East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Cities of the Imagination

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It went like this: first my friend Hell (yes, they really call him like that) did a blog post about the city he writes about, the city he was born in, Taranto. Then my friend Alex did a piece about the city he was born in, and about which he writes about, Milan.
And so I did a piece on the city where I was born, and about which I sometimes write about, Turin.
The piece that came out is weird and melancholy, and I even forgot to give it a title, and you can find it here translated through some web gizmo that I’m sure will make it even more surreal.


But the fact is, I have written a lot more about London, Paris and Shanghai that I ever did about Turin.
And so, why not do an alternate universe sort of piece, about the towns I write about in my fiction?
My cities of the imagination, if it does not sound too pretentious, and with all due respect for both Italo Calvino and Schuiten & Peeters.


I fell in love with London as a kid, sitting on the floor of our living room, staring at a black and white Zenith TV set – the Thunderbirds, UFO, and Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, The Saint and The Persuaders, The Prisoner and most of all The Avengers contributed to turn me into a complete and devoted Anglophile.avengers
Then came the books (Charles Dickens & Michael Moorcock) and the music (The Kinks), and too many movies to count.
I fell in love with Elizabeth the First and her court, and I was captured by the Victorians.
I lived, worked and studied in London, and it was easily the best year of my life – well, the second best, because the best is always the next, that is as yet unwritten.
I roamed the city, haunted bookshops and museums, met some extraordinary people, and The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
It was good.
I took hundreds of photos, all of which were destroyed in the move to the countryside.
And through the years, starting in high school, I wrote dozens of stories set in London, including a silly Sherlock Holmes/Sexton Blake/Dracula crossover, and I never published a single one of them.
I guess our earlier love affairs are best kept private.


Paris is a different affair – pun intended.
I visited it in the summer of 2007, soon after my mother’s death.
I roamed the streets and got completely lost, but in a good way, while my brother queued up for a concert at the Olympia.
I was utterly charmed by the sense of alert relaxation in the city. And yes, also by the bookstores, and art galleries, and strange winding streets and gardens.
2b38cb773e24861992f2fcf58da1a9d0I think of Paris when I think about the Belle Epoque, and if I ever go and write a steampunk original (and not a game tie-in, like Hope & Glory), I’ll probably set it in Paris.
And to me Paris is mostly black and white, like a Cartier Bresson photograph.
So far, I’ve published a horror/spy story set in Paris in the ’50s, A Spider with Barbed-wire Legs, that appeared in the Delta Green collection Extraordinary Renditions, and a light… hmm, actually a lighter-than-air story called The Loving Arms of Mother Earth that was published by Pro Se in the Alternative Air Adventures collection.
And there’s a third story in press right as I am writing, set in Paris during the German occupation, and taking place on a rainy night in Montmartre.
My knowledge of Paris is mostly based on that weekend-long ramble in 2007, and on movies, old photographs and books.
And jazz music.


Movies, old photographs and books are also the root of my age-old fascination for Shanghai, the Paris of the East. And when I talk about movies, I think Von Sternberg… Shanghai Express, The Shanghai Gesture.
It’s not politically correct, but it is mostly a fictional city, filled with adventureres and femme fatales and mysterious masterminds.
But it gets deeper, when you read about the historical Shanghai of the first half of the 20th century, or of the centuries before.
41N1YHJX7JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There’s a wonderful book called Shanghai – The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, 1842-1949, that cemented my fascination for the city. I have a shelfload of books on the subjects: momoirs, historical essays, first-hand accounts, a few novels.
I’ve never been in Shanghai, and it seems unlikely that I ever will, and that’s really a pity – together with Tokyo is one of the two cities I’d love to visit.
Shanghai is the home base of Felice Sabatini in The Ministry of Thunder, and his destination – and Helena’s – in Cynical Little Angels.
I wrote a story called Interesting Times set in an alternate 1940s Shanghai, and I set enough roleplaying game scenarios in Shanghai to fill a book – pulp, horror, urban fantasy, espionage, cyberpunk, science fiction…
There’s a story that will come out – hopefully – in 2018 set in Shanghai in the second half of 19th century. And most of The Ministry of Storms will take place in Shanghai in 1937.


In the end, it’s various degrees of real life adventuring and armchair adventuring.
I should probably add 3rd Century AD Alexandria, to the list, but in the case of Aculeo & Amunet, it’s the Ancient World as a whole that fascinates me and makes writing stories set there a lot of fun.

Anyway, here it is.
And what about you, out there?
Do you have your own cities of the imagination?
Did you visit them and fell in love, did love came before knowledge, or is it just a thing of the mind?

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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