Tag Archives: SF

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 4 (morning)

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

The men have continued to act as though we do not exist, and indeed, today it was as though I myself were alone with them as Dinah busied herself in the kitchen and left early. I see how she is invisible to them, though she is the only thing that prevents their collective descent into absolute filth and squalor.

They are increasingly strange but no longer all strangers, as I have finally learned the names of the other two — MacReady and Dyson.

Over breakfast M. kept staring into the orchard — a wonderfully ancient place full of twisted and wizened apple trees. He was seeing things, I know he was, but I saw nothing. I am more and more worried about him. About us. That might even extend as far as all of us. In fact, a man came to take Sprake away. A grumpy and jaundiced-looking ‘transcendentalist doctor’ — whatever the hell that means.

Alas poor Sprake, but that I hate thee deadly I would lament thy miserable state.

I have finally manged to catch a glimpse of M.’s journal, and at first it made me laugh — there is a whole section on his equable temperament, how his Protestant upbringing contributed to his work ethic, thrift and abstemiousness…worthy of a chuckle I thought. But a fond one. It felt like catching someone preening themselves in front of a mirror, I felt a twinge of guilt. Almost put the thing down. I’m glad I didn’t.

The rest is the stuff of nightmare.

Particularly the bit about Charteris interrupting him while he was in some kind of fit working over his translations, claiming he had been sputtering on in some strange language, insensible to the world… M. thinks it is a joke but I have seen him do something like it before. I don’t know what to do, don’t know where to turn. I feel as though Charteris is somehow encouraging it.

Then I heard M. returning and hurriedly hid all evidence of my spying, well-intentioned as it was.

Almost I turned down the offer of a walk around the ruined upper half of the village, but could not bear the thought of my poor M. alone with Charteris. I also love ruins. Love. Them. So we walked up the steep hill and boredom overcame my good intentions (and Charteris has shown no sign of strange behaviour) so I soon left them to explore for myself. They stopped in the first room we came to and stayed muttering to themselves. Even when I crept alongside of them on the other side of the wall I could not hear them or get a sense of the mystery they were concocting between themselves, so I had to put a stop to it.

Still, in those stolen moments of a holiday I could actually enjoy I found a cat! A white one. I resolved to ask Dinah why the upper village had been abandoned as it had, the beauty of the ruins only made me more sad.

When I finally and somewhat unwillingly returned to the two men, M. was white and shaking. I don’t know what that damn Charteris told him. M. won’t say anything. I’m going to have to get my hands on that journal again…

Day 4 (afternoon)

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 3

Day 1 | Day 2

Sprake’s told them all he got off with Susan, and he’s gone all ‘funny’ because of it. God, what a liar. M. came upstairs this morning with some kind of drivel about Sprake’s drivel — apparently rejection has sent him a bit round the bend. Which I am sorry for, of course. He sits in his room muttering now and no one can get a clear word out of him apparently, never a good sign at all.

M. went down to breakfast early, said he couldn’t get a word out of the others here, who were all soon off on their work, whatever that may be. It’s strange to find everything wrapped up in such secrecy, though I think M. rather enjoys it. He’s been daydreaming rather than working seriously on his translations, and muttering some rather strange things himself. I don’t like it. I keep trying to tell him we’re on holiday and he shouldn’t keep working.

He’s not so good at turning off. He can’t enjoy the moment. I worry about him.

Anyway, I got breakfast with the housekeeper, a dear older woman named Dinah who somehow manages to retain her sanity in this madhouse. We sat in a pool of sunshine in her lovely kitchen, and I bored her a bit with my worries about M., and then she talked about her growing up in these valleys and family working in the mills. She herself has always worked in the kitchen, and confessed something odd was happening in the house, with all of the food going off within twelve to twenty-four hours of being brought within its doors. She’s never seen anything like it, and been worrying herself for the past few days over whether she should call a health inspector.

Charteris, of course, refuses to admit there is any need to do anything of the kind. He’s just started sending out one of these ‘friends’ to bring in fresh food every day. Wasteful, that’s what it is. Bets do what you employer tells you, though, right? It’s not as though work is so easy to find. I know that feeling — even in London. I can’t imagine a place like this. She insists Charteris isn’t so bad, just very very odd.

I could tell she was curious about my own presence, but I didn’t know what to say. M. keeps insisting we’ve been sent for for a purpose, but Charteris has not yet said anything.

Anyway, we did finally get out for a lovely walk along the moors, all covered with purple heather and splashes of golden gorse with bees buzzing all around and fragrance filling our nostrils. I has happier than I have been in a long time, especially when we stumbled across the old tumuli and the standing stones. There is an immense sense of beauty and peace here, that I have rarely felt elsewhere.

I hardly wonder at our ancestors choosing to be buried up here above the world amongst the heather, to conduct ceremony in this wide open space with such loveliness filling the horizon. Their stones stand enigmatic and beautiful, reminding me there is so much we can never know. I like that feeling.

I was reluctant to head back to the cottage and its dense, damp, feverish atmosphere. For our walk, Charteris had given us a map from 1870 — his idea of a prank I suppose — but we managed just fine and I actually enjoyed seeing so visibly the contrast of all that was here once, with all that is here now. There had not, indeed, been all that much change.

M. murmured something quite interesting as we pored over the map, it reminded me of just what it was I saw in him all those years ago:

Remember, though, the map is never the territory, and sometimes the territory does not want to be known.

Ooh, right? I liked that, though I’m not entirely sure what it means.

Then back to the cottage, which was hardly welcoming despite Dinah having laid out tea. She had already gone, sadly. Dinah cleans and cooks but does not wash laundry — I have noticed Charteris seems incapable of doing it for himself. He is positively mouldy.

If only M. would be a little more normal and stop shrieking at the sight of squirrels I might still count myself happy after such a day. But something very odd is certainly going on with the men in this house, and neither I nor Dinah have a clue as to what it might be…

Day 4 (morning)

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 2

M. continues to write in his journal, hunched over and hiding his words from sight. He’s either working at that or on his mouldy old manuscript. I usually like such things immensely, but this one is tatty and dog eared and has an unpleasant smell. We used to be able to talk about what he was translating, snags and difficulties, curioisities. But it has been ages since M. felt able to share any of his work, rather he has taken to muttering over his translations and I have taken to hating them.

Still, this area is so beautiful. The village is full of old stone houses built every which way along the hillside. The main road curves down through it, but at every turn are narrow passages that send you up or down the hill through a maze of cottages each one more quaint than the last. Flowers are everywhere. Best of all, only a handful of these homes are the overly manicured and perfectly restored houses of the rich and newly arrived. Most are comfortable, lived in. Loved. They sit cradled amongst these great green hills. The shop fronts are mostly the beautiful curved bow windows I so love, and several are full of pastries and books.

It’s a good thing it’s so beautiful, because my god. Sprake. I thought Charteris was bad, but he’s lovable next to Sprake… I was so looking forward to meeting an archaeologist. The disappointment was thus doubled. It’s not the tweed. Sometimes I quite like tweed. He looked me up and down when we met and then ignored me completely until he’d had a few pints down the pub. Then I sent him about his business after his most inappropriate suggestions. I did refrain from punching him, he is a friend of M.’s after all. He huffed off and refused to talk to me any more, started hitting on the bar staff instead.

She did hit him.

But that was later. I’d given up getting a word in edgewise — not because M. and Charteris and the others were speaking too much, but because of their unnatural silences. Their sideways glances at the locals in the pub. Their almost gibbering countenances and the whites of their rolling eyes in the dim glow of the lights. I smelled M’s pint when he went to the toilets for the fifth time just to make sure no one had spiked it. I don’t think they did. It tasted fine. I don’t know how I can find out for certain.

There is definitely something going on.

I asked M. if he knew, demanded he tell me. He could only say ponderously that Charteris has summoned him for some dark purpose, and we would have to wait until it was revealed. I sat in the cosy warmth of the long narrow pub, ancient and thick walled, a cheery wood stove in one corner splashing light across the flagstones. I had a friendly chat with the local bookseller about the nicest, and least arduous, walks in the area nearby. And then we were off.

That’s when Susan, the lovely woman working behind the bar, hit Sprake. The others didn’t see, and he skulked behind, perhaps hoping to make good. I gave her a thumbs up sign and she flashed me a huge smile, and we were off back home. Not before I caught the rumbles of anger from a couple of farmers down at the other end of the bar. I didn’t think it was too wise of Sprake to remain behind on his own, but wise was not a word I’d use to describe him.

We, at least, got home safe and sound. I brushed my teeth and went straight to bed, happy to that way avoid any more strange silences or awkward thoughts half blurted out to which no response was possible. I heard Sprake come in sometime later, and the fuss the rest made of him.

I rather hoped he showed up to breakfast with a black eye.

Day 3

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 1

I am not sure whether I am more driven to write this because my holiday has been on the whole lovely, or because my partner has been acting most oddly and I am worried. I can’t keep asking him, ‘don’t you think that’s just a little bit crazy?’

That doesn’t seem to be helping at all.

He is keeping his own account, but he won’t let me read it. Just shuts himself away, ignoring me as though we are not on holiday together. Writes feverishly and fast, hunched over the table.

We have this friend Charteris. Well, M. has a friend called Charteris. It is a friendship based on the fact that they went to school together and were insanely competitive around most of the same things. It’s been some time since one of them published something, which always seemed to serve as their unspoken excuse for getting in touch and discussing their favourite bits of arcana and sometimes the cricket.

We were surprised when Charteris invited us up for a bit of a summer holiday. We didn’t really want to go, at least I didn’t. Charteris is so often gloomy. He is sarcastic without kindness or wit, and he smells funny. There’s something about the pasty face and the black clothes and the awkward conversation. He’s totally on the spectrum.

I said to M., please let’s go to Italy, I still haven’t been to Italy. I think we can afford it.

But then he bet our holiday savings on the greyhounds, so overnight you can see that Charteris’s invitation started to look wonderful. The Peak District, I said. The Peak District can be a lovely place. As long as you don’t let Charteris ruin everything it will be wonderful.

M. looked up from that musty old manuscript he’s been working on for months and nodded his head. Even then, I confess, there was clearly a strange gleam in his eye. That gleam has become a positive sparkle over the past few days.

He spoke hardly a word during our journey. I tried to break him out of it, take his mind off of whatever held it trapped like a little bird. I held his hand in mine, tried out a few puns. Nothing. That last leg up the Derwent Valley was fucking beautiful, but he didn’t even see it.

Then we got there and I had to make small talk with Charteris while M. sat mute, and only interjected to talk about squirrels. Fucking squirrels. Charteris shook his head. I almost wished for his friends to arrive, though I could not see how we would all possibly find room in his cottage. But at least there would be some end to the silence, I would not be alone with these two…

I looked forward to a new dawn, but first, at my insistence, we were going to head into the village.

Day 2

Short Films that will blow you away, and other thoughts on The New Scientist afternoon at Sci-Fi London

bg_headerI can’t remember the last time I was blown away by a short film — actually I can, because it was Robots of Brixton which if you don’t know you should watch immediately — but one of the sets of shorts at the afternoon hosted by Simon Ings of the New Scientist had some of the best things I have seen in ages. Like this:

The Centrifuge Brain Project from Till Nowak.

Nothing beat this short for laugh-out-loud, jaw-dropping, fear-of-heights-induced-eye-covering and thought-provoking action. I think it might have been a mistake to open with it, because nothing else quite lived up to its awesomeness.

SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe (Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (2014)) did come close, as the enjoyable film is only the tip of the iceberged project of much deeper, more amazing, and a longer concentrated effort.

It’s an exploration of the past, of the Mexican Revolution and its use of the railways in armed uprising, of the birth of villages along the route where the trains needed to take on more water and coal, of the history of nationalisation and then decay — an exploration of all this things through the physical landscape using a special earth-and-rail-running vehicle crafted as a space exploration probe, collecting stories and interviews along the way.

I am filled with unbearable loss that I could not be part of such a amazing thing that brings together the social, cultural, political, physical nature of hopes for the future and their ruins. I look forward to exploring it at length.

The three other shorts that followed were all enjoyable and thought provoking. Growth Assembly by Daisy Ginsberg and Sacha Pohflepp (2009) explores the potential of engineering new commodities to be grown as plants (products will no longer be shipped, only seeds which then can be grown) through the use of seven different plants to create a herbicide sprayer — an obvious irony I know, but this is clever. Studio Swine’s Hair Highway looks at the uses of human hair in unexpected ways, beautifully done. The final one, Magnetic Movie by Semiconductor shows the wonder of magnetic fields around us, and they are wondrous indeed.

A few other shorts stood out, making me worry that I do not spend enough time seeking them out. Like The Afronauts by Cristine De Middel (2013) about Zambia’s space program, and The Moon by Pavel Klushantsev (1965) about all the things humans will build on the moon once we get there, you don’t need to speak Russian to understand its awesomeness. The other films, however, were more artistic and ranged from actively annoying to vaguely interesting for a few seconds and then boring making you wish they were even shorter — reminding me of why in fact I don’t like most shorts. I was bit embarrassed to laugh at the man kicking the robot dog for example. Still, 7 brilliant ones I had never seen made up for the rest.

Discovering things like this is why I love eclectic afternoons put together like this one, exploring the Science Fiction Future. It had opened with a lovely keynote from Alastair Reynolds, who I confess to not having read but that shall be remedied. I love Gerry Anderson references and space, the call for a critical SF that retains a sense of fun, but that also engages with the world and goes beyond shiny gadgets (but keeping shiny gadgets because let’s face it, they are SO cool). But what most made me think was a comment that obviously referred back to the whole sad puppy debate in the US, the efforts of right wing and exclusionary people to control and define the genre. He noted that all of this was a spillover from the American Culture Wars but that it was having global effects. All my academic work has been looking at race and the city, the physical and concrete aspects of these culture wars that I argue underpins them — the awfulness of that impacting on world culture hit me like a blow. How much more vital that we understand it, do what we can to fix it though sometimes I despair of that.

The first panel on Museum exhibitions and ‘Unreliable Evidence’ contained Doug Millard, who talked about Russian space exploration and the upcoming exhibit at the Science Museum which I am looking forward to immensely. But then there was the Lost in Fathoms project, shown at the GV Art gallery — an exploration of the sudden disappearance of the fictional Nuuk Island. The pictures were nice, the thought of standing in the rift in Iceland and touching two continental plates amazing. Still, the anger such an abstracted look at climate change, geological shiftings, oceanographic explorations (all those glass containers of water from around the world, collected at different depths. What a great use of collaboration with the oceanographic international community!) runs fairly deep. Possibly because the oceans are rising, causing the non-fictional loss of entire islands, their states, their people forced to seek new homes. Possibly because sands are spreading causing desertification, similarly forcing people from their ancestral lands and contributing to instability and violence in places like Mali, Chad and Nigeria. Such luxury and privilege to ignore these things, what a message that in itself sends.

I was also a bit puzzled about the field of fashion forecasting, though I did rather like the idea of fashion as clothing that has been mediatised, narrativised.

The second panel also had moments of deeply interesting ideas and a lot of moments without…Pat Kane’s giant head on skype from Glasgow was very charismatic though surprisingly academic. I really enjoyed thinking about the opposition between the politics of nudge and behaviour modification, and the politics of play. The one controlling and patronising, the other seeking to create spaces of openness. I would love to help create this world where play is respected, where shorter work weeks and citizen’s wages allow more time for us to explore our worlds, to honor our efforts to create meaning, to engage with the physical world around us and to have autonomy in how we do that. This is what is needed for a full life, and I think we should demand it.

Sadly no one else really engaged in this call for a revolution in our political economy.

I will, however, be checking out the game Ingress, that creates a virtual game reality layered on top of the city. That sounds cool.

At this point our heads were full, and if revolution wasn’t on the table (which it didn’t seem to be) we were pretty done with this programme. It was nice to share a room with so many people though, giving up a Saturday afternoon to explore things like this.

Sci-Fi London still has a few days left, check it out.

The Strugatskys and co-writing

On my dad’s birthday in 1963, Arkady Strugatsky wrote to his brother Boris:

…the entire program which you outlined can be completed in five days. But first I’d like to tell you, my pale, flabby brother, that I’m for a light kind of thing–I’m talking about Seventh Heaven. So women would cry, walls would laugh, and five hundred villains would shout, “Get him! Get him!” — and they wouldn’t be able to do a thing with one communist.

Not one thing. And isn’t Arkady dreamy?

Seventh Heaven, would later be called The Observer and then Hard to Be a God, and it is truly a splendid tale–plenty of adventure to enjoy, some evil totalitarianism to shake a fist at, some intellectual puzzles to ponder, and all in space. Marvelous.

I am fascinated by the process of these two brothers writing together. In this case the wonderful afterword as written by Boris shows at least for this book, Arkady coming up with the main idea, the ‘sturdy substantial skeleton’. And then he fights for it. Five days after the letter above, he writes:

About The Observer [already the title has changed, how quickly they move!]. If you’re interested in a rush of tumultuous life, then you will have a full opportunity to spill your guts in Days of Kraken and The Magicians. But what I’d like to do is write a novel about abstract nobility, honor, and joy, like Dumas. And don’t you dare argue. Just one story without modern problems in naked form. I’m begging on my knees, bastard! My sword, my sword! Cardinals! Port taverns!

Swoon. I try to imagine collaborating like this with any of my three brothers and it leads me to wonder how many fist fights they had, days of not talking to each other…and yet their collaboration seems so fruitful, with multiple projects at play that I now get to read.

Just one story without modern problems in naked form. I’m begging on my knees…

I’m fairly smitten with Arkady. Of course, if he hadn’t tossed out all of Boris’s letters, I might be smitten with him too.

But god I want to write an adventure story. I can’t believe I have to work.

Strugatskys - Hard to be a GodOn a final note about the book itself: I have to acknowledge this translation by Olena Bormashenko, it is beautifully written. This edition of course contains the fantastic afterward by Boris — and this includes some of the politics about getting it published, which are equally fascinating.  It has all the gravitas of the film version used as the cover. It doesn’t quite capture My sword, my sword!  though, does it? It is definitely appealing to the upper ranks of readers of ‘books in translation’, particularly of the high literature of the Russian variety. But I prefer one of the older ones, which captures nothing of the book but its exuberance. Daw paperbacks, how I miss you!

Strugatskys - Hard to be a God


Arcosanti: An ‘Urban’ Laboratory

It’s hard to imagine two more different visions for architecture and urban/home living than Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and Paolo Soleri’s vision for Arcosanti.  We didn’t know until the tour that Soleri had been an apprentice at Taliesin in 1947-48. There are at least two things tying them together, however, and that is the building of a community, and a method of learning by doing. I love both of them.

You can stay at Arcosanti overnight, and so we did. Soleri writes:


The planet is richly endowed with what mass-consumption culture calls marginal lands. Far from the main transportation networks, hard to “colonize”, and poor in resources, such lands are for the most part beautiful and at times inspiring. These are reserves where future cultures might flourish, saving the fertile plains for much needed crop cultivation.

The Project is located on such marginal land. Part of the test is to demonstrate not just the viability (self-reliance) of a community on such land, but also the beauty and inspiration such environs engender. The so-called cradles of civilization seemed to opt for such razor-edged conditions.

We arrived in the late afternoon, the mesa took my breath away:


Arcosanti is founded on this central principle:

Complexity-Miniaturization-Duration Imperative

From bacteria to God, three basic parameters are present:

COMPLEXITY: Many events and processes cluster wherever a living process is going on. The make-up of the process is immensely complex and ever intensifying.

MINIATURIZATION: The nature of complexity demands the rigorous utilization of all resources — mass-energy and space-time, for example. Therefore, whenever complexity is at work, miniaturization is mandated and a part of the process.

DURATION: Process implies extension in time. Temporal extension is warped by living stuff into acts of duration. A possible resolution of “living time” is the metamorphosis of time into pure duration, i.e., the eventual “living outside of time.”

A community meant to become a “living organism” succeeds if it is congruent with the complexity-miniaturization-duration paradigm. If it is not, it will not continue to improve itself. Although the paradigm is very general, it is also a clear, forceful, normative light for any living process to follow. At Arcosanti, we try to be aware of such norms and be coherent with them. Nature and the living are dependent on such coherence. The rewards are many as the following topics point out (11).

I had just finished reading The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene, and this language resonated so strongly, is so influenced by the breakthroughs in quantum physics Greene describes (and much more clearly too). Soleri uses the concepts of space-time and energy and entropy, holds astronomers dealing with the immense and the minute as models, his later topics describe Arcosanti as a useful model for the settlement of space. It is hardly surprising that this mix of science, philosophy and a kind of 1960s spirituality without the hedonism called Arcology (architecture + ecology) would become immensely popular with SF writers (though mostly in the cause of evil, as in Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle).

Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory? is a series of 63 single-page topics to thought about, meditated over, it is almost a religious text and the preface is by a professor of theology. This particular book doesn’t enter into eros at all, but the drawings and later writings do. This poster is from the cafe along with a model of the original vision for Arcosanti, and represents the joining of the male and the female, there is as much D.H. Lawrence here as Frank Lloyd Wright:


Our lodgings were very simple, clean and comfortable as you could imagine given that ‘The Project proposes frugality as a better way of life’ (60). The view was anything but frugal however:


Cold though. Very damn cold. It’s like architects from afar don’t understand the extremes of temperature experienced in the desert. We heard more talk of passive solar heating, but I smelled the delicious wood fire of at least one long term resident. Our inefficient space-heater paled by comparison. We went for a little walk before dinner to more fully experience the space:
Dinner was delicious, but as you can imagine the dining hall/cafe was also very hard to heat. We went to bed early, the cold demanded it. Interesting to find another utopian building  (though Soleri rejected the idea of utopia) built in massive concrete, but of a completely different form to Britain’s social building of the 50s and 60s. Again I wondered at the lack of insulation.

This is Arcosanti in the morning from across the wash that runs along the bottom of the mesa, our guest rooms and then the main complex:


It’s beautiful set there in the side of the mesa. Eating breakfast we saw deer coming down the hill:


It has plenty of inspiration, but ultimately fails in achieving Soleri’s vision I think. This is a key insight into what was needed (and is still needed by any such community developing a new way of life through how we structure our living and working spaces):

11: Exodus of Populations Toward the Megacities

This is one of the most critical problems of population, resource, culture and ecological coherence. There are no real answers in sight. How shall we balance the magic of the big city with the magic of the village or the small town? Economic enticement is not a sufficient nor an adequate solution to the problem of decentralization. A culture is not just a by-product of economic proficiency.

The Project is 65 miles from Phoenix, 36 miles from Prescott and 80 miles from Flagstaff. It will succeed as a “population fixer” only if the mentioned but not described magic can become an integral part of it. It goes without saying that the magic is found in the intense and spirited “urban effect” we might be able to generate at Arcosanti (23).


Arcosanti was also supposed to be a laboratory in planning. Many of the topics deal with the evils and wastefulness of suburbanization and sprawl, commuting, and above all segregation:

Segregation is the most pervasive threat to the dignity and well-being of the individual and the group. Segregation is endemic It goes from the segregation of ages to race, ethnicity, occupation, wealth, religion, and real estate. To reduce its impact and to construct a condition more effective and equitable is an enormous task and an urgent one (35).

In Topic 28 ‘Social Science Versus the Art of Living’, Soleri writes:

One intent of the Project is to “legislate by design.” Two instances are: A) by not having roads, Arcosanti excludes the presence of the car; B) by mixing living, learning, and working, Arcosanti breaks down the ill effects of zoning. What the project wants to avoid is planning the lives of its residents. They are offered a specific grid of environmental resources (the instrument) within which to act and play out their lives (the music) (46).

This concept is remarkably like Lefebvre’s city as ouevre, though Lefebvre would undoubtedly insist that the residents have as much to say about the construction of the grid as to how they play it. Like Lefebvre, Soleri also touches on the fundamental question of land ownership in topic 33: ‘Ownership: Public Versus Private’ (though avoiding any discussion of capitalism, the forces behind property ownership, the forces making the building of his vision impossible/why the State has never invested in such a project and etc):

The “God given right to private property” is an egregious lie. Nothing is more alien to grace than holding on to something other than knowledge and emotions. But then, reality is not graceful, and there are contingent reasons for the existence and justification of ownership. The fact remains that both science and religion tell us that everything is interlaced with everything else, therefore anything I hold onto also belongs to others (53).

An attempt to build an arcology failed here under our current system of government and land ownership. What you find at Arcosanti is a kernel of the original vision, a glimpse of what could have been. It is too small, far too small, to achieve anything like the magical ‘urban effect’, 50 to 100 people live here now rather than the 5,000 envisioned by Soleri. There is no ‘urban’ magic. This has made so much of the intellectual, artistic and cultural dynamism Soleri dreamed of impossible to create.

The project was never meant to be self-sustaining, rather self-reliant while still enmeshed in a larger network. Still, I was surprised at what seemed a fairly half-hearted attempt just at self-reliance, especially with all the work around permaculture that has been developed and fits in so well with ideas of arcology. Such self-reliance also requires an immense amount of specialised knowledge and skill, and without a larger population I imagine this is difficult to find.

Instead it seems to have become a symbol of an alternative, a concrete reminder that something else is possible. This is important in itself of course, but in this monument I hate to see the grandness of the vision lost, though perhaps the kernel will still grow. Today it seems to have become almost entirely about an alternative lifestyle, and teaching and learning by doing, focused very concretely on earthcasting as an architectural/metal-working/ceramic technique. The tour showed both how the famous bells were made through molds of sand, as well as many of the arches and tiles:


Just as at Taliesin West there is a very cool performance space (though still waiting for its roof):


More lovely communal spaces — and the music on top of the piano is an interesting reflection of a diverse community:


But the idea of an urban laboratory still seems remote, particularly one that is breaking down segregation by race, age and etc. Even so, I am glad to have such a symbol in the world, still working as a community while remaining open to visitors to allow them to find their own inspiration and further think about and develop ways that we can live well upon the earth.


Other Architecture in the Desert posts:
Taliesin West | Before ‘Architects’ | Mining Zombies, Cadavers and Ghosts


Ursula Le Guin on Writing and Imagining the Future

Everything I most love about SF and utopia and writing an alternative future, Ursula Le Guin captures something so important here in her speech at the National Book Awards. A lot has been blogged and written already about this. I have nothing to add really about the vile nature of much of the book trade or the inspiration that it still somehow manages to publish, as she says it so much better — I have always loved her, and daily love her more for encapsulating the multiple aspects of the battle we have on our hands and why we must keep on fighting:

Thank you Neil [Gaiman], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

[This transcript is from Parker Higgins, who I thank from the bottom of my heart for transcribing and posting it]

Ještěd Tower, Liberec

I love it. I love it, and yet there is so little about it. We saw it shining on the mountain while looking out over the city, and of course, we had to go.


It’s so brilliantly SF, half spaceship half future cityscape. You take a tram from the city up to the mountain, a funicular up to the base. Look at this amazing television tower/restaurant/hotel up close:


There is a long blurb on the architect from penccil – a rather fascinating site of modern art and design and fashion (it allows you to create your own page on the site to show your own portfolio, you could get drawn in there for a while…)

The unique Jested tower, designed by architect Karel Hubacek, is a modernist architectural landmark of the Czech Republic. Combining television transmission tower and mountain hotel, it is a 94 meters tall rotational hyperboloid built on top ofJested mountain near Liberec in the Czech Republic, built between 1966 and 1973. Liberec (then called Reichenberg) was until the end of WW1 in 1918 part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and a traditional Austrian mountain hotel was perched on top of Jested (then called Jeschken) mountain. Karel Hubacek (23 February 1924 – 25 November 2011) graduated in 1943 and was then sent to forced labor in Nazi Germany, where he worked for the Askania Werke precision instrument factory in Berlin, which after allied bombings moved underground into salt mines south of Helmstedt, Germany. Askania produced the flight control systems for the V1 and V2 rockets and movie cameras which had been used in shooting the famous movie “Der Blaue Engel” with Marlene Dietrich. In 1945, he returned to Prague. In 1951, he got a job at the (then communist) regional institute for city planning in Liberec, where he worked until 1968, when he became a co-founding member of SIAL (Association of Engineers and Architects in Liberec). From 1994-1997 he was head of the Department of Architecture at the Faculty of Arts and Architecture at the Technical University in Liberec.

There are some wonderful photos — far better than what I managed as it was heaving with people on a sunny November holiday, though bitterly windy and cold. Still, I got a few:

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There is a martian as well! A particularly well-endowed one


And the sun started setting and the world was just beautiful, you can see the shadow of our space building fall across Liberec:

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The hotel website (I do wish we had stayed there, the furniture, the fittings, everything looks amazing, but we didn’t) talks about this as a symbol of Liberec, and how wonderful? How wonderful to create this amazing building so playful with our dreams of the future, that could have been a simple ubiquitous television tower but instead becomes this amazing place. This is in some ways what the dream of socialism should have been, brilliant design, care, and attention to innovative detail to make something so functional also serve city residents as an escape from the city, a place to step out of the ordinary, to look out over the city and the countryside and think about the world’s form and your place in it. A place for everyone, though I don’t know if that’s how it worked when it was first built. But it felt like that while we there, full of both Czechs and tourist families, couples, young folks. It was lovely, but god, it was cold.