Well, let's find out.
Of course, if this interests you, don't miss parts two and three.
"A magnetically levitated train could theoretically take you from New York to London in 54 minutes," the Discovery Channel informs us. "But you'd have to go 5,000 mph through a 3,100-mile-long tunnel that was itself floating in the Atlantic Ocean. How might that work?"
Well, let's find out.
Of course, if this interests you, don't miss parts two and three.
Like some rogue branch of the independent film industry, private security firms are now installing what The New York Times calls "one of the most comprehensive high-tech public surveillance systems in the world," and they're doing it in China.
[Image: Surveillance cameras for sale in China; photo by Timothy O'Rourke for The New York Times].
While these cameras and other forms of remote sensing are being installed to keep Olympic athletes and their screaming fans safe during the coming summer's Games, the worry is that the surveillance will simply stay put:
James Mulvenon, director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, remarks that "the pace of technological change means that products with mainly civilian applications, like management computer systems with powerful video surveillance features, [have] blurred the distinction between law enforcement and civilian technologies." And it's in that blurring that some U.S. security firms have potentially brushed up against the outer edge of illegal commercial activity: that is, supplying China with these cameras might at least partially violate "a sanctions law Congress passed after the Tiananmen Square killings" in 1989.
[Image: Surveillance in China; photographer temporarily unknown, though this appeared in The New York Times several months ago].
All of this also highlights the increasingly intense overlap between film production, the political administration of urban space, and the private security industry, whereby three otherwise unrelated fields become nearly indistinguishable from one another – or, perhaps more accurately phrased, they become erstwhile partners in pursuit of different goals.
In fact, I have often thought it would be interesting – and I have actually written an entire unpublished novel about a very similar idea, set in London (attention, editors! seriously!) – if a well-known, and wealthy, film production firm such as Universal Pictures, or Warner Brothers, or even Film Four, were to sign a legal contract with, for example, the City of London, after which Universal would financially underwrite the installation of a brand new and geographically extensive security camera system.
Universal (or whomever – maybe Bollywood will do this) would retain all legal rights to the footage thus generated – the ultimate reality TV show: London in real-time – yet they'd be contractually obligated to let the City of London use the footage for law enforcement purposes. Beyond a certain timeframe, though, Universal keeps all the film.
Meanwhile, the City has found itself an additional revenue stream and a partner in fighting crime (or, at least, in filming it), and reality TV – reality cinema – has never had it so good. A bottomless well of new footage.
All London needs is a good editor™.
So might that be the urban security model of the future? Cities will lease urban image rights to film production firms? Your willful participation will simply be assumed.
Soon, London, New York, and Tokyo are owned by Sony Pictures; Paris, Rome, and New Delhi sign binding contracts with Warner Brothers; and every other city in between falls to one of half a dozen rival production companies.
Armed film companies replace mayors and town halls as the urban administrators of tomorrow.
Taxes are cut almost to nothing: government revenue is entirely film-generated. You can syndicate the events of yesterday on televisions round the world, and earn tens of millions of euros in the process.
After all, what would you do if you found out that New Line Cinema, or Dreamworks, or Canal+, had just installed tens of thousands of cameras throughout greater Moscow – and that the footage being generated was starting to show up on TV?
We are the stars now®.
Perhaps I should add that I think this is a very dystopian scenario, and I am not at all advocating that it be implemented; nonetheless, the literary and cinematic possibilities are, for me, quite exciting – and, to be frank, it sounds financial workable for both parties.
In any case, if you're off to Beijing for the Olympics next summer, don't forget to look your best: you'll be on film...
(Vaguely related: Filmmaker Adam Rifkin talks to Wired about the cinematic possibilities of CCTV – with belated thanks to Christopher Stack!)
New Scientist published an awesome little article this week about nothing more complex than stacking blocks of wood (subscriber-only)... But, oh, how complex that task can be.
It's the combinatorial architecture of the well-balanced stack.
[Image: The diagrammatic mathematics of a structural experiment by Mike Paterson and Uri Zwick, as reported in New Scientist].
Computer scientists Mike Paterson and Uri Zwick have calculated new shapes and arrangements for the so-called "overhang problem," by which one attempts to stack blocks outward from the edge of a table so that the blocks "overhang" as far as possible (before the stack collapses, or before you and your friends go out for more beer).
Strategically speaking, it turns out to be a matter of well-placed gaps, pressures, and weights.
[Image: Two abstract stacks by Mike Paterson and Uri Zwick].
In two papers, available as PDFs (here and here), Paterson and Zwick write about balancing "harmonic stacks," then stabilizing them, through "minute displacements" of space and weight within the stack structure.
[Image: May the force stack with you; diagram by Mike Paterson and Uri Zwick].
The authors advise that
[Image: More stack madness by Mike Paterson and Uri Zwick].
But what are the architectural implications of all this? Are there any?
Or, in this age of advanced materials, are basic formal considerations such as these reduced to useless tinkering? Why worry about well-balanced stacks, in other words, when you can just put some cantilevered I-beams up there and be done with it, making experiments like these instantaneously obsolete?
Superficially, these diagrams actually remind me of the demolition of London's P&O Building this summer, in which the building was taken apart from the ground up, as if disappearing into the sky – thus exhibiting a rather unique variety of the overhang problem.
[Image: London's P&O Building gets demolished in reverse; via the Daily Mail. To see what brain death feels like, meanwhile, don't miss the ensuing comment thread over at Gizmodo].
So are there tens of thousands of overhang problems on display right now in the jungly tangles of rebar and steel that remain camouflaged behind the facades of architectural structures? Deep in the guts of engineered buildings the world over, are there interesting mathematical lessons to learn – provided we change how we look at walls and windows?
Is this the architectural equivalent of Rimbaud's "systematic derangement of the senses" – to see mathematics and topology where others see mere elevators and unused attic floors?
Inside our buildings, might there yet be more to find?
[Image: View larger! Speculative demolition in Halle-Neustadt, via Nickzilla].
We could actually attempt to answer that question.
Given billions of dollars, zero insurance liability, and a whole fleet of Komatsu wrecking machines, could you re-examine the overhang problem from an architectural standpoint, seeing how many floors and offices you can remove before a building tips over?
You'd make little Gordon Matta-Clark-esque incisions throughout the city – taking out whole floors and elevator shafts – cutting away at every building, one executive office suite at a time, till each building begins to tilt, warp, or list... at which point you'd stop, take a photograph, calculate something, then submit the image to a mathematics journal, thus winning the next Fields Medal for Applied Mathematics.
All of Manhattan a demolitionist research lab for extremely well-funded and aggressive mathematicians.
Could you then exhibit these removed pieces elsewhere – showing, say, the entire, fully intact eastern elevator shaft from the Empire State Building at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, forming some weird and abstract concrete pillar in the sky, whistling quietly in the desert wind, home to seagulls?
Modernist Totem Poles, you'd call it – and you could then steal the elevator shafts from the Transamerica Pyramid, the Sears Tower, the Chrysler Building, and Taipei 101.
In any case, does the stacking problem contain an architectural lesson? Read the original two papers featured in New Scientist to find out.
A few months back, Nature published an article stating that the "Earth beneath our feet might act as a gigantic circuit built by microbes to power their metabolic systems."
It's not a planet at all, then, but a bio-electrical deposit rotating in space. A living battery.
And while that obviously sounds far-fetched, we actually read that these microbes function as a "geological battery," and that this battery is made from "networks of tiny wires linking individual bacterial cells into a web-like electrical circuit." These circuits could extend for miles – hundreds of miles – whole continents and island chains, linked by reefs.
The article also describes these things as "sediment batteries" – so I have a hard time not imagining some old river in the Andes coming down out of its mountain chain, weathering through and eroding the outer soils and bedrock, exposing elemental belts of copper, silver, zinc, and gold, then depositing those fragments in vast, glittering deltaic arrays downstream.
Over the years, microbes move in; the sediments, hundreds of feet deep now and miles wide, begin fluttering with an undetectably faint electrical trace; finally, that remote riverbed, with its weird subsurface nets of energy, and its scattered metals, and its rare microbes, begins generating power... Birds flock toward it, their migration routes scrambled. Nearby compasses go akimbo.
Over the hills, there is a valley of light. You walk toward it.
The Earth is shining.
Religions develop. Their adherents worship geological deposits.
The person in charge of researching all this is called a geobiologist. One such researcher quips that he's been studying "microbe-driven sediment batteries."
Someday you'll just take a power cord – and plug it into the Earth.
(You can read the original article in this PDF. See also BLDGBLOG's look at the wire garden – and, of course, Merry Christmas! May your day be free of desolation and abandonment. And thanks, Steve, for originally pointing this story out to me).
[Image: Castle Rushen, Castletown, Isle of Man, via Old UK Photos].
I was poking around for images this morning and I somehow ended up at a site called Old UK Photos. They collect old, public domain photographs of the UK (rather cheekily including Ireland) – but some of the photos are so extraordinarily beautiful, and so hard to believe that they really are photographs, that I felt like re-posting a few here.
[Image: Wiltshire, Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge, via Old UK Photos].
The fact that I've also been to many of these places adds a weird layer of delayed misrecognition to many of the scenes, as if stumbling upon landscapes from trips I forgot I'd taken (which is almost accurate).
The old pier in Bangor. One of the Peak District caves. Edinburgh castle.
And, of course, Stonehenge, pictured above from those years in which it hadn't yet been fenced off.
[Image: Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfriesshire; Peel Cathedral, Isle of Man; castle in Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire; castle in Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire; Peel Castle, Isle of Man; and Ballower Mount, Ramsey, Isle of Man; all via Old UK Photos].
I don't have all that much to say about these, in fact, other than to point out that they seem to instill something between nostalgia (for myself, an Anglo-American) and a wistful need to travel through non-automobile-based landscapes – and perhaps even a somewhat Gothicized sense of fictive possibilities, like something out of BLDGBLOG's recent interview with novelist Patrick McGrath.
That said, then, here are some photos, with crumbling castles on distant hills and even mysterious pieces of old machinery.
[Images: Castle at Bolsover, Derbyshire; castle in Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire; bridge in Carmarthen, Carmarthenshire; the Wheel at Laxey, Isle of Man; Devil's Bridge, Aberystwyth; Templand Bridge, Cumnock, Ayrshire; The Blackrock in Cromford, Derbyshire; entrance to a cave outside Castleton, Derbyshire; all via Old UK Photos].
Some of the coastal photographs – of bays, inlets, coves, rock arches, and cliffs – seem to imply a labyrinthine island geography so complicated and ornate in its expanse, and so remote, that people still must be discovering new places there today... But then, of course, that describes the British Isles. Unless you spend all your time in Leicester Square.
[Images: Castle in Llanstephan, Carmarthenshire; Petite Bot, Guernsey, Channel Islands; La Coupee, Sark, Channel Islands; Dixcart Bay, Sark; Sugarloaf Rock at Port St. Mary, Isle of Man; the coast at the Gouffre, Petite Bot, and the harbor at La Moye Point (3 images), Guernsey; via Old UK Photos].
Actually, I'm reminded of something I read a few years ago in a book called The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin – which is that a particular stretch of British coastline, near Lyme Regis, is full of fossils.
The book opens with the story of Mary Anning, an amateur "fossilist" – she made an income selling bits of backbones and fragments of mastodons, jigsaw puzzle-like pieces of species that no longer exist – who stumbled upon, if I remember correctly, the body of an ichthyosaur – but only because there had been a landslide. Without that tidally inspired collapse of a nearby cliff, Anning perhaps would never have found her fossil; it would have remained buried in the cliffside for years – decades, centuries – to come.
In any case, the bottom two images are from Bangor, Wales, where my brother and I once stayed in a youth hostel and ate soup. We hiked outside of town one afternoon and we looked up at a tree covered in drooping sleeves of loose vegetation, then we fell asleep on a hillside in some farmyard nearby, jumping over a fence and lying down amidst lichen-covered rocks and small bushes.
In fact, I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but I was reading The Lord of the Rings and so the whole experience was tinged with an air of the mythic.
[Images: Garth's Pier in Bangor, Caernarfonshire, and a view of Bangor from Anglesey, via Old UK Photos].
Anywho, the old lighthouse at Corbiere, on the Channel Island of Jersey, makes a nice painterly silhouette in this next photo.
[Image: The lighthouse at Corbiere, Jersey, Channel Islands, via Old UK Photos].
And the old paths still whirl and turn through hills, leading somewhere, going everywhere.
[Image: Moulin Huet, Guernsey, Channel Islands, via Old UK Photos].
All of these images, plus a few more, are also saved in a Flickr set I put together this afternoon.
(The title of this post paraphrases a line from William Blake's poem Milton. Meanwhile, it may not be entirely related to the images in this post, but I do recommend giving at least a quick read to BLDGBLOG's interview with Patrick McGrath for some thoughts on the literary impact of these – or similar – landscapes).
[Image: The face of Nicholson Crater, Mars, courtesy of the ESA].
According to The New York Times Book Review, the novels of Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson "constitute one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern science fiction." I might argue, however, that Robinson is fundamentally a landscape writer.
That is, Robinson's books are not only filled with descriptions of landscapes – whole planets, in fact, noted, sensed, and textured down to the chemistry of their soils and the currents in their seas – but they are often about nothing other than vast landscape processes, in the midst of which a few humans stumble along. "Politics," in these novels, is as much a question of social justice as it is shorthand for learning to live in specific environments.
In his most recent trilogy – Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting – we see the earth becoming radically unlike itself through climate change. Floods drown the U.S. capital; fierce winter ice storms leave suburban families powerless, in every sense of the word; and the glaciers of concrete and glass that we have mistaken for civilization begin to reveal their inner weaknesses.
The stand-alone novel Antarctica documents the cuts, bruises, and theoretical breakthroughs of environmental researchers as they hike, snowshoe, sledge, belay, and fly via helicopter over the fractured canyons and crevasses of the southern continent. They wander across "shear zones" and find rooms buried in the ice, natural caves linked together like a "shattered cathedral, made of titanic columns of driftglass."
Meanwhile, in Robinson's legendary Mars Trilogy – Red Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars – the bulk of the narrative is, again, complete planetary transformation, this time on Mars. The Red Planet, colonized by scientists, is deliberately remade – or terraformed – to be climatically, hydrologically, and agriculturally suited for human life. Yet this is a different kind of human life – it, too, has been transformed: politically and psychologically.
In his recent book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Fredric Jameson devotes an entire chapter to Robinson's Mars Trilogy. Jameson writes that "utopia as a form is not the representation of radical alternatives; it is rather simply the imperative to imagine them."
Across all his books, Robinson is never afraid to imagine these radical alternatives. Indeed, in the interview posted below he explains that "I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms."
In the following interview, then, Kim Stanley Robinson talks to BLDGBLOG about climate change, from Hurricane Katrina to J.G. Ballard; about the influence of Greek island villages on his descriptions of Martian base camps; about life as a 21st century primate in the 24/7 "techno-surround"; how we must rethink utopia as we approach an age without oil; whether "sustainability" is really the proper thing to be striving for; and what a future archaeology of the space age might find.
This interview also includes previously unpublished photos by Robinson himself, taken in Greece and Antarctica.
BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in the possibility that literary genres might have to be redefined in light of climate change. In other words, a novel where two feet of snow falls on Los Angeles, or sand dunes creep through the suburbs of Rome, would be considered a work of science fiction, even surrealism, today; but that same book, in fifty years’ time, could very well be a work of climate realism, so to speak. So if climate change is making the world surreal, then what it means to write a “realistic” novel will have to change. As a science fiction novelist, does that affect how you approach your work?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I’ve been saying this for a number of years: that now we’re all living in a science fiction novel together, a book that we co-write. A lot of what we’re experiencing now is unsurprising because we’ve been prepped for it by science fiction. But I don’t think surrealism is the right way to put it. Surrealism is so often a matter of dreamscapes, of things becoming more than real – and, as a result, more sublime. You think, maybe, of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, and the way that he sees these giant catastrophes as a release from our current social set-up: catastrophe and disaster are aestheticized and looked at as a miraculous salvation from our present reality. But it wouldn’t really be like that.
I started writing about Earth’s climate change in the Mars books. I needed something to happen on Earth that was shocking enough to allow a kind of historical gap in which my Martians could realistically establish independence. I had already been working with Antarctic scientists who were talking about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and how unstable it might be – so I used that, and in Blue Mars I showed a flooded London. But after you get past the initial dislocations and disasters, what you’ve got is another landscape to be inhabited – another situation that would have its own architecture, its own problems, and its own solutions.
To a certain extent, later, in my climate change books, I was following in that mold with the flood of Washington DC. I wrote that scene before Katrina. After Katrina hit, my flood didn’t look the same. I think it has to be acknowledged that the use of catastrophe as a literary device is not actually adequate to talk about something which, in the real world, is often so much worse – and which comes down to a great deal of human suffering.
So there may have been surreal images coming out of the New Orleans flood, but that’s not really what we take away from it.
[Image: Refugees gather outside the Superdome, New Orleans, post-Katrina].
BLDGBLOG: Aestheticizing these sorts of disasters can also have the effect of making climate change sound like an adventure. In Fifty Degrees Below, for instance, you wrote: “People are already fond of the flood… It was an adventure. It got people out of their ruts.” The implication is that people might actually be excited about climate change. Is there a risk that all these reports about flooded cities and lost archipelagoes and new coastlines might actually make climate change sound like some sort of survivalist adventure?
Robinson: It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.
For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario.
It’s easy to imagine people who are bored in the modern techno-surround, as I call it, and they’re bored because they have not fully comprehended that they’re still primates, that their brains grew over a million-year period doing a certain suite of activities, and those activities are still available. Anyone can do them; they’re simple. They have to do with basic life support and basic social activities unboosted by technological means.
And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.
So a little bit of analysis of what we are as primates – how we got here evolutionarily, and what can satisfy us in this world – would help us to imagine activities that are much lower impact on the planet and much more satisfying to the individual at the same time. In general, I’ve been thinking: let’s rate our technologies for how much they help us as primates, rather than how they can put us further into this dream of being powerful gods who stalk around on a planet that doesn’t really matter to us.
Because a lot of these supposed pleasures are really expensive. You pay with your life. You pay with your health. And they don’t satisfy you anyway! You end up taking various kinds of prescription or non-prescription drugs to compensate for your unhappiness and your unhealthiness – and the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true.
I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.
The hope that, “Oh, if only civilization were to collapse, then I could be happy” – it’s ridiculous. You can simply walk out your front door and get what you want out of that particular fantasy.
[Image: New Orleans under water, post-Katrina; photographer unknown].
BLDGBLOG: Mars has a long history as a kind of utopian destination – and, in that, your Mars trilogy is no exception. What is it about Mars that brings out this particular kind of speculation?
Robinson: Well, it brings up an unusual modern event that can happen in our mental landscapes, which is comparative planetology. That wasn’t really available to us before the modern era – really, until Viking.
One thing about Mars is that it’s a radically impoverished landscape. You start with nothing – the bare rock, the volatile chemicals that are needed for life, some water, and an empty landscape. That makes it a kind of gigantic metaphor, or modeling exercise, and it gives you a way to imagine the fundamentals of what we’re doing here on Earth. I find it is a very good thing to begin thinking that we are terraforming Earth – because we are, and we’ve been doing it for quite some time. We’ve been doing it by accident, and mostly by damaging things. In some ways, there have been improvements, in terms of human support systems, but there’s still so much damage, damage that’s gone unacknowledged or ignored, even when all along we knew it was happening. People kind of shrug and think: a) there’s nothing we can do about it, or b) maybe the next generation will be clever enough to figure it out. So on we go.
[Images: Mars, courtesy of NASA].
Mars is an interesting platform where we can model these things. But I don’t know that we’ll get there for another fifty years or so – and once we do get there, I think that for many, many years, maybe many decades, it will function like Antarctica does now: it will be an interesting scientific base that teaches us things and is beautiful and charismatic, but not important in the larger scheme of human history on Earth. It’s just an interesting place to study, that we can learn things from. Actually, for many years, Mars will be even less important to us than Antarctica, because the Antarctic is at least part of our ecosphere.
But if you think of yourself as terraforming Earth, and if you think about sustainability, then you can start thinking about permaculture and what permaculture really means. It’s not just sustainable agriculture, but a name for a certain type of history. Because the word sustainability is now code for: let’s make capitalism work over the long haul, without ever getting rid of the hierarchy between rich and poor and without establishing social justice.
Sustainable development, as well: that’s a term that’s been contaminated. It doesn’t even mean sustainable anymore. It means: let us continue to do what we’re doing, but somehow get away with it. By some magic waving of the hands, or some techno silver bullet, suddenly we can make it all right to continue in all our current habits. And yet it’s not just that our habits are destructive, they’re not even satisfying to the people who get to play in them. So there’s a stupidity involved, at the cultural level.
BLDGBLOG: In other words, your lifestyle may now be carbon neutral – but was it really any good in the first place?
Robinson: Right. Especially if it’s been encoding, or essentially legitimizing, a grotesque hierarchy of social injustice of the most damaging kind. And the tendency for capitalism to want to overlook that – to wave its hands and say: well, it’s a system in which eventually everyone gets to prosper, you know, the rising tide floats all boats, blah blah – well, this is just not true.
We should take the political and aesthetic baggage out of the term utopia. I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it’s better to use a word like permaculture, which not only includes permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now.
It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place – you’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.
The future needs to be taken into account by the current system, which regularly steals from it in order to pad our ridiculous current lifestyle.
[Images: (top) Michael Reynolds, architect. Turbine House, Taos, New Mexico. Photograph © Michael Reynolds, 2007. (bottom) Steve Baer, designer. House of Steve Baer, Corrales, New Mexico, 1971. Photography © Jon Naar, 1975/2007. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, from their excellent, and uncannily well-timed, exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas].
BLDGBLOG: When it actually comes to designing the future, what will permaculture look like? Where will its structures and ideas come from?
Robinson: Well, at the end of the 1960s and through the 70s, what we thought – and this is particularly true in architecture and design terms – was: OK, given these new possibilities for new and different ways of being, how do we design it? What happens in architecture? What happens in urban design?
As a result of these questions there came into being a big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print, which had no notion that the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution was going to hit. Books like Progress As If Survival Mattered, Small Is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, The Integral Urban House, Design for the Real World, A Pattern Language, and so on. I had a whole shelf of those books. Their tech is now mostly obsolete, superceded by more sophisticated tech, but the ideas behind them, and the idea of appropriate technology and alternative design: that needs to come back big time. And I think it is.
[Image: American President Jimmy Carter dedicates the White House solar panels, 20 June 1979. Photograph © Jimmy Carter Library. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture].
This is one of the reasons I’ve been talking about climate change, and the possibility of abrupt climate change, as potentially a good thing – in that it forces us to confront problems that we were going to sweep under the carpet for hundreds of years. Now, suddenly, these problems are in our face and we have to deal. And part of dealing is going to be design.
I don’t think people fully comprehend what a gigantic difference their infrastructure makes, or what it feels like to live in a city with public transport, like Paris, compared to one of the big autopias like southern California. The feel of existence is completely different. And of course the carbon burn is also different – and the sense that everybody’s in the same boat together. This partly accounts for the difference between urban voters and rural voters: rural voters – or out-in-the-country voters – can imagine that they’re somehow independent, and that they don’t rely on other people. Meanwhile, their entire tech is built elsewhere. It’s a fantasy, and a bad one as it leads to a false assessment of the real situation.
The Mars books were where I focused on these design questions the most. I had to describe fifteen or twenty invented towns or social structures based around their architecture. Everything from little settlements to crater towns to gigantic cities, to all sorts of individual homes in the outback – how do you occupy the outback? how do you live? – and it was a great pleasure. I think, actually, that one of the main reasons people enjoyed those Mars books was in seeing these alternative design possibilities envisioned and being able to walk around in them, imaginatively.
BLDGBLOG: Were there specific architectural examples, or specific landscapes, that you based your descriptions on?
Robinson: Sure. They had to do with things that I’d seen or read about. And, you know, reading Science News week in and week out, I was always attentive to what the latest in building materials or house design was.
Also, I seized on anything that seemed human-scale and aesthetically pleasing and good for a community. I thought of Greek villages in Crete, and also the spectacular stuff on Santorini. One of the things I learned, wandering around Greek archaeological sites – I’m very interested in archaeology – is that they clearly chose some of their town sites not just for practical concerns but also for aesthetic pleasure. They would put their towns in places where it would look good to live – where you would get a permanent sense that the town was a work of art, as well as a practical solution to economic and geographical problems. That was something I wanted to do on Mars over and over again.
[Image: Photos of Greece, inspiration for life on Mars, taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].
Mondragon, Spain, was also a constant reference point, and Kerala, in southern India. I was looking at cooperative, or leftist, places. Bologna, Italy. The Italian city-states of the Renaissance, in a different kind of way. Also, cities where public transport on a human scale could be kept in mind. That’s mostly northern Europe.
So those were some of the reference points that I remember – but I was also trying to think about how humans might inhabit the unusual Martian features: the cliffsides, the hidden cities that I postulated might be necessary. I was attracted to anything that had to do with circularity, because of the stupendous number of craters on Mars. The Paul Sattelmeier indoor/outdoor house, which is round and easy to build, was something I noticed in Science News as a result of this fixation.
There was a real wide net I could cast there – and it was fun. If you give yourself a whole world to play with, you don’t have to choose just one solution – you can describe any number of solutions – and I think that was politically true as well as architecturally true with my Mars books. They weren’t proposing one master solution, as in the old utopias, but showing that there are a variety of possible solutions, with different advantages and disadvantages.
[Image: A photograph of Santorini taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].
BLDGBLOG: Speaking of archaeology, one of the most interesting things I’ve read recently was that some archaeologists are now speculating that sites like the Apollo moon landing, or the final resting spot of the Mars rovers, will someday be like Egypt’s Valley of the Kings: they’ll be excavated and studied and preserved and mapped.
Robinson: Yes, and places like Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, will be quite beautiful. They’ll work as great statuary – like megaliths. They’ll have that charismatic quality and, in their ruin, they should be quite beautiful. As you know, that was one great attraction of the Romantic era – to ruins, to the suggestion of age – and there will be something nicely contradictory about something as futuristic as space artifacts suggesting ruins and the ancient past. That’s sure to come.
The interesting problem on Mars, and Chris McKay has talked about this, is that if we conclude that there’s the possibility of bacterial life on Mars, then it becomes really, really important for us not to contaminate the planet with earthly bacteria. But it’s almost impossible to sterilize a spaceship completely. There were probably 100,000 bacteria even on the sterilized spacecraft that we sent to Mars, living on their inner surfaces. It isn’t even certain that a gigantic crash-landing and explosion would kill all that bacteria.
So Chris McKay has been suggesting that a site like the Beagle or polar lander crash site actually needs to be excavated and fully sterilized – the stuff may even have to be taken off-planet – if we really want to keep Mars uncontaminated. In other words, we’ve contaminated it already; if we find native, alien bacterial life on Mars, and we don’t want it mixed up with Terran life, then we might have to do something a lot more radical than an archaeological saving of the site. We might have to do something like a Superfund clean-up.
Of course, that’s all really hard to do without getting down there with yet more bacteria-infested things.
[Image: Two painted views of a human future on Mars, courtesy of NASA].
BLDGBLOG: That’s the same situation as with these lakes in Antarctica buried beneath the ice: to study them, we have to drill down into them, but by drilling down into them, we might immediately introduce microbes and bacteria and even chemicals into the water – which will mean that there’s not much left for us to study.
Robinson: They’re already having that problem with Lake Vostok. The Russians have got an ice drill that’s already maybe too close to the lake, and in the sphere of influence of the trapped bacteria. And now people are calculating that the water in Lake Vostok might be very heavily pressurized, and like seltzer water, so that breaking through might cause a gusher on the surface that could last six months. The water might just fly out onto the surface – where it would freeze and create a little mountain up there, of fresh water. Who knows? I mean, at that point, whatever was going on, in bacterial terms, with that lake in particular – that’s ruined. There are many other lakes beneath the Antarctic surface, so it isn’t as if we don’t have more places we could save or study, but that one is already a problem.
[Image: Architecture in Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].
Also, I do like the archaeological sites in Antarctica from the classic era. Those are worth comparing to the space program. Going to Antarctica in 1900 was like us going into space today: as Oliver Morton has put it, it was the hardest thing that technology allowed humans to do at the time. So you could imagine those guys as being in space suits and doing space station-type stuff – but, of course, from our angle, it looks like Boy Scout equipment. It’s amazing that they got away with it at all. Those are the most beautiful spaces – the Shackleton/Scott sites – even the little cairns that Amundsen left behind, or the crashed airplanes from the 1920s: they all become vividly important reminders of our past and of our technological progress. They deserve to be protected fully and kind of revered, almost as religious sites, if you’re a humanist.
[Image: Shackleton's hut, Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].
So archaeology in space? Who knows? It’s hard enough to think about what’s going to go on up there. But on earth it’s very neat to think of Cape Canaveral or Baikonur becoming like Shackleton’s hut.
Thinking along this line causes me to wonder about the Stalinist industrial cities in the Urals – you know, like Chelyabinsk-65. These horribly utilitarian extraction economy-type places, incredibly brutal and destructive – once they’re abandoned, and they begin to rust away, they take on a strange kind of aesthetic. As long as you wouldn’t get actively poisoned when you visit them –
Robinson: – I would be really interested to see some of these places. Just don’t step in the sludge, or scratch your arm – the toxicity levels are supposed to be alarming. But, in archaeological terms, I bet they’d be beautiful.
BLDGBLOG owes a huge and genuine thanks to Kim Stanley Robinson, not only for his ongoing output as a writer but for his patience while this interview was edited and assembled. Thanks, as well, to William L. Fox for putting Robinson and I in touch in the first place.
Meanwhile, the recently published catalog for the exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas offers a great look at the "big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print" that Robinson mentions in the above interview. If you see a copy, I'd definitely recommend settling in for a long read.