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Uncommon Building: Exploring the Literary Texture of Urban Spaces

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As ever, this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival played host to a series of fascinating literary discussions, not least "Cities of Our Dreams," which called on its audience to focus on both representations of cities in text and the extent to which urban spaces, architecture, and cities can be seen as texts.

Hosted by sociologist Adam Kaasa, theatre writer Ishbel McFarlane, and author Honor Gavin, the talk encouraged attendees to view the modern urban landscape as a designed space rather than dismiss it as an inevitable product of development. Indeed, given that cities are designed spaces at their core, it's worth considering what that design is intended to communicate to us (and how designs achieve their goals). This approach leads those living in urban environments to ‘read’ the text of our cityscapes, considering both the people who built them and the extent to which designed spaces can act as "texts."

This casts those of us who engage with urban environments in the role of readers, working together in a “collective excavation” as we interpret and re-interpret the buildings that have been left to us by previous generations (as well as those being built in our lifetimes). Just as different readings of popular text may be more or less popular at different times, different readings and impressions of urban environments tend to wax and wane among their inhabitants.

Kaasa and Gavin’s project and accompanying book, Uncommon Building, focuses on a series of attempts by artists to synthesise text descriptions of buildings into more concrete impressions of what the object might look like. While it is not yet available, we have included a reading list below of the various books mentioned in the course of the discussion as important touchstones for those who would consider the texture of their surrounding cityscapes.

Throughout, Gavin called on science fiction and speculative fiction for its depictions of futuristic or alternative urban environments. We contacted her to see if she had any further recommendations for those who would look to fiction for its strange takes on urban environments, and she was kind enough to extend our reading list.


 You can read more about the Uncommon Building project here.

Ice

In this haunting and surreal novel, the narrator and a man known as the warden search for an elusive girl in a frozen, seemingly post-nuclear, apocalyptic landscape. The country has been invaded and is being governed by a secret organisation. There is destruction everywhere; great walls of ice overrun the world. Together with the narrator, the reader is swept into a hallucinatory quest for this strange and fragile creature with albino hair. She is, we know, Anna Kavan herself. Acclaimed by Brian Aldiss on its publication in 1967 as the best science fiction book of the year, this extraordinary and innovative novel has subsequently been recognised as a major work of literature in its own right

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Babel-17

In the far future, after human civilization has spread through the galaxy, communications begin to arrive in an apparently alien language. They appear to threaten invasion, but in order to counter the threat, the messages must first be understood.

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Utopia

In the nearly 500 years since the book's publication, there have been many attempts at establishing "Utopias" both in theory and in practice. All of them, however, seem to embody ideas already present in More's classic treatise: optimistic faith in human nature, emphasis on the environment and proper education, nostalgia for a lost innocence, and other positive elements.

In this new edition, readers can study for themselves the essentials of More's utopian vision and how, although the ideal society he envisioned is still unrealized, at least some of his proposals have come to pass in today's world.

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Midland

An industrial accident in a wire factory and the chance discovery of a birth certificate. Church services held in a ruined swimming pool. An unidentified elephant skull. Midland tells the stories of three young women as they fight to find their feet amidst the accumulated rubble of the twentieth century. From the bombsites of the 1940s to the construction sites of the 1960s and the school halls and decaying tower blocks of the 1980s, Honor Gavin has created an ingenious narrative of one Midlands family that is also a startling, anarchic history of a city. Composed in electric prose that soars and dives, blending keenly observed dialect with urban theory, cinema, farcical digressions and surrealist timekeeping, Midland is a novel out of time but in the middle of everything. 

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Dhalgren

A young man arrives in the anarchic city of Bellona, in a near future USA. This world has two moons but could otherwise be our own. The man, known only as 'the Kid', begins to write a novel called Dhalgren that begins where it ends. Dhalgren is about the possibilites of fiction and about the special demands and pleasures of youth culture.

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The Birthday of the World

Gavin puts particular emphasis on the story, "Paradises Lost" and the collections overall focus not on cities but on the relationship between science fiction, language and the production of space.

Six of the eight pieces are set in Le Guin's classic Hainish cycle. The title story, 'The Birthday of the World', stands alone and the final piece, 'Paradises Lost', is a new short novel original to the collection, a major addition to the generation starship subgenre of science fiction.

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Irish writer, editor, and capoeirista. Passionate about folklore, videogames, and communication. Editorial content writer at Bookwitty.

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