Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

Subterranean Singapore

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[Image: A “Cavern Breathing Unit” from Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

Here is another project from my reviews the other week at the Bartlett School of Architecture; this one is called Subterranean Singapore, and it is by Finbarr Fallon, produced for Unit 24, which is taught by Penelope Haralambidou, Simon Kennedy, and Michael Tite.


[Image: “Concept Breathing Towers” from Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

Subterranean Singapore is presented as a speculative look at massive underground residential development in the city-state of Singapore over the next few decades.


[Images: Glimpses of a “high grade recreational space within an inflatable cave unit,” from Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

The city has run out of room to expand into the sea, and is thus forced to look downward, into the depths of the continental shelf, excavating beneath the surface of the city and heading partially out below the seabed.


[Image: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

As Fallon describes it, the project explores “the city-state of Singapore’s subterranean ambitions to suggest an imagined masterplan and spatial typology for deep-level underground living. While it may seem utopian to imagine that extensive deep living will become viable, the pressures of chronic land scarcity in Singapore may necessitate this outcome.”


[Image: The “Subterranean Development Institute: Designing Your Underground Future,” from Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

The construction process is kicked off with great imperial fanfare, involving a parade of excavation machines and robot carving arms marching their way forward through clouds of confetti. There is even a celebratory pamphlet.


[Images: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

The idea is not entirely science fiction, of course: Singapore is already excavating huge oil-storage facilities underground, and nearby Hong Kong is actively experimenting with the design and implementation of entire underground infrastructural zones.


[Images: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

For Fallon, however, such a proposal cannot be divorced from the question of who will be able to afford these spaces of underground luxury—complete with fish ponds, spas, and the soothing presence of exotic mechanical animals meant to bring an ironic touch of the natural world to those below.


[Image: A light-well looking down at Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

Let alone, of course, the question of human labor. Who, after all, will physically construct these things? Whose backs will be broken?


[Image: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

The accompanying film—in fact, the film is the core of the proposal—suggests that not everyone is pleased to see this triumphant underground utopia take root beneath Singapore, and hacker-saboteurs appear to take things into their own hands.

While the plot itself is not unusually complex, many of the images successfully wed the cinematic and the architectural, and were worth posting here.


[Images: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

With any luck, I’ll post a few more student projects here in the days to come; for now, don’t miss Matthew Turner’s project for a “New London Law Court.”

“A City on Mars is Possible. That’s What All This is About.”

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Last week’s successful demonstration of a reusable rocket, launched by Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX, “was a critical step along the way towards being able to establish a city on Mars,” Musk later remarked. The proof-of-concept flight “dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible,” he added. “That’s what all this is about.”

Previously, of course, Musk had urged the Royal Aeronautical Society to view Mars as a place where “you can start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big.” He later elaborated on these ideas in an interview with Aeon’s Ross Anderson, discussing optimistic but still purely speculative plans for “a citylike colony that he expects to be up and running by 2040.” In Musk’s own words, “If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people,” within this century.

(Image courtesy of SpaceX. Elsewhere: Off-world colonies of the Canadian Arctic and BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with novelist Kim Stanley Robinson).

Informational Topographics

[Image: “FOGBAE.TWR4” by Mike Winkelmann, 07.06.15].

Since 2007, artist Mike Winkelmann has been producing an image a day, primarily using Cinema 4D, though all the specific tools differ year by year.

As Winkelmann justifiably boasts on his site, he has been working on the series for 3,030 consecutive days—of course, he also humbly refers to his work as just “a variety of art crap” produced “across a variety of media.”

[Image: “reopot seven-ten” by Mike Winkelmann, 05.04.15].

designboom just ran a quick survey of his work, and I thought I’d just piggyback on that with a few images here.

[Image: “pxil.two” by Mike Winkelmann, 05.12.15].

While I’m deliberately focusing on architectural or landscape-oriented imagery, his work is also strong with abstract technological scenes of circuits, robotized organic forms, abstract sprays of light, abandoned atmospheric-processing towers on floodplains, colossal elevator shafts, microscopic views of disturbed crystal growth, and more.

[Image: “OB TANK” by Mike Winkelmann, 07.26.15].

There are spheres of liquid metal, domed cities emerging from the desert floor, neon patent diagrams for purposeless machines, bristling mineral cliffs resembling dystopian housing blocks, and sublime landscape shots that appear to pull double-duty as bar graphs for otherwise unknown statistics. Informational topographics.

[Image: “FRIED GOBO” by Mike Winkelmann, 07.31.15].

There is even a heavenly super-McDonald’s in the sky, a Mont Saint-McD of the clouds.

[Image: “MCD 2087” by Mike Winkelmann, 08.11.15].

Some, even a few I’ve included here, veer a little overtly in a Star Wars direction, while others look more like future album art. Black pyramids and doubled suns.

[Image: “orangetooth gutrot” by Mike Winkelmann, 11.29.14].

For others—and there are literally thousands of images, all the more impressive for the fact that they’re being produced once a day—check out designboom; for all of them, click through to Winkelmann’s site directly.

[Image: “BOXXX-3VV” by Mike Winkelmann, 07.01.15].

[Spotted by designboom].

Unsolving the City: An Interview with China Miéville

The work of novelist China Miéville is well-known—and increasingly celebrated—for its urban and architectural imagery.

In his 2000 novel Perdido Street Station, for instance, an old industrial scrapyard on the underside of the city, full of discarded machine parts and used electronic equipment, suddenly bootstraps itself into artificial intelligence, self-rearranging into a tentacular and sentient system. In The Scar, a floating city travels the oceans, lashed together from the hulls of captured ships:

They were built up, topped with structure, styles and materials shoved together from a hundred histories and aesthetics into a compound architecture. Centuries-old pagodas tottered on the decks of ancient oarships, and cement monoliths rose like extra smokestacks on paddlers stolen from southern seas. The streets between the buildings were tight. They passed over the converted vessels on bridges, between mazes and plazas, and what might have been mansions. Parklands crawled across clippers, above armories in deeply hidden decks. Decktop houses were cracked and strained from the boats’ constant motion.

In his story “The Rope of the World,” originally published in Icon, a failed space elevator becomes the next Tintern Abbey, an awe-inspiring Romantic ruin in the sky. In “Reports Of Certain Events In London,” from the collection Looking for Jake, Miéville describes how constellations of temporary roads flash in and out through nighttime London, a shifting vascular geography of trap streets, only cataloged by the most fantastical maps.

And in his 2004 novel Iron Council, Miéville imagines something called “slow sculpture,” a geologically sublime new artform by which huge blocks of sandstone are “carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”

BLDGBLOG has always been interested in learning how novelists see the city—how spatial descriptions of things like architecture and landscape can have compelling effects, augmenting both plot and emotion in ways that other devices, such as characterization, sometimes cannot. In earlier interviews with such writers as Patrick McGrath, Kim Stanley Robinson, Zachary Mason, Jeff VanderMeer, Tom McCarthy, and Mike Mignola, we have looked at everything from the literary appeal and narrative usefulness of specific buildings and building types to the descriptive influence of classical landscape painting, and we have entertained the idea that the demands of telling a good story often give novelists a more subtle and urgent sense of space even than architects and urban planners.

Over the course of the following long interview, China Miéville discusses the conceptual origins of the divided city featured in his recent, award-winning novel The City and The City; he points out the interpretive limitations of allegory, in a craft better served by metaphor; we take a look at the “squid cults” of Kraken (which arrives in paperback later this month) and maritime science fiction, more broadly; the seductive yet politically misleading appeal of psychogeography; J.G. Ballard and the clichés of suburban perversity; the invigorating necessities of urban travel; and much more.

[Image: China Miéville, photographed by Andrew Testa, courtesy of the New York Times].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start with The City and The City. What was your initial attraction to the idea of a divided city, and how did you devise the specific way in which the city would be split?

China Miéville: I first thought of the divided city as a development from an earlier idea I had for a fantasy story. That idea was more to do with different groups of people who live side-by-side but, because they are different species, relate to the physical environment very, very differently, having different kinds of homes and so on. It was essentially an exaggeration of the way humans and rats live in London, or something similar. But, quite quickly, that shifted, and I began to think about making it simply human.

For a long time, I couldn’t get the narrative. I had the setting reasonably clear in my head and, then, once I got that, a lot of things followed. For example, I knew that I didn’t want to make it narrowly, allegorically reductive, in any kind of lumpen way. I didn’t want to make one city heavy-handedly Eastern and one Western, or one capitalist and one communist, or any kind of nonsense like that. I wanted to make them both feel combined and uneven and real and full-blooded. I spent a long time working on the cities and trying to make them feel plausible and half-remembered, as if they were uneasily not quite familiar rather than radically strange.

I auditioned various narrative shapes for the book and, eventually, after a few months, partly as a present to my Mum, who was a big crime reader, and partly because I was reading a lot of crime at the time and thinking about crime, I started realizing what was very obvious and should have been clear to me much earlier. That’s the way that noir and hard-boiled and crime procedurals, in general, are a kind of mythic urbanology, in a way; they relate very directly to cities.

Once I’d thought of that, exaggerating the trope of the trans-jurisdictional police problem—the cops who end up having to be on each other’s beats—the rest of the novel just followed immediately. In fact, it was difficult to imagine that I hadn’t been able to work it out earlier. That was really the genesis.

I should say, also, that with the whole idea of a divided city there are analogies in the real world, as well as precursors within fantastic fiction. C. J. Cherryh wrote a book that had a divided city like that, in some ways, as did Jack Vance. Now I didn’t know this at the time, but I’m also not getting my knickers in a twist about it. If you think what you’re trying to do is come up with a really original idea—one that absolutely no one has ever had before—you’re just kidding yourself.

You’re inevitably going to tread the ground that the greats have trodden before, and that’s fine. It simply depends on what you’re able to do with it.

BLDGBLOG: Something that struck me very strongly about the book was that you manage to achieve the feel of a fantasy or science fiction story simply through the description of a very convoluted political scenario. The book doesn’t rely on monsters, non-humans, magical technologies, and so on; it’s basically a work of political science fiction.

Miéville: This is impossible to talk about without getting into spoiler territory—which is fine, I don’t mind that—but we should flag that right now for anyone who hasn’t read it and does want to read it.

But, yes, the overtly fantastical element just ebbed and ebbed, becoming more suggestive and uncertain. Although it’s written in such a way that there is still ambiguity—and some readers are very insistent on focusing on that ambiguity and insisting on it—at the same time, I think it’s a book, like all of my books, for which, on the question of the fantastic, you might want to take a kind of Occam’s razor approach. It’s a book that has an almost contrary relation to the fantastic, in a certain sense.

[Image: The marbled intra-national sovereignties of Baarle-Hertog].

BLDGBLOG: In some ways, it’s as if The City and The City simply describes an exaggerated real-life border condition, similar to how people live in Jerusalem or the West Bank, Cold War Berlin or contemporary Belfast—or even in a small town split by the U.S./Canada border, like Stanstead-Derby Line. In a sense, these settlements consist of next-door neighbors who otherwise have very complicated spatial and political relationships to one another. For instance, I think I sent you an email about a year ago about a town located both on and between the Dutch-Belgian border, called Baarle-Hertog.

Miéville: You did!

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious to what extent you were hoping to base your work on these sorts of real-life border conditions.

Miéville: The most extreme example of this was something I saw in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, where a couple of poli-sci guys from the State Department or something similar were proposing a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the case of Jerusalem, they were proposing basically exactly this kind of system, from The City and The City, in that you would have a single urban space in which different citizens are covered by completely different juridical relations and social relations, and in which you would have two overlapping authorities.

I was amazed when I saw this. I think, in a real world sense, it’s completely demented. I don’t think it would work at all, and I don’t think Israel has the slightest intention of trying it.

My intent with The City and The City was, as you say, to derive something hyperbolic and fictional through an exaggeration of the logic of borders, rather than to invent my own magical logic of how borders could be. It was an extrapolation of really quite everyday, quite quotidian, juridical and social aspects of nation-state borders: I combined that with a politicized social filtering, and extrapolated out and exaggerated further on a sociologically plausible basis, eventually taking it to a ridiculous extreme.

But I’m always slightly nervous when people make analogies to things like Palestine because I think there can be a danger of a kind of sympathetic magic: you see two things that are about divided cities and so you think that they must therefore be similar in some way. Whereas, in fact, in a lot of these situations, it seems to me that—and certainly in the question of Palestine—the problem is not one population being unseen, it’s one population being very, very aggressively seen by the armed wing of another population.

In fact, I put those words into Borlu’s mouth in the book, where he says, “This is nothing like Berlin, this is nothing like Jerusalem.” That’s partly just to disavow—because you don’t want to make the book too easy—but it’s also to make a serious point, which is that, obviously, the analogies will occur but sometimes they will obscure as much as they illuminate.

[Image: The international border between the U.S. and Canada passes through the center of a library; photo courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. “Technically, any time anyone crosses the international line, they are subject to having to report, in person, to a port of entry inspection station for the country they are entering,” CLUI explains. “Visiting someone on the other side of the line, even if the building is next door, means walking around to the inspection station first, or risk being an outlaw. Playing catch on Maple Street/Rue Ball would be an international event, and would break no laws presumably, so long as each time the ball was caught, the recipient marched over to customs to declare the ball.”].

BLDGBLOG: Your books often lend themselves to political readings, on the other hand. Do you write with specific social or political allegories in mind, and, further, how do your settings—as in The City and The City—come to reflect political intentions, spatially?

Miéville: My short answer is that I dislike thinking in terms of allegory—quite a lot. I’ve disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.

The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading—a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.

It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about “what does the text mean?”—and I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things.

I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.

But the point is, those riffs don’t reduce. There can be perfectly legitimate political readings and perfectly legitimate metaphoric resonances, but that doesn’t end the thing. That doesn’t foreclose it. The text is not in control. Certainly the writer is not in control of what the text can do—but neither, really, is the text itself.

So I’m very unhappy about the idea of allegoric reading, on the whole. Certainly I never intend my own stuff to be allegorical. Allegories, to me, are interesting more to the extent that they fail—to the extent that they spill out of their own bounds. Reading someone like George MacDonald—his books are extraordinary—or Charles Williams. But they’re extraordinary to the extent that they fail or exceed their own intended bounds as Christian allegory.

When Iron Council came out, people would say to me: “Is this book about the Gulf War? Is this book about the Iraq War? You’re making a point about the Iraq War, aren’t you?” And I was always very surprised. I was like, listen: if I want to make a point about the Iraq War, I’ll just say what I think about the Iraq War. I know this because I’ve done it. I write political articles. I’ve written a political book. But insisting on that does not mean for a second that I’m saying—in some kind of unconvincing, “cor-blimey, I’m just a story-teller, guvnor,” type-thing—that these books don’t riff off reality and don’t have things to say about it.

There’s this very strange notion that a writer needs to smuggle these other ideas into the text, but I simply don’t understand why anyone would think that that’s what fiction is for.

BLDGBLOG: There are also very basic historical and referential limits to how someone might interpret a text allegorically. If Iron Council had been written twenty years from now, for instance, during some future war between Taiwan and China, many readers would think it was a fictional exploration of that, and they’d forget about the Iraq War entirely.

Miéville: Sure. And you don’t want to disavow these readings. You may think, at this point in this particular book, I actually do want to make a genuine policy prescription. With my hand on my heart, I don’t think I have ever done that, but, especially if you write with a political texture, you certainly have to take readings like this on the chin.

So, when people say: are you really talking about this? My answer is generally not no—it’s generally yes, but… Or yes, and… Or yes… but not in the way that you mean.

[Image: “The way a cop inhabits the city is doubtless a fascinating thing…” Photo courtesy of the NYPD].

BLDGBLOG: Let’s go back to the idea of the police procedural. It’s intriguing to compare how a police officer and a novelist might look at the city—the sorts of details they both might notice or the narratives they both might pick up on. Broadly speaking, each engages in detection—a kind of hermeneutics of urban space. How did this idea of urban investigation—the “mythic urbanology” you mentioned earlier—shape your writing of The City and The City?

Miéville: On the question of the police procedural and detection, for me, the big touchstones here were detective fiction, not real police. Obviously they are related, but they’re related in a very convoluted, mediated way.

What I wanted to do was write something that had a great deal of fidelity—hopefully not camp fidelity, but absolute rigorous fidelity—to certain generic protocols of policing and criminology. That was the drive, much more than trying to find out how police really do their investigations. The way a cop inhabits the city is doubtless a fascinating thing, but what was much more important to me for this book was the way that the genre of crime, as an aesthetic field, relates to the city.

The whole notion of decoding the city—the notion that, in a crime drama, the city is a text of clues, in a kind of constant, quantum oscillation between possibilities, with the moment of the solution really being a collapse and, in a sense, a kind of tragedy—was really important to me.

Of course, I’m not one of those writers who says I don’t read reviews. I do read reviews. I know that some readers were very dissatisfied with the strict crime drama aspect of it. I can only hold up my hands. It was extremely strict. I don’t mean to do that kind of waffley, unconvincing, writerly, carte blanche, get-out-clause of “that was the whole point.” Because you can have something very particular in mind and still fuck it up.

But, for me, given the nature of the setting, it was very important to play it absolutely straight, so that, having conceived of this interweaving of the cities, the actual narrative itself would remain interesting, and page-turning, and so on and so forth. I wanted it to be a genuine who-dunnit. I wanted it to be a book that a crime reader could read and not have a sense that I had cheated.

By the way, I love that formulation of crime-readers: the idea that a book can cheat is just extraordinary.

BLDGBLOG: Can you explain what you mean, in this context, by being rigorous? You were rigorous specifically to what?

Miéville: The book walks through three different kinds of crime drama. In section one and section two, it goes from the world-weary boss with a young, chippy sidekick to the mismatched partners who end up with grudging respect for each other. Then, in part three, it’s a political conspiracy thriller. I quite consciously tried to inhabit these different iterations of crime writing, as a way to explore the city.

But this has all just been a long-winded way of saying that I would not pretend or presume any kind of real policing knowledge of the way cities work. I suspect, probably, like most things, actual genuine policing is considerably less interesting than it is in its fictionalized version—but I honestly don’t know.

[Images: New York City crime scene photographs].

BLDGBLOG: There’s a book that came out a few years ago called The Meadowlands, by Robert Sullivan. At one point, Sullivan tags along with a retired detective in New Jersey who reveals that, now that he’s retired, he no longer really knows what to do with all the information he’s accumulated about the city over the years. Being retired means he basically knows thousands of things about the region that no longer have any real use for him. He thus comes across as a very melancholy figure, almost as if all of it was supposed to lead up to some sort of narrative epiphany—where he would finally and absolutely understand the city—but then retirement came along and everything went back to being slightly pointless. It was an interpretive comedown, you might say.

Miéville: That kind of specialized knowledge, in any field, can be intoxicating. If you experience a space—say, a museum—with a plumber, you may well come out with a different sense of the strengths and weaknesses of that museum—considering the pipework, as well, of course, as the exhibits—than otherwise. This is one reason I love browsing specialist magazines in fields about which I know nothing.

Obviously, then, with something that is explicitly concerned with uncovering and solving, it makes perfect sense that seeing the city through the eyes of a police detective would give you a very self-conscious view of what’s happening out there.

In terms of fiction, though, I think, if anything, the drive is probably the opposite. Novelists have an endless drive to aestheticize and to complicate. I know there’s a very strong tradition—a tradition in which I write, myself—about the decoding of the city. Thomas de Quincey, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Iain Sinclair—that type-thing. The idea that, if you draw the right lines across the city, you’ll find its Kabbalistic heart and so on.

The thing about that is that it’s intoxicating—but it’s also bullshit. It’s bullshit and it’s paranoia—and it’s paranoia in a kind of literal sense, in that it’s a totalizing project. As long as you’re constantly aware of that, at an aesthetic level, then it’s not necessarily a problem; you’re part of a process of urban mythologization, just like James Joyce was, I suppose. But the sense that this notion of uncovering—of taking a scalpel to the city and uncovering the dark truth—is actually real, or that it actually solves anything, and is anything other than an aesthetic sleight of hand, can be quite misleading, and possibly even worse than that. To the extent that those texts do solve anything, they only solve mysteries that they created in the first place, which they scrawled over the map of a mucky contingent mess of history called the city. They scrawled a big question mark over it and then they solved it.

Arthur Machen does this as well. All the great weird fiction city writers do it. Machen explicitly talks about the strength of London, as opposed to Paris, in that London is more chaotic. Although he doesn’t put it in these words, I think what partly draws him to London is this notion that, in the absence of a kind of unifying vision, like Haussmann’s Boulevards, and in a city that’s become much more syncretic and messy over time, you have more room to insert your own aestheticizing vision.

As I say, it’s not in and of itself a sin, but to think of this as a real thing—that it’s a lived political reality or a new historical understanding of the city—is, I think, a misprision.

BLDGBLOG: You can see this, as well, in the rise of psychogeography—or, at least, some popular version of it—as a tool of urban analysis in architecture today. This popularity often fails to recognize that, no matter how fun or poetic an experience it genuinely might be, randomly wandering around Boston with an iPhone, for instance, is not guaranteed to produce useful urban insights.

Miéville: Some really interesting stuff has been done with psychogeography—I’m not going to say it’s without uses other than for making pretty maps. I mean, re-experiencing lived urban reality in ways other than how one is more conventionally supposed to do so can shine a new light on things—but that’s an act of political assertion and will. If you like, it’s a kind of deliberate—and, in certain contexts, radical—misunderstanding. Great, you know—good on you! You’ve productively misunderstood the city. But I think that the bombast of these particular—what are we in now? fourth or fifth generation?—psychogeographers is problematic.

Presumably at some point we’re going to get to a stage, probably reasonably soon, in which someone—maybe even one of the earlier generation of big psychogeographers—will write the great book against psychogeography. Not even that it’s been co-opted—it’s just wheel-spinning.

BLDGBLOG: In an interview with Ballardian, Iain Sinclair once joked that psychogeography, as a term, has effectively lost all meaning. Now, literally any act of walking through the city—walking to work in the morning, walking around your neighborhood, walking out to get a bagel—is referred to as “psychogeography.” It’s as if the experience of being a pedestrian in the city has become so unfamiliar to so many people, that they now think the very act of walking around makes them a kind of psychogeographic avant-garde.

Miéville: It’s no coincidence, presumably, that Sinclair started wandering out of the city and off into fields.

[Image: Art by Vincent Chong for the Subterranean Press edition of Kraken].

BLDGBLOG: This brings us to something I want to talk about from Kraken, which comes out in paperback here in the States next week. In that book, you describe a group of people called the Londonmancers. They’re basically psychogeographers with a very particular, almost parodically mystical understanding of the city. How does Kraken utilize this idea of an occult geography of greater London?

Miéville: Yes, this relates directly to what we were just saying. For various reasons, some cities refract, through aesthetics and through art, with a particular kind of flamboyancy. For whatever reason, London is one of them. I don’t mean to detract from all the other cities in the world that have their own sort of Gnosticism, but it is definitely the case that London has worked particularly well for this. There are a couple of moments in the book of great sentimentality, as well, written, I think, when I was feeling very, very well disposed toward London.

I think, in those terms, that I would locate myself completely in the tradition of London phantasmagoria. I see myself as very much doing that kind of thing. But, at the same time, as the previous answer showed, I’m also rather ambivalent to it and sort of impatient with it—probably with the self-hating zeal of someone who recognizes their own predilections!

Kraken, for me, in a relatively light-hearted and comedic form, is my attempt to have it both ways: to both be very much in that tradition and also to take the piss out of it. Reputedly, throughout Kraken, the very act of psychogeographic enunciation and urban uncovering is both potentially an important plot point and something that does uncover a genuine mystery; but it is also something that is ridiculous and silly, an act of misunderstanding. It’s all to do with what Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow, called kute korrespondences: “hoping to zero in on the tremendous and secret Function whose name, like the permuted names of God, cannot be spoken.”

The London within Kraken feels, to me, much more dreamlike than the London of something like King Rat. That’s obviously a much earlier book, and I now write very differently; but King Rat, for all its flaws, is a book very much to do with its time. It’s not just to do with London; it’s to do with London in the mid-nineties. It’s a real, particular London, phantasmagorized.

But Kraken is also set in London—and I wanted to indulge all my usual Londonisms and take them to an absurd extreme. The idea, for example, as you say, of this cadre of mages called the Londonmancers: that’s both in homage to parts of that tradition, and also, hopefully, an extension of it to a kind of absurdity—the ne plus ultra, you know?

BLDGBLOG: Kraken also makes some very explicit maritime gestures—the squid, of course, which is very redolent of H.P. Lovecraft, but also details such as the pirate-like duo of Goss and Subby. This maritime thread pops up, as well, in The Scar, with its floating city of linked ships. My question is: how do your interests in urban arcana and myth continue into the sphere of the maritime, and what narrative or symbolic possibilities do maritime themes offer your work?

Miéville: Actually, I think I was very restrained about Lovecraft. I think the book mentions Cthulhu twice—which, for a 140,000 or 150,000-word novel about giant squid cults, is pretty restrained! That’s partly because, as you say, if you write a book about a tentacular monster with a strange cult associated with it, anyone who knows the field is going to be thinking immediately in terms of Lovecraft. And I’m very, very impressed by Lovecraft—he’s a big presence for me—but, partly for that very reason, I think Kraken is one of the least Lovecrafty things I’ve done.

As to the question of maritimism, like a lot of my interests, it’s more to do with how it has been filtered through fiction, rather than how it is in reality. In reality, I have no interest in sailing. I’ve done it, I think, once.

But maritime fiction, from Gulliver’s Travels onward, I absolutely love. I love that it has its own set of traditions; in some ways, it’s a kind of mini-canon. It has its own riffs. There are some lovely teasings of maritime fiction within Gulliver’s Travels where he gets into the pornography of maritime terminology: mainstays and capstans and mizzens and so on, which, again, feature quite prominently in The Scar.

[Image: “An Imaginary View of the Arsenale” by J.M.W. Turner, courtesy of the Tate].

BLDGBLOG: In the context of the maritime, I was speaking to Reza Negarestani recently and he mentioned a Russian novella from the 1970s called “The Crew Of The Mekong,” suggesting that I ask you about your interest in it. Reza, of course, wrote Cyclonopedia, which falls somewhere between, say, H.P. Lovecraft and ExxonMobil, and for which you supplied an enthusiastic endorsement.

Miéville: Yes, I was blown away by Reza’s book—partly just because of the excitement of something that seems genuinely unclassifiable. It really is pretty much impossible to say whether you’re reading a work of genre fiction or a philosophical textbook or both of the above. There’s also the slightly crazed pseudo-rigor of it, and the sense that this is philosophy as inspired by schlocky horror movies as much as by Alain Badiou.

There’s a phrase that Kim Newman uses: post-genre horror. It’s a really nice phrase for something which is clearly inflected in a horror way, and clearly emerges out of the generic tradition of horror, but is no longer reducible to it. I think that Reza’s work is a very, very good example of that. As such, Cyclonopedia is one of my favorite books of the last few years.

BLDGBLOG: So Reza pointed me to “The Crew of the Mekong,” a work of Russian maritime scifi. The authors describe it, somewhat baroquely, as “an account of the latest fantastic discoveries, happenings of the eighteenth century, mysteries of matter, and adventures on land and at sea.” What drew you to it?

Miéville: I can’t remember exactly what brought me to it, to be perfectly honest: it was in a secondhand bookshop and I bought it because it looked like an oddity.

It’s very odd in terms of the shape of its narrative; it sort of lurches, with a story within a story, including a long, extended flashback within the larger framing narrative, and it’s all wrapped up in this pulp shell. In terms of the story itself, if I recall, it was actually me who suggested it to Reza because it has loads of stuff in it about oil, plastic resins, and pipelines, and one of the characters works for an institute called the Institute of Surfaces, which deals with the weird physics and uncanny properties of surfaces and topology.

Some of the flashback scenes and some of the background I’ve seen described as proto-steampunk, which I think is highly anachronistic: it’s more of an elective affinity, that, if you like retro-futurity, you might also like this. At a bare minimum, it’s a book worth reading simply because it’s very odd; at a maximum, some of the things going on it are philosophically interesting, although in a bizarre way.

But foreign pulp always has that peculiar kind of feeling to it, because you have a distinct cultural remove. At its worst, that can lead to an awful kind of orientalism, but it’s undeniably fascinating as a reader.

BLDGBLOG: It’s interesting that depictions of maritime journeys can maintain such strong mythic and imaginative resonance, even across wildly different cultures, eras, genres, and artforms—whether it’s “The Crew of the Mekong” or The Scar, Valhalla Rising or Moby Dick.

Miéville: The maritime world in general is an over-determined symbol of pretty much anything you want it to be—just fill in the blank: yearning, manifest destiny, whatever. It’s a very fecund field. My own interest in it comes pretty much through fiction and, to a certain extent, art. I wish I had a bit more money, in fact, because I would buy a lot of those fairly cheap, timeless, uncredited, late 19th-century, early 20th-century seascapes that you see on sale in a lot of thrift shops.

You also mentioned Goss and Subby. Goss and Subby themselves I never thought of as pirates, in fact. They were my go at iterating the much-masticated trope of the freakishly monstrous duo, figures who are, in some way that I suspect is politically meaningful, and that one day I’ll try to parse, generally even worse than their boss. They often speak in a somewhat odd, stilted fashion, like Hazel and Cha-Cha, or Croup and Vandemar, or various others. The magisterial TV Tropes has a whole entry on such duos called “Those Two Bad Guys.” The tweak that I tried to add with Goss and Subby was to integrate an idea from a Serbian fairy-tale called—spoiler!—“BasCelik.” For anyone who knows that story, this is a big give-away.

Again, though, I think you have to ration your own predilections. I have always been very faithful to my own loves: I look at my notebooks or bits of paper from when I was four and, basically, my interests haven’t changed. Left to my own devices, I would probably write about octopuses, monsters, occasionally Tarzan, and that’s really it. From a fairly young age, the maritime yarn was one of those.

But you can’t just give into your own drives, or you simply end up writing the same book again and again.

[Image: Mapping old London].

BLDGBLOG: Along those lines, are there any settings or environments—or even particular cities—that would be a real challenge for you to work with? Put another way, can you imagine giving yourself a deliberate challenge to write a novel set out in the English suburbs, or even in a place like Los Angeles? How might that sort of unfamiliar, seemingly very un-Miéville-like landscape affect your plots and characters?

Miéville: That’s a very interesting question. I really like that approach, in terms of setting yourself challenges that don’t come naturally. It’s almost a kind of Oulipo approach. It’s tricky, though, because you have to find something that doesn’t come naturally, but, obviously, you don’t want to write about something that doesn’t interest you. It has to be something that interests you contradictorally, or contrarily.

To be honest, the suburbs don’t attract me, for a bunch of reasons. I think it’s been done to death. I think anyone who tried to do that after J. G. Ballard would be setting themselves up for failure. As I tried to say when I did my review of the Ballard collection for The Nation, one of the problems is that, with an awful lot of suburban art today, it is pitched as this tremendously outré and radical claim to say that the suburbs are actually hotbeds of perversity—whereas, in fact, that is completely the cliché now. If you wanted to do something interesting, you would have to write about terribly boring suburbs, which would loop all the way back round again, out of interesting, through meta-interesting, and back down again to boring. So I doubt I would do something set in the suburbs.

I am quite interested in wilderness. Iron Council has quite a bit of wilderness, and that was something that I really liked writing and that I’d like to try again.

But, to be honest, it’s different kinds of urban space that appeal to me. If you’re someone who can’t drive, like I can’t, you find a lot of American cities are not just difficult, but really quite strange. I spend a lot of time in Providence, Rhode Island, and it’s a nice town, but it just doesn’t operate like a British town. A lot of American towns don’t. The number of American cities where downtown is essentially dead after seven o’clock, or in which you have these strange little downtowns, and then these quite extensive, sprawling but not quite suburban surroundings that all call themselves separate cities, that segue into each other and often have their own laws—that sort of thing is a very, very strange urban political aesthetic to me.

I’ve been thinking about trying to write a story not just set, for example, in Providence, but in which Providence, or another city that operates in a very non-English—or non-my-English—fashion, is very much part of the structuring power of the story. I’d be interested in trying something like that.

But countries all around the world have their own specificities about the way their urban environments work. I was in India recently, for example. It was a very brief trip, and I’m sure some of this was just wish fulfillment or aesthetic speculation, but I became really obsessed with the way, the moment you touched down at a different airport, you got out and you breathed the air, Mumbai felt different to Delhi, felt different to Kolkata, felt different to Chennai.

Rather than syncretizing a lot of those elements, I’d like to try to be really, really faithful to one or another city, which is not my city, in the hopes that, being an outsider, I might notice certain aspects that otherwise one would not. There’s a certain type of ingenuous everyday inhabiting of a city, which is very pre-theoretical for something like psychogeography, but it brings its own insights, particularly when it doesn’t come naturally or when it goes wrong.

There’s a lovely phrase that I think Algernon Blackwood used to describe someone’s bewilderment: he describes him as being bewildered in the way a man is when he’s looking for a post box in a foreign city. It’s a completely everyday, quotidian thing, and he might walk past it ten times, but he doesn’t—he can’t—recognize it.

That kind of very, very low-level alienation—the uncertainty about how do you hail a taxi, how do you buy food in this place, if somebody yells something from their top window, why does everyone move away from this part of the street and not that part? It’s that kind of very low-level stuff, as opposed to the kind of more obvious, dramatic differences, and I think there might be a way of tapping into that knowledge, knowledge that the locals don’t even think to tell you, that might be an interesting way in.

To that extent, it would be cities that I like but in which I’m very much an outsider that I’d like to try to tap.

• • •

Thanks to China Miéville for finding time to have this conversation, including scheduling a phone call at midnight in order to wrap up the final questions. Thanks, as well, to Nicola Twilley, who transcribed 95% of this interview and offered editorial feedback while it was in process, and to Tim Maly who first told me about the towns of Derby Line–Stanstead.

Miéville’s newest book, Embassytown, comes out in the U.S. in May; show your support for speculative fiction and pre-order a copy soon. If you are new to Miéville’s work, meanwhile, I might suggest starting with The City and The City.

Ruin, Space, and Shadow: An Interview with Mike Mignola

[Image: From a cover by Mike Mignola for Hellboy: The Storm, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

For half a decade now, I’ve been an avid fan of the work of Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, the B.P.R.D., and Abe Sapien, among many others, including, most recently, the new series Witchfinder and Baltimore. When my wife and I moved back to California last August, the heaviest boxes were the ones I’d stuffed full of graphic novels by Mike Mignola, which I’ve been hoarding whenever money allows. It’s become an addiction: the incredible old castle interiors and snowbound mountain landscapes of Conqueror Worm, the Mesoamerican design motifs emerging like mazes from pitch black walls of shadow in Seed of Destruction, the graveyards of ships wrecked on rocks before coastal citadels in Strange Places, and all of it shot through with Mignola’s dark sarcasm and humor.

Mignola’s work outlines an endlessly captivating world, somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Norse epics, Dracula—as rewritten by Jules Verne—and the Discovery Channel. Equal parts archaeology and horror fiction, Indiana Jones and The Thing, heretical mythology and conspiracy science, once Mignola’s work digs its plot lines and landscapes into you, it seems impossible to shake.

The buildings, terrains, and spaces Mignola’s plots take place within are equally extraordinary: there are remote, factory-like castles north of the Arctic Circle, wired floor-to-ceiling with arcane laboratory equipment; maritime plagues and New England shipwrecks; intelligent geological formations in space, larger than planets, signaling down to Army radar stations at the end of World War II; abandoned mines and ruined churches; Mayan fragments mounted on the luxurious, candlelit walls of Alpine mansions; Nazi conspiracies and fallen astronauts; derelict Victorian houses wrapped in fog on the coastal moor.

In addition to his prolific work as a graphic artist, Mignola has served as a visual consultant on three films by Guillermo Del Toro, each better than the previous: Blade II, Hellboy, and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. With Christopher Golden, he is co-author of the recent novel Baltimore; he has drawn covers for Conan the Barbarian, X-Men, Aliens versus Predator, Superman, and dozens of others; and his Eisner Award-winning graphic novel, The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects, was republished in 2010.

[Image: A cover by Mike Mignola for B.P.R.D.: The Warning, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

Mike Mignola recently talked to BLDGBLOG about his interests, including H.P. Lovecraft, wartime landscapes, and houses on the verge of collapse, with a specific focus on what it means to draw spaces of horror and mythology. We spoke by phone.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’ve long been interested in how people outside of the architectural world use buildings, landscapes, cities, and other spaces as a way to frame mood or character. Your own work, from Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. to Abe Sapien and Baltimore, is full of ruined churches, old battlefields, houses with flooded basements, warped floors and empty attics, and other straightforwardly Gothic landmarks. What draws you to these particular building types and locations, and how do these settings then affect your plot lines and characters?

Mike Mignola: Well, I am unapologetically old-fashioned in my use of Gothic settings. Ever since I was a kid, when I read Dracula, I’ve just loved those kinds of places.

I have never done a story in a shopping mall because, even if I’m not drawing it myself, I don’t want to see somebody draw a shopping mall. In the Hellboy world, and in other things I’ve done, those places almost don’t exist. When I do Eastern Europe—and I’ve been to Eastern Europe, and I’ve seen the shopping malls and the god-awful housing projects and things, and there are horror stories that take place in there, I have no doubt—but I gravitate toward the classic, clichéd, spooky places, whether they truly exist in this world or not.

But that’s the world I want to live in, and it’s the world my characters live in.

[Images: (left) A cover from Hellboy: The Wild Hunt; (middle) from the cover of Rex Mundi by Arvid Nelson and Juan Ferreyra; (right) a cover from Hellboy: The Wild Hunt. All artwork by Mike Mignola, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: Beyond shopping malls, I’m curious if there are other sorts of anti-Mignola settings, so to speak—places where you just could never set a story, even if it’s just a bank in London.

Mignola: I’m not going to do any stories that I don’t want to draw—and, for the most part, those are places that also just aren’t particularly interesting for me to write about.

It’s interesting, because the spin-off book from HellboyB.P.R.D.—is written by another writer. I have some involvement there, but the books are written by somebody else. You look at that book now, and the current storyline takes place in a trailer park. It’s entirely made of the places I have no interest in writing about—but the other writer doesn’t have my overwhelming love of the Gothic. He’s a much more modern type of writer, so we differ on our choice of locations.

But, now, a haunted bank? You know, that would be cool—but it would have to be a really, really old bank. And preferably a bank that’s been abandoned for a bunch of years, so you have cobwebs and things. I just like those old, spooky settings.

[Images: Covers by Mike Mignola, from Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus and Abe Sapien: The Drowning, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: There’s a maritime undercurrent in much of your work, including Hellboy, Abe Sapien, and, of course, the plague ships of Baltimore. It’s a kind of maritime Gothic—a world of shipwrecks and sea monsters and lighthouses on foggy coasts.

Mignola: Shipwrecks are great—but ships in general, even when they’re not wrecked, as long as they’re old school sailing ships, are wonderfully Gothic. I don’t know that I’ve done a lot of stories—if any stories—with ships that are 20th-century ships. I like the romance and the spookiness and the tragedy that goes with that old time sea travel. Those stories pertaining to ships are huge. I love them. They’re a big genre within ghost story fiction.

One of my favorite authors—a guy named William Hope Hodgson—most of his career, or a large chunk of his career, was writing supernatural ships-at-sea stories. There’s a romance in that old school, Gothic-y way to the world. And, basically, everything I love, I try to bring into my work. This world, or these different worlds that I’m creating, are entirely made of stuff that I love and think about.

Everything that I’m a fan of, I want to put into these worlds.

[Images: Photos by Fred R. Conrad, courtesy of The New York Times].

BLDGBLOG: Last summer, construction workers uncovered the remains of an old ship buried in the mud beneath the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, and some of the photos later printed in the New York Times, taken by Fred R. Conrad, were like something straight out of a Mike Mignola story. In some ways, it seemed like the perfect opening scene for a film version of Abe Sapien or for Hellboy 3—as if beneath, or even inside, the island of Manhattan we find this rotting, Gothic, semi-forgotten maritime history.

Mignola: Yeah, you know, I love history. I’m not a scholar—I’m not an historian—but it’s mostly because I just don’t have time. There’s too much other stuff I’m trying to keep on top of. But I love that sense of the buried past.

[Image: From Hellboy: The Wild Hunt, written by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie; art by Duncan Fegredo and Patric Reynolds. Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: I want to go back to the idea of setting. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a setting that you’ve devised for a certain storyline simply doesn’t work for Hellboy, say, so you have to use—or even invent—another character, or an entirely different plot, in order to use the architecture? In other words, how does setting—that is, how can architecture—affect plot and characterization, and vice versa?

Mignola: Well, part of the Baltimore series we’re doing now takes place on a World War 1 battlefield. I love that setting. It’s wonderfully rich in horror and drama—but it’s really hard for me to do a Hellboy story that takes place on a World War 1 battlefield. I could do it, and I’ve done stories like that, where it’s a time travel -slash- dream kind of thing—in fact, in an upcoming issue of Hellboy, I do have another character who I’ve tied to World War 1—but, to do it right, you need a World War 1 story.

So I came up with the Baltimore novel—and, now, the comic—to address that.

There’s also Victorian London, which I love. I came up with a Hellboy story once where he kind of time-traveled back to Victorian London—it seemed a little goofy to me—but I knew that I wanted to do Victorian London, so it was just a question of making a character who functioned in that world.

In a lot of cases, though, I am creating characters in order to see these places—these times, these settings. But, from the very beginning, I’ve known what kinds of stories I’ve wanted to do—so it’s also a question of finding the character who belongs to that world, as an excuse to draw that world.

[Images: Preview spreads from Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels. Art by Ben Stenbeck, story by Mike Mignola, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics. If this gets you hooked, purchase the book].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about your work method, as far as nailing the details of these settings and landscapes. Do you travel a lot, watch a lot of movies, look at lots of photographs, talk to archaeologists—or it is really just an act of imagination?

Mignola: It’s a little bit of everything. I do watch a lot of films—which is great for getting the voice and the general character and the atmosphere—but I tend to come up with stories that are not super-specific to particular locations.

If I’m doing Victorian London, I’m not trying to do that story for a scholar of Victorian London. In a way, I say that this is more like a 1940s film version of London—in other words, I want to do at least the level of research that you’d see in an old Hollywood film. So I’ve given myself a little distance from reality with that.

But, as I say, I do like history. If I’m doing something specific, I’ve got a ton of reference books here in the studio, and I’ll try to make sure I get some of the names right and some of the dates right, if I’m referring to specific things. But, for the most part, I tend to shy away from plotting stories that are going to require a lot of very specific, historical research.

In Witchfinder, where I’m doing Whitechapel—well, I’ve been to Whitechapel. But I’m writing about 1880s, or maybe 1870s, Whitechapel, and I want it to seem like the real thing. So I did a little bit of homework on the East End. But the trouble with doing research for this stuff is that you start finding so much material that’s interesting, after you’ve already plotted the story, and you think, oh, I want to use this, and I want to use this, and I want to use this—well, uh oh, too late.

In terms of specifics, a little bit of dialogue, a little bit of color, a little bit of flavor, will give any story a certain amount of authenticity, but I’m not looking to make giant plot points out of that kind of stuff. It’s just background. Most of my buildings, and most of the things I do stories around—when I’m drawing these things, I’m trying to create objects, buildings, ships, whatever, with a particular background. I want it to feel like there is more to the story than can be told.

But, yes, you know, I have traveled a bit—and people love to think that what I’m doing comes from lots of traveling, and from talking to old monks and that sort of thing—

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Mignola: —and I have spent more time in Prague than I ever thought possible. But, other than a story I haven’t yet done—about a haunted couch—there are no experiences I’ve had that I’ve turned into stories. And the couch wasn’t haunted, you’ll be glad to hear; I think it was just infested with some kind of Eastern European insect.

For more exotic locations—like I did a story once set in Malaysia. It was entirely because I’d read a description years ago of a particular kind of Malaysian creature—a vampire—and I just knew I was going to do that story someday. But I needed pictures of Malaysia; I needed to do Malaysia research. That went back and forth for years, until, one day, I stumbled upon a book that just had really good photos of Malaysia. And that was it. It was the same with Norway: it was just a matter of some guy at a convention coming up to me with a book once that had great photos of Norway.

You know, I’m constantly looking for visual references. Story-wise, I’ve got all that stuff in my library—but I can never have enough photo references. There are still stories that are waiting to be told until I have the right references; and there are certain stories that I decided to set in a location just as an excuse for me to draw a particular place or building.

For instance, I did a story a couple of years ago called “In the Chapel of Moloch.” It was designed to take place almost entirely inside an old chapel. But the story wasn’t set in any particular location; it was just a matter of going to the books I had and looking for a building that would be fun to draw, or for a city that would be fun to draw, and I happened to have a book on Portugal. It had these great photos of decrepit hill towns, and a couple really good pictures of an old chapel. There was nothing about the story that was specific to Portugal—it was just that Portugal would be fun to draw. It was a nice, exotic location that I had never drawn before. And that’s usually how it works.

[Images: From Hellboy: In the Chapel of Moloch by Mike Mignola, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: Stepping away from the idea of setting, I’m also interested in how you populate your stories with this constantly shifting catalog of sinister, yet natural, creatures: amphibians, frogs, worms, apes, gorillas. What is it about these particular species that works so well in terms of developing your mythological world?

Mignola: Well, I think monkeys are funny—that’s the easiest answer there. I don’t really love monkeys—but they’re kind of fun to draw. Something I always say is: monkeys always work. [laughter] People just like to see monkeys show up in these stories. I think it’s the absurdity of it.

In one of the first issues of Hellboy, I showed a 1940s scientist. I was drawing a bunch of scientists in a room, and one guy was actually just a severed head in a jar—but that wasn’t enough. The picture needed something else. So I drew a giant gorilla towering over them, with these Frankenstein-like bolts sticking out of his neck.

Oh—and you know what? Go back even earlier than that. Go back to one of the try-out stories—one of the teaser stories—before I even started the Hellboy series. It was a Frankenstein gorilla about to stick a needle in a girl’s neck—and, not that I stole the image from pulp magazines, but it’s such an old, clichéd, pulp magazine image. Making it a Frankenstein gorilla probably took it one step further, and made it my own, but it’s just… it’s funny. It’s so absurd it’s funny.

So, yeah, I use monkeys. And monkeys are usually the animal you associate with animal-testing. For instance, there’s another story where Hellboy’s blood is being extracted—and what are you going to inject Hellboy’s blood into? A rat? A rat just isn’t as much fun to draw turning into a giant hell-rat—actually, that’s not a bad idea—but it would be much more fun to take a monkey and turn it into a big demon-monkey, which is what I did.

As far as frogs and other amphibian stuff—that, again, is a reference to this kind of H.P. Lovecraft worldview where anything from the ocean is scary. Frogs, in a Lovecraft sense, are associated with some kind of unknowable world. They’re not from the ocean, but they’re also not from, you know, the woods. Where do they come from? And why are they always out there… chirping, or whatever the hell it is that frogs do? Lovecraft also uses birds that way—and birds are great—but I have a harder time drawing birds than frogs.

In the very first issue of Hellboy, I did a sequence with frogs in it, and it just sort of stuck. I established it early. Frogs will be my kind of icon characters; when frogs show up, you know something bad’s going to happen. They become symbolic of this kind of evil that’s always running around in the background.

And then things just tend to snowball. You know, you hear about something like a “rain of frogs,” which happens periodically for whatever reason—it’s one of those weird phenomena that gets written about—and, I thought, well, let me have a little bit of that kind of action. I mean, that’s a weird thing and it’s got a kind of authenticity to it: there’s something about it that’s unnatural, yet supposedly it does really happen. And I like that.

But I think you’ve put more thought into these questions than I have into why I do these things!

[Images: Covers by Mike Mignola, from Abe Sapien: The Drowning and B.P.R.D.: War on Frogs, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: No, this is fascinating. It’s great to hear how you work. You mentioned H.P. Lovecraft: I’m curious to hear what you think it is about the Lovecraft universe—about the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft—that remains so appealing. In fact, it actually seems to be increasing in popularity today.

Mignola: For me, the monsters in Lovecraft are… you know, they’re fine. But what’s really appealing to me is his antiquarian sensibility. It’s the old houses in Rhode Island. It’s the fact that the guys are all scholars and they’re researching things, and there are references to different editions of this book or that book, and this edition is in that library, and a Latin translation of that book is in this other library. He writes about smart guys who spend a lot of time in libraries—and I love that.

His stories are set in a time when people are still wearing suits everyday. They even have upturned collars and things like that. There’s just a wonderfully old-fashioned, scholarly antiquarian feel to the stuff. It bridges the gap between modern horror and the old, classic M.R. James ghost stories—Lovecraft just added bigger monsters. Instead of some shadowy thing that skitters along the wall, it’s a giant octopus in space that makes people go crazy.

But it’s his obsession with old buildings, and shuttered windows, and climbing into church steeples—it’s his locations. I just love that.

[Images: Covers by Mike Mignola, from Hellboy: The Storm and B.P.R.D.: King of Fear, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: As well as things like abandoned fishing towns in New England, with collapsing wharves and moonlit salt marshes and that sort of thing.

Mignola: That’s actually one of my dream projects: to sit around and do half a dozen paintings of those towns. To do a series of drawings that’s just called Arkham, and it’s all about these buildings in creepy old coastal towns where the walls are falling over and they have these wonderful leans.

[Images: Covers by Mike Mignola, from Hellboy: The Sleeping and the Dead and Hellboy: Double Feature of Evil, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: That brings us back to the idea of architecture and the role that architecture plays in your work. What brings you to draw a certain building or structure—and what do you add or exaggerate to make it more your own?

Mignola: [laughs] Well, once upon a time, when I started all this stuff, the one thing I didn’t want to draw at all was buildings. Because, growing up in California, buildings to me were an exercise in using a ruler and perspective, and shit like that. I just had no interest in drawing that kind of stuff.

It was only after having lived in New York for a while, around really old buildings—where you see that, actually, this building’s kind of sagging and that building’s kind of leaning against the other building next door and this chimney looks like, if those three wires weren’t there, it would all fall over, and that fire escape is at some odd angle—that’s when I really started to love architecture.

It’s one of those things that is still evolving in my work, as I become more and more comfortable drawing that sort of stuff: my buildings lean more.

Right now, I’m drawing an old house, and the house is leaning one way, the fence is leaning another way; I’m working from photo references, as I love to do, but I’m able to exaggerate it, and say, yeah, okay, this building’s kind of crooked in the photo, but let’s lean it way the hell over there. Let’s throw a couple of sticks out of it this way. Let’s make the building next door look like it’s about to fall over. And let’s make everything dark.

It’s really one of my favorite things to draw these days: old, crumbling architecture.

[Image: From “The Whittier Legacy” by Mike Mignola, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics; originally published in USA Today].

BLDGBLOG: Is there a particular building in your recent work that stands out this way?

Mignola: I recently did an 8-page story for USA Today called “The Whittier Legacy.” I said I was going to keep it simple for myself; I would set it almost entirely inside a house, in the dark. The way the story’s structured, we’re not going to spend a lot of time drawing furniture, little details, and things like that; it could just be an old, derelict house.

The most work that went into that story was going through my references and finding a really good house that would be fun to draw. I happened to have a book on Victorian houses that had a lot of really good texture to them and really nice angles, with things jutting out at weird angles. With the way I use shadow, it’s really important to me to have some sort of structure where things are going to be jutting out at different angles—because you can say, okay, if I light it on this side, that bit’s going to be in shadow; but if I light it on that side, then this is going to be in shadow. A square? You get light on one side and black on the other.

But if it’s a square with other things sort of jutting at you out of the shadows, and if you put a big porch on it, and, you know, it’s a derelict place so it’s all sort of sagging the way those old places start to do—then that’s a really good day for me, being able to draw stuff like that.

• • •

Thanks to Mike Mignola for taking the time to talk—and for producing so many awesome comics. Thanks, as well, to Jim Gibbons, Jeremy Atkins, and Scott Allie at Dark Horse Comics for their help with the images. If this interview piques your interest, consider picking up some of Mignola’s work for yourself.

The Archigram Archive

[Image: From an “ongoing speculative proposal exploring the implications of cones of vision and their interaction with an existing neoclassical ‘temple’ on the River Thames in Henley, Berkshire,” by Archigram/Michael Webb].

As of roughly 16 hours ago, the Archigram Archival Project is finally online and ready to for browsing, courtesy of the University of Westminster: the archive “makes the work of the seminal architectural group Archigram available free online for public viewing and academic study.”

The newly launched site includes more than 200 projects; “this comprises projects done by members before they met, the Archigram magazines (grouped together at no. 100), the projects done by Archigram as a group between 1961 and 1974, and some later projects.” There are also brief biographies of each participating member of the collaborative group: Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb.

[Image: “Proposal for a series of inflatable dwellings as part of an exhibition for the Commonwealth Festival, located in the lodge of Cardiff Castle,” by Archigram/Ron Herron].

Even at their most surreal, it feels as if Archigram did, in fact, accurately foresee what the architectural world was coming to. After all, if Chalk & Co. had built the things around us, there would be electricity supplies in the middle of nowhere and drive-in housing amidst the sprawl; for good or for bad, we’d all be playing with gadgets like the Electronic Tomato, that perhaps would not have given the iPhone a run for its money but was a “mobile sensory stimulation device,” nonetheless. We might even live together on the outer fringes of “extreme suburbs,” constructed like concentric halos around minor airports, such as Peter Cook’s “Crater City,” an “earth sheltered hotel-type city around central park,” or “Hedgerow Village,” tiny clusters of houses like North Face tents “hidden in hedgerow strips.”

There would be temporary, inflatable additions to whole towns and cities; pyramidal diagrid megastructures squatting over dead neighborhoods like malls; dream cities like Rorschach blots stretched across the sky, toothed and angular Montreal Towers looming in the distance; plug-in universities and capsule homes in a computer-controlled city of automatic switches and micro-pneumatic infrastructure.

At its more bizarre, there would have been things like the Fabergram castle, as if the Teutonic Knights became an over-chimneyed race of factory-builders in an era of cheap LSD, reading Gormenghast in Disneyworld, or this proposal “for technology enabling underwater farming by scuba divers, including chambers, floats and tubes for walking and farm control.” After all, Archigram asked, why live in a house at all when you can live in a submarine? Why use airplanes when you can ride a magic carpet constructed from shining looms in a “‘reverse hovercraft’ facility where a body can be held at an adjustable point in space through the use of jets of air”?

[Image: “Speculative proposal showing use of the ‘Popular Pak’, a kit of architectural parts for ‘tuning-up’ existing buildings, applied to an invented suburb,” by Archigram/Ron Herron].

It might not be architects who have realized much of this fever dream of the world to come, but that doesn’t mean that these ideas have not, in many cases, been constructed. Archigram spoke of instant cities and easily deployed, reconfigurable megastructures—but the people more likely to own and operate such spaces today are Big Box retailers, with their clip-on ornaments, infinitely exchangeable modular shelving, and fleeting themes-of-the-week. Archigram’s flexible, just-in-time, climate-controlled interiors are not a sign of impending utopia, in other words, but of the reach of your neighborhood shopping mall—and the people airdropping instant cities into the middle of nowhere today are less likely to be algorithmically trained Rhino enthusiasts from architecture school, but the logistics support teams behind Bechtel and the U.S. military.

Another way of saying this is that Archigram’s ideas seem unbuilt—even unbuildable—but those ideas actually lend themselves surprisingly well to the environment in which we now live, full of “extreme suburbs,” drive-in everything, KFC-supplied army bases in the middle of foreign deserts, robot bank tellers, and huge, HVAC-dependent wonderlands on the exurban fringe.

The irony, for me, is that Archigram’s ideas have, in many ways, actually been constructed—but in most cases it was for the wrong reasons, in the wrong ways, and by the wrong people.

[Image: Proposal “fusing alternative and changing Archigram structures, amenities and facilities with traditional and nostalgic structures,” by Archigram/Peter Cook].

In any case, what was it about Archigram that promised on-demand self-transformation in an urban strobe of flashing lights but then got so easily realized as a kind of down-market Times Square? How did Archigram simply become the plug-in units of discount retail—or the Fun Palaces of forty years ago downgraded to Barnes & Noble outlets in the suburbs? How did the Walking City become Bremer Walls and Forward Operating Bases, where the Instant City meets Camp Bondsteel?

Archigram predicted a modular future propelled by cheap fuel, petrodollars, and a billion easy tons of unrecycled plastic—but, beneath that seamless gleam of artificial surfacing and extraterrestrial color combinations was a fizzy-lifting drink of human ideas—as many ideas as you could think of, sometimes imperfectly illustrated but illustrated nonetheless, and, thus, now canonical—all of it wrapped up in a dossier of new forms of planetary civilization. Archigram wasn’t just out on the prowl for better escalators or to make our buildings look like giant orchids and Venus Flytraps, where today’s avant-bust software formalism has unfortunately so far been mired; it wasn’t just bigger bank towers and the Burj Dubai.

Instead, Archigram suggested, we could all act differently if we had the right spaces in which to meet, love, and live, and what matters to me less here is whether or not they were right, or even if they were the only people saying such things (they weren’t)—what matters to me is the idea that architecture can reframe and inspire whole new anthropologies, new ways of being human on earth, new chances to do something more fun tomorrow (and later today). Architecture can reshape how we inhabit continents, the planet, and the solar system at large. Whether or not you even want inflatable attics, flying carpets, and underwater eel farms, the overwhelming impulse here is that if you don’t like the world you’ve been dropped into, then you should build the one you want.

In any case, the entire Archigram Archival Project is worth a look; even treated simply as an historical resource, its presence corrects what had been a sorely missing feature of online architecture culture: we can now finally link to, and see, Archigram’s work.

(Note: Part of the latter half of this post includes some re-edited bits from a comment I posted several months ago).

Code 46

On Monday, November 24, I’ll be hosting a live interview at the Barbican in London with director Michael Winterbottom, for a special screening of his film Code 46. You can read a bit more about the event – as well as buy tickets – here.
This is part of an ongoing series called Architecture on Film, curated by the Architecture Foundation.

[Image: From Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, courtesy of United Artists].

The purpose of the event is to talk about film and architecture – or, in this case, cities, urban design, memory, science fiction, landscape, globalization, and the built environment. As you can see from the list of locations used for the film’s production, Code 46 is very well-traveled, stitching together urban – and exurban – environments from London, Shanghai, Dubai, Hong Kong, and even the deserts of Rajasthan.
That the film achieves the feel of science fiction simply through a well-edited depiction of existing landscapes says as much about the film as it does about the nature of city-building today; perhaps one might only half-jokingly suggest that people build cities today in order to live inside science fiction films.

[Image: Shanghai, from Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom, courtesy of United Artists].

As BLDGBLOG explored the other week in a long post, “cities today are well known for popping up in the middle of nowhere, history-less and incomprehensible.”

That’s what cities now do. If these cities are here today, they weren’t five years ago; if they’re not here now, they will be soon. Today’s cities are made up, viral, fungal, unexpected. Like well-lit film sets in the distance, staged amidst mudflats, reflecting themselves in the still waters of inland reservoirs, today’s cities simply arrive, without reservations; they are not so much invited as they are impossible to turn away. Cities now erupt and linger; they are both too early and far too late. Cities move in, take root and expand, whole neighborhoods throwing themselves together in convulsions of glass and steel.

What does it mean, then, to set a film inside a mix of such spaces? And as more and more instant cities appear in the world, built from zero in less than a decade, how can cinema capitalize on the lack of recognition these historically too-new and culturally all but anonymous environments inspire?
What does it mean, as well, that the depiction of the future in Code 46 – a depiction of the future through architecture – involves no U.S. cities at all and only very brief glimpses of urban infrastructure in Europe?

[Image: Shanghai, from Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom, courtesy of United Artists].

This brings up one of the more interesting aspects of the film – something not internal to it, but created by the current state of global urbanization. The film makes it deliberately unclear, in other words, that it was shot in multiple locations at all; the opening sequence blurs together landscapes, buildings, and infrastructures from very different cities – yet this unfamiliar new place to which we’re being introduced might very well exist.
For all many viewers know, perhaps Shanghai really is in the middle of a desert; perhaps Dubai really does look exactly like Hong Kong.
This confusion only seems possible, however, within a very narrow window of historical time. As the skylines and iconic hotel interiors of Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and elsewhere become visually familiar to many more people, it will become much harder to do what Code 46 has done – which is to edit them all up into a convincing pastiche. They are a spatial collage, an urban cut-up – William S. Burroughs as architectural director.
In ten years, then, would this be akin to cutting from a shot of the Empire State Building to a shot of the Eiffel Tower and pretending that these landmarks are in the same city – only to find that almost no one has been genuinely tricked?
In a funny but negative Amazon review of the film, a disappointed viewer actually mocks this very aspect: “If I have to keep seeing these movies with the I haven’t a clue which Metro I’m in look I’m going to scream.”
But what does it mean that Asian cities – cinematically depicted as a kind of monolithic urban Other – are, for the time being, so visually unfamiliar to Western audiences that they can be edited into a seamless Global Metropolis, a vast agglomeration of spatial alterity that we can cut-and-paste together on film?
Where might Code 46 have been made if it had been produced fifteen years from now? What explosive urban outgrowths between now and then will be sufficiently unfamiliar to literally hundreds of thousands of filmgoers that they could be combined into one convincing location?
Will the sci-fi films of tomorrow be set in Lagos, Delhi, Rabat, or Shenzhen? All of the above?
It’s the future science fiction of global third-tier urbanism.
For instance, one of the most striking aspects of the urban environment in The Matrix came simply from the fact that many – though not all – of the outdoor scenes were shot in Sydney, a city with which most American viewers are not visually familiar. The urban world of the Matrix thus took on an uncanny sense of near-resemblance, looking an awful lot like a city everyone has seen before – is that Houston? Tampa Bay? Fresno? – but not enough like any single one of them to be clear.
The film Primer, shot in Dallas, is an amazing example of this: the whole time you’re watching it you have no idea where you are… though absolutely everything about it looks familiar.
The effect, particularly in Code 46, is almost literally uncanny.

[Image: The Shanghai skyline, from Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom, courtesy of United Artists].

Briefly, I’m also reminded here of Tativille, the massive film-set city built by Jacques Tati to produce his own film Playtime. Constructed solely for the purpose of hosting camera crews – and later disassembled – Tativille was a city of the image, its design shaped only by how it would look on screen. With Tativille in mind, what might future audiences think if, say, Dubai really does run out of money in the global economic downturn, its towers abandoned and eroding back to sand? It will be visible in films like Code 46 – but nowhere else. It will have ceased to exist.
It will have been a kind of Tativille of the Emirates, built only to host film crews and car commercials.
In any case, the film’s visions of desert poverty – scenes in Rajasthan – and desert opulence – scenes in Dubai – bring up the topic of uneven development. If, as William Gibson‘s oft-quoted line goes, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed, then this also appears to be true in the context of architectural form and urban landscapes.
But which one is the future: the nationless desert of rights-deprived exiles or the golf course-filled desert of the stateless business class?
Or are these perhaps one and the same, requiring each other as the flipsides of their own formation?

[Image: The opening titles of Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, courtesy of United Artists].

None of these questions are new, of course, going back in some form or another to Sergei Eisenstein, Fredric Jameson, and many, many others; but the opportunity to discuss all this with Michael Winterbottom himself in reference to a specific – and, as it happens, visually stunning – film, in a monumental and legendary architectural complex like the Barbican, is something of which I’m genuinely excited to be a part.
So if you’re in London on Monday, November 24, consider stopping by. Tickets can be purchased directly through the Barbican’s website, and you can learn a bit more about the film here.

Comparative Planetology: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

[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 his novels 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 TrilogyRed 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 –

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

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.

The Heliocentric Pantheon: An Interview with Walter Murch

[Image: Inside the Pantheon; via].

Through both film editing and sound design, Walter Murch has worked literally behind the scenes of Hollywood to give shape and structure to the films we see. In the process, he’s won three Academy Awards; he’s directed his own feature-length film, the creatively subversive Return to Oz; and he’s worked with some of the greatest directors of modern times, including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, on some of their greatest films, from The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now to The Conversation and THX-1138.
But it is due only in part to Murch’s stellar career in film that I wanted to talk to him for BLDGBLOG.
As it happens, Murch’s interests go far beyond the reach of cinema, encompassing architecture, astronomy, music theory, and mathematics – among an almost impossibly broad range of other subjects. When a friend of mine casually mentioned that Walter had “discovered” something about the Pantheon, in Rome, and that this discovery had something to do with Nicolaus Copernicus and the origins of heliocentrism in Western astronomy, I was determined to write about it for BLDGBLOG. Within only a few weeks, Walter and I were in touch.
Of course, Murch is already very well-known as an interviewee; as only one example of this, novelist Michael Ondaatje recorded an entire book’s worth of interviews with Murch, later published under the title The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.
That book is never less than fascinating, if frequently enigmatic; at one point Murch claims, for instance, referring to his sound work for film: “If I go out to record a door-slam, I don’t think I’m recording a door-slam. I think I am recording the space in which a door-slam happens.”
Or, continuing that thought:

I spent a lot of time trying to discover those key sounds that bring universes along with them. I tend not to visualize but auralize, to think about sound in terms of space. Rather than listen to the sound itself, I listen to the space in which the sound is contained.

Murch and I spoke for roughly an hour, and we continued our conversation through email; we managed to discuss the Pantheon, Copernicus, the Mithraic religion of the ancient Mediterranean, urban acoustics, the music of the spheres, Brian Eno, Single Speed Design, the architecture of film, and whether CCTV surveillance of city streets should be considered a new cinematic avant-garde.
It’s worth noting, finally, that this interview goes online only a few hours before Murch is due to speak at an event in San Francisco, co-organized by BLDGBLOG and Chronicle Books; there, he will be discussing his thoughts on Copernicus and the Pantheon in more detail.

• • •

[Image: Exterior view of the Pantheon].

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start with your research into the Pantheon – in particular, how that building’s structure may have influenced the astronomical theories of Nicolaus Copernicus. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

Walter Murch: Well, the Pantheon still holds its mysteries: Who designed it? How was it used? What does it mean? But Copernicus still has his mysteries, too: Why did someone like him, a high official in the Church, 500 years ago, dedicate his life to the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun? Not only did this contradict common-sense and the teaching of the Bible, but it also capsized 1400 years of Ptolemaic, geocentric astronomy. And Ptolemy, it turns out, was writing his classic book on astronomy – the Almagest – while the Pantheon was being built.

At any rate, Copernicus was born in 1473. He studied astronomy at the University of Bologna, along with medicine and law, and while he was there he became an assistant to Domenico Novara. Novara was a well-known astronomer who may have exposed Copernicus to the 3rd century BC theories of Aristarchus.

Aristarchus believed that the Sun was the center of the universe. He also believed that the Earth not only revolved around the Sun, along with all the other planets, but that it rotated on its axis once every 24 hours, and that the moon, in turn, revolved around the Earth. So – more than two thousand years ago – Aristarchus described the solar system essentially the way we conceive of it today; yet his theory was rejected at the time, and his writings were subsequently lost.

Scholars in the Renaissance were only able to learn about Aristarchus through a book called The Sand Reckoner, by Archimedes, where Aristarchus’s theory is described – but it’s used as the premise for an impossibly large universe. Aristarchus’s heliocentrism is almost certainly the source of Copernicus’s inspiration – but why did Copernicus take it seriously when no one else did?

In 1500, a Jubilee year, Copernicus took time off from his studies in Bologna and he moved to Rome. This is where the Pantheon comes in. Circumstantial evidence would suggest that if you were a young man of 27, footloose in Rome, the Pantheon would be high on your list of places to visit: it was probably the most famous building in the world at that time – the only intact structure from Ancient Rome – and it featured the world’s largest dome: 142 feet in diameter. It remains, to this day, the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the history of architecture.

The Pantheon had survived mainly because it was consecrated in 609, yet the overwhelming feeling when you walk into that building is pagan: a series of concentric circles surrounding a single bright source of light – which is the oculus in the center of the dome. It’s pretty certain that the Pantheon was designed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and Hadrian was a Mithraist – a worshipper of the Sun.

The only writing about the Pantheon from around the time it was built appears in the History of Rome, by Dio Cassius. Dio Cassius mentions that some people believed the name Pantheon (which is Greek for all gods) came from the statues of the many different gods which decorated the building, “but my own opinion of the name is that, because of its vaulted roof, it resembles the heavens.”

That powerful image of the central source of sunlight surrounded by a series of concentric circles must have been an overwhelming experience for Copernicus, primed by his knowledge of Aristarchus. He would have been standing in a church (St. Mary All Martyrs) built 1400 years earlier as a pagan temple, looking up at Aristarchus’s theory “in the flesh” so to speak.

[Image: The dome of the Pantheon, a “celestogramme” by Wolfgang Wackernagel].

BLDGBLOG: Are there any writings or images by Copernicus that might prove he interpreted the building this way?

Murch: There is a drawing in Revolutions, at the end of Chapter Ten, where Copernicus, for the first time, schematically illustrates his conception of the Universe. It’s a series of concentric circles, the outermost being the “Sphere of the Fixed Stars,” with progressively smaller circles representing the orbits of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus, and Mercury. In the center, of course, is the dot of the Sun. Copernicus’s exact words accompanying the drawing are significant:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the Sun. For in this most beautiful temple (in hoc pulcherimo templo) who could place this lamp in another or better position than the center, from which it can light up the whole at the same time? For, is not the Sun called ‘the lantern of the universe’ and, ‘its mind’ and by others ‘its ruler’? Hermes Trismegistus calls the Sun ‘a visible god’, and Sophocles’ Electra calls it ‘the all-seeing’. Thus indeed, as though upon a royal throne, the Sun governs the family of planets revolving around it.

What leaps out from that text are the allusions to this beautiful temple, illuminated by a central lamp – and lantern was the architectural term used in Copernicus’s time to refer to the central opening in a dome – which lights up the whole. Then there are the classical references to Hermes Trismegistus and Sophocles. These are not the words of a cautious medieval ecclesiastic, but someone deeply influenced by the ancient pre-Christian world.

[Image: A diagram of the planetary orbits, by Nicholas Copernicus].

BLDGBLOG: So, in that passage, he was simultaneously describing the structure of the Pantheon and his theory of the solar system?

Murch: In a sense.

Inspired by that description, I then superimposed Copernicus’s drawing over an image of the Pantheon’s dome – and found that the ratios of the circles in his drawing and the ratios of the circles of the Pantheon line up almost exactly. Seeing that alignment was one of those wonderful moments where you suddenly feel a strong current of connection with the past.

[Image: A superimposition, by Walter Murch, of Copernicus’s diagram of planetary orbits over a celestogramme of the Pantheon by Wolfgang Wackernagel].

BLDGBLOG: Wow! That’s not just a coincidence? Copernicus actually meant for that to happen?

Murch: The circumstantial evidence is compelling, but there is no reference to the Pantheon in any of Copernicus’s correspondence or in the various manuscript versions of de Revolutionibus – so we will probably never know for sure.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating thought: that this magnificent temple, built 1400 years before Copernicus ever saw it, designed by a pagan, Sun-worshipping Roman emperor, and later transformed into a church, may have had secretly encoded within it the idea that the Sun was the center of the universe; and that this ancient, wordless wisdom helped to revolutionize our view of the cosmos.

BLDGBLOG: As far as the organization of the solar system goes, you’ve also been doing some interesting work with Bode’s Law, which has to do with finding a mathematical pattern in the orbits of the planets. How did you first discover that Law, and where is your research going?

Murch: Well, it was something I ran across a number of years ago in Arthur Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers – a history of our conception of the universe from ancient Greece through Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to Newton. Bode’s Law is just mentioned as a footnote.

Kepler, in particular, had been obsessed with finding a pattern in the orbits of the planets – his famous Three Laws were discovered almost incidentally along the way to that goal, and he would probably be very upset to find that we remember him for his those laws (which he did not number or particularly esteem) and that we’ve forgotten the planetary harmonics to which he devoted his life. But, even by the middle of the 1600s, Kepler’s harmonies were considered a lost cause.

Then, sometime in the 1760s – more than a hundred years after Kepler – a German professor of physics inserted a formula into a French book he was translating: a simple bit of algebra which seemed to indicate there was, indeed, a pattern to the planetary orbits. That professor was Johann Titius, and his formula was later appropriated and published by the director of the Berlin observatory, Johann Bode. Bode had a much bigger megaphone than Titius, so the formula became known as Bode’s Law – but it should really be named after Titius.

When I read Sleepwalkers I was right in the middle of finishing a film – and it was odd, because I was under a tight deadline, but this idea really got under my skin. So at 11:30 at night I started fooling around with the Bode numbers, and within half an hour, I came up with a formula that generated the same set of ratios, yet was different from the original – and that really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up! That was what started me down this road, about ten years ago.

[Image: The rings of Saturn; courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: What’s the specific idea behind the Law itself? In other words, what exactly is Bode’s Law?

Murch: It’s a relatively simple exponential function, sprinkled with a few arbitrary constants – you put whole numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) in at one end and a series of different numbers come out the other (.4, .7, 1.0, 1.6, etc.). It turns out that these new numbers are very close to the average distances of the planets from the Sun, measured in Astronomical Units (AU). For instance, the Earth is (by definition) 1 AU from the Sun. Bode’s Law says that there should be a planet at .7 of that distance – and Venus is actually found at .72 AU.

Titius’s formula not only correctly described – to within a few percentage points – the average distances of the six planets known at the time, but it also predicted that there should be planets at certain distances where there seemed to be empty space. Then, in 1781, Uranus was discovered – the first planet ever to be discovered with a telescope – and its average distance turned out to be 19.2 AU, within 2% of the predicted 19.6. In 1801, Ceres, the first and largest asteroid, was discovered at 2.77 AU, within 1% of the predicted 2.8.

It was a kind of astronomical apotheosis: Titius’s formula seemed to be both descriptive and predictive: the holy grail of science. It fit all the known planets – even newly-discovered ones. So, even though nobody knew why it worked, Titius’s formula was assumed to be a Law. Unfortunately for Titius, who died in 1796, it became popularly known as Bode’s Law.

Everything was fine for the next fifty years, but then disaster struck: in 1846, another new planet was discovered – Neptune – but it didn’t fit. It should have been at 38.8 AU, but it was orbiting at 30, off by almost 30%.

It was a fatal blow. Bode’s Law fell into obscurity, where it remains to this day. Now, when you take astronomy 101, if Bode’s Law is mentioned at all, it’s presented as a historical curiosity. Or a cautionary tale of wrong thinking – luring unwary astronomers into the swamp of numerology.

But, then, when Pluto was discovered in 1930, it fit to within 2% the orbit where Neptune should have been. So rather than throw the whole thing out because one planet didn’t fit, I thought it would be interesting to set Neptune aside as a renegade and see what I could learn by applying the formula to other orbital systems.

I eventually discovered that there are parts of the formula that are linked to particular and unique aspects of our own solar system – and that these particularities are responsible for some of the arbitrary constants in the formula. I found if I could purify the formula of these constants, then I could also make it simpler and more general, and yet it would still yield the same set of ratios.

[Images: The rings – and a moon – of Saturn; courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: How did you purify it?

Murch: Well, one of the unexamined assumptions in Bode’s Law is that the unit to which everything is mathematically compared is the distance of the Earth from the Sun. This seems perfectly natural – it’s the Astronomical Unit, and the Earth is where we live. But this comparison requires the formula to perform a kind of mathematical jiu-jitsu: it has to generate a series of ratios and compare all of those ratios to the Astronomical Unit.

So it seemed more logical to abandon the Astronomical Unit and just concentrate on the ratios. Once you do that, the formula gets much simpler: it doesn’t have to do two things at once. This new formula is not only simpler, but it’s also lost its “Earth-centricity.” Now you can apply it to other orbital systems – the miniature “solar systems” of the moons around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, for instance, and you find the same set of ratios cropping up!

Of course, it’s not that the moon systems of those planets somehow duplicate the solar system – they don’t. It’s rather that, underlying all of these moons and planets, there is a pattern of ratios, like the musical ratios underlying a keyboard. Just as you are restricted to playing certain musical ratios on a keyboard, so it seems to be with the arrangements of these moons. Some systems “play” – or occupy – certain orbits that others don’t.

Applying the same formula to different systems is potentially very fruitful. By comparing orbital systems you find that, in each of system, there are a few renegades – like Neptune in our solar system – but each of these is a renegade in the same way as Neptune: all of them fall exactly at the midpoint between two adjacent Bode-predicted orbits. So there is an underlying similarity even to the exceptions.

[Image: Bode-predicted planetary orbits compared to those orbits as they are now scientifically understood].

BLDGBLOG: The “music of the spheres” is perhaps an inevitable metaphor to use here – but I’m curious if you have actually found a real, numerical correspondence between the structure of Western music and the orbits of the planets, or if it’s just a convenient metaphor.

Murch: That’s one of the startling things about this. If I wrote the simplified Bode formula down on a piece of paper and showed it to music theorists, they would ask: “Why are you showing us a formula from the overtone series…?”

In other words, Bode’s Law gives a series of orbital ratios which are mathematically identical to intervals in musical theory. They’re primarily variations on what we call the 7th chord: C, E, G, B-flat. Bode’s predicted ratio between Earth and Mars, for instance, is the same as the 5:8 musical ratio between E and C. And if you divide the distances, in kilometers, of the four Galilean moons by a common denominator you get the notes Ab, E, C, Bb. And so on.

[Image: The moons of Jupiter].

BLDGBLOG: Have you discussed these ideas with actual astronomers? How did they react?

Murch: I’ve given this, as a lecture, in various forms – at the National Convention of Digital Astronomy in Italy in 2004; at NYU in 2005; and then, last year, at the Chicago Humanities Festival. I think it was well-received in each case, but it’s still a work-in-progress, and I’m looking for feedback from people who are interested in this kind of cross-disciplinary thinking. For most astronomers it’s hard to contemplate reviving a long-discredited 18th century law of celestial mechanics, let alone the music of the spheres! [laughs] The conventional wisdom about Bode’s Law is that it’s just a fluky coincidence.

[Images: The world as a series of chords; via].

BLDGBLOG: So there are similarities between this and music theory – but what about between this and film theory? Is there a kind of Bode’s Law of film editing? The relationships between scenes and so on?

Murch: I think the common thread to both astronomy and film-editing is this search for patterns. Now, at least as far as we can tell, filmmaking is not amenable to the same kind of mathematical rigor that applies to astronomy [laughs] – there may be a mathematical rigor, but we certainly haven’t discovered what it is yet.

Think how difficult it would be to explain musical notation to someone from ancient Egypt, when they did not even suspect the underlying mathematical laws of harmonics, let alone a way of writing it all down. Instead, for thousands of years, music was the main poetic metaphor for that which could not be preserved. Music evaporates as soon as it is performed. So this idea – that marks could be made on paper, and that this paper could then be sent hundreds of miles away, allowing different people to play the same music years later – I think would have seemed very strange, even impossible, to people in ancient times.

Maybe someday, though, we’ll turn a conceptual corner and suddenly discover the equivalent of musical theory and notation in film. Maybe we are still “Ancient Egyptians” in that regard.

BLDGBLOG: When you’re actually editing a film, do you ever become aware of this kind of underlying structure, or architecture, amongst the scenes?

Murch: There are little hints of underlying cinematic structures now and then. For instance: to make a convincing action sequence requires, on average, fourteen different camera angles a minute. I don’t mean fourteen cuts – you can have many more than fourteen cuts per minute – but fourteen new views. Let’s say there is a one-minute action scene with thirty cuts, so that the average length of each is two seconds – but, of those thirty cuts, sixteen of them will be repeats of a previous camera angle.

Now what you have to keep in mind is that the perceiving brain reacts differently to completely new visual information than it does to something it has seen before. In the second case, there is already a familiar template into which the information can be placed, so it can be taken in faster and more readily.

So with fourteen “untemplated” angles a minute, a well-shot action sequence will feel thrilling and yet still comprehensible: just on the edge of chaos, which is how action feels if you are in the middle of it. If it’s less than fourteen, the audience will feel like something is lacking, and they’ll disengage; if it’s more than fourteen, so much new information is being thrown at the audience that they’ll also disengage, though for different reasons.

At the other end of the spectrum, dialogue scenes seem to need an average of four new camera angles a minute. Less than that, and the scene will seem flat and perfunctory; more than that, and it will be hard for the audience to concentrate on the performances and the meaning of the dialogue: the visual style will get in the way of the verbal content and the subtleties of the actors’ performances.

This rule of “four to fourteen” seems to hold across all kinds of films and different styles and periods of filmmaking.

BLDGBLOG: Returning to the idea of music and sound for a moment, are there any places or buildings that you’ve visited, anywhere in the world, that particularly seemed to highlight the connection between a space and the sounds that occur in it? A kind of acoustic urbanism, where how a place sounds totally transforms what you see happening there?

Murch: Actually, I had that exact experience – but it was while watching a film. [laughter] Grand Central Station had been used as a location for one of the scenes. And this was despite the fact that I grew up in Manhattan, had been in Grand Central many times, and had developed an interest in sound recording as a teenager. But I was deaf to the kind of acoustic urbanism you’re speaking of until I saw Seconds by John Frankenheimer, in 1965.

There was just a single hand-held shot gliding down the main staircase, but accompanied by this…. bwoooaaahmmmm… the sound of that great room in all its wonderful complexity. It hit me very hard, emotionally, even though in retrospect it was quite obvious: the realization that you could join a certain tonality with a certain architectural space to create an emotion in the audience. And, if you wanted to, that you could then manipulate or distort that tonality to create a different sense of the visual space and a different emotion.

I’ve been pursuing that idea ever since. On every film I try to think as deeply as I can about the implied acoustic space of each scene; I then try to tailor the reverberant quality of the sound, and the tonality, to the spaces that we’re looking at. It’s endlessly fascinating, particularly because this technique flies “below the radar” of the audience. The filmmaker can have an effect on the audience without the audience knowing where that effect is coming from. Which I would guess is something that architects enjoy playing with, too.

[Images: Grand Central Station; via].

BLDGBLOG: As far as an acoustically rich space goes, is there a specific place – or a building or a landscape – where you like to record sounds for use in a film? How does the actual space affect the sounds you can record in it?

Murch: Well, first of all, I record a sound without any atmospheric envelope around it. I then take that recorded sound and find an acoustic space that is as close as possible to the acoustical space in the film; I play the sound in that space; and I record the resulting reverberation on another device, placed to extract the maximum reverberation. Then, in the final mix, I have the ability to blend those two sounds: the “dry” sound itself, alongside a sound which is almost all reverberation.

In musical terms, you could say it’s like the relationship between the string of the violin and the reverberation and amplification added by the body of the violin itself.

By first separating and then balancing those two elements together, I can custom-fit what seems to be the right dimension of sound implied by the space on screen. If you have too much reverb, and you don’t hear enough of the original sound itself, the result is too diffuse and ethereal to be realistic – but sometimes that lack of realism is exactly what you want. On the other hand, if you play proportionately too much of the dry sound, it doesn’t seem to connect to the space you’re looking at. But maybe that’s exactly what you want – that kind of dislocation. It all depends on the dramatic intent of the moment. But these two elements give you the handles to control the final result.

Over the last forty years, this time-consuming technique of physically “worldizing” the sound has been gradually replaced by increasingly sophisticated digital techniques, though the principle is the same. Now we can record a digital “snapshot” of a real acoustic space, using tone bursts and frequency sweeps, and then impose the resulting parameters on any sound we want, back in the studio.

BLDGBLOG: In a still unpublished interview I did with a Boston-based architecture firm called Single Speed Design, I asked one of the principal designers whether he liked ambient music – and his answer was interesting. He said that he didn’t like ambient music at all because it already included all the reverb, echo, and other effects that should have been introduced by the space in which the music was played. In other words, ambient music does the work of architecture for you, on the level of acoustics.

Murch: Exactly. He was reiterating, in an architectural sense, exactly what we do as a sound recordists.

BLDGBLOG: Another anecdote I think is interesting here comes from the British composer Brian Eno. Eno once said that he would make field recordings in different parks around London, then listen to the tapes until he’d memorized them – the way you would memorize a Beatles song. So he would know exactly when the church bell rang, and the mother called out to her child, and the birds flew overhead – or a distant truck rumbled by. He memorized the space according to the sounds that occurred within it.

Murch: There’s a wonderful essay by Michelangelo Antonioni, notes for a film that he was going to make in New York. To familiarize himself with the acoustic space of Manhattan (where he had never made a film) he sat in a room 34 stories up in a hotel somewhere on Fifth Avenue, writing down exactly what he heard over a period of three hours from dawn through rush hour. He came up with the most wonderful metaphors for sounds that were mysterious and unfamiliar to him, but which would be run-of-the-mill to a New Yorker. It’s a great read: a kind of meditative poetry, or song, just like Brian Eno said. It can evoke a whole series of emotional responses if you’re sensitive to that kind of stuff.

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of which, is there a specific place, like Leicester Square or some forest near San Francisco, where you thought to yourself: I could do this better – I could make this place sound better?

Murch: [laughs] Back in the late 60s we used to think of hiding a series of playback devices around a house to improve the sounds of the doors closing, the toilets flushing, and so on. Creating a real-life alternate acoustic universe.

Certainly the dominant thing that’s happened over the last hundred years is the universal spreading of white noise – just the general mush of traffic, air-conditioning, and jet planes. Whereas if you were in Leicester Square a hundred years ago, it might have been just as noisy – but the sounds would be more specific, less mushy and ill-defined because of the lack of the internal combustion engine and the constant whir of rubber tires on asphalt. For a number of years Aggie and I lived very near a freeway, on a Sausalito houseboat, and that constant mushy sound eventually became a kind of water-torture for me.

So I don’t have a specific answer for your question – but, generally, it would be to try to find some way to eliminate the white noise and to make people more sensitive to the individual sources of sound and reverberations within the space. Church bells can do that: they attract the ear with their tonality and reverberation, making you aware of the space between you and the church, and making you less aware of the underlying white noise.

[Image: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) gets to know his surveillance equipment; from The Conversation. Courtesy of American Zoetrope].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I’m curious how you, as a film editor, see the rise of video surveillance – CCTV – in cities around the world. It seems that cinema has become the default condition of urban security. So I have two questions: do you think that a new kind of cinematic avant-garde is evolving in the control rooms of private security firms? In other words, these epic, nine-hour shots of parking lots seem more Warholian than Andy Warhol. And, second: if you were suddenly faced with all of the surveillance footage generated in a city for a day, do you think you could edit it into a convenient, albeit imaginary, narrative? You could take all those non-events and edit them into something – with action, and a storyline, and rhythm?

Murch: Well, there was a short film made a few years ago where the filmmaker had worked out the location of all the surveillance cameras along a cross-section of London, and how many of those cameras were operated by the municipal authorities. If the cameras were operated by the city, then he could get access to the footage. So he mapped out a pedestrian trip for himself across town knowing that, at every moment he would be on CCTV: as soon as he was out of range of one camera, he would come into focus on another. So he walked the walk, wrote to all the relevant authorities, got the footage, and then edited it all together into a continuous narrative. It’s very amusing in a dystopian, Warholian kind of way. You only “get” the joke after a few minutes of watching.

But George Lucas’s THX-1138 was kind of like that, except it was made in 1971. Much of the action takes place on video surveillance cameras. In fact, the job of the girl in the film is to monitor banks of surveillance cameras. She eventually gets fed up, stops taking her Prozac, or whatever, and tries to escape this completely video-monitored world – which, it turns out, is completely underground because of some disaster that had happened on the surface many years earlier.

Also similar, in some ways, is The Conversation – which is about audio surveillance – made around the same time. Part of the visual style of that film was a dispassionate “surveillance camera” look. There are a number of moments in the film where Gene Hackman walks into the shot, lingers for a moment, and then he walks out – but the camera doesn’t follow him or cut, as it normally would. Until, maybe five or ten seconds later, it slowly pans left, in a very mechanical way, over to where he is, and then it watches him for a while. But then he gets up and moves out of range again, and so on.

This is all in 35mm, not video, but the effect is disorienting just the same – perhaps even more so. It’s as if the camera has a motion-detector behind it, not an intelligence. It will stay still as long as there is activity – but then, if it detects a lack of activity, it will wait five seconds before searching out where the activity might have gone. The film both begins and ends like that – a long slow mechanical zoom at the beginning, then ending on an oscillating camera that pans back and forth mindlessly. And there are a number of scenes in the middle that are shot similarly.

[Image: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) realizes his apartment is bugged; from The Conversation. Courtesy of American Zoetrope].

BLDGBLOG: So do you think that video surveillance is a kind of unacknowledged form of cinema, or even a counter-Hollywood on the rise? The next avant-garde?

Murch: Something may be emerging. For instance, Mike Figgis’s Timecode is similar in its use of the simultaneous action of a four-way split screen telling four stories which sometimes interconnect.

You know, the other aspect of this is that these CCTV images are recycled and abandoned regularly. They are preserved for a certain length of time, and then they’re obliterated if there is no call for them. There is a temporality to it all which I think needs to be taken into account. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how rapidly this technology has spread – for economic reasons that have nothing to do with creativity. Insurance companies will now put cameras up at intersections where there have been lots of accidents. Then, if there is an accident involving one of their clients, they can use the footage to prove that the other person is at fault. Even when their client may be dead. Especially when he is dead.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Murch: There’s also footage now being made available, showing the July 7 London bombers rehearsing their terror plan two weeks ahead of time – all caught on publicly-operated CCTV cameras – and it is almost like the first example I mentioned, of crossing London on foot – lots of continuity of action. Except that it was real, and many lives were lost.

One hope I have is that someone will put a HiDef camera into orbit, giving a full-frame view of the Earth spinning below, and this will be made available to everyone on HiDef cable channel 427 or whatever. Then, when plasma screens – or liquid crystal, or digital wallpaper – get large enough, this image can then occupy the entire wall of a room in your house. You’ll be able to go into that room and do other things – read a book, or listen to music, and occasionally look up – and one entire wall of the room is the Earth as it actually is at the very moment that you’re looking at it. It would be as if your room were in orbit.

You’d begin to see Earthly events in context – a volcanic eruption in Peru, or the pollution coming out of New York harbor, or the hurricane threatening New Orleans, floods in Bangladesh – and it will begin to change our awareness of our relationship to the Earth in a profound way, the way the mirror changed our relationship to ourselves, and deepened our sense of identity as individuals. Given the technology that we have today, I’m interested that it hasn’t already happened yet. Given the state of the world at the moment, I hope it happens soon.

[Image: The Earth; image courtesy of NASA].

• • •

I owe an enormous thank you to Walter Murch, both for taking the time to do this interview – even following up via email from London – and for speaking at BLDGBLOG’s event, co-organized by Chronicle Books, tomorrow afternoon in San Francisco. If you’re anywhere nearby, be sure to stop in.
I also owe a huge thanks to Lawrence Weschler for first putting me in touch with Walter, and for introducing Walter to BLDGBLOG; and to Anne-Marie Cowsill, Chad Keig, and James Mockoski at American Zoetrope for sending me images from the filming of the The Conversation. Finally, I want to thank my wife, Nicola, for helping edit all this together while we drove up to San Francisco – it was also Nicola who suggested the interview’s title.
Meanwhile, I would urge anyone even remotely interested in the topics covered by this interview to pick up a copy of The Conversations. It’s compulsively readable, and well worth the time. Murch’s own book, In the Blink of an Eye, is particularly useful for anyone working in film.
Finally, Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema is a detailed look at the film-editing experience itself, focusing on Murch’s decision to use an off-the-shelf software package in the editing of Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain.

Science Fiction and the City: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

The novels of Jeff VanderMeer fall somewhere between science fiction, dark fantasy, magical realism, and even horror comedy. VanderMeer’s literary range becomes immediately apparent when you consider that he’s been “a two-time winner (six-time finalist) of the World Fantasy Award, as well as a past finalist for the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.”

VanderMeer_Covers[Image: Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword. See Shriek‘s official website].

Among others, VanderMeer’s books include Veniss Underground, City of Saints & Madmen, and Shriek: An Afterword – the latter published in hardcover just last month. Author news, textual excerpts, MP3s, and imagery from Shriek are all available on that novel’s official website. Meanwhile, along with Mark Roberts, VanderMeer is also editor of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, which includes work by dozens of contributors, from Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow to China Miéville and K.J. Bishop (official website here).
In light of my own conviction that many of today’s most original, historically unencumbered, and frankly exciting architectural ideas are to be found within videogames, films, and science fiction novels, I decided to talk to VanderMeer about his own inventive and novelistic use of the built environment. From his fungal city of Ambergris to the uniquely dark, medicalized underworld of Veniss, VanderMeer’s vision is architectural in the broadest – and best – sense.
In the following interview we discuss English cathedrals, “fungal technologies” and architectural infections, the Sydney opera house, Vladimir Nabokov, “The Library of Babel,” Monsanto, giant squids and geological deposits, nighttime walks through Prague, and even urban security after the attacks of 9/11.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: To start with the most general question first: if architects, urban planners, and even film makers all look for something in a city – a certain quality to the space, a light, a texture, a density – what do you, as a novelist, look for?

Jeff VanderMeer: Every time I go to a new place, obviously it’s an inspiration of some kind – even if it’s the most awful place in the universe. Like, say, Blackpool, England. I think that when I go to a city I actually do look at texture, because texture is very important in the way I layer my writing. When I go to a city – it’s pretty basic: I literally start on the micro-level. I actually run my hand down the wall to get a sense of what things are like. [laughs] A great example, I think, is when we were in Sydney, and you see the opera house from afar and it’s kind of like this fairy tale creation – it looks so light – but then you get up close and it’s basically just a 1970s piece of concrete, with a very rough and kind of forbidding texture. It’s not what it appears from afar; it’s very much an illusion.

So I think when you get to the actual texture of things – when you actually get a chance to touch the stuff – you get a sense of what it’s actually about. That’s why I like traveling – because I think it’s very important, even when you’re writing a fantasy city, to base it on something real, some first-hand experience. I don’t like the idea that the basic core of what you’re writing about is somehow a reaction to another piece of fiction. I want it to be tactile. I want it to be something concrete, based on something in the real world, that you can extrapolate from. Then maybe you layer in some allusions or influences from other fictions – if it’s applicable in some way, if it adds some kind of resonance.

There’s not really a method beyond that; it’s just what strikes me. Like going to the York Minster, in England – which blew me away and inspired the cadaver cathedral in Veniss Underground. Standing inside that building, which was so absolutely amazing, like nothing I had ever seen before – because I had never had a chance to go inside an old cathedral – how alien it looked and how ethereal and yet so solid – and I literally just stood there looking at it, looking at the inside, looking at the ceiling, for more than an hour.

Being in there, and having been stalled on Veniss, that structure – that piece of architecture – saved my novel. I suddenly understood how to transform something from the real world into something imaginary.

15[Image: Interior view of the York Minster. VanderMeer: “Where the sculptures of saints would have been set into the walls, there were instead bodies laid into clear capsules, the white, white skin glistening in the light – row upon row of bodies in the walls, the proliferation of walls. The columns, which rose and arched in bunches of five or six together, were not true columns, but instead highways for blood and other substances: giant red, green, blue, and clear tubes that coursed through the cathedral like arteries. Above, shot through with track lighting from behind, what at first resembled stained-glass windows showing some abstract scene were revealed as clear glass within which organs had been stored: yellow livers, red hearts, pale arms, white eyeballs, rosaries of nerves disembodied from their host.” From Veniss Underground]

BLDGBLOG: How do you achieve – or hope to achieve – believability in an urban setting, giving readers something that (they think) might actually exist?

VanderMeer: As a novelist who is uninterested in replicating “reality” but who is interested in plausibility and verisimilitude, I look for the organizing principles of real cities and for the kinds of bizarre juxtapositions that occur within them. Then I take what I need to be consistent with whatever fantastical city I’m creating. For example, there is a layering effect in many great cities. You don’t just see one style or period of architecture. You might also see planning in one section of a city and utter chaos in another. The lesson behind seeing a modern skyscraper next to a 17th-century cathedral is one that many fabulists do not internalize and, as a result, their settings are too homogenous.

Of course, that kind of layering will work for some readers – and other readers will want continuity. Even if they live in a place like that – a baroque, layered, very busy, confused place – even if, say, they’re holding the novel as they walk down the street in London [laughter] – they just don’t get it. So you have to be careful how you do that. In the novel I’m working on now, I’ll be able to do much more layering because much more time will have passed. It’s set 500 or 1000 years after the events in City of Saints and Shriek. Though I don’t actually refer to specific architectural styles, or to a kind of macro-vision of buildings in the Ambergris universe; I just allude to things.

I also absorb a lot of research. Byzantine art and history. Venetian history. Roman. Etruscan. Indian. Southeast Asian. English. And some of the research was just seeing all of these amazing structures as a child. I mean, you see something like Machu Picchu when you’re eight and it sticks with you! But one thing I find interesting is what people choose to believe and not believe. In the early history of Ambergris, from City of Saints – which does actually have some architectural allusions – the more fantastical stuff is actually taken from Byzantine and other periods. A lot of stuff that’s true to life, people, in emails, will say how cool it is that I made that up. So you never know how someone will react to this stuff.

history[Image: John Coulthart, for Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen].

BLDGBLOG: Do you actually draw, or map out, the cities and landscapes you describe?

VanderMeer: I do re-draw the city on occasion – and that’s why there’s no map. I don’t want to realize, writing a story later, that, oh, I can’t do that… But I do have a small, simple map – I would just never put it in a book. It’s more so that I can have a general idea of where things are.

The last time we went to New York, a friend of ours was talking about how quickly the neighborhoods change there. Things shift. An area that was a bunch of warehouses can suddenly be a new art district – and I also think of the city of Ambergris as shifting in that way. Neighborhoods will go fallow – almost like, in rural areas, how a field will go fallow – and then it comes back as something else.

I don’t like having too complete a map.

BLDGBLOG: That idea – that a whole neighborhood could go fallow – was actually the premise of an architectural project by a London firm called The Agents of Change. They came up with this almost science fictional scenario, saying: what would happen if Monsanto, or some other multinational genetic-engineering firm, bought the entirety of east London…? So they drew up this whole plan with rooftop gardens and streets turned into croplands – in other words, London itself gone fallow. What’s particularly interesting, though, is that they used a kind of novelistic device or fictional plot to stimulate their architectural design; it’s like where creative writing and urban planning intersect. In any case, speculative urban design seems to be a burgeoning literary genre in its own right, from Italo Calvino to China Miéville, or even Franz Kafka and H.G. Wells – or Plato’s Atlantis, for that matter. Thomas More’s Utopia. Are there any specific authors in that regard who have influenced your work?

VanderMeer: I get my inspiration from real life as much as possible, and then from history books and then from other writers. I find Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, for example, stultifyingly boring because of this idea of speculative urban design. Although I like the idea of a setting also being a character, it has to also be a character – not be the only thing in the book.

Sometimes I will use authors as something to react against – and say, well, okay: this is an interesting design for a city and this is an interesting design for a city, but neither of these actually work. By kind of cross-correlating them and looking at the differences I can figure out where it is that I want to go.

There have been definite examples where I feel like the city in question, in a piece of fiction, is not connected to anything real – and it’s almost like what happens in bad characterization. In bad characterization, you can’t really imagine anything happening to the character outside the pages of the book. There are cities in fantastical fiction that work the same way, where the writer has obviously put a lot of care into creating the city but it’s somehow inert. It’s simply there as a place for the author to set a story. I think the best cityscapes are kind of like characters. They’re slightly illogical. There’s much more to them than is described in the book. There’s all this stuff that you don’t know – and can’t possibly know.

The Mervyn Peake books, of course – Gormenghast – were pretty influential in terms of setting as character and the idea that a place can create a certain fatalism in the people who live there. That’s the way it is in a real city. In a real city you are, in some ways, reduced to one of many, many stories. And that’s something I think the Ambergris books try to convey: people are shaped, molded, and even overwhelmed by the location they’ve chosen to live in.

[Image: Gormenghast castle; from the BBC miniseries].

BLDGBLOG: What about Borges? There’s a “Borges Bookstore” in City of Saints, for instance – and his “Library of Babel” seems like a story you’d love.

VanderMeer: Borges, for some reason, always leads me to Ballard – at least how they both manipulate time and space in a way that messes with your head. But I think Nabokov is probably a bigger influence – although he and Borges are oddly similar, because they’re kind of like the godfathers of postmodernism. I think a lot of times, when people think they’re seeing Borges’s influence, they’re actually seeing Nabokov’s. But I don’t really like to be pinned down to one thing.

Again, first-hand experience – it seems, after every major trip, that I come back with just notebooks full of ideas, and sketches. And, it’s funny, because it really is a lot of buildings inspiring emotion, which is not something I’d really thought about till now. But it’s true. The contrasts of Bucharest, for instance, really affected me. There are parts of the city that look like Paris and parts that still bear the scars of Communist rule: these inhuman concrete blocks of apartments that look like they’re falling apart – and all of this around a very vital and energized populace that was unfailingly friendly. It looked like a city in complete transition, like you could find all possible things there, in both a good and a bad sense. And that impacts heavily on the more industrialized Ambergris of the future that I’m slowly working on now.

But before, when I said I don’t really map things out – I don’t – but every once in a while I will have to sketch a building if I don’t have a good sense for where each character is in the place, or what the place actually looks like. Sometimes I’ll get friends of mine who are artists and are much better at that – I’ll give them a description and they’ll come up with something – and then I’ll be able to visualize it better.

babel[Image: A digital rendering of Borges’s Library of Babel].

BLDGBLOG: What non-architectural, or even non-human, spaces or structures have been influential? Reefs, mushrooms, geologic deposits, giant squids, manta rays…?

VanderMeer: That’s an excellent question. The forms of fungus. The wonderful streamlined beauty of a manta ray – these types of things come into play constantly in my fiction. They are constant influences on the cities I describe, especially Ambergris.

We don’t really see the beautiful, alien quality of the world in which we live. And it is the shapes and structures of this beauty that appeal to me. I mean, people laugh when I talk about squid, but, my god, what an amazing creature! What an amazing form! Geological deposits as well. And I sometimes feel as if there’s almost a linkage of form between all of these things that draws me to them.

My earliest memories are of Fiji, a volcanic atoll, where the reefs are just offshore. Our school was right near one of these reefs – and I remember, from like the age of six to ten, we would just walk out there, you know, at recess… And, in a sense, I feel like some of the Veniss Underground stuff was an inversion of that. There were so many crevices and hiding places and bizarre things sort of hidden in the reef. Sometimes my dad and mom would take us out there at night – which was amazing, because of the bioluminescence from a lot of the different creatures out there, including the squid. There was a sense of encountering something totally alien.

I just think this stuff is absolutely beautiful, and alien, and – in many cases – kind of horrific. You read about fungus, and there are certain types of fruiting bodies or mushrooms that you can feed different things. Like one of the strangest things in “King Squid,” I think, is a scene where the father of the narrator creates a mushroom that is mostly made of iron filings – because that’s what he feeds it: ground up little bits of iron. And that’s actually true. A mushroom actually will absorb these types of things. You can make a mushroom that is mostly made of iron. [laughs] I assume it dies relatively soon thereafter. [laughter]

The world is a very strange place. We shouldn’t take that for granted. That’s why I highlight some of this stuff, and write about it – because it’s just so fantastic.

BLDGBLOG: Fantastic – but also vaguely threatening in a way?

VanderMeer: I don’t see it as threatening. It’s just the context in which the character encounters it that makes it a hazard, or a threat. I think that confluences of the inorganic and the organic feel threatening to people for some primal reason that I can’t quite put a finger to.

squid[Image: John Coulthart, for Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen].

BLDGBLOG: In City of Saints you describe fungi – specifically, lichen – as a kind of living architectural ornament. You write how “much of the ‘gold’ covering the buildings was actually a living organism similar to lichen that the gray caps had trained to create decorative patterns.” Elsewhere in the book, those lichen “covered the walls in intricate patterns, crossed through with a royal red fungus that formed star shapes.” What do these examples imply about the possibilities for entire living cities, or even a reef-like architecture made entirely from organisms? What about architectural infections, or diseases and infestations that would act to enhance a manmade space?

VanderMeer: Scientists have already created buildings that are self-cleaning using certain types of bacteria, I believe. So this is as much a “science fictional” idea as a fantastical one, that’s for sure. I’m all about extrapolating fungal technologies. It creates an extra frisson of satisfaction in the reader, for one thing.

Something I’m working toward in the next Ambergris novels is this idea of how architecture and the organic interact. In fact, in the new novel, Shriek, there’s a whole passage devoted to this. At one point, the narrator comes to realize that there’s an entirely other city under the skin of what she can see – because her brother has constructed these glasses that kind of allow you to see with a sense that human beings don’t actually have. And what she sees is that every single building is just coated with fungus, invisible to the naked eye, and with living things forming separate symbols and signs. It’s on every wall that she looks at. It’s like a fungal architecture imposed on top of the city.

BLDGBLOG: Or urbanism in an age of microbacteria – when every surface is just covered with a film of germs and infectious organisms.

VanderMeer: I thought about that, too. There actually is all this micro-bacterial activity – things we can’t see – so it’s not too different from reality. And infections! Infections are so primal, symbolic, integral – whether infections of ideas or infections of the physical. In Ambergris, fungal infections are not just a physical thing but the physical manifestation of a deep psychic wound in the citizenry – a mixed guilt and dread.

I think infection is dealt with rather badly in current literature. You almost have to go back to the Decadents – to before we had vaccines and things of that nature – to see exploration of this theme in an interesting way. But I love the idea of mixing physical and mental infections. We all suffer from mental infections. So what if you breathe in a spore and you suddenly are infected with an idea? (Again, from a forthcoming book.)

mushroom-plate1[Image: From Charting Nature].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if your enthusiasm for all things fungal comes from living in Florida?

VanderMeer: I think Florida creeps up on you in terms of the fungal. It’s there, but you don’t at first recognize it. You don’t recognize it because of the slow pace of life in subtropical climates. So you are lulled into forgetting about decay, and yet even though there is a slowness, or perceived slowness, because of the heat, etc., there is a ferocious and pitiless war of decay occurring at the same time – of decomposition. And it’s an awareness of this that helps fuel my fiction – the juxtaposition of these ideas and the kind of pathos of it, how it mimics the limited span of life.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious if the more densely knit and pedestrianized urban cores of cities you recently traveled through – like Prague – impressed you with their capacity for turning even a simple walk into an event, full of intrigue and coincidence – or if it just made you claustrophobic, longing for the massive, inhuman highways of the United States?

VanderMeer: Honestly, I don’t understand how we in the U.S. even have a sense of community, except in those cities that allow for a neighborhood bar and a neighborhood grocery store and the kind of walkability that you find in most European cities. We loved the walkability and playfulness of Prague. Prague was the city that, in its entirety, had the sense of mystery and puckishness and slight danger closest to Ambergris of any place we visited. We loved that sense of adventure and exploration in Prague. We loved that around any given street corner we might find a musician or a band or an art exhibit or a movie being shot. It seemed like a city completely alive with culture, to the point of being ruled by it.

That first night in Prague, where you’d spill out from some crooked, tiny medieval street into a courtyard full of light and clocktowers and people… that was pretty amazing.

plicka[Image: Prague, photographed by Karel Plicka; via John Coulthart’s Feuilleton].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, in Veniss, you describe how the “aboveground levels” of the city are “so divided into different governments that a trip from one end of the city to the other requires eighteen security stops.” In City of Saints, an ancient city called “Cinsorium” – a pun on both sin and sensorium – is razed, replaced by a city called “Sophia” – wisdom, reason. Below Ambergris are the gray caps, hallucinogenic mushroom-natives who kidnap unwary surface dwellers. Elsewhere, Tonsure encounters a city seemingly modeled after one of Terence McKenna‘s most extreme, drug-induced visions – a kind of psilocybin urbanism. So you’ve got post-9/11 politics, the War on Drugs, class division, allegorical commentary on the triumph of reason over the senses and the flesh – all of these topics seem encoded into your fictive descriptions of urban space. Could you talk a bit about how you use cities – or architecture in general – to communicate an implicit message, whether that’s socio-political, religious, or simply poetic?

VanderMeer: Well, it’s kind of as you describe – I let whatever’s happening in the world wash over me and into the urban space. I think the mistake in trying to incorporate 9/11, for example, into fiction is in having it be something characters talk about. It’s more about just hard-wiring stuff like that into the culture and cityscapes so it becomes something larger than the characters, that’s just part of the backdrop. I find that almost anything that comes along is fodder for Ambergris, for example. It can absorb just about anything, like a good city should.

But as for how I consciously do it, I couldn’t tell you. I am agnostic, cynical about capitalism and communism, and all for individuals over institutions, while recognizing that central government is necessary to provide social services, etc.

I’m sure that’s reflected in the cities I create.

ambergris[Image: John Coulthart, for Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen].

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You can read more about Jeff VanderMeer at his blog, VanderWorld – where you’ll also find news about his forthcoming books and Shriek: The Movie.

[With thanks to John Coulthart for the use of his extraordinary images (don’t miss Coulthart’s other work); to Neddal Ayad for helping me contact VanderMeer in the first place; and to Jeff VanderMeer himself, who energetically saw this interview through to completion].