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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.

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.

The Supertrees being built

The Supertrees being built

Is this a nightmarish future dystopia?  No, of course not, it’s just Singapore, the authoritarian concrete & steel city-state on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.  Recognizing the manmade barrenness of land which should be a tropical rainforest, Singapore’s central planners mandated the creation of “the gardens by the bay” three gardens built on reclaimed land in central Singapore, adjacent to the Marina Reservoir.  The centerpiece of the gardens is “the supertree grove” a series of artificial trees ranging between 25 metres (82 ft) and 50 metres (160 ft) in height.  The artificial metal trees are rigged with water collectors and photovoltaic cells to mimic the function of real trees.  They have also been festooned with living vines, bromeliads, flowers, and ferns to be green and living in verisimilitude of actual trees.  Singapore hopes the strange structures will further mimic real trees and act as kidneys and lungs for the city—providing clean air and clean water.  By day, visitors can walk through the ersatz trees on a walkway (perhaps to eat at a café on top of the largest), and, at night, the trees are the setting of a dazzling light show.  Of course, the question remains: why didn’t Singapore use real trees?  It seems the nation is extremely determined to make itself into an arcology—an artificial superstructure designed to support immense numbers of humans.  Rebuilding natural ecosystems to be part of this great machine-city is a necessary step.  I wonder when they will go ahead and just build a dome over the place.

IMG_7708article-2009458-0CC8865600000578-349_964x641Supertrees-in-the-Rain

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.

Masdar City: The future is...not here yet it would seem.

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 guess we still have the International Space Station...

 

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