Scifi Eye: Cities that shape us

Novelist Jon Wallace imagines the darker side of so-called smart homes

The glass towers of dystopia?
The glass towers of dystopia?

The most compelling scifi rarely has much positive to offer when it comes to imagining how we might accommodate our future population. Visions of future homes tend towards cramped squalor, such as Brazil’s warrens of failing ducts and paper-strewn, partitioned offices; 2000AD’s warring mega-blocks; and the stark edifices of Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes.

It appears that science fiction most compellingly depicts future urban spaces as the overcrowded domain of the oppressed. In the UK this is partly due to a hostility in the popular imagination toward modern, and particularly high-rise structures – an antipathy dating from the urban decay of Brutalist ‘streets in the sky’, and lingering in the shadow of glassy, ‘money box’ tower developments in London. Partly it taps into fears of an exploding world population and overbearing government.

Mostly though, the wretchedness of science fiction’s future structures is simply a requirement of story.  For readers cannot lose themselves in perfect worlds; adventure cannot materialise in shining, sustainable perfection. In order to draw readers into a story, authors must deploy intrigue and conflict.

The best accommodation for these qualities has walls stained with the blood and decay of imagined history. So it is that scifi tales flourish in Robocop’s rotting Detroit, Perdido Street Station’s dizzying maze and the crowded, sodden night streets of Blade Runner. Where gleaming, perfectly ordered future cities do exist they mainly serve to accentuate the conflict that drives the narrative: Demolition Man’s San Angeles and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis are built to fall, raised over disgruntled subterranean forces. This being the case, when The Engineer reports on innovations such as PV-clad buildings, promising cleaner, more sustainable living, there appears little into which the science fiction author may sink his teeth. The proposal for an ‘energy-positive’ timber-framed block is part of a wave of innovation by engineers excited revolutionising domestic spaces, producing ‘cognitive’, self-sufficient homes – self-assembled from smart materials and fitted out with products that possess machine-learning abilities.

More and more, it seems, residents will become at one with accommodation that is tailored to their tastes by Bots – conversational interfaces that will welcome them home, put dinner on, and cue up the evening’s entertainment. Here perhaps there are the seeds of story: techno-fear tales, where in a far-flung future our smart materials and home AIs have coalesced into self-aware homes – becoming characters in their own right.

We might explore a world where houses reshape according to their owners’ tastes – a democratisation of architecture, where homes grow automatically into an expression of tenants’ psychology – replacing sprawling, humdrum, mass-produced housing estates with an eclectic spray of colours, styles and ornamentation.

On the other hand, might self-aware houses become as obsessed by property prices as we are? We could tell the story of a new housing development where one house’s intelligence malfunctions, making it determined to increase its market value at any cost. It spreads over its borders, invading, annexing and cannibalising other homes, until one vast, hideous, deformed palace remains. Its previous tenants stay away, terrified. Finally, desperate, it begins taking curious estate agents hostage, sealing them in until they agree to its own insane self-valuation.       Perhaps truly intelligent homes would turn the tables on us, competing with each other according to the value they perceive in tenants – bringing about revolution in the process.

We could tell the story of a future where luxury ‘cognitive homes’ change the locks on their billionaire owners, pursuing their own equivalent of the warehouse and school conversion: moving in dock workers and teachers instead of boring old billionaires. Others with tastes for ‘period’ tenants raid the care homes for the oldest residents they can find, taking pride in their weather-beaten age. Society is turned upside down, as the poorest live the high life, while tycoons turn to squatting in what ruins remain. Perhaps homes might elect to renovate their existing occupants, as we renovate kitchens and bathrooms. We could tell the story of one home that decides its slobby inhabitant doesn’t meet its exacting standards, and decides to mould him into a well-rounded renaissance man. Like any teenager struggling in authority’s grip, the man rebels, taking an axe to any doorway or appliance that obstructs him – thinking it better to be cut off than controlled.

However we see our future being constructed, an old Churchill quote has increasing relevance. Debating proposed changes to the Commons chamber, bomb damaged during the Second World War, he argued for the retention of its original adversarial layout, saying: “We shape our buildings – and thereafter they shape us.”

Jon Wallace is a science fiction author living and working in England. He is the author of the Kenstibec trilogy, published by Gollancz