Musician Andrew Pekler has composed soundtracks for “phantom islands,” or “islands that had existed on maps but not, as it turned out, in reality,” The Wire reports.
“Though a few of them were invented by unscrupulous captains seeking glory (or just further commissions),” Pekler explained to The Wire, “most phantom islands were unintentional fictions—the results of the imprecise science of navigation, clouds, fog banks and icebergs being mistaken for land, and wishful thinking.”
The accompanying website is pretty rad (although it apparently does not work in mobile), though, fair warning, it will easily consume a great deal of your afternoon at the office.
While reading about Pekler’s work, I was reminded of the so-called “Null Island” effect, a different kind of phantom island that invisibly inhabits the space at 0°N, 0°E in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa.
“Every day, countless people seeking digital directions on their computers and smartphones are diverted to an isolated spot on the Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles or so off the coast of Africa, where the Prime Meridian and the equator intersect,” the Wall Street Journal explains. “It’s called Null Island.”
This digital “island”—the paper describes it as “the default destination for mistakes”—exists as a result of programming errors in geographic information systems (GIS).
“Unfortunately, due to human typos, messy data, or even glitches in the geocoder itself,” Tim St. Onge wrote for the Library of Congress back in 2016, “the geocoding process doesn’t always run so smoothly. Misspelled street names, non-existent building numbers, and other quirks can create invalid addresses that can confuse a geocoder so that the output becomes ‘0,0’. While this output indicates that an error occurred, since ‘0,0’ is in fact a location on the Earth’s surface according to the coordinate system, the feature will be mapped there, as nonsensical as the location may be. We end up with an island of misfit data.”
Alas, Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands project doesn’t include a soundtrack for Null Island, but perhaps other musicians and sound designers will take that as a challenge. A fictional ethnomusicology for digital nowhere.
(Thanks to @RJCeetoo for the heads up about Phantom Islands and to Wayne Chambliss for telling me about Null Island many years ago.)
[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a cave in China, taken by @PhailMachine, via wallhere].
An interesting story that re-emerged during recent coverage of the Thai cave rescue is that a team of British cavers trapped underground in central Mexico for “more than a week” back in 2004 had been accused of having an ulterior motive.
The conspiracy seems to have begun when someone noticed a particular piece of equipment in a photo of the caving team: “someone spotted radon dosimeters being used. This wasn’t a military training exercise; it was a bunch of guys on holiday, some of whom happened to be in the armed services.”
What the British team would even have done with such materials, if they had found them, including how they would have safely transported uranium out of the underworld in their caving gear—not to mention how they would have exploited this knowledge later, perhaps by developing a vast, illegal, underground mine in the middle of central Mexico?—is difficult to imagine, but, wow, would I like to read that novella.
Six British soldiers descend into the Earth beneath Mexico looking for the infernal materials of war, part of a much larger, secret global mission for subterranean weapons-prospecting, slipping into caves in Central America, the U.S. Southwest, the Namibian desert, and beyond, combining raw international espionage, classified satellite reports, weaponized mineralogy, advanced underground mapping techniques, and every gear-head’s camping equipment fantasy turned up to 11.
Three men with oversize briefcases show up in New York City. They drop their cases onto the sidewalk and leave them there, disguised amongst the workday crowds, several blocks away from one another, unattended. Ten minutes later, the cases pop open: a whirring sound is heard as small industrial fans begin to operate, inflating carefully packed chains of linked polyethylene structures. Buildings emerge, expanding out from each case until entire rooms and corridors block the street. No one knows how to turn the fans off. The buildings are growing, labyrinthine, turning corners now and halting traffic. A news helicopter captures the scene from above as the transparent walls of huge empty buildings made of air flash with the colored lights of police cars.
A man toils for thirteen years, sending ever-more complex test diagrams off to polyethylene factories in Florida. He wants to know how much it would cost for them to manufacture these parts he’s been designing, and designing well: temporary inflatable rooms that link off from other rooms, multi-scalar gaskets able to withstand knife attacks, even strange, one-time entry points that can be resealed from within. A retired cargo pilot, he dreams of giving structure to air. He writes, Man can live on air alone!, and sketches obscene bulbous shapes on paper napkins to the discomfort of passing strangers.
A building made of polyethylene and sealed air takes shape on a beach near Cape Canaveral. Tourists flock to it, taking selfies and filming short videos with their kids. But the midday sun is relentless; the structure is heating and the winds are picking up. Within two hours, the complex inflated shape begins to tremble and beat against the sand, until, accompanied by an audible gasp from the assembled crowd, it is sucked out to sea. It tumbles and rolls and rises through the sky, a spinning point reflecting glints of subtropical sunlight as it disappears over the Atlantic horizon. No one can say who it was, but all witnesses insist there was a man inside. Sure enough, smartphone video of the structure being lifted over the waves reveals a man bracing himself against the interior walls, bearing an expression somewhere between mania and glee. Two weeks later, French police find him, disoriented and unshaven, lacking his passport, at a seaside bar in Arcachon. “I have a very strange story to tell you,” he slurs, before falling off his seat.
Amidst a huge number of novels I’ve been reading lately for a variety of reasons is the book Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes.
The book is set in Ninevah, a luxurious, new, South African real estate development that has been temporarily abandoned before its official opening due to an unspecified infestation; the action centers on an “ethical pest removal specialist” named Katya Grubbs. Katya has been hired by Mr. Brand, a swaggering, whiskey-fueled golfer and property developer, to clear Nineveh’s looming and empty buildings of whatever it is that has hatched there.
While I will confess that there were several scenes in which Katya’s actions seemed inexplicable to me, Rose-Innes’s descriptions of Nineveh and of the looming presence of infesting insects squirming just beneath the surface are nonetheless both beautifully written and resolutely Ballardian in tone.
For example, the land that Nineveh was built on “was reclaimed,” we read. “Katya wonders how much of the wetlands they had to drain, how many thousands of vertebrate or invertebrate souls were displaced or destroyed to make this place. In her experience, a poorly drained property is a magnet for all kinds of damp-loving pests: water-snakes, slugs and especially mosquitoes. The rising water and its travelers always find a way back in.”
“Indeed,” the narrative continues, “beyond Nineveh’s perimeter, everything is insistently alive and pushing to enter.”
This older, overlooked ecosystem, dismissed as a nuisance, now threatens literally to come back up through the floorboards.
Wandering around amidst the huge buildings, a J. G. Ballard among the insects, Katya discovers ruined rooms and even a rain-soaked smuggling tunnel used to strip the uninhabited suites of their woodwork, pipes, and copper.
Katya soon suspects that she is not, in fact, alone. She puts her ear to the wall one night, convinced she hears someone on the other side: “No wall is ever silent; always there is a subdued orchestra of knocks and sighs and oceanic rushing. The hum of pipes, the creaks of bricks and mortar settling. Or unsettling: such sounds are the minute harbingers of future destruction, the first tiny tremors of a very, very slow collapse that will end, decades or centuries from now, in a pile of rubble.”
Without, I hope, giving away much of the plot, there is a confrontation later in the book, deep in the interior of one of these buildings, in a scene where everyone realizes how flimsy the construction around them really is. The buildings are just masks on empty space. Katya’s temperament is such that she has already realized this, suspecting all along that the apparent paradise of Nineveh was all just wishful projection; other, less cynical characters fare poorly.
What follows is an insight about architecture’s false reliability—that we are, in fact, deluded to take our buildings at face-value—that I also try to make in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. This excerpt thus particularly stood out to me:
One thing about having a belief in the fixed nature of things, in walls and floors: it gives you a certain disadvantage. Mr. Brand, for all his solid confidence, in fact because of it, cannot look beyond the obvious, cannot see past the evidence of the concrete world. He can’t consider that perhaps the walls are false, or that the floorboards might conceal strange depths. Despite his rage, he would not think to punch through a wall: it would not occur to him that walls are breachable. In Mr. Brand’s world of certainties, such an in-between place is hardly possible; it barely exists.
The collapsing world of Nineveh, with its hollow walls, smugglers’ tunnels, and rising tides of storm-borne insects, twinned with Katya’s own house that is literally splitting in two from seismic disturbances caused by the heavy machinery of gentrification across the street, presents us with a precariously inhabited world barely standing still on its foundations. Yet within those foundations are the bugs and worms, beetles and snakes, temporarily beaten back by humans but on the verge of retaking the scene.
“Hunters in a remote community in Nunavut are concerned about a mysterious sound that appears to be coming from the sea floor,” the CBC reported back in November. “The ‘pinging’ sound, sometimes also described as a ‘hum’ or ‘beep,’ has been heard in Fury and Hecla Strait—roughly 120 kilometres northwest of the hamlet of Igloolik—throughout the summer.” One of many concerns is that, “whatever the cause, it’s scaring the animals away.”
To find out exactly what it is, the Canadian military has sent “two acoustic specialists to investigate the sound.” Oddly, however, “the specialists will not be visiting the actual area of Fury and Hecla Strait, but rather spending a week in Igloolik to gather information about the sound.”
In any case, if this was a novel, I wish I had written it—with slight variations. Two acousticians, carrying sensitive recording equipment and some personal baggage, are sent at short notice up to a tiny fishing hamlet in the far north to investigate a mysterious sound in the water.
No one has any idea of what it is or what’s causing it. It could be a unique natural effect of changing undersea currents, oceanographers suggest; it could be an adversarial foreign power sonar-mapping the strait for future navigation, a military advisor warns; it could be, one of the acousticians quietly begins to fear, supernatural; but the two of them continue researching nonetheless, engaging in sometimes eerie nighttime conversations with locals about a wide range of northern folklore, of vast Lovecraftian things waiting in the ice to thaw and stories of now-vengeful, thousand-year-old revenant hunters lost at sea.
[Image: The hamlet of Igloolik, Canada, visible on the left].
The acousticians return to their spartan accommodations every evening—an old creaking building whose sole resident passed away the year before, although no one will tell them how—where they put on headphones and listen back through their daily recordings, this weird lurch of aquatic noise, as if they’ve wiretapped the drain of the world.
One of them becomes convinced he can hear something—a signal amongst the reverb—but the other can’t hear it, and, either way, it’s almost time to head south again.
A day before they’re set to leave, however, there is a commotion outside near the jetty as three people are rushed into the village. They are hypothermic and dehydrated—and, strangely, carrying U.S. passports despite the fact that one of them has been babbling in Russian. They were found in the strait, half-drowned, their fishing vessel sinking.
And so on. If you want to read the rest, buy me a coffee some time.
[Image: River valley outside Kamdesh, Afghanistan, where the “Battle of Kamdesh” occurred, an assault that loosely serves as the basis for part of John Renehan’s novel, The Valley].
While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.
Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.
He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.
[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].
What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.
Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks. It has become a blackened super-wall, one so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.
“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”
[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].
It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:
Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.
The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”
There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects on their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it. The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.
[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].
But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.
I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.
Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.
On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”
[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].
Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.
In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?
[Image: A cave entrance in France, via Wikipedia].
I recently finished reading Last Words by Michael Koryta, a detective novel largely centered on an unmapped fictional cave system in southern Indiana, part of the great karst belt near the border with Kentucky.
One interesting thing about the novel is that this cave, known in the book as “Trapdoor,” operates on many different narrative levels. Most obviously, of course, there’s the unreliable memory of a major character suspected—yet never officially accused—of committing a murder there, where the darkness of Trapdoor’s linked subterranean spaces becomes a kind of mental model for his own inability to recall what really happened, when a woman was (apparently) murdered in the cave’s depths.
There is also a subplot, though, revealed quite late in the book, in which disguised real estate deals and obscure land trust deeds have been premised on the subterranean potential of this land snaking along the region’s old creeks and rivers, transactions inked with the belief that Trapdoor’s passages might continue beneath distant parcels; in this way, the cave comes to represent the conspiratorial intentions of people otherwise unwilling to state their true goals.
Finding the true outer limits of the cave—that is, finding the land parcels that the cave secretly connects from below—becomes coextensive with discovering the truth about what occurred underground there so many years earlier.
It was these latter parts of the novel—including a handful of plot points I won’t get into—that reminded me of notes I’d taken from a book called the Encyclopedia of Caves several years ago. That book includes a short entry written by Nevin W. Davis, called “Entranceless Caves, Discovery of.”
As Davis describes them, “entranceless caves” are like speleological versions of Schrödinger’s cat: they exist, but they have not been verified. They are real—but perhaps not. They are both in the ground and nowhere.
At times, Davis’s text is almost like a koan: “Suppose the cave is totally unknown and has no entrance,” he writes. What exactly is such a thing, and how can we account for its presence (or absence) in the landscape? After all, these are caves that have not been—and perhaps cannot ever be—located.
He goes on to describe mathematical models used to generate a probability of subterranean connection: the calculated likelihood that physically inaccessible voids might exist beneath the surface of things, linking one part of the world to another.
“Another consideration in searching for caves,” Davis continues, “is entrance lifetime. Caves are long-term features under the landscape with lifetimes measured in millions of years, whereas entrances to them are fleeting features with lifetimes measured in millennia.”
Cave entrances come and go, in other words, while the caves they once led to remain. They can be covered over, woven shut by tree roots, erased.
As Davis describes it, “leaves and twigs will soon cover and block small vertical entrances. Pits less than a meter in diameter”—tiny holes that can nonetheless lead to huge systems, such as the real-life Mammoth Cave or the fictional Trapdoor—“can be totally blocked in one season. Leaves blocking a small entrance are soon followed by roots and more leaves and it is not long before all traces of an entrance are gone.”
This leads to an activity he calls “stalking the elusive entranceless cave”—which, for what it’s worth, seems like a perfect metaphor for part of Koryta’s novel, in which the book’s amnesia-stricken potential murderer undergoes hypnosis. His memory is a cave with no entrance.
In any case, there can also be “false positives,” Davis warns. These would be caves that appear to have been detected but that are not, in fact, real. A “stalker” of previously unknown caves might find herself misled by patches of melted snow, for example, or by other signs that wrongly give the impression of warm air rising from empty passages below.
“The best condition to search for snow melt,” Davis suggests, instead, “is with a new snowfall in midwinter with an overcast sky, since sunlight can also give false positives by shining through snow cover onto rocks and melting the snow. This is a tried-and-true method that has led to countless new caves.” It’s cave-discovery weather.
In essence, this is a process of reading the landscape: interpreting its surface features in order to gain knowledge of these other, deeper dimensions.
The next entry in the Encyclopedia is also worth reading; it is simply called “Entrances,” by William B. White. “Some caves,” White writes, continuing the strangely existential thread of Davis’s work, “may have no entrances at all.”
White adds a new category here, what he calls the “concealed entrance.”
At least from an architectural point of view, what’s interesting is that this allows White and other speleologists to challenge the idea of there being a clean dividing line between inside and outside, between a cave and the Earth’s surface.
Instead, he suggests, a cave’s entrance should actually be thought of as a transition: the “cave entrance zone,” White writes, “is, in effect, a continuous sequence of microclimates,” one that eventually leads to a point at which there is no direct access to sunlight or to rainfall.
It is only at that point that you are truly “inside” the Earth. You have transitioned to the great interior.
Briefly, White also points out that cave entrances are not only unstable in the temporal sense—as Davis mentioned, cave entrances can completely disappear over time.
However, they are also unstable spatially: that is, they can physically migrate through the landscape over thousands, or even tens, of years.
Due to continual rockfall, for example, a cave entrance “not only migrates deeper into the hill but also migrates upward as rocks break away,” Davis writes. This can potentially push a cave entrance dozens and dozens of feet from its original location, while the cave itself remains stationary. Imagine a mouth migrating across your body while your stomach stands still.
Of course, this also means that an entrance to a given cave system can abruptly migrate onto someone else’s property, or that it can even pop open, suddenly and dramatically changing the value of a particular piece of land.
The next thing you know, following an unusually intense summer rainstorm, you own the entrance to a cave.
[Image: A salt cave in Israel; image via Wikipedia].
Which brings us back to Michael Koryta’s novel. There, an unexpected opening into the unstable depths of Indiana’s fictional Trapdoor complex changes the lives of many characters not just for the worse, but for the tragic.
The cave, as Koryta depicts it, is a relentless and unsympathetic thing, a space always shifting, growing organically but not alive, invisible yet ubiquitous, moving beneath the surface of the landscape, connecting parcels of land, as well as the lives—and deaths—of the characters who thought they were just idly passing time above.
[Image: A rendering of the “Timeship” cryogenic facility by architect Stephen Valentine, via New Scientist].
The primary setting of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, is a cryogenic medical facility in the mountainous deserts of Central Asia. There we meet a family that is, in effect, freezing itself, one by one, for reawakening in a speculative second life, in some immortally self-continuous version of the future.
First the mother goes; then the father, far before his time, willfully and preemptively ending things out of loneliness; next would be the son, the book’s ostensible protagonist, if he didn’t arrive with so many reservations about the procedure. Either way, it’s a question of what it means to delay one thing while prolonging another—to preserve one state as a means of preventing another from setting in. One is a refusal to let go of something you already possess; the other is a refusal to accept something you don’t yet have. An addiction to comfort vs. a fear of the new.
Without getting into too many of the book’s admittedly sparse details, it suffices to say that Zero K continues many of DeLillo’s most consistent themes—finance (Cosmopolis), apocalyptic religion (Mao II), the symbolic allure of mathematical analysis (Ratner’s Star).
What makes the book worth a mention here are some of the odder details of this cryogenic compound. It is a monumental space, described with references both to grand scientific and medical facilities—think the Salk Institute, perhaps—as well as to postmodern religious centers, this desert megachurch of the secular afterlife.
Yet its strangest details come from the site’s peripheral ornamentation: there are artificial gardens, for example, filled with resin-based and plastic plant life, and there is a surreal distribution of lifeless mannequins throughout the grounds, standing in penitential silence amongst the fake greenery. Unliving, they cannot die.
These stylized representations of biology, or replicant life forms that come across more like mockery than mimicry, expand the novel’s central conceit of frozen life—life reduced to absolute stillness, placed on pause, in hibernation, in temporal limbo, preserved—out into the landscape itself. It is an obvious symbolism, which is one of the book’s shortcomings; these deathless gardens with their plastic guards remain creepily poetic, nonetheless. These can also be seen as fittingly cynical flourishes for a facility founded on loose talk of singularities, medical resurrection, and quote-unquote human consciousness, as if even the designers themselves were in on the joke.
Briefly, despite my lukewarm feelings about the actual novel, I should say that I really love the title, Zero K. It is, of course, a thermal description—or zero K, zero kelvin, absolute zero, cryogenic perfection. Yet it is also refers to an empty digital file—zero k, zero kb—or, perhaps more accurately, a file saved with nothing in it, thus seemingly a quiet authorial nod to the idea that absolutely nothing about these characters is being saved, or preserved, in their quest for immortality. And it is also a nicely cross-literary reference to Frank Kafka’s existential navigator of European political absurdity, Josef K. or just K. From Josef K. to Zero K, his postmodern replacement.
The title, then, is brilliant—and the mannequins and the plastic plant life found at an end-times cryogenic facility in Central Asia make for an amazing set-up—but it’s certainly not one of DeLillo’s strongest books. In fact, I have been joking to people that, if you really want to read a novel this summer written by an aging white male cultural figure known for his avant-garde aesthetics, consider picking up Consumed, David Cronenberg’s strange, possibly too-Ballardian novel about murder, 3D printing, North Korean kidnapping squads, and more, rather than Zero K (or, of course, read both).
There, Helen Thompson takes us to a place called Comfort, Texas.
[Image: Rendering of the “Timeship” facility by architect Stephen Valentine].
“The scene from here is surreal,” Thompson writes. “A lake with a newly restored wooden gazebo sits empty, waiting to be filled. A pregnant zebra strolls across a nearby field. And out in the distance some men in cowboy hats are starting to clear a huge area of shrub land. Soon the first few bricks will be laid here, marking the start of a scientific endeavour like no other.” A “monolithic building” is under construction in Comfort, and it will soon be “the new Mecca of cryogenics.”
Called Timeship, the monolithic building will become the world’s largest structure devoted to cryopreservation, and will be home to thousands of people who are neither dead nor alive, frozen in time in the hope that one day technology will be able to bring them back to life. And last month, building work began.
The resulting facility will include “a building that would house research laboratories, DNA from near-extinct species, the world’s largest human organ biobank, and 50,000 cryogenically frozen bodies.”
The design of the compound is not free of the sort of symbolic details we saw in DeLillo’s novel. Indeed, Thompson explains, “Parts of the project are somewhat theatrical—backup liquid nitrogen storage tanks are covered overhead by a glass-floored plaza on which you can walk surrounded by a fine mist of clouds—others are purely functional, like the three wind turbines that will provide year-round back-up energy.” And then there’s that pregnant zebra.
[Image: An otherwise totally unrelated photo of a circuit, chosen simply for its visual resemblance to the mandala/temple/resurrection facility in Texas; via DARPA].
It’s a long feature, worth reading in full—so click over to New Scientist to check it out—but what captivates me here is the notion that a sufficiently advanced scientific facility could require an architectural design that leans more toward religious symbolism.
What are the criteria, in other words, by which an otherwise rational scientific undertaking—conquering death? achieving resurrection? simulating the birth of the universe?—can shade off into mysticism and poetry, into ritual and symbolism, into what Zero K refers to as “faith-based technology,” and what architectural forms are thus most appropriate for housing it?
In fact, DeLillo presents a political variation on this question in Zero K. At one point, the book’s narrator explains, looking out over the cryogenic facility, “I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile logic? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells [the facility’s administrators], in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.” When does utilitarian become totalitarian.
When do scientific undertakings become religious movements? When does minimalism become a form of political control?
Katherine Ye has posted short descriptions of “twenty tiny cities,” an homage to Italo Calvino, and some of them are so good. Clockwork City: “Buildings are constantly sliding, turning, merging, separating. Directions: ‘Your destination will arrive in 1.5 hours.’” Fractal City: “Directions are given recursively. ‘Go to the middle triangle, then to its top triangle. Repeat until you arrive.’ Directions might not terminate.” Desire Path City: “They covered the city with meadows of grass, then after a year, built roads where foot traffic had worn grass to dirt.” Nondeterministic City: “Every time you reach an intersection, you take all of them at once. There are few maps of the city, because you’ll always find what you’re looking for.” (Spotted via @katierosepipkin).
I haven’t done one of these in a long, long time… Here are twenty-seven new or recent books, ranging from true crime to science fiction, architecture to media theory, for your back-to-school or end-of-summer reading pleasure.
The Cartel is technically a sequel to The Power of the Dog, but the storyline stands on its own even without prior knowledge of the characters. Here, DEA agent Art Keller must track down—again—a man named Adán Barrera, the leader of a notorious Mexican drug cartel, an organization whose sheer brutality and unsettling ubiquitousness author Don Winslow does not shy away from depicting.
What will probably interest BLDGBLOG readers—in addition to the incredible coincidence of The Cartel‘s publication during the same week that drug lord “Chapo” Guzmán escaped from his prison in Mexico—is Winslow’s exploration of the cartel itself as a self-contained political structure, a kind of sovereignty without borders, operating through a combination of violence and logistics, with few limitations, all over the world.
I had the pleasure of seeing Winslow speak at an event last month at Bookcourt in Brooklyn, where his descriptions of cartel activities offered a kind of diagonal perspective on their operations. Winslow memorably pointed out how farmers in the Sinaloa region of Mexico had been swept up into the cartel’s infinitely flexible method of production, and that, despite any ensuing role growing and harvesting marijuana or even poppies, the cartel offered them new jobs in logistics, not agriculture. “They didn’t want to be farmers,” Winslow said at Bookcourt, “they wanted to be FedEx.”
2)ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano, trans. Virginia Jewiss (Penguin)
Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah is something of a modern classic in terms of its documentation of organized crime in Italy. A fantastic book, Gomorrah depicts what is, in essence, a parallel state operating side by side with the Italian government. In the process, Saviano’s reporting suggests that sufficiently organized criminal activity is all but indistinguishable from a nation-state, even taking on the tasks of waste disposal, transportation, and de facto taxation, with a tragic aura of incompetence and corruption.
ZeroZeroZero pairs well with Winslow’s novel, as it offers the drug trade as a prism or lens through which to see the world. This is the book’s very premise: “Look at cocaine and all you see is powder,” the cover says. “Look through cocaine and you see the world.” Saviano begins his nested stories of the modern drug trade with an unnamed police officer in New York City, but soon follows cocaine’s narcotic tentacles around the world, from Miami to Colombia, Sinaloa to Spain, by way of drug-smuggling submarines and cargo ships, AK-47s and bullet-proof cars.
As with Winslow’s novel, the interest of the book is not only in getting a glimpse of this stranger, much darker world existing alongside or beneath ours; it’s in the fact that this world has such very real territory, with brute-force powers rivaling municipal governments and nation-states, and that the more intensely authorities might try to stomp it out, the larger and more sinister it grows.
I’ve followed Peter Singer’s work with great interest for nearly a decade now, ever since the publication of his book Corporate Warriors, and I was thus intrigued to see that he and fellow war technology theorist August Cole had teamed up to write a novel. While Ghost Fleet is not a book to pick up if you are looking for strong character development, it is exactly the book to pick up if you want to see how a decade’s worth of research into new or speculative military technologies can be assimilated and compiled into a work of near-future fiction.
The basic plot of Ghost Fleet is that a non-nuclear naval and cyber world war has broken out between the United States and China, its battlefields ranging from Hawaii and the broader Pacific to the anti-gravitational heights of near-Earth orbit. I got to see Singer and Cole both speak last month at New America NYC, where they discussed the novel’s depiction of multinational corporations in a future theater of war; the prospect of weaponized logistics chains; whose side our new class of billionaires might take in a global conflict; and even the fate of sovereignty in Greenland. Both authors have pointed out in interviews that they hoped to write the Red Storm Rising of our time: a kind of geopolitical beach read.
Cleverly, the book includes hundreds of footnotes and citations for all of its references to things such as railguns, microdrones, adaptive camouflage, satellite warfare, nuclear submarine detection, and more; this has the effect of making Ghost Fleet feel like reading a more exciting, distorted-mirror version of the daily news and—even better—it has the reverse effect of making the daily news feel like an outtake from Ghost Fleet.
Ghost Fleet pairs very well with Marc Goodman’s excellent, highly recommended book Future Crimes. Goodman’s book should be required reading for anyone using the internet today, let alone anyone interested in the dark side of technological innovation. Expect to learn more about GPS hacking, “burglary 2.0,” mass identity theft, online drug markets, even assassination via medical prosthetics.
Long-time readers of BLDGBLOG might remember my interview with novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, in which Robinson talked about offworld utopias, the politics of sustainability, the future of California, and more. Robinson is back with Aurora, a new novel about a massively intergenerational group of human explorer-refugees, passengers aboard a semi-sentient interstellar ship headed toward a distant planet where human life might be sustainable.
The book is not optimistic. Its portrayal of characters driven half-mad with desperation and a realization of doom, of a planet and its crypto-ecosystem that seems intent on rejecting the colonists, and of an on-board computer system that eventually wakes up into full narrative consciousness does not reveal confidence that humans will ever find another planet to call home.
This makes for an odder pairing than the previous ones, but Charles S. Cockell’s edited volume on The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth is an interesting companion to set alongside much of contemporary science fiction (including, I should note, Ghost Fleet).
Described as a book that “takes the discussion of liberty into the extraterrestrial environment,” it includes papers on offworld sovereignty, what territory means in space, private corporate enterprise as a possible model for future space-states, and the governmental bodies or institutions that might serve to regulate this emerging sphere. From the book:
As more national governments develop expansive space programmes and more private companies design and build spaceships with the capacity to launch satellites, robots and humans into space, the number of organisations in space is growing. With this expansion comes the inevitable consequence of an expanding number of interests to protect and so with that, the chance for a clash of ownership, rules and regulations which together define the environment for individual freedom.
Inspired by aerial images of the Negev Desert taken by photographer Fazal Sheikh, architect and forensic historian Eyal Weizman wanted to understand something that Sheikh had documented: the ghostly remains of old villages, communal graveyards, and farm houses that could be seen in the ground, almost but not quite erased from the landscape, yet that also did not appear on official Israeli state maps.
This led Weizman to write what is, in effect, an extended essay on the role of agriculture, state archival policies, regional maps, desertification, and climate change in a politically motivated attempt to remove from the landscape any trace of pre-Israeli settlement. As Sheikh’s photos showed, what appears to be bare desert—an inhospitable wasteland outside of human civilization—reveals, when seen from above, the structural outlines of earlier inhabitants.
Together with archaeological evidence, old land deeds, and British military surveillance photos from WWI, this has led to court cases over land ownership and even citizenship. One such court case—a man named Nuri Al-‘Uqbi suing for recognition of his family’s land claim—forms the narrative and legal backbone of Weizman’s essay.
Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps is a history of the concentration camps, but as organizational entities, where administration itself becomes a source of dehumanization and brutality. Wachsmann shows how the camp system grew from an archipelago of smaller units to the international scale of the Holocaust, with camps operating throughout Europe, their functions—from daily work schedules to mass executions—systematized and closely reported. There was ultimately no shortage of documentation, despite efforts to destroy records or downplay the system’s horrific extent, and the book itself includes some 200 pages of notes, sources, and appendices.
9)Brodsky & Utkin by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin (Princeton Architectural Press)
The “paper architecture” of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin has been reprinted in a new edition by Princeton Architectural Press. Flooded cities of pillars, glass towers, arching landforms across sprawling supergrids, infinite rooms repeated across pyramids, domes, and antenna-covered housing blocks, they are equal parts Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Modernist allegory, and Soviet bloc existentialism, their projects are as much psychological fables as they are architectural proposals.
[Image: From Brodsky & Utkin by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin (Princeton Architectural Press)].
Manuel Herz has quietly made a name for himself studying, in admirably granular detail, architectural design and production in Africa, whether that means looking at the spatial effects of migration in Nairobi, Kenya, or the complex interplay between formal and informal settlement practices in the refugee camps of Western Africa, as in his excellent book From Camp to City.
African Modernism is a massive book—it is nearly 700 pages in length and more than a foot tall—that takes as its focus post-independence urban design and architecture in Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zambia. As Herz writes in his introductory essay, “In our general perception the African continent stands for suffering and misery. It also remains a mystery as its histories, cultures, traditions, languages, politics and economies remain outside of our framework of reference. The continent is usually seen as a single entity without differentiation and without consideration of its fifty-four countries and the vast differences among its gigantic territory and diverse cultures.”
The resulting project is thus an attempt to address this strange blindness toward African urbanism, cataloging and—at least through publication—helping to preserve buildings all but never documented in contemporary architectural publications. Finally, there is also a political goal, which is to place Modern architecture in its appropriate historical context, “looking at the conscious and deliberate role architecture played in the formation of national states, with all the contradictions, dilemmas and problems this implies.”
While, at first glance, the story told in Kevin Lippert’s War Plan Red seems like what might happen if someone rewrote Dr. Strangelove as an episode of South Park, the mutual invasion plans it details between the United States and Canada comes with a dark humor that veers more toward tragedy. That two democracies with a shared 4,000-mile land border would go through the trouble of cooking up elaborately farcical battle strategies for partially consuming one another’s border states says a lot about the militarized distrust and paranoia that scripted the Cold War. Lippert’s book includes the actual war plans, as well as their historical context.
The plot of Equilateral is seemingly tailor-made for BLDGBLOG readers: a fever-wracked British astronomer at the height of 19th-century colonialism forces tens of thousands of Egyptians to build an enormous equilateral triangle in the Sahara Desert. Its explicit design goal is to be so big that the resulting figure, when set aflame with gasoline, will be visible from Mars. Indeed, the astronomer’s goal is to communicate, through Pythagorean geometry, with the intelligent beings he believes to exist on the Red Planet, and to do so even while he can barely speak with—and arrogantly refuses to recognize intelligence in—the Egyptian workers he has all but enslaved to build this misguided megastructure.
Incredibly, this story was inspired by a real-life plan devised by a man named Joseph Johann von Littrow, to build a flaming geometric sign in the Sahara as a means of communicating with other planets.
Kalfus does an excellent job mocking the racist overtones of the astronomer’s project without becoming didactic or politically heavy-handed, and he even allows moments of genuine wonder into the text, as the possibility of extraplanetary intelligence is debated amongst the novel’s European intelligentsia. It probably goes without saying that all does not end well for the equilateral triangle, a kind of 19th-century SETI project in the desert.
The end of the world has never been so hot. Whether it’s The Walking Dead, The Hunger Games, or Peter Heller’s recent, great book The Dog Stars, watching things fall apart is now a billion-dollar industry. As that intro might indicate, I went into Station Eleven with a healthy dose of skepticism, but ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.
Far from a work of popular survivalist fiction, its end-times narrative is often only lightly applied. Against the backdrop of a near-universally fatal flu outbreak, author Emily St. John Mandel instead focuses her attention not on fire and apocalypse—although there are the requisite ruined airports and scenes set on the feral edges of a depopulated Toronto—but rather on the lives of a core group of characters whose goals, relationships, and interpersonal conflicts are left abruptly unresolved when the disease begins to spread.
The book thus has a disarmingly quiet air of reflective melancholy, enlivened by voluminous flashbacks to the characters’ pre-flu days, as it moves inevitably forward with a sense that, no matter how much we might believe otherwise, we all live amidst unfinished business. We will all have decisions to regret—and people to miss—when the end of things finally arrives.
Legendary film director David Cronenberg has tried his hand at literary fiction—or, more accurately, at a genre-crossing murder mystery that owes much to William Gibson, Alfred Hitchcock, and Cronenberg’s own film work. The plot of Consumed involves a North Korean kidnapping plot, avant-garde filmmakers, bizarre sexual practices, anthropological fieldwork as reconceived in an age of VICE, and a grotesque use of 3D printers that many of today’s “design fiction” aficionados should find both creatively macabre and technically compelling.
I was drawn to Fourth of July Creek almost entirely on the strength and enthusiasm of a blurb from novelist Jeff VanderMeer, and I was glad to have followed his advice. While the bulk of the novel falls outside what I might call BLDGBLOG territory, its Cormac McCarthy-like exploration of off-the-grid survivalists in the vast National Forests of the U.S. is in fitting with this site’s interest in human beings forced to negotiate, and establish the barest toeholds of religious belief or culture, in the face of extreme environments.
One particularly haunting scene involves the eruption of Mount St. Helens and a hardcore survivalist who, isolated away from media in his forest homestead, is convinced the horrible, blinding rain of ash and fire is actually the opening salvo of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.
Crooked could be thought of as Mike Mignola’s B.P.R.D. transplanted into the heart of 20th-century U.S. presidential history, with Richard Milhous Nixon presented as a not necessarily willing participant in the battle of ancient magic normally referred to as the Cold War. Of course, if the B.P.R.D. reference doesn’t do anything for you, just imagine H.P. Lovecraft re-writing the history of the Watergate break-in, and you can begin to picture what unfolds in Austin Grossman’s novel.
While I agree with other critics that too much action occurs off-stage—gigantic creatures emerge from the snow-covered forests of eastern Russia, but only in whispered reports Nixon receives from White House aides—it’s nonetheless an enjoyably nuts and well-written book that takes occult conspiracy theories about U.S. governmental power and turns them up to eleven.
Inside the Machine is about what author Megan Prelinger calls “the enormous electronic infrastructures and networks that shape our world today [yet] remain hidden from our sight.” More than that, though, Prelinger looks at the ads, artworks, and cinematic representations that helped 20th-century popular culture visualize the world of the electron. Human nervous systems, player pianos, printable circuit boards, Cold War radar systems, and even an “unsettlingly alert” 1950s thinking machine called “the Perceptron,” all come together with full-color reproductions of amazing, often inadvertently amusing period art.
Rust, Jonathan Waldman’s long look at the material effects of corrosion, strongly bears the literary influence of John McPhee. From innovations in canned foods to the super-sized national campaign to preserve—and more or less entirely rebuild—the Statue of Liberty, Waldman uses the threat of corrosion as something more like a psychological metaphor for the people he profiles, including industrial consultants and art photographers (with an unexpected dose of LeVar Burton thrown in for good measure).
As Helen Thorpe wrote in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, “Women are the fastest growing group of veterans treated by the V.A., and projections show that women will make up over 16 percent of the country’s veterans by midcentury.” Her new book Soldier Girls looks at three women from very different personal and political backgrounds both during their times of military service and after. The result is an excellent look at the under-documented experiences of women in the U.S. military, including the physical risks and gendered stereotypes they all but constantly and frustratingly face.
If you’ve ever visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stared in awe at the incredible collection of objects from Oceania, Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest fills in the necessary backstory for understanding how those works got there. It was not just a story of underpaid local artisans—although it was this. It was a story of cultural misunderstanding and, ultimately, cannibalism, as collector Michael Rockefeller, son of the New York State governor and scion of the wealthiest families in the world, failed to understand the remote and extremely isolated island world he, in retrospect, blindly stumbled into.
Author Carl Hoffman front-loads the book with a gruesome scene of cannibalism, but its shock dissipates as the book shifts focus to tell the larger story, even more tragic story of a tribe knocked about from confrontation to confrontation by an ever-increasing onslaught of globalized outsiders who made little effort to understand the tightly organized world their presence so violently interrupted.
Ada Calhoun’s book about “America’s hippest street” is due out later this fall. It describes the long transformation of a legendary East Village street, from its earliest days as part of the Stuyvesant family farm to a maze of booze-smuggling tunnels in the age of Prohibition, and from a smoke-hazed world of Beat cafes and punk rock bars to the depressing smear of Chipotle wrappers, European tourists, and ill-considered tramp stamps that it is today. The book’s interest is not in its condemnation of the new St. Mark’s, however, but in the deep history of a single street that Calhoun has managed to shape from long walks through the city’s past.
John Durham Peters asks whether animals, too, have media—or even are media, their bodies communicative vessels relaying and interpreting information through the basic elements of sea, fire, earth, and air. I first came across The Marvelous Clouds through an interview Peters did with the Los Angeles Review of Books, which is worth reading before embarking upon the book itself.
The latter is not strictly speaking a work of media theory or of natural history, but an inspired combination of the two—however, it is also very much an academic work. What I mean by that is simply that I have become so used to reading journalistic nonfiction these days that I kept waiting for Peters to go out into the field, boarding a boat with marine biologists or visiting an avian research lab for some intriguing character studies and a scene of reflective first-person experience; instead, he stays on campus, quoting Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger.
This could very well only be a problem when seen through the lens of my own particular expectations, of course; but I do genuinely long for more academic theoretical writing that is not afraid of becoming expeditionary, so to speak, testing its hypotheses not by quoting things you’ve probably already read in grad school but by introducing readers to relevant new worlds they are otherwise unlikely to visit.
Or, to put this another way: get John Durham Peters aboard a deepsea submarine somewhere, pinging abyssal plains or peering up through echoes at thinning polar ice caps, or drop him off in the canopy of a rain forest research station, studying pheromonal discourse networks sensible only to insects; add some Friedrich Kittler and I would read that book in a heartbeat.
This 2015 reprint of Erik Davis‘s cult classic TechGnosis comes with the refreshing realization that his work is more relevant today, not less. A startling and altogether off-kilter look at esoteric religious beliefs, vernacular folklore, what Davis calls “gnostic science fictions,” and today’s digital technology, it’s something like a bolt of lightning across the sky of today’s tedious tech writing, a world of circular reporting more concerned with product reviews than in discussing why technology exists—and what it’s doing to us—in the first place.
As the book’s own description explains, TechGnosis “uncovers startling connections between such seemingly disparate topics as electricity and alchemy; online roleplaying games and religious and occult practices; virtual reality and gnostic mythology; programming languages and Kabbalah. The final chapters address the apocalyptic dreams that haunt technology, providing vital historical context as well as new ways to think about a future defined by the mutant intermingling of mind and machine, nightmare and fantasy,” and, despite its (deliberately?) dated cover re-design, the book, originally published back in 1998, still feels fresh.
Vision Anew tries to assess what is happening to photography—not just technically but also historically and metaphorically—as the technology through which it operates rapidly shifts to digital. It is moving from chemistry to data, we might say. An edited compilation—co-edited by an old friend of mine from high school, in fact—it includes an all-star list of writers, from Walter Murch to Trevor Paglen, Rebecca Solnit to Ai Weiwei and László Moholy-Nagy.
I originally spotted this book after my wife reviewed it for Popular Science, where she describes Combat-Ready Kitchen as a look at how “the needs of the military play an outsized role in shaping the food industry’s research agenda, resulting in the proliferation of products that are optimized for portability, convenience, shelf-life, and mass appeal, rather than health, taste, or environmental sustainability.”
As the book’s subtitle also makes clear, author Anastacia Marx de Salcedo hopes to reveal how the needs and expectations of military R&D continually trump other health concerns or even public interest when it comes to food science and product development in the United States. More interestingly, though, Marx de Salcedo shows that everyday food products such as Cheetos and granola bars have military origins, as if the battlefields of the 20th and 21st centuries extend even to our supermarket shelves and our dinner plates.
The new series Object Lessons from Bloomsbury is an inspired one. It is also ambitious: with twenty-six titles and counting, each small book takes one object and dissects it relentlessly, revealing the constellation of economic forces and historical interests that have caused it to exist. The titles I’ve included here—Drone and Waste—are only two of the ones I’d suspect have the most interest for readers of this site, but forthcoming looks at the Shopping Mall, the Doorknob, and the Phone Booth, among others, all look promising.
Drone—for which I also supplied a back-cover blurb—is simultaneously a concise and a refreshingly widescreen look at autonomous machine systems and uncrewed aircraft, detailing not just their military role today but their algorithmic and even philosophical origins. The drone is now a ubiquitous, near-mythological presence in contemporary society, but author Adam Rothstein takes a step back from current events to ask, in a sense, what do drones want?
Meanwhile, Waste is as much an anthropology of excess production—or what it means to have so much stuff that vast quantities of it can be reclassified as without practical use, or as waste—as it is a look at the cultural, environmental, and landscape-scale effects of easily discarded materials.