of continent —or a planet. It’s a familiar concept in sci-fi, and has been at least since the days of Fritz Lang and his titular Metropolis.

One reason the megacity remains so prevalent is simple: while it seems futuristic and exotic, the fact is, the concept is pretty familiar in the real world, as cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia inch closer together every year. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which coast-spanning megacities actually exist, but still, the concept retains its power in an SFnal setting. These nine stories mine the trope brilliantly—pick one up for a preview of what life might be like in BosYorDelphia Prime.

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San Angeles in The Courier, by Gerald Brandt
Brandt’s debut novel offers up San Angeles, a sprawl that combined everything from San Diego to San Francisco—and then built upwards. Brandt’s genius is to realize that just because the cities merge, that doesn’t mean growth stops—and the only way to go will be up. His vision of San Angeles is a fascinating nightmare, with the dim, cramped lower levels housing the desperate, poor, and criminally desperate, while the upper levels (and the sunlight) are reserved for the wealthy and powerful—with the truly powerful living on floating Sat Cities, closer to the sun and further from the compost.

Coruscant, in the Star Wars Universe
You can’t discuss megacities without name-checking the capital of the Galactic Republic. The Star Wars universe actually mentions several planet-sized cities, a dizzying concept rendered comprehensible largely due to the high-speed air traffic the films depict whenever we visit Coruscant; without the ability to hop on a speeder and travel vast distances in relatively short amounts of time, a planet-sized city would quickly drive everyone insane. (Drive! Get it?) Of course, the films don’t delve into how a planet-sized city manages to feed itself, administer the trillions of people living in it, or keep up with an entire planet’s worth of infrastructure improvements. We can’t even get potholes filled in a timely manner, so we have to conclude that Coruscant is an awful, awful place to live.

Trantor in The Foundation Series, by Isaac Asimov
Inspired by ancient Rome, the megacity of its time, the Galactic Empire’s capital city is actually several hundred distinct sprawls joined together, leaving little of the planet’s natural surface exposed. Asimov spent a lot of time rewiring, retconning, and altering the Foundation universe as he slowly massaged several independent stories into a united universe, and one of his brilliant moves was to explore what happens to a megacity like Trantor when the empire it serves collapses. Watching the megacity devolve back into an agrarian culture as the last few Galactic Emperors have to leave Trantor (much the way the last Roman Emperors abandoned Rome) is one of the unheralded high points of the series.

Mega-City One in the Judge Dredd Universe
One of the most famous megacities in comics, Mega-City One is so big, New York is just a neighborhood. Having survived a nuclear war due to a missile defense system, the sprawl is defined by the monolithic apartment buildings that house tens of thousands of people each, with predictably awful living conditions and predictably terrifying results—requiring the frequent intervention of Judges, who dispense instant justice in the form of extreme violence. While some citizens survive by being in constant motion in mobile homes that endlessly troll the city streets, the vast proportion of the population are trapped in those hellish apartments, making Mega-City One one of the most disturbing visions of an urban future.

The Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (a.k.a. The Sprawl) in Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson
What’s most interesting about Gibson’s vision of a megacity is the nightmarish presentation: The Sprawl has no time, as there’s no real day or night. It has an artificial sky that’s always a dull gray (like a television, tuned to a…well, you know). Life in The Sprawl, despite ubiquitous technology, is harsh and difficult. Worst of all is Gibson’s insistent theme that none of the people we meet there matter; they come and go, and only The Sprawl is constant. Urban areas already make people feel isolated and powerless, so Gibson’s grim prediction of the ennui of megacity life seems perfectly accurate—and perfectly horrifying.

The Roar, by Emma Clayton
Clayton’s debut book for young readers is set in a future where the world’s population has retreated behind a huge wall after a plague turns every animal into a vicious predator. A poisonous agent has been introduced outside the wall to kill everything, while urban sprawl on the other side has made the world into one enormous city, overcrowded and unhappy. As Clayton’s main character, Mika, investigates his sister’s disappearance, he begins to suspect that the people haven’t been told everything. What sets Clayton’s sprawl apart is the sense of claustrophobia, as most of the population lives in crowded, flooded slums—and any attempt at finding some space means running up against the monolithic wall.

Tau Ceti Center in The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
Simmons’ vision of the Hegemony of Man is glorious, including the planet-sized cities like Tau Ceti Center—right up until The Fall. The most memorable images of Simmons’ megacities are of the chaos and horror that break out when the technology that allows the city to survive breaks down, making it impossible to bring in food—and stranding millions in their huge towers, unable to get down, doomed to starve. As it descends into rioting and horror, Tau Ceti Center changes from a shining example of man’s ability to dominate the universe to an object lesson in how over-dependence on technology could be the doom of us all.

New York City in Make Room! Make Room! (a.k.a. Soylent Green), by Harry Harrison
Harrison’s famous novel, the inspiration for the film Soylent Green (which altered his story extensively and introduced the infamous cannibalism theme) is a different sort of urban sprawl; this future New York hasn’t spread so much, but its population density is off the charts, with people crowded into ever-shrinking portions of apartments and receiving ever-shrinking portions of food, water, and other resources. This approach results in a claustrophobic and itchy sort of story that ends on the foreboding note that as the population continues to grow, an already bad situation will only get worse.

Mega Tokyo in the Bubblegum Crisis Universe
The oddly-titled, bonafide classic animated series and manga (the title refers to the concept of a bubble about to burst from internal pressure) imagines a future Tokyo that has both sprawled into a megacity and been split into two literal halves by a massive natural disaster. What sets this megacity apart is the exploration of wealth disparity, as one half of Tokyo is far richer and well-heeled than the other. Sure, there are malfunctioning robots to fight, but evil robots you can live with—income disparity is the real horror. Sound familiar?

Are any of these cities places you’d actually want to live? What urban hellscapes have we forgotten?

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