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Literature / Invisible Cities

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Invisible Cities is a novel by Italian author Italo Calvino, who also wrote If on a winter’s night a traveler. Like most of Calvino's works, Invisible Cities is as much a puzzle box as a story: it plays with the concepts of language, imagination and communication.

The novel is framed as Marco Polo's descriptions of the many fantastic cities he has seen, delivered to Kublai Khan as he expands his empire. Each city is described by a prose poem, interspersed with dialogues between the two men. While the concept is simple, the description of each unique city serves as a meditation upon culture, language, time and many other topics, and it is up to the reader to find the patterns that they form together.

Oddly enough, it is not an example of The City or Urban Fantasy.

Provides examples of:

  • Absurdly-Spacious Sewer:
    • The borders of Isaura are defined by the edges of the aquifer from which it drinks through a thousand wells. Some say the gods live in the aquifer; others say they live in the plumbing, which lifts the water ever upwards i to the sky.
    • The city of Armilla has no walls or ceilings - it consists exclusively of plumbing, and its inhabitants are the nymphs and naiads who live in its pipes.
  • Base on Wheels: Half a base on wheels, in Sophronia's case.
  • Beneath the Earth: Eusapia has a mirror city for the dead underground, and Argia subverts this by having the city being filled with dirt (although it is hinted that there are still inhabitants...).
  • City Planet: An unusual example: Penthesilia's outskirts cannot be left, therefore it envelops the entire planet.
  • Closed Circle: Several interesting examples. Cecilia is a city which has swallowed the world, Trude cannot be left because it is all cities and Penthesilia consists only of outskirts, leaving Marco Polo uncertain as to whether or not he can ever be not in the outskirts of that city.
  • Cut-and-Paste Suburb: An entire city. Disturbingly, it is implied that all cities are but that one city, and you can never leave.
  • Deconstruction: Both physical (a city where everything was removed but the pipes and water ducts) and metaphorical (A city where bordellos are places of silence and you should seek the stables for some intimate fun).
  • Eastward Endeavor: The journey Marco Polo has come from, describing his reports to the Khan, is at least as introspective as it is physical. At one point, the Khan notes that for all the cities he has described, he has never spoken a word about his native Venice; Marco Polo responds that he has only ever spoken of Venice, as it is impossible for him to describe any city except by comparison to his home.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each city has a feminine name. The city chapters are titled either "<adjective> cities" or "cities and the <noun>".
  • Intrepid Merchant: Subverted. Marco Polo, despite being, uh, Marco Polo, seems more interested in looking at new cities.
  • Meaningful Name: Many of the cities are named obliquely after what makes them unique - Octavia, for instance, is the city which hangs from a spiderweb of chains and cables.
  • Merchant City: The Trading Cities, although some of them play with the idea.
  • Mind Screw: For example, the characters themselves discuss whether or not they can have a discussion with each other. It only gets more confusing.
  • Monster Town: The city of Perinthia was carefully crafted by philosophers and astrologers to reflect the divine beauty of the cosmos, but children there are typically born with congenital deformities and monstrous features. The architects are uncertain whether they failed in their design, or if their architecture is flawless and this what divine beauty is supposed to look like.
  • One Degree of Separation: Played with in Ersilia, a city which is composed of the relationships between the inhabitants.
  • The Philosopher: Each chapter is a meditation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan on what defines a city.
  • Universal-Adaptor Cast: The inhabitants of the city of Melania are not the physical people who live there, but the archetypal characters they embody through their social roles. One person may die, but someone else will end up taking their place, and so life goes on.
  • Vice City: But within it lurks a city of justice, and in it, a city of vice and in it...