Science Fiction & Fantasy’s Love Affair with Towers, Explored

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Cover detail of The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien

To the untrained eye, science fiction and fantasy might look like very different genres, but once you apply Clarke’s law about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, it becomes obvious how much DNA they share (there was a time, certainly, when both genres were simply lumped together under the heading “fantastic fiction). With the release of Josiah Bancroft’s The Hod King, we’re reminded of one particular trope that pops up frequently in both science fiction and fantasy: the tower.

From J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, to Stephen King’s Dark Tower, to Tolkien’s two, the genres certainly offer their fair share of sky-scraping edifices (we’ve even put together a list of our favorites), but they hardly serve as a monolithic piece of imagery—in fact, the tower so rich a symbol that one can stand for any number of things in a narrative. Let’s explore, shall we?

Power

As in real life, in which, until the modern age at least, towers were typically built in part to demonstrate one had the capability and resources to, build a towers(a feat beyond the means of all but kings and emperors), and in part because towers are strategically useful. Offering a wide view of the terrain while protecting its occupants from ground-level interference, there’s a reason towers often get used in SFF novels to symbolize power—why Tolkien seeded so damn many of them across Middle-earth, and why so many of them sprouted cities around their bases like mushrooms around a tree trunk. Minas Morgul, once Minas Ithil, is a potent symbol of the collapse of Gondor and Númenórean power: a tower that has fallen into enemy hands and become corrupted. They aren’t always all gloom and doom: the shining Ivory Tower, the seat of power in the Fantasia of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Storyseems as lovely as the ageless childlike empress who resides within.

Towers are so common as symbols of dominance and control you find them in all kinds of sci-fi and fantasy stories—think of the Imperial Palace-cum-Jedi Temple in Star Wars, or the monumental mile-high Citadel of the Half-Life video game series.

It’s not always military power on display, of course—sometimes it’s economic, political, or corporate power. Consider the Ministry of Truth from 1984; while the book is less science-fictional and more a political fable, the Ministry is described as a huge tower, a visual representation of the way it crushes freedom and spirits of the citizens it overlooks. One reason people keep building towers is the simple fact that they are incredibly expensive, which is why everyone from Tony Stark to Eldon Tyrell builds them as monuments to their own wealth and status. The Tyrell Corporation headquarters in Blade Runner dwarfs even the immense skyscrapers of the futuristic cityscape that surrounds it, offering an inarguable visually representation of the power differential between Tyrell and, well, every single other creature or corporation on Earth.

All of the above of course makes the, er, phallic aspects of tower construction impossible to ignore, leading us to…

Metaphor

Sometimes a tower is not a tower, or not just a tower. Like Bancroft’s Tower of Babel, sometimes a tower is a universe unto itself, and represents all sorts of things. The ur-example of this appears in King’s Dark Tower series, in which the titular tower encompasses more or less the entire multiverse, or at the very least serves as the binding structure of the universe—it’s certainly not just a building designed to impose power or control territory. Similarly, Bancroft’s tower, while an actual structure, is really a whole city, or perhaps a world, with every level (known as “ringdoms”) representing something different (acclaimed author Ted Chiang has a different take on the Biblical edifice in his eerie short story “Tower of Babylon,” in which the tower represents both man’s endless striving for godhood, and something far stranger). And just as Thomas Senlin finds himself inexorably drawn into the mysteries of the Tower of Babel, so too do visitors have a hard time leaving the Tower of Ghenjei in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, a windowless, doorless building that is almost impossible to leave once entered; the structure is a sort of inscrutable doorway that leads to either the revelation of secrets or to wishes fulfilled, but always, of course, at a price. Impossible structures conceal impossible things.

Interestingly, sometimes towers are used to represent evil or unnaturalness, as if they are tumors of evil bubbling in reality—Barad-dûr in The Lord of the Rings would qualify on this count: it is less the spot where Sauron lowers his, er, non-existent lids than a manifestation of his dark power. Interestingly, Ridjeck Thome, the base of operations for Lord Foul in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, mainly exists underground, but two soaring towers rise above it; a visitor’s typical reaction to Foul’s Creche is a feeling of repugnance at the perfection of it, a perfection somehow unnatural and disturbing.

Another metaphorical tower drives much of the mystery of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation: a group of scientists enter the mysterious, biologically twisted wonderland of Area X, and journey to the Tower at its center—which is not the lighthouse that juts into the sky, but a hole in the ground ringed by a not-quite-infinite staircase, its walls lined with a glowing, quasi-sentient script. Your guess is as good as ours, though that one is, per the author, definitely not a penis.

Subversion

Writers are fully aware when a trope crosses over into the cliché, and that leads to interesting subversions. With so many towers extant across history, fairy tales, and SFF fiction, it’s little wonder we can point to examples of thoughtful subversions of the trope. These range from the humorous—like the tower at Bugarup University in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe, which is just thirty feet tall at the bottom, but half a mile tall at the top, because magic—to the curious, like Dono Vorrutyer’s towers of madness from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, built after the architect went terminally insane, and later turned into a tourist attraction.

A favorite Tower of Subversion can be found in Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Cycle, in which the ominous castle and four soaring towers on Sorcerer’s Isle serve solely to discourage visitors. Sinister and intimidating, with arcs of energy flashing in the windows and between the towers, it sure looks like the sort of place where people get accidentally turned into jelly by incredible magic powers—but it’s just for show. Is this the ultimate meta-reference to the ubiquity of towers in sci-fi and fantasy?  Sometimes a tower is, after all, just a tower.

What SFF towers stand out in your mind?

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