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I once read a science fiction book about nanotechnology and biotechnology so powerful that intelligent materials could mold themselves into fantastical cities in the shape of cyclopean indestructible flowers. One merely had to plant a special seed and the replicating nanoparticles therein would usurp all nearby matter and form it into a self-sufficient flower city. It was a terrifying world—if you touched the wrong pillar you could be reconstructed and permanently built into a wall or a huge solar panel that looked like a leaf. On the other hand, it was a world where humanity had stretched out to build flamboyant botanical cities on the moon and beyond.
So far our steps into bioengineering and nanotechnology have been falteringly slow…but I mention the imaginary flower cities for a reason. This week I have been writing about builders of the past and the present, but what about the future? What lies beyond the mega skyscrapers, experimental fusion labs, and radio telescopes that define the limits of what humankind can build now? When I was a child I dreamed that I would end up living in a terrarium on a space station or I would bioengineer myself to have gills so I could dwell in a garden made of kelp and coral in a sea-city. I live instead in a building that was made before I was born (in fact my last ten residences have pre-dated me). The oceans are becoming waste lands and space exploration is on the back burner. The time of the arcologies and the domed cities is not here yet, but the population is growing so fast that prefabricated suburban sprawls will not be a suitable habitat for our teeming billions within only a few generations.
Builders are working to create structures which fit in harmony with the natural ecosystems of the planet, but it is less easy than it sounds. I always remember my experience as a volunteer at a synthetic ecosystem built by the Smithsonian–despite immense ingenuity on the part of the designers, the life cycles of the organisms inside the system quickly veered into strange arrhythmic feedback loops. Today’s green movement does not exhibit any such ingenuity and the results are predictably nugatory. So far sustainable buildings and eco-friendly cities have been little more than shams designed to ease the conscience of affluent buyers. I have a friend who visited Masdar City, an arcology community in the UAE which is designed to be powered entirely by renewable energy. The hereditary nobility who rule Abu Dhabi ordained that Masdar City should be the international showpiece of green living. Unfortunately the solar panels which have been installed do not work because of the dust and wind from the desert. The other renewable energy sources have not even made an appearance. The community is currently run on fossil fuel. The personal transit pods souind intriguing but they don’t seem to have appeared yet either.
All of this that could and will change as technology improves (or it could change instantly if energy became inexpensive and clean). The age of suburbs and slums must give way to a time of more efficient human habitats. The arcologies are coming (unless of course the world spins into a dark age). I am pleased that we have not yet seen their shape, but I am anxious that the shape might not be very pleasing. Imagine the structure that you wish to see most. Is it a Victorian mansion, an immense metal pylon, or a delicate Faberge egg? Perhaps it is colossal statue, a basalt temple, or a giant space torus? Really, really look in your heart and ask yourself what you want. Once you have decided, you should start talking about it with everyone. Looking at Masdar City makes me realize that the people who design the great human habitats of the next age need more ideas as quickly as possible!
I have a special affection for the next monster on my list. Of all of Echidna’s brood, the Chimera seems like the most fanciful: she was a mixed-up creature with three heads from completely different animals. The Chimera had the body and head of a lioness, but a goat head protruded from her back, and she had a live snake instead of a tail. The Chimera breathed fire and haunted the volcanic mountains of Lycia. Even in mythology, this was an improbable beast, and therefore, since classical times, writers and poets have called unbelievable fabrications “chimeras.”
I am fond of the Chimera because I designed a line of toys, the Zoomorphs, which is a kind of do-it-yourself chimera kit. The toy consists of a set of plastic animal parts which can be snapped together to make an actual creature like a Tyrannosaurus, a dog, a goldfish, or a parrot (to name only a few). The user can also pop the different pieces together to make crazy fantasy creatures such as a dino-dog with parrot’s wings and a fish tail. You can find them for sale at finer independent toy stores. Here’s a link to the company site. Sorry for the shameless plug—but it was germane to the subject. Anyway…back to mythology….
Like a surprising number of the monsters born of Echidna, the Chimera was slain for no good reason–thanks to a sequence of events which had nothing to do with her. Bellerophon, prince of Corinth (and the grandson of wily Sisyphus) fled from his father’s court after committing murder. He took refuge in Tiryns, where he was a favorite guest until the queen accused him of ravishing her. The king of Tiryn sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law with a sealed note to kill the bearer (coincidentally, do such death warrants ever work properly in fiction?). The father-in-law also had qualms about murdering a guest, and so he dispatched Bellerophon on a suicide mission to kill the Chimera. With assistance from Athena and Poseidon, Bellerophon tamed the magnificent winged horse Pegasus. In order to deal with the Chimera’s fiery breath, Bellerophon attached a hunk of lead to a spear. When the Chimera breathed on the lead the soft metal melted down the creature’s throat causing the poor animal to suffocate.
Bellerophon performed a few other heroic deeds and ultimately became king. However the dark shadows in his character did not vanish with a crown. After a few years of increasingly tyrannical behavior, he resolved to fly Pegasus to Mount Olympos and join the gods as an equal. Zeus sent a blowfly to sting the winged horse, and Bellerophon was thrown down into a thorn bush. Maimed and blinded, he wondered Greece as a beggar, while former subjects pretended not to recognize him. The moral of the story is that Greek gods can tolerate murder, rape, chimeracide, and despotism, but woe to those guilty of hubris! And thus does Bellerophon’s troubling story come to a stupid end.
Fortunately modern biologists do not agree with nonexistent gods (or their adherents) as to what constitutes hubris. This is relevant because the creation and study of “chimeras” in biology has become widespread. In the context of biology, a chimera is an organism (or a part of an organism) with tissues created from more than one distinctive sets of genetic information. Such an organism can come about through organ transplant, grafting, or genetic engineering. Some chimerical organisms have a long history and are familiar–like grafted rose bushes or organ-transplant recipients. Other chimeras, particularly those created by genetic tinkering, are rather more apt to stir up passion among the traditionally-minded. For example, in 2003, Chinese biologists created an early stage embryo which combined rabbit and human parts. Bio-ethics and our transgenic future merit further writing, however splicing the genes of organisms together is about to become more frequent. Why not join the wave of the future with some delightful, high-quality morphing toys!