Megalopolis Now

It is no surprise that New York City, immodestly known as “the capital of the world,” figures so strongly in the popular imagination of apocalypse: think of the submerged Statue of Liberty in the ...

It is no surprise that New York City, immodestly known as “the capital of the world,” figures so strongly in the popular imagination of apocalypse: think of the submerged Statue of Liberty in the ecodisaster film The Day After Tomorrow (2004). But New York’s iconicity, as a prime example of what sociologist Saskia Sassen calls a “global city,” can obstruct our view of the world around it. Restricted vision is a generic hazard for many apocalyptic fictions, which tell their end-of-the-world stories by readily shrinking the world to one recognizable center of power. H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) set in London; Carolyn See’s Golden Days (1987) set in Los Angeles; and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) set in New York are all examples of how even the most original novels in this genre rely upon its most conventional settings. It is therefore refreshing to read recent works by Manil Suri, Lauren Beukes, and Paolo Bacigalupi, all of which bypass apocalyptic fiction’s old haunts in favor of new sites of imagination and analysis. Their novels reignite apocalypse, add a tinge of noir, and roundly energize the speculations of speculative fiction by moving to the megacities of the Global South.

“Megacity” is a term that traces its origins back to 1918 when Oswald Spengler, the famed German historian, coined the word “megalopolis” to identify Western cities that he predicted would decline under the weight of their own growth.1 Lewis Mumford picked up the word in The Culture of Cities (1938) and The City in History (1961), as did Jean Gottmann, who wrote Megalopolis (1961) to describe the rapid growth of metropolitan areas on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Today, “megacity” technically names any city with a population over 10 million, but usually connotes the cities of the developing world whose rapid urbanization strains their infrastructure.

Manil Suri’s The City of Devi takes us to one of the most recognizable megacities of all, Bombay/Mumbai, and depicts it under the threat of nuclear destruction. Taking the 2002 standoff between India and Pakistan as a reference point, the novel jumps into an alternative future in which the two rivals engage in a 21st century version of MAD (mutually assured destruction). Shadowy states exploit terrorist threats, religious fundamentalisms, and sham goddesses such as the Devi of the novel’s title. From within this milieu, an unlikely love triangle takes shape between Sarita, a PhD in statistics with little romantic experience, her mild-mannered Hindu husband Karun, a physicist, and Jaz, a Muslim lothario.

Sorting out this love triangle and averting apocalypse are the novel’s twin goals. If you think the plot sounds more Bollywood than Hollywood, you’re right, but the novel’s cleverest satire develops from more outlandish premises. Its title, for instance, recalls the city-wide branding campaign from within the plot that capitalizes on the success of the film Superdevi, “the most expensive Indian film ever made.” With a script that combines “Slumdog Millionaire and Superman,” the fictitious film captures the tone of Suri’s novel: tongue-in-cheek as it indulges the very pleasures it lampoons.

The apocalypse scenario, while tragic for the triangulated lovers, is comedic for the minor characters. It gives their outsized ambitions and opportunism a frame in which to flourish until they self-destruct in delusions of grandeur.

The goddess in the Superdevi film becomes a model for the rise of a “real-life” Devi plucked from obscurity by the novel’s villain, the right-wing leader Bhim. This Devi serves Bhim’s master plan of rallying the Hindu majority behind the extermination of the Muslim minority. A child of Bombay’s slums, Devi experiences upward mobility as a result of her deformity and its exploitation. Born with an extra pair of arms, which her mother tried to “hack” off, she resembles a goddess of Hindu iconography. The irony of her good fortune is not lost on her. She is a hilarious caricature of a child star, complete with entourage and manipulative manager (Bhim). Unlike many of his contemporaries, including writers Indra Sinha, Aravind Adiga, and Katherine Boo, Suri is not interested in describing Bombay in exacting detail or in chronicling the lives of the poor left behind by India’s economic rise. Suri’s Bombay is a city of insatiable appetites. The apocalypse scenario, while tragic for the triangulated lovers, is comedic for the minor characters. It gives their outsized ambitions and opportunism a frame in which to flourish until they self-destruct in delusions of grandeur.

Alas, Suri’s vision of impending doom is more appealing when satiric than when sincere. As the novel turns to people “like us,” with expensive educations and not unreasonable needs for love, intimacy, and security, its cleverness wanes. Apocalypse forces the lovers to air their dirty laundry, adding a queer twist to the plot’s rescue mission. The City of Devi opens with Karun missing and Sarita going in search of him with, of all things, an aphrodisiac pomegranate in tow. She is joined in her search by Jaz who, unbeknownst to her, is Karun’s previous lover. The novel unfolds through the tag-team of Sarita’s and Jaz’s interior monologues. Not always up to the task of crafting unique voices, Suri’s prose sometimes falls into facile stereotype for the sake of humor. This is especially the case with Jaz, portrayed as an oversexed cruiser susceptible to bad puns: “Then I remember—Karun, whom I must find, whom I need to dazzle, whose rectitude I hope to penetrate.”

And so he does. The City of Devi uses one nuclear threat (the bomb) to defuse another (the family), climaxing with sexual reunification involving all three characters. To Suri’s credit, he writes a threesome from Sarita’s point of view that is weirdly touching and insightful: “The realization that he [Karun] feels every stimulus when I do, endures [from Jaz] a version of every sensation he inflicts, fuses my experience with his.” “Inflicts” is a surprisingly violent word, and it changes the grounds upon which the novel had previously understood sex. Neither preciously romantic nor brashly physical, it is an experience that elicits cross-gender identification and produces an unlikely arrangement among its participants. That arrangement, which it would be wrong to give away, charges this apocalypse novel with an atypical, progressive edge.

Despite its queer ending, The City of Devi still reads like a middlebrow blockbuster. Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, by contrast, has no pretensions toward entering the mainstream market. This wickedly clever novel won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award, making Beukes the first South African writer to win the major science fiction prize. Science fiction belongs to the larger genus of speculative fiction, a notoriously baggy category that also encompasses apocalypse, fantasy, horror, and other subgenres. The dust jacket for Zoo City pokes fun at the urge to taxonomize by suggesting we file the novel under “Urban Fantasy” followed by “Gangster Shaman, Symbiotic Familiars, Teen Star Missing, Everything Breaks.” This list confounds category-making in order to amuse, and tangentially recalls Jorge Luis Borges’s riff on taxonomies, which he claimed (falsely) to derive from an ancient Chinese encyclopedia: “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”2 For Michel Foucault, the use of classification to undo itself expresses heterotopia, a state of disorder whose very structure reveals the epistemological limitations of European thought.

Zoo City’s solicitation of the reader resembles the Chinese Encyclopedia’s effect on Foucault: its classifications become a site of wonder and horror that figures illegibility in geographic terms. The novel breaks down genre-lovers’ penchant to police their beloved categories by blending many genres of speculative fiction together in a setting, Johannesburg, considered well outside science fiction’s traditional center of gravity. In her acceptance speech for the Clarke award, delivered in London, Beukes made location a central part of her vision: “[South Africa] is really where science fiction is. It’s in the developing world, it’s first world, it’s third world – the way we use technology is different to the way it’s used elsewhere. This book [Zoo City] is about magic and technology and it’s very special to be here.”3 To the novel’s credit, it effectively manipulates the boundaries between magic and technology, walking the line between otherworld and underworld to present the precariousness of life in the megacity.

These animals are not your usual companion species. Sloths, mongooses, and marabous form the novel’s urban menagerie of the underclass.

Zoo City unfolds in Hillbrow, a once upscale neighborhood that in the post-apartheid era was labeled a slum for its high crime rates and poverty. Beukes’ protagonist Zinzi December is an ex-convict who lives in the ironically named Elysium Heights, a condemned building without clean water or regular electricity, situated close to both luxury skyscrapers and mine dumps. She is also what the novel alternately calls mashavi, aposymbiot, or zoo. Zoos are abject members of society who have been deemed criminal and literally saddled with animal “familiars” to mark their status. These animals are not your usual companion species. Sloths, mongooses, and marabous form the novel’s urban menagerie of the underclass. Zinzi’s familiar is the sloth, and it confers upon her the “particular gift, curse” of being able to find lost things. This premise drives the noir strand of the novel in which Zinzi accepts a missing persons case that takes her into the dark side of the Johannesburg music business and showcases her skill as a hard-boiled private detective.

The novel’s alternative names for Zinzi’s condition establish the complex relationships of marginalized populations to the dominant powers within the city and beyond it. Zoo indicates a dehumanized status, and a captive one; the city’s undesirables remain corralled within the obstacle-course structure of Hillbrow housing. Beukes eloquently captures both the resentment and emotional security that such enclosure breeds in its inhabitants: “there was something comforting about the barbed wire and the broken windows, the way all the buildings connected via officially constructed walkways or improvised bridges to form one sprawling ghetto warren. It reminded me reassuringly of prison.” The built environment creates a habitat in which the line between animal, human, and chemical grows very thin indeed. The morning light has a “sulphur colour;” gunfire is part of the “nocturnal soundscape;” watchmen are “built like bulldogs.” Such descriptions reimagine Joburg in the language of noir, weaving depravity and malaise into the city’s sensorium.

Yet Beukes breaks with noir’s pessimism toward urban modernity, since she blames not Hillbrow itself, but the police, developers, and private security details for its carceral environment. She longs to restore the “civil entropy” that gives cities their life. Zinzi’s gift/curse of mashavi contributes to that restorative entropy and makes Zinzi a heroine who bridges the divide between noir and speculative fiction: she is outside the law, morally equivocal, and fantastically resourceful. Beukes borrows the concept of mashavi from the Shona tradition. The novel tells us that mashavi are the wandering spirits of the forgotten dead, those who died far from home or without descendants to preserve their memory. These spirits, in the shape of animals, confer on their marginalized human partners special talents that double as survival skills in a hostile landscape. Zinzi, we know, finds lost things but other mashavi perform less peculiar services. Some practice midwifery and medicine while others develop skills in “football, horse-racing, or attaining good examination marks.” Mashavi describes the resilience of Hillbrow’s criminalized residents in the face of their structural exclusion. Though mystical, it is not antithetical to megacity modernity; rather, it is an expression of individual agency in the face of it.

By courting the irrational through magic and technology, Beukes diagnoses the irrationality of security states that have at least partially invented
their enemies.

Aposymbiot is the final, most allegorical label Beukes assigns to zoo people. Aposymbiosis is a biological phenomenon that designates a close, long-term relationship between two or more species. These species live independently of one another but their life-cycles are deeply enmeshed. Beukes uses this interspecies relationship to tell stories of long-distance connection and unacknowledged interdependence between developed and developing countries, the First and Third Worlds of her acceptance speech. When Zinzi is not a private eye, she is a 419 scammer trying to trick unsuspecting Internet users into parting with their cash.4 In this scenario, Zinzi is a predator, but a weak one. Barely visible and utterly disposable, Zinzi joins a global group of aposymbiots drawn from modernity’s shadow classes, the workers without whom the world economy would not function and the criminals without whom paranoid states would not survive. The transnational “poster boy” for aposymbiots in the novel is an Afghan warlord and his penguin. The pairing transforms a biological principle into a surrealist encapsulation of the War on Terror. By courting the irrational through magic and technology, Beukes diagnoses the irrationality of security states that have at least partially invented their enemies. She projects their absurdity onto the bodies of her dispossessed rebels with humor and pathos.

Zoo City generates a potent analysis of the production of inhuman being under hegemonic forms of globalization. The novel’s generic excess is a good thing. It displays and debunks social hierarchies shored up by a crude assumption of apocalyptic fiction that everyone is disposable except a precious few. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, winner of the prestigious Hugo and Nebula Awards, is also attuned to disposable populations, but in his speculative universe, the dehumanized were never quite human to begin with. The title of the novel captures the automated nature of its protagonist Emiko, a genetically engineered geisha-type being invented in Japan and abandoned by her owner in Bangkok, where she becomes a slave in a sadistic sex club. Spliced together from human and possible Labrador genes, Emiko is faster and stronger than human beings, but is programmed to serve. She is also designed with incredibly small pores, which make beauty her fatal flaw. If she tries to run, fight, or generally get out of line, she risks overheating to death.

Bacigalupi draws on Bangkok’s infamous sex trade in telling Emiko’s story, but the novel is not primarily aimed at its abuses. The Windup Girl is about climate change and the geopolitical maneuvering that takes place to secure resources—in this case seeds—in a world where fossil fuels, cheap energy, and food abundance no longer exist. Its other protagonist is Anderson Lake, an American “calorie man” looking to open markets in Thailand, a country that has survived the global food shortage and mass extinction of plant species by refusing to import genetically modified, sterile seeds from Lake’s Monsanto-like employer AgriGen. Bacigalupi gives Anderson a conscience by having him fall in love with Emiko. In doing so, it explores two familiar sides of imperial liberalism: Anderson saves the Asian woman from oppression by other Asians and achieves his corporate mission by forging an exploitative trade agreement with the Thai state. Bacigalupi’s novel charts the downfall of Bangkok with meticulously crafted detail, surrounding Anderson and Emiko with a cast of Machiavellian characters: a revolutionary war hero, a corrupt Thai trade minister, a desperate Chinese refugee, and, of course, the mad scientist responsible for AgriGen’s GMOs.

Though some reviewers have described Bacigalupi’s dystopia as post-apocalyptic, it actually reads more like a disastrous vision of the new normal in an era defined by the human species’ impact on large Earth systems (also known as the Anthropocene). The end of the world is not sudden, but protracted. It stretches out across great cities like a series of blackouts. New York City, Bombay, Rangoon, and New Orleans are submerged by rising sea levels, and Bangkok is kept above water only by “coal-burning pumps and leveed labor.” The narrator tells us that “it is difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond.” The design of the novel’s plot makes such awareness unavoidable for readers who probably know little about the infrastructures of their own towns and cities unless they have recently collapsed.

Unsung resources of all sorts are sung in Bacigalupi’s novel. Unfortunately, they are endangered too, and a trade agreement that exchanges US pumps for Thai seeds is a losing bargain for the Thai people. No side is innocent, but Bacigalupi shows us that the playing field across Global North and South is rarely even. Developing countries still have no good way of resolving the balance between partaking in economic liberalism and preserving national sovereignty. The novel’s climax brilliantly carries forward the plot’s brewing catastrophes while staying within the bounds of the possible. Present-day Bangkok is deeply vulnerable to rising sea levels and is at risk of inundation by the 2030s. Its problems are, in part, due to its rapid development: increased population, overcrowding, even the weight of its skyscrapers is contributing to its sinking. As Thai officials prepare for large-scale resettlement, Bacigalupi poses the essential questions they are facing: What makes a city? Is it the land, the structures, or the people? These are not easy questions to answer, and the novel presents them as an unresolved debate made more costly by its belatedness.

The Windup Girl ends with Gibbons, the mad scientist mentioned earlier, offering some wisdom that doubles as a source of hope: “Nothing about you is inevitable.” He is speaking to Emiko, not to us humans. Yet, as Gibbons promises to help Emiko become “a part of the natural world,” we see the irony of the classical division between nature and culture. Emiko’s genetic makeup does not exclude her from “us humans,” nor does the “natural world” exclude a sinking megalopolis. The novel makes clear that ensuring human survival is inseparable from ensuring the survival of others, a process that will blur the categories of human and nonhuman, natural and artificial.

Promoting survival in category-busting forms is the strategy that each of these genre fictions share: The City of Devi reimagines the family, Zoo City rewrites the detective, The Windup Girl rethinks the human. These novels suggest that the end of the world as we know it is the best path to its future. Too bad I don’t feel fine. icon

  1. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, 2 vols. (Knopf Doubleday, 1926 and 1928).
  2. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, ” Other Inquisitions: 1937–1952, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms (University of Texas Press, 1964), p. 104.
  3. Lauren Beukes, “2011 Winner,” Arther C. Clarke Award Website. Beukes seems to be riffing on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
  4. 419 refers to the article in the Nigerian Criminal Code that prohibits fraud. 419 scams, as Zoo City makes clear, are not limited to Nigeria, despite commonplace associations.
Featured image: Photo Credit: Mathias Eick EU/ECHO