Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.
There is a city that was designed and built to prevent government officials from being able to avoid frequent contact with the people they represent.
A.Z. Louise is a writer from Syracuse, New York, whose conure keeps them company during the writing process. Their background in civil engineering has been invaluable in their works of speculative fiction and poetry, and absolutely useless for writing romance. When not writing, they can be found knitting, playing folk harp, or weaving.
Gailey: What are some of the ways in which the structure of the city forces interaction?
A.Z.: This city would have to prize accessibility above all else, because it's no use forcing government officials into contact with their people if only some people get the chance to show up. A robust and easy to use public transit system is crucial to getting people to government buildings. Those buildings aren't intimidating monoliths or sprawling, tough to navigate complexes, but smaller and more welcoming offices scattered around the city. By necessity, multiple people hold the same position and share the responsibility of interacting with their constituents. At any given time there are multiple mayors working in different sectors, each forming connections with the people there. The mayors are mobile and can shift or be replaced alongside changing population and need.
Gailey: What effect does this have on the culture of the city?
A.Z.: The highly decentralized government is reflected in the social structure of the city. There's little concept of business hours and no expectation that people have stay-at-home-spouses to run errands during the day. Households may not live together every day, staying with friends or family in different parts of the city whenever they want, but many people have a strong loyalty to the sector they grew up in. Meals are an important daily anchor for people who need more structure in their day to day lives, those who live alone, and those who are housebound. Friends and family members are comfortable in kitchens across their sector and beyond, and it's common for people to carry their favorite tools with them. Fresh food markets and restaurants contribute to this culinary culture, the food industry as a whole second only to transit as a local employer.
Gailey: Is widespread government corruption still possible? If so, what form does it take?
A.Z.: Whether the goal is to hold sectors hostage with constant maintenance to transit systems or to funnel citizens and their money to certain sectors, corruption in this city relies on controlling movement. Because people spend so much time with friends and family, when and where housing is built or removed is a crucial aspect of this control. The rich food culture also plays a part, with owners of chain restaurants especially invested in having a hand in how transit is built, maintained, and controlled. Owners of smaller establishments are more likely to be interested in passing health inspections and getting away with using less-than-wholesome ingredients, especially additives that can stretch pricey ingredients as far as possible. As private citizens, they would have the same access to their officials as everyone else in the city giving them plenty of opportunities to grease palms and make deals.
DongWon Song is an agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency representing science fiction and fantasy for adults, young adult, and middle grade readers as well as select non-fiction. They were formerly an editor at Orbit, a product manager for an ebook startup, and taught as an adjunct instructor in the publishing program at Portland State University.
Gailey: How does the city force interaction between citizens and politicians?
DongWon: There is a city built on surveillance. All the street corners have cameras on them. All the doorways, the ATMs, the hallways. There are no cameras inside the restrooms but there are ones outside the doors. There are tiny microphones embedded in the digital devices the citizens carry around, in their watches, their headphones, their glasses. No one is forced to carry these items, they just do. Because they want to.
The city watches you as you go about your days. It learns your patterns over time. What bus you take to get to work. Where you stop to get an oat milk latte and a bran muffin. What day of the month you are most likely to decide to be a little bad and get a bacon egg and cheese and a regular coffee, redolent with too much cream and three spoonfuls of sugar. (It's every third Wednesday except after three cycles you will skip one because you have taken up running again but you'll break down next week.)
You have an app on your device that helps you keep track of all your appointments. You like this app because it helps you keep track of all your appointments. Also it was free. The people who made it signed a deal with the city to share your schedule with it because this gives them enough money to make the app and distribute it for free.
The data, they promised, would be anonymized, but they did not comprehend how much the city loves you. It figured out what patterns match to what schedule. It knows that you go to therapy every Thursday morning at 10 am. This means you are late to work every Thursday and your supervisor has asked you to stay half an hour later than everyone else every day to make up for it. This accomplishes nothing but it seems fair to you and to your supervisor. The city knows you just scroll social media for these extra minutes as the quiet takes hold and the air grows stiller and the lights start to click off in the untrafficked corners of the shared, open spaces.
In the still hours of the dark office you scroll through your feeds, which are full of terrible truths, unwatchable horror. You see people suffer and die and it is all on camera because everything is on camera. The city watches and you watch through its eyes. The city doesn’t want you to see this but it can’t stop you either. Call your senator, your feed says. Call your representative. Call your mayor. Call your councilman. If they don’t pick up, leave a voicemail.
The city hears your call. The city hears your voice crack with grief, with anger, with fear. Your name is logged on a spreadsheet. It is labeled constituent. The other columns read donor. There’s another one that’s secret, not because it’s illegal, but because no one is required to keep the list. The list is kept but only the city knows the names on it.
People keep dying. Call your senator, they say. You do. You say this person’s life matters. This person matters too. They start a new spreadsheet.
You think about going to a protest. The city pushes an alert to your phone. Traffic delays due to protest activity. Police activity on the bridge. Curfew starts at 8pm. You decide to stay home.
Your annual review is nine months overdue. You have requested and scheduled appointments with your supervisor seven times in those nine months. The city knows that your supervisor has canceled your review for a date, three different times, because they were tired, once, because they had a work related crises, four times, and because they forgot, once.
Your supervisor has not been able to schedule his own annual review for two and a half years.
The more important you are the less time you spend looking at your app that helps you keep track of your appointments. The city knows that the schedule flows around the powerful, accommodating their whims, their needs, and their inattention.
Gailey: What effect does this have on the culture of the city?
DongWon: There is no culture in the city, there’s just work. Culture is made to be productive. Culture is for bettering yourself, so you will be better at your work. Culture is for self-care so you can work more. Culture is for profit, for investment, so you can make more culture.
You go to the theater once a year to watch a play because everyone is talking about how good the play is. You try to find someone to go with you. You send messages to people on the app where you try to find someone to love. The city watches you send missive after missive to attractive people with good jobs who also like self-care and self-betterment through culture. The city knows none of them will love you like it does.
You end up going to the play by yourself. You try to come up with something pithy and smart to say on social media. You want everyone to know you went to the play and that you are better now, enriched, more ready for a promotion, for a new job. You are smart and cool and savvy and cultured. Why won’t anyone date you? Why won’t they hire you?
The city sends you an ad for another play that was written up in a magazine you subscribe to but don't read. You don’t go.
Gailey: Is widespread government corruption still possible?
DongWon: There is no corruption in the city. The apartment you live in got a tax break because there’s a small fountain in the courtyard with six sickly trees around it. The sidewalk between the waterway and the river that runs by the building was repaved and two benches were added. The benches are sloped so no one can sleep on them. There are plaques embedded in the sidewalk that say the sidewalk is private property and citizens are only allowed to cross it by the benevolent good will of the building developers.
Your apartment is slightly cheaper because of the partnership between the mayor’s office and the developers. Your view looks out on the back of the building so you can not see the river, just the fountain and the six sickly trees. There is also a sculpture that is a single piece of bent metal painted a bright red. It’s nice to be by the water so that you can run there when you take up running again. You wish it would be less cold and less wet so you can run again. You know you should just learn to run in the cold and the wet. Maybe if you ran more people would like you more because you’d be better at self-care and self-betterment.
Your apartment was supposed to make you a better person. But instead you just have a nicer background on video calls when you work from home. Your supervisor doesn’t think this makes you more worthy of a raise. In fact he thinks you make enough money because you can afford that nice couch. One of the couch’s legs is held on with tape and a fast drying glue because you bought it from someone who wanted to get rid of it rather than figure out how to tape the leg on. It creaks loudly when you sit down on it too fast.
The building sways slightly on windy days. There is a large pendulum weight enclosed in a central shaftway somewhere high above you that swings to counterbalance the building as it moves in the wind. This does not stop the building from moving, it just keeps it from falling down when it does. The window leaks when the rain is heavy during the storm season. The storm season comes earlier every year.
The air conditioning is tied to an app. The city knows the app only works four days out of five and that the technician who can repair it has a full schedule and more appointments than they can actually go to in a single day. They are penalized for every late appointment. They will lose their job in six weeks.
You voted for the mayor. Your apartment is cheaper because of him. He rides public transit to work every day so that everyone knows he is not corrupt. He takes his large black SUV to the subway station and then climbs down two flights of stairs to get on the subway with a metrocard paid for by the taxpayers and then rides one stop and climbs two flights of stairs to emerge, camera ready. He is not corrupt.
The police keep you safe, he tells you. The city knows the police are good at their jobs because they stop a lot of crimes. The more crimes they stop the better they are paid. It doesn’t matter that the crimes they stop are fabricated, that they are tiny infractions that were inconsequential a generation ago. It doesn’t matter that the crimes they stop were hurting no one, cost no one. Their ratings go up. They get to keep their jobs. The voters tell the mayor he is doing a good job because the police are good at stopping crime.
The city knows there is no corruption. Because the city knows that it loves you and it wouldn’t let you live in a place run by corrupt politicians. The city wants you to be happy. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, you tell yourself. If you could think of another place to go, you’d go there, certain that you’d thrive there because you’re thriving here. After all, you’re happy here. You love the city.
My city would be constructed as a reverse panopticon in which government officials work in a mirror-lined pit. The mirrors are angled such that they reflect up onto the interior surface of the dome that covers the city. Citizens live and function on the lip of the pit. (It's a big pit.) If the citizens spot the government officials doing something they don't like, they have the option to descend into the pit to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the government official in question. Whoever loses remains in the pit, and the victor is allowed to return to the lip of the pit to walk among the people.
All of these possibilities are just beginnings. A.Z.'s city is the start of an incredibly rich tale of citywide accessibility and community care. DongWon's city represents the foundation of an urban gothic horror novel in which an eerily familiar city manipulates its citizens. My city is the beginning of a comedic horror short about the violence of constant observation.
How is your city constructed to keep government officials visible and accessible? Does the design pay off? Are things better this way?
Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.
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In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.