The best books featuring real-world cities in SF and fantasy

Who am I?

I’ve been writing and publishing novels across speculative genres for almost two decades now. In my most recent book, The City Inside, the city of Delhi was perhaps the second most important character, and it was quite a struggle attempting to capture its challenges and delights, its people across its many divides, and the experience of living in this constantly turbulent megapolis. So I’ve spent the last few years thinking a lot about reimagining real megacities, capturing their essences without exotifying or demonising them, and about where the borders of speculation and reality lie in a world where it’s already difficult to trust any single point of view or even source of data.

I wrote...

The City Inside

By Samit Basu,

Book cover of The City Inside

What is my book about?

The City Inside is a near-future science fiction novel set in Delhi, India, a harsh city under constant surveillance, full of in-your-face glamour and behind-the-scenes violence. The novel follows two young people—Joey, a Reality Controller, who manages the multi-media live streams of her ex-boyfriend, one of India’s fastest rising influencers, and her childhood friend Rudra, a privileged recluse trying to escape his powerful family’s very shady business empire. As a series of events plunges them into dangerous territory and makes it impossible for them to look away and stay safe, they must learn how to cope with, and then change their world for the better in any way they can.

The books I picked & why

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The City We Became

By N.K. Jemisin,

Book cover of The City We Became

Why this book?

What better way to start talking about some of the world’s greatest cities explored in SFF than with a book that’s the origin story of a city avatar, the first of a series called The Great Cities? New York and London are probably the most explored cities in English literature—for anyone who’s grown up reading books in English, there are versions of these cities that exist in your imagination, layered over the years by generations of talented authors. But despite seeing NY in several hundred films, shows, comics, and books, The City We Became delved deeper into the hearts of the city’s people, and the spirit that makes them who they are, than any other speculative novel I’ve read. I was thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 to represent it because of all the impressive futurist research that went into it—but in the end, people have to come first.

Rivers of London

By Ben Aaronovitch,

Book cover of Rivers of London

Why this book?

Easily one of the best series in fantasy in this century, Rivers of London gets to be the London representative, another of the toughest slots in English SFF in a city that’s had stories set in it by so many great authors. The reason I’d pick Aaronovitch over other favourite authors (Gaiman, Mieville, Pratchett, Schwab) is because the whole series is absolutely aglow with love for its setting, and exploration of London's deepest and darkest corners and people. The ‘grown-up Harry Potter is a fantasy police detective’ premise and the seamless, funny, and action-packed writing are definitely enough to draw any reader in.

Black Water Sister

By Zen Cho,

Book cover of Black Water Sister

Why this book?

Penang is not a city I know or have ever been to. So when Black Water Sister became one of my favourite fantasy books, I knew it wasn’t helped by familiarity with its setting from life or fiction. The story of Jess and her adventure as a relative stranger in her family’s city, navigating social and familial rules along with gangsters and angry gods while resolving issues ranging from deeply personal to interdimensional, is fascinating in pretty much every aspect of storytelling and craft. But on a reread, I appreciated with greater clarity the skill Zen Cho brought to exploring the physical and social aspects of the city, embedding both the physical and the supernatural into a place that is both real, and feels real. 

Analog/Virtual: And Other Simulations of Our Future

By Lavanya Lakshminarayan,

Book cover of Analog/Virtual: And Other Simulations of Our Future

Why this book?

Bangalore, or Bengaluru, is a city I’m very familiar with in real life, and Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s Analog/Virtual, to be published in the West next year by Rebellion as The Ten-Percent Thief, does a splendid job of moving it to the future, using an intricately interconnected mosaic structure to take a wide-ranging look across the social and technological divides that present-day India will carry into the future, giving her readers bleakness, clarity, wonder, humour, and hope as she tells the multifaceted story of a revolution. Analog/Virtual was published in India the same year as Chosen Spirits (the Indian edition of The City Inside), and it was personally fascinating to me to see how similarly and differently we approached present-day social and political concerns in our future-real cities. Definitely a book (along with SB Divya’s Machinehood) that would have deeply influenced mine if I’d read it before writing.

Central Station

By Lavie Tidhar,

Book cover of Central Station

Why this book?

Central Station would work just as well even if you didn’t read its setting as a future Tel Aviv. This book is a multi-dimensional mosaic enriched by its connection to reality. Central Station is a vast spaceport located across cultural and religious divides, its characters are mostly misfits whose memories and histories connect their stories, give them roots however fragile, and sometimes link them to one another as well. Tidhar’s imagination is always vast in range and scope, and it’s fascinating to watch him balance imagery and metaphor with tech and politics, creating a fractured city of meaning that miraculously feels immaculately authentic.

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