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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.

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.

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.

Have you ever read Rossum’s Universal Robots?  It is a Czech play from 1921 which introduced the word “robot” to describe a synthetic/machine person manufactured through a state-of-the-art process.  Since the play anteceded the great glut of mid-twentieth century sci-fi/fantasy novels and movies, it does not partake of their familiar narratives of futurism and high adventure, but rather is a brooding meditation on class, alienation, industrialization, and the post-human world.  Rossum’s Universal Robots treats its subject with the solemn dark intensity which Mary Shelley and Kafka brought to these same questions about what it means to be human and to try to pass one’s fundamental values on to one’s offspring.   

I am not asking this question out of idle curiosity (although I am curious if anyone read RUR), but rather as a means for reintroducing our old friend–and occasional guest blogger–Daniel Claymore.  Claymore, an LA-based writer & director, has just published Requiem for a Good Machine, his own science-fiction work about robots replacing humankind.  In Claymore’s sparkling yet chilly future megalopolis, Mirabilis, wise robot masters have built and maintain a perfect paradise habitat for humankind…because natural humans are failing and going extinct.  Some unknown pathology has sapped organic people of their well-known drive to multiply and gobble up all available resources.  The sad spectacle of hauntingly familiar near-future humans barely stumbling through the forms in a world which has lost its purpose makes up the backdrop of Claymore’s series.  But don’t worry, this isn’t Rossum’s Universal Robots and humankind isn’t quite out of the game yet…the protagonist, Leo Song, is a classic gumshoe who will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of a mystery.  And there are mysteries aplenty in Claymore’s novel.

As a human cop in a world where robots solve 99% of all crimes within instants (and make up all the top echelons on the police force—and every other authority-wielding body), Song has his work cut out for him trying to unravel a string of gruesome murders which the robots have not solved.  Also, even if the robot masters do not know who or what is committing these ghastly crimes, they certainly know a lot of things which they aren’t telling Officer Song. 

Like a Dashiell Hammett sleuth, Song must bend all the rules and take terrifying risks to figure out what is going on (his sad oxygen gun is painful but not-very-effective to humans and does nothing at all to robots).  Pursuing this case will take him to the inner sanctum of artificial intelligence, and out to the gritty edges of Mirabilis where the robots haven’t applied any glitter (and where non-conformist humans and trans-humans still have their own agendas).

The most compelling part of Claymore’s work deals with the robots themselves.  At first these characters seem like utterly inhuman constructs of tubes, wires, and abstract shapes.  Yet as we get to know them through Song’s eyes, their humanity starts to become apparent to us (in both good ways and bad).  Likewise, the question of who ripped apart an expectant young mother starts to seem like a subset of the larger questions about what is going on behind the scenes in Mirabilis and how humankind and the robots have gotten to this place to begin with.     

Claymore’s work is a taut thriller which will delight all lovers of action and mystery.  However, the deeper roots of this work tunnel down into flintier bedrock. The dark lights of Mirabilis reflect today’s world of climate crisis, political stalemate, and ever-quickening waves of future shock.  Above all else, the characters’ anomie, loneliness, and meaningless “make-work” jobs reflect the recent pandemic and the pointless nature of our empty economy.   

If Karel Čapek stepped out of 1921 into today, he would not recognize anything, yet he would recognize everything.  The same human drives and industrial alienation shape a world where technology grows tantalizingly close to consciousness. Daniel Claymore has reached into this morass and pulled out a glistening, squirming mass of naked wires and raw emotions which he throws in your face.  You’re going to love Requiem for a Good Machine, but even if you don’t, the algorithms will think you did!

Hmm…uh oh

It has been a long time since Ferrebeekeeper presented a post about augury. Who could have foreseen this?

A wise equestrian reads the future from birds on a lack and red wine vessel from mid 5th century Greece

Seriously though, today’s post is a quick clarification about the real meaning of the term augury (particularly in relation to how we use the word here on this blog). In ancient Rome, “predicting” the future by means of charismatic quackery was a pastime of astonishing popularity. In fact the word “pastime” might not even be comprehensive enough, since serious, society-wide decisions involving battle, agriculture, politics, statecraft, and commerce were regularly made by soothsaying consultation (naturally all sorts of frivolous personal matters were decided by such means too, just as they are now). Since the Romans were so profoundly hooked on magical prediction of the future, they had a lot of different divination methodologies. The famous sibyls, like the ones at Cumae, Dodona, and Delos, were closely entwined with pantheistic cosmology and thus critical to state power. However, the internationally famous seers and oracles were hardly the only channel for divination. The classical word also featured a breathtaking suffusion of fortune-telling methodologies such as:

  • cleromancy–fortune-telling through casting of lots, stones, or dice
  • hydromancy–predicting the future based on the movement of water
  • necromancy–consulting the dead about hidden matters
  • haruspicy–divination through examination of entrails
  • geomancy–interpreting omens within rocks, mountains, or sand
  • pyromancy–seeing events to come within fire
  • stikhomanteia–reading the future through writings or books (opened at random or by number)
  • numeromancy–using numbers to predict the future
  • augury–scrying by watching the acts or appearances of birds

In contemporary English, this last word (which once was its own specialized practice) has come to mean trying to tell the future through any and all means. Most likely the future is opaque to all forms of meaningful prediction other than logical projection (if a person steps into the ocean they will soon be wet). And, despite my facile parenthetical example, reason itself is a limited tool for understanding the future (which is filled with unknowable unknowns).

Yet I have a special place for augury in my heart because, like all goodhearted people, I love birds…but also because birds base their movements and actions on meaningful stimuli in the hopes of certain outcomes. Birds have senses and sensibilities which are different than our own. Of course, in my book, such matters are best explored by the ornithologist rather than Zeus (although, according to myth, the latter explored the avian mind through direct experience and found that birds have desires similar to our own).

Most importantly, birds can teach us what the future holds, not via magic or divine influence, but by more corporeal means. Modern people do not base their decisions on whether a dove escaped a falcon or a swan attacked an eagle not because we have learned to throw off the yoke of superstitious thinking, but because we don’t often see doves, falcons, eagles, and swans. The birds are very much predicting the future–by vanishing! Unless we want to follow them to oblivion, we need to help them stay alive by curtailing our abuse of the planet.

There’s an augury for you.

The Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia

The quintessential crown of southeast Asia is Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut, the “Great Crown of Victory” of Thailand (which Ferrebeekeeper blogged about back when Bhumibol was still in this world). Yet there is–or was–a second great crown of victory, Preah Maha Mokot Reach, the Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia. Like the Thai crown, the Cambodian crown was a tall gold cap made of diminishing conical tiers of gold set with precious gems. Passed down from king to king since the time of the Khmer Empire (which blew apart in 1431), the Cambodian crown was meant to symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred cosmic mountain which appears in Jain and Buddhist myth. The Cambodian Great Crown of Victory was held by the King of Siam (who claimed suzerainty over Cambodia) for a time in the 19th century, but it was back in Cambodian hands by 1941 in time for the charismatic yet addled Norodom Sihanouk to wear it at his first coronation.

Sihanouk at his coronation in 1941

From my constant use of the past tense verb, you have probably guessed that the ancient crown has gone missing. It has not been seen since Lon Nol’s coup in 1970. The particular circumstances of that coup were already murky thanks to the general strife, war, and confusion of Southeast Asia in 1970, and the history has grown even more confusing after the subsequent horrific events of the seventies in Cambodia. Suffice to say, Lon Nol was probably backed by the United States as part of the larger war next door in Vietnam (Grandpa probably knew the true specifics of this, but he certainly didn’t tell me). Norodom Sihanouk who was once king (and would be again) backed the communists of the Khmer Rouge–although, to be fair, Sihanouk, who spent the early seventies in exile in China and North Korea did not seemingly grasp the genocidal nature of the Khmer Rouge.

I was going to show a picture of Cambodia in the 70s but they are all too awful. This picture of absolute darkness is much cheerier.

All of which is to say, the Great Crown of Victory was most likely destroyed in 1970, although maybe the Chinese, North Koreans, Vietnamese, or Thai have it for some unknown reason. It could even conceivably be in Fullerton, California which is where Lon Noi ended up (although this isn’t really conceivable, and I am just writing it to indicate how strange that era was). But you never know. Over the course of my lifetime, Cambodia has gone from being the most hellish place on Earth to being a tourist paradise (with a purely ceremonial elected king). Maybe the crown of Cambodia is actually on a shelf or buried under a wall somewhere. But I doubt it. It represents a Cambodia which is gone.

An Artist’s Conception of the Extinct Vampyropod

Back during the dark depths of the great recession, this blog featured a post concerning the vampire squid. This poor creature (which has become famous as a sort of symbol of the anticompetitive and monopolistic practices of bulge-bracket banks) is neither a vampire nor a squid, but rather a “vampiromorphid” an enigmatic order of cephalopods which is currently represented by only a single living species (although there are many extinct species and maybe there are still new vampiromorphs to be found down in the depths somewhere). Anyway, the vampiromorphids sort of fell off of my radar for a little while until a few weeks ago, when a forgotten piece of 328 million year old limestone from Montana helped paleontologists determine that the vampiromorphids are more closely related to octopuses than to other cephalopods.

The piece of stone was collected in Montana and donated to the Royal Ontario Museum back in 1988. Nobody realized the significance of the ancient rock (above, which reveals little to a layperson) until scientists from the American Museum of Natural History examined it and determined that it was a whole new genus of cephalopod (in fact it probably exemplifies new orders and families as well–but taxonomists are still sorting it out). They named the little vampyropod Syllipsimopodi bideni in honor of the current U.S. President with hopes of bringing attention to his climate initiatives.

Syllipsimopodi bideni, which had ten legs covered in tiny suckers, seemingly shares a common ancestor with vampire squids (which, again, are not really squids) and octopuses. Back when it was alive, during the Carboniferous Period, Montana was a shallow tropical sea, not unlike the Bay of Bengal today. That map of the world the vampyropod lived on is pretty interesting as well!

The Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa)

Today’s news featured a story which I wasn’t expecting at all in 2022–a new species of primate has been identified in the Mekong region! Actually the new langur was discovered in 2020 (when it was duly reported by the BBC) but the news did not make it to the World Wildlife Fund’s list of newly discovered species until now thanks to circumstances of the wider world. Indeed, the endearing Popa langur was not alone: there were 224 newly discovered species on the list released by the conservation group. The list highlights the need to protect biodiversity in the Mekong region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam) where new species are still being discovered. Ferrebeekeeper has previously posted about the saola and iridescent snake for similar reasons (you should look at those posts since they rhapsodize about the mysterious hinterlands of Indochina, which are home to all sorts of mysterious and compelling creatures). Speaking of new snakes, this year’s WWF report also included a bright orange snake that lives on slugs!

The new langur species was identified by whiskers which point forward and by broad white circles around its clever eyes…oh and by DNA (in fact the species was originally discovered and collected in the 19th century, but nobody properly identified the bones at Britain’s Natural History Museum as belonging to a new monkey species until now). Unfortunately this “new” primate is already in pretty deep trouble and scientists estimate the total population to be at 200-300 individuals, most of whom seem to live near Myanmar’s dormant Popa Volcano (an otherworldly location pictured immediately below).

Mount Popa also features a fetching monastery

It is easy to wring our hands about the fate of these amazing new rainforest organisms, since they may well disappear forever…right after we have learned they exist. Myanmar, in particular, is going through a destructive era in the aftermath of the 2021 coup d’etat. Yet the pristine forests of Southeast Asia (along with their ghost monkeys, iridescent snakes, and giant catfish) have lasted this long thanks to their remoteness and to the customs and lifestyles of the people who live there. And the national governments are not universally dedicated to economic extraction over all else (Vietnam in particular is serious about protecting its ecological treasures–like their astonishing giant softshell turtles). The rest of us need to find a way to help out. There are wonders in the Mekong jungle (and I never even told you about the new succulent bamboo species).

Nonnegarten (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022), ink on paper

Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been working on drawing with ink using a steel nib. Of all the drawing media I have used, pen and ink provides the most expressive and beautiful lines–provided you can avoid blotting, smearing, or spilling the ink. Alas, it is exceedingly easy to destroy your drawings (and your wardrobe) through the least mishap with the INDELIBLE ink. In the spirit of the masters of medieval illumination (who also utilized pen and ink), I have been drawing a series of strange floral monastic people–well, perhaps it is a bit unclear if they are people or paphiopedilums. In the picture above, a loving deity of growth irrigates the sentient crops as a kindly sister looks on. Beneath the grass, a caecilian hunts for destructive grubs among the roots and mycelia. Speaking of mycelia, kindly note the little gnome collecting mushrooms. In the heavens, a pelican flies by with a fish struggling in its beak while a bat-winged putto plays religious music on a lyre. The odd-man out in the composition is the friendly ring-tailed lemur who seems perplexed by this harmonious tableau (surely this can’t be Madagascar), but takes in in stride with sanguine primate good cheer.

The Sisters’ Day Out (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021), ink on paper

This second drawing is more complicated and harder to parse out. A little chapter of nuns have left their onion-domed convent to luxuriate in the heavenly effulgence. I feel like that aerobic-looking fairy may well be a lay-sister. Unfortunately, their repose is disturbed by a big, stiff, skinny mummy which is just lyin’ around on the lawn. Who on earth left it there and why? Also, why does the mummy have a mummified flatfish? The day is additionally marred by the presence two faceless apparitions to the extreme right. Drifting through the air everywhere are little zygote-spores of some sort (or are they little seeds of the flower people). It is good to see that life finds a way, even if the sisters are putatively uninterested in reproduction. Also there is an ermine (the very symbol of purity and moderation in Christian art) who is looking quite closely at a banana split.

I am pleased at the way that using black ink and white ink gives these peculiar allegories a feeling of dimensional form. Speaking of which, drawing with sumi ink this way also gives a literal 3 dimensional aspect to the work (albeit a slight one). If you run your fingers over these drawings, all of the lines are palpable and i had to photograph them multiple times because of little shadows and strange reflections cast by the raised ink.

The Cauldron in the Columbarium (Wayne Ferrebee, December 21, 2021) Ink on French paper

Here is a somewhat dark drawing for the longest and darkest night of the year (here in the northern hemisphere, anyway–if you are in the southern hemisphere or the tropics, happy summer!). I am not sure what is going on here (as with much of my art, this tableau came to me in a perplexing nightmare), but the various mummies, revenants, and human remnants certainly don’t seem encouraging. Also, I don’t place much faith in that nun or the insectoid bishop at far right. Frankly, the figure with the mystery light seems pretty suspect as well. Unless you trust the larvae with the insect faces (and who really does?) the only source of hope here is the gleaming woman above the cauldron. Unfortunately we don’t have quite enough visual information to say with certainty what is going on with her. Is she an allegory of the sun, momentarily inconvenienced by the solstice, but always ready to shine forth? Is she an apparition summoned forth by necromancers or some kind of Yule sacrifice? Or is she a goddess, a hero, or a sorceress? It is all unclear, which makes me think she might have something to do with the mysterious year to come. It doesn’t look exactly propitious, but you never know–sometimes naked allegorical people who spring out of cauldrons in columbariums turn out to be the best people of all [citation needed]. Let me know what you think and happy winter solstice. Oh, also, you better get out your worry beads–the biggest (and most audacious) space launch of the past two decades is coming up on Christmas Eve, so we are going to need a Christmas miracle to make sure we get our all-seeing cosmic eye in place! We will be back on Christmas Eve to talk about it. In the meantime, happy Yule…and best wishes for a happy winter (giant human cockroaches notwithstanding)!

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