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The world’s fifth largest river (by volume of water discharged into the sea) is the mighty Yangtze River of China. Unfortunately, like most of the world’s great rivers, the Yangtze is currently drying up because of global climate change. While this has some pretty negative ecological implications (and, likewise, bodes ill for the future of human habitation on the planet), it is a boon to archaeologists who get to see sites which have been inundated for centuries by the once mighty watercourse.

Chongqing China

Particularly striking are these three Buddhist statues from Chongqing, a “second-tier” city in China with a municipal area which is home to 32 million people (although admittedly, through some sort of administrative foible, Chongqing’s municipal area is about the size of Austria). Chinese archaeologists speculate that the statues date back to the Ming Dynasty (the various stories about this subject which I found online almost all dated the statues as being “600 years old” but then add contradictory details which muddy the date–so a reliable date for the statues is still pending). Irrespective of when they were made, the works are located within alcoves carved into the stone of Foyeliang Island Reef–a submerged hazard in the river for as long as anyone can remember.

A once submerged Buddhist statue sits on top of Foyeliang island reef in the Yangtze river, which appeared after water levels fell due to a regional drought in Chongqing, China, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The real purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder that, even if the International Union of Geological Sciences is dithering on approving the name, the Anthropocene is real and that environmental conditions which we took for granted back during the Holocene (the last geological age, which apparently ended around the time of “Howdy Doody”) do not necessarily apply. There is also something splendid and unnerving about the figures themselves. The brown water-smoothed rock gives the ancient monks and bodhisattvas a forboding cast–as though they were lurking river monsters–and yet the serenity and delicacy of the figures clearly identify them as East Asian votive art (which is not traditionally found underwater). To be blunt, they look as eerie and ominous as the circumstances which brought them back to sight. I will fill you in on any updates about these statues, but for right now, maybe we should all pray for sweet rain.

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A fortnight ago, Ferrebeekeeper put up a review of “Requiem for a Good Machine” a science-fiction novel by friend and collaborator, Daniel Claymore. The book describes a future police officer’s attempts to solve a chain of murders (and related crimes) in Mirabilis, an ideal city built by robots to serve as a habitat for the faltering biological humans of the post-singularity age.

As of today, Claymore’s work is now on sale and you can get an e-copy (or better yet, a real copy!) of his book by going to any purveyor of fine literature. Different parts of stories stick with different people, and ever since reading Claymore’s novel, I have been thinking about the gleaming city at the heart of his work. Paradoxically, thinking about this future city is causing us to go backwards in time for the subject of this post.

Back in 2015, I built/drew the Apollo and Marsyas miniature theater, a theater for 1:18 figures (mainly the Kenner Star Wars figures…but it turns out there are lots of other little actors at this scale jockeying for position on stage too). Anyway, the fun of that project was drawing some strange background scenes (like a medieval castle, a pleasure garden, Timbuktu, a spooky cemetery, Hell, etc.). One of the backdrops I drew was a glowing city of the future filled with robots, meta-humans, droids, and transgenic chimera animals. Here it is:

Future Megalopolis (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015) ink and colored pencil on paper

My recollection of this work is that I enjoyed drawing all of the future beings (look at that quantum computer clock guy (or thing?) at the left side beneath the pink organ wall…or the purple owl woman standing above the metal dog-robot at right!) but then I got lost coloring in the asphalt and threw the whole thing aside in disgust. Looking at it afresh, however, it is better than I remember. You are getting an impossible peek into the world of the far future thanks to the one power capable of opening such a window–the imagination!

Yet, although the imagination is capable of peering through deep time, it is also fallible (just look at all of that confusing, hard-to-color future asphalt!). I was hoping to portray a city made of cities–where super-arcologies stand next to each other, rank upon rank, stretching to the horizon. I wanted an effect which was akin to the troubling urban art of George Grosz–with all of the maddened machine-people and transgenic organisms spilling out of the architecture like confetti and tainted candy pouring out of a psychedelic piñata.

The fun of painting like Grosz is creating a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics! But the peril of creating such an artwork is getting lost in a world of visual clutter (which is a less-flattering way of describing a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics). With this work I certainly experienced the fun…but I also fell prey to the peril. Even so, this glowing drawing captures some of the effect of looking into a bewilderingly complicated social ecosystem.

The dancing, crawling, and flying robots running from dome to dome in a world of strange machines may not be exactly what the future holds…but they inspire us to think about where we are going (and we need to think about that a lot harder). Maybe I need to get my fluorescent ink back out and paint some more fantastical cities glowing in the purple twilight of ages we will never get to see.

Hey remember that Japanese mission to drop adorable little hopping robots onto an asteroid? Wasn’t NASA planning on doing something like that so that the good ol’ US of A could get its hands on some asteroid bits too? Ummm yeah, NASA was planning to drop by near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu and pick up comet bits and they actually did do that…back in October 2020. I guess I got a little too distracted by whatever else was going on in October of 2020 to write about the mission. Sorry… (apparently I did manage to write about some pretty special bats though).

So, to quickly recap, 101955 Bennu is a carbonaceous comet about 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter which orbits the sun in the Apollo group of asteroids (a group of solar-system asteroids which orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mars–see the diagram immediately below). Bennu looks roughly like an old fashioned spinning top–if that top were enormous and made out of garbage from outer space (as stunningly depicted in the never ending movie at the top of this post). Because of its (relative) proximity and strange composition, Bennu was chosen as the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

M is Mars; E is Earth; V is Venus; The Yellow Dot is the Sun; The Green Cloud is the Apollo Asteroids

OSIRIS-REx launched back in 2016 and spent two years flying to Bennu. From 2018 to 2020 the spacecraft made extensive surveys of Bennu in preparation for the October 2020 landing event (when the mothership sent down a lander to take a bite out of the ball of dust and ice). This is where the story gets interesting, since, apparently Bennu is not really one big gray ball, but a big gray ball made of lots and lots of little pieces of rubble. NASA scientists have likened the landing to landing in a ball-pit in one of those 80s/90s theme restaurants with extensive play facilities for children.

The Surface of 101955 Bennu as described by top NASA scientists

As the lander took a sample bite of asteroid it actually began sinking into the gray nodules like a child lost at Chuck E. Cheese’s and the whole mission seemed in danger until the controllers decided enough was enough and blasted right out of there. Apparently this “ball pit incident” also explains why the lander could not quite bite down on its whole load of carbonaceous astro-bits and spewed some of its precious payload back into space before being secured. Don’t worry though, mission controllers confirm there is still plenty more than the minimum required 60 grams of sample asteroid material (some of which consists of mini-pebbles caught in steel velcro-style loops put inside the sample collector for exactly this purpose).

Also, there are pictures of all of this! Thanks NASA!

Now that Bennu has been mapped and sampled, OSIRIS-REx is returning to Earth to drop the precious sample into the Utah desert. After this cosmic layup, the spacecraft will then set course for 99942 Apophis, a space lozenge, approximately the size of the Empire State building, which briefly alarmed the good people of Earth back in 2004 when astronomers estimated it had a 2.4% chance of striking our planet (spoiler: it did not). Apophis is arguably less interesting to science in that it has less of a heterogeneous assortment of stuff than Bennu, but it might be more interesting to the brave cadets of the Space Force (does that still exist?), in that it is more characteristic of the sort of object known to threaten our beautiful blue-green world of delicate lifeforms with selfish genes. Ferrebeekeeper will keep a better eye on these asteroid missions and report about subsequent developments (provided that we don’t face more home-made challenges to our survival like we did in October 2020).

Artist’s concept showing the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu with the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism

Artist’s conception of a general Arcology

All of this talk about Mirabilis, the fictional future city of marvels which is dying from within (the setting of Daniel Claymore’s new science fiction/mystery novel) has gotten Ferrebeekeeper thinking about arcologies.  At present, an arcology is only a concept for the future–a super dense human city engineered to contain a self-sustaining ecology.  However, for a long time, architects, futurists, and urban planners have been working on buildings and communities which partake of the grand ideas behind arcologies.  Maybe that idea—building a mutualistic gestalt between lots of people, all their stuff, and humankind’s favorite living things—is really at the heart of urbanism.

We will talk about the implications of arcologies a lot more in the future.  To my eyes, the synthesis of ecology, evolution, and engineering has only happened in rudimentary ways thus far, but humankind will need a much greater grasp of this technology (and whatever sciences lie beneath the catchall field of ecology) to proceed any farther down the road we wish to be on.  For today’s post, however, we are only going to talk about contemporary news—since one of the world’s richest states has broken ground to build what is pretty definitively an arcology.  The planned city will consist of two 500 meter (1640 foot) tall glass skyscrapers standing 200 meters apart (from the outer wall of one to the outer wall of the other).  Between the two buildings will be an internal courtyard filled with delights.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this–the buildings’ length will be 170 kilometers (110 miles).

Artist’s conception of “The Line” (ending point at the Red Sea)

This complex is part of “Neom” a strange futuristic city which will be built in the desert beside the Red Sea. The particular linear arcology/double skyscraper is named ذا لاين (which, appropriately means “The Line” in Arabic). The whole community is being planned and financed by that great utopian visionary entity–the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia!??? Sorry about those extra quotation marks, but if you were around in the late twentieth century/early twenty first century, you might be more likely to think of Saudi Arabia as an ossified petrostate more famous for a Faustian bargain between kleptocrats and Wahabi religious extremists than for futurist thinking (although, come to think of it, the Sauds arguably did have a major hand in engineering our current dystopia of global warming, religious extremism, and vast inequality).

The Saudi Prince may be noble, but he is said to consort with insurrectionists and other low characters

Anyway, setting aside all political and ethical concerns, the plans for the Line were announced on January 10, 2021 by that notorious cut-up, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a fiend–er–friend to a cross-section of journalists). When it is finished, “The Line” is expected to have nine million residents (a million more people than New York City). The Line will be powered entirely by renewable energy, and inhabitants will be able to walk anywhere they want within 5 minutes. If their, uh…in-Line, destination is not 5 minutes away, they will be able to take a subterranean bullet train to any place within the arcology. Deadly motor vehicles (which killed 43,000 people in the United States alone last year) will be banned!

This actually doesn’t sound half bad and I might sign up–at least if I weren’t now on record making fun of the wife-beating, murderous, & conniving (yet reform-minded) Prince Salman. Estimated costs for building The Line run between $200 billion and one trillion American dollars (which is probably less than the Second Avenue subway line ended up costing). The Saudi government estimates it will create 380,000 skilled jobs.

Futurists, political theorists, and real estate mavens debate the merits of The Line. Humorously, the last group object that it falls down somewhat when it comes to their core mantra of “location, location, location” (located, as it is, in a barren sweltering desert with no attractions or neighbors of any sort). The real estate people also assert that it is otherwise a laundry list of development cliches and problems waiting to happen. For my part though, I am uncertain but intrigued. Even with slave labor and all of the wealth of the world’s foremost petrostate, I wonder if Saudi Arabia can build this thing according to the schematics. But imagine if they did! I admire this kind of crazy out-of-the-box thinking–and I kind of like the concepts behind both Neom and The Line. Since the United States has given up entirely on thinking about the future (and since the Germans are completely practical and the Chinese think only about subjugating Asia and Africa) somebody has to think big and attempt enormous impossible projects. I have mixed feelings about the vicious autocrats who rule Saudi Arabia, but I wish them good fortune in building their audacious science-fiction city. If it doesn’t work we will know a lot more about potential problems with insane mega engineering (on someone else’s dime). And it is does work, well we can build something like it within a canyon on the moon, or the shadow line of Mercury.

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