(Cross-posted from Commonplace)
"Say, has this ever happened to you? You're walking along a street, or sitting in a room, or lying down on the leaves, or even talking to people, and suddenly the thought comes--and when it comes, it comes all through you like a stop-action film of a crystal forming or an opening bud: 'I am going to die.' Someday, somewhere, I will be dying, and five seconds after that, I will be dead. And when it comes it comes like--" he smashed cupped palms together in the air so sharply she jumped-- "that! And you know it, know your own death for a whole second, three seconds, maybe five or ten...before the thought goes and you only remember the words you were mumbling, like 'Someday I will die,' which isn't the thought at all, just its ashes."
"Yes...yes, that's happened to me."
"Well, I think all the buildings and the bridges and the planes and the books and the symphonies and the paintings and the spaceships and the submarines and...and the poems: they're just to keep people's minds occupied so it doesn't happen--again."
"Do you think a city can control the way people live inside it? I mean, just the geography, the way the streets are laid out, the way the buildings are placed?"
"Of course it does," she said. "San Francisco and Rome are both built on hills. I've spent time in both and I'm sure the amount of energy you have to spend to get from one place to the other in either city has more to do with the tenor of life in each one than whoever happens to be mayor. New York and Istanbul are both cut through by large bodies of water, and even out of sight of it, the feel on the streets in either is more alike than either one is to, say, Paris or Munich, which are only crossed by swimmable rivers. And London, whose river is an entirely different width, has a different feel entirely." She waited.
So at last he said. "Yeah...But thinking that live streets and windows are plotting and conniving to make you into something you're not, that's crazy, isn't it?"
"Yes," she said, "that's crazy--in a word."
"After all, they were nice in a useless sort of way, which is, after all, the only way to be truly nice."