No Wall Is Ever Silent

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.

In any case, you can read reviews at Kirkus or the Guardian.

Northern Sonic

[Image: Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait, source of the “ping”].

The “mysterious ‘ping’ sound” occurring beneath the waters of Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait is now under official investigation.

“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 military 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 of what cause—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.

(Via Atlas Obscura).

A Wall of Walls

[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, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is 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, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in 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].

In any case, you can learn a bit more about the gates in this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, but it instantly came to mind while reading The Valley.

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?

Schrödinger’s Speleology, or the Stalking of “Entranceless Caves”


[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.


[Image: Cave in Venezuela, photographed by Vittorio Crobu, courtesy European Space Agency].

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.


[Image: Cave in Mexico, photographed by Vittorio Crobu, courtesy European Space Agency].

“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.


[Image: Cave in Venezuela, photographed by Vittorio Crobu, courtesy European Space Agency].

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.


[Image: An artificially enlarged entrance to Carlsbad Caverns; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

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.


[Image: Photographer unknown; image via Discovery Communications].

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.

(Vaguely related: Life on the Subsurface: An Interview with Penelope Boston).

The Architecture of Delay vs. The Architecture of Prolongation

timeship
[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).

In any case, believe it or not, this all came out of the fact that I was about to tweet a link to a long New Scientist article about a cryogenic facility under construction in Texas when I realized that I had more to say than just 140 characters (Twitter, I have found, is actually a competitor to your writing masquerading as an enabler of it—alas, something I consistently re-forget).

There, Helen Thompson takes us to a place called Comfort, Texas.

timeship2
[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?

Directions Might Not Terminate

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).

Burial Grounds

Blogger Andrew Ray of Some Landscapes recently re-read The Wind in the Willows to his son, stumbling on “an intriguing passage that I’d forgotten all about, concerning Badger’s large underground home.” It is a scene where “the idea of the city has been literally buried,” where, “civilisations decline but nature endures,” an underground world of ruined architecture and vaulted halls disguised as forests.

Books Received

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.

* * *

1) The Cartel by Don Winslow (Alfred A. Knopf)

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.

3) Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by Peter Singer and August Cole (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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.

4) Future Crimes by Marc Goodman (Doubleday)

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.

5) Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)

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.

6) The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth edited by Charles S. Cockell (Springer)

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.

The The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth includes two pieces authored or co-authored by scifi novelist Stephen Baxter.

7) The Conflict Shoreline: Colonialism as Climate Change in the Negev Desert by Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh (Cabinet Books)

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.

8) KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann (FSG)

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)].

10) African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence—Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia edited by Manuel Herz et al. with photographs by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster (Park Books)

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.”

11) War Plan Red: The United States’ Secret Plan to Invade Canada and Canada’s Secret Plan to Invade the United States by Kevin Lippert (Princeton Architectural Press)

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.

To a certain extent, this pairs well with another title from Princeton Architectural Press, Tom Vanderbilt’s engaging Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (republished a few years ago in a paperback edition from the University of Chicago Press).

12) Equilateral by Ken Kalfus (Bloomsbury)

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.

13) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage)

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.

14) Consumed by David Cronenberg (Scribner)

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.

15) Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco)

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.

16) Crooked by Austin Grossman (Mulholland Books)

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.

17) Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age by Megan Prelinger (W.W. Norton)

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.

18) Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman (Simon & Schuster)

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).

19) Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe (Scribner)

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.

20) Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest by Carl Hoffman (William Morrow)

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.

21) St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street by Ada Calhoun (W.W. Norton)

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.

22) The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press)

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.

23) TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information by Erik Davis (North Atlantic Books)

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.

24) Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts edited by Adam Bell and Charles H. Traub (University of California Press)

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.

25) Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo (Current)

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.

26) Drone by Adam Rothstein (Bloomsbury)

27) Waste by Brian Thill (Bloomsbury)

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.

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Immaculate Ecologies

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

“We will put up the mountains. We will lay out the prairie. We will cut rivers to join the lakes.” So says the narrator of a nice piece of ecosystem fiction by my friend Scott Geiger published over at Nautilus.

This corporate spokesperson is building virgin terrain: “all-new country, elevated and secured from downstairs, with a growing complement of landforms, clean waters, ecologies, wilderness.”

I was reminded of Geiger’s work when I came across an old bookmark here on my computer, with a story that reads like something straight out of the golden age of science fiction: a corporate conglomerate, intent on spanning vast gulfs of space, finds itself engineering an entire ecosystem into existence on a remote stopping-off point, turning bare rocks into an oasis, in order to ensure that its empire can expand.

This could be the premise of a Hugo Award-winning interplanetary space opera—or it could be the real-life history of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The Company was the first to lay a direct submarine cable from the United States to East Asia, but this required the use of a remote atoll, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, called Midway, not yet famous for its role in World War II.

At the time, however, there was barely anything more there than “low, sandy island[s] with little vegetation,” considered by the firm’s operations manager to be “unfit for human habitation.” The tiny islands—some stretches no more than sandbars—would have been impossible to use, let alone to settle.

Like Geiger’s plucky terraforming super-company, putting up the mountains and laying out the prairie, the Cable Company and its island operations manager “initiated the long process of introducing hundreds of new species of flora and fauna to Midway.”

During this period, the superintendent imported soil from Honolulu and Guam to make a fresh vegetable garden and decorate the grounds. By 1921, approximately 9,000 tons of imported soil changed the sandy landscape forever. Today, the last living descendants of the Cable Company’s legacy still flutter about: their pet canaries. The cycad palm, Norfolk Island Pine, ironwood, coconut, the deciduous trees, everything seen around the cable compound is alien. Since Midway lacked both trees and herbivorous animals, the ironwood trees spread unchecked throughout the Atoll. What else came in with the soil? Ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes; millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.

Strangely, the evolved remnants of this corporate ecosystem are now an international bird refuge, as if saving space for the feral pets of long-dead submarine cable operators.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The preserved ruins of old Cable Company buildings stand amidst the trees, surely now home to many of those “millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.” Indeed, “the four main Cable Company buildings, constructed of steel beams and concrete with twelve-inch thick first-story walls, have fought a tough battle with termites, corrosion, and shifting sands for nearly a century.”

It is a built environment even down to the biological scale—a kind of time-release landscape now firmly established and legally protected.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the constructed frontier lands of Scott Geiger’s fictions and the national park of curated species still fluttering their wings at Midway share much with the even stranger story of terraforming performed by none other than Charles Darwin on Ascension Island.

This is, in the BBC’s words, “the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.” It’s worth quoting at length:

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and [his friend, the botanist Joseph] Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens—where Hooker’s father was director—shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

It’s not a wilderness forest, then, but a feral garden “run riot” on the slopes of a remote, militarized island outpost (one photographed, I should add, by photographer Simon Norfolk, as discussed in this earlier interview on BLDGBLOG).

[Image: The introduced forestry of Ascension Island, via Google Maps].

In a sense, Ascension’s fog-capturing forests are like the “destiny trees” from Scott Geiger’s story in Nautilus—where “there are trees now that allow you to select pretty much what form you want ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road”—only these are entire destiny landscapes, pieced together for their useful climatic side-effects.

For anyone who happened to catch my lecture at Penn this past March, the story of Ascension bears at least casual comparison to the research of Christine Hastorf at UC Berkeley. Hastorf has written about the “feral gardens” of the Maya, or abandoned landscapes once deeply cultivated but now shaggy and overgrown, all but indistinguishable from nature. For Hastorf, many of the environments we currently think of as Central American rain forest are, in fact, a kind of indirect landscape architecture, a terrain planted and pruned long ago and thus not wilderness at all.

Awesomely, the alien qualities of this cloud forest can be detected. As one ecologist remarked to the BBC after visiting the island, “I remember thinking, this is really weird… There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened.” It was like stumbling upon a glitch in the matrix.

In the case of these islands, I love the fact that historically real human behavior competes, on every level, for sheer outlandishness with the best of science fiction for its creation of entire ecosystems in remote, otherwise inhospitable environments; advanced landscaping has become indistinguishable from planetology. And, in Scott Geiger’s case, I love the fact that the perceived weirdness of his story comes simply from the scale at which he describes these landscape activities being performed.

In other words, Geiger is describing something that actually happens all the time; we just refer to it as the suburbs, or even simply as landscaping, a near-ubiquitous spatial practice that is no less other-worldly for taking place one half-acre at a time.

[Image: A suburban landscape being rolled out into the forest like carpet; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Soon, even the discordant squares of grass seen in the above photograph will seem as if they’ve always been there: a terrain-like skin graft thriving under unlikely circumstances.

Think of a short piece in New Scientist earlier this year: “All this is forcing enthusiasts to reconsider what ‘nature’ really is. In many places, true wilderness vanished thousands of years ago, and the landscapes we think of as natural are largely artificial.”

Indeed, like something straight out of a Geiger short story, “thousands of years from now our descendants may think of African lions roaming American plains as ‘natural’ too.”

Tales of the Crash: An Interview with Nick Arvin

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

(Note: An earlier version of this interview previously appeared on Venue).

Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin‘s most recent novel, is a reconstructionist: an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.

The novel is based on Arvin’s own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction; Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction.

As part of our Venue project, Nicola Twilley and I sat down with Arvin at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animations.

Flipping open his laptop, Arvin kicked things off by showing us a kind of greatest hits reel drawn from his own crash reconstruction experience. Watching the short, blocky animations—a semi jack-knifing across the center line, an SUV rear-ending a silver compact car, before ricocheting backward into a telephone pole—was surprisingly uncomfortable.

[Images: Nick Arvin demonstrates simulated car crashes; photos by Nicola Twilley].

As he hit play, each scene was both unspectacular and familiar—a rural two-lane highway in the rain, a suburban four-way stop surrounded by gas stations and fast-food franchises—yet, because we knew an impact was inevitable, these everyday landscapes seemed freighted with both anticipation and tragedy.

The animations incorporated multiple viewpoints, slowing and replaying the moments of impact, and occasionally overlaying an arrow, scale, or trajectory trace. This layer of scientific explanation provided a jarring contrast to the violence of the collision itself and the resulting wreckage—not only of the scattered vehicles, but of entire lives.

As we went on to discuss, it is precisely this disjuncture—between the neat explanations provided by laws of physics and the random chaos of human motivation and behavior—that The Reconstructionist takes as its narrative territory.

Our conversation ranged from the art of car crash forensics to the limits of causality and chance, via feral pigs, Walden Pond, and the Higgs boson. An edited transcript appears below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: Walk us though how you would build and animate these car crash reconstructions.

Nick Arvin: In the company where I worked, we had an engineering group and an animation group. In the engineering group, we created what we called motion data, which was a description of how the vehicle moved. The motion data was extremely detailed, describing a vehicle’s movement a tenth of a second by a tenth of a second. At each of those points in time we had roll, pitch, yaw, and locations of vehicles.

To generate such detailed data, we sometimes used a specialized software program⎯the one we used is called PC-Crash⎯or sometimes we just used some equations in Excel.

A screenshot from the PC-Crash demo, which boasts that the “Specs database contains vehicles sold in North America from 1972 to the present,” and that “up to 32 vehicles (including cars, trucks, trailers, pedestrians, and fixed objects such as trees or barriers) can be loaded into a simulation project.”

When you’re using PC-Crash, you start by entering a bunch of numbers to tell the program what a vehicle looks like: how long it is, where the wheels are relative to the length, how wide it is, where the center of gravity is, how high it is, and a bunch of other data I’m forgetting right now.

Once you’ve put in the parameters that define the vehicle, it’s almost like a video game: you can put the car on the roadway and start it going, and you put a little yaw motion in to start it spinning. You can put two vehicles in and run them into each other, and PC-Crash will simulate the collision, including the motion afterward, as they come apart and roll off to wherever they roll off to.

We then fed that motion data to the animators, and they created the imagery.

Screenshots of PC-Crash‘s “Collision Optimizer.” As the demo promises, “in PC-Crash 3D, the scene can be viewed from any angle desired.”

Often, you would have a Point A and a Point B, and you would need the animation to show how the vehicle got from one point to the other.

Point A might be where two vehicles have crashed into each other, which is called the “point of impact.” The point of impact was often fairly easy to figure out. When vehicles hit each other—especially in a head-on collision—the noses will go down and gouge into the road, and the radiator will break and release some fluid there, marking it.

Then, usually, you know exactly where the vehicle ended up, which is Point B, or the “point of rest.”

But connecting Points A and B was the tricky part.

Twilley: In real life, are you primarily using these kind of animations to test what you think happened, or is it more useful to generate a range of possibilities of which you can then look for evidence on the ground? In the book, for example, your reconstructionists seem to do both, going back and forth between the animation and the actual ground, generating and testing hypotheses.

Arvin: That’s right. That’s how it works in real life, too.

Sometimes we would come up with a theory of what happened and how the vehicles had moved, and then we’d recreate it in an animation, as a kind of test. Generating a realistic-looking animation is very expensive, but you can create a crude version pretty easily.

We’d watch the animation and say, “That just doesn’t look right.” You have a feel for how physics works; you can see when an animation just doesn’t look right. So, very often, we’d look at an animation and say to ourselves: we haven’t got this right yet.

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

One of the challenges of the business is that, when you’re creating an animation for court, every single thing in it has to have a basis that’s defensible. An animation can cost tens of thousands of dollars to generate, and if there is one detail that’s erroneous, the other side can say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense!” Then the entire animation will be thrown out of court, and you’ve just flushed a lot of money down the toilet.

So you have to be very meticulous and careful about the basis for everything in the animation. You have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened.

In the novel there is an example of this kind of thinking when Boggs shows Ellis how, when looking at a vehicle that has rolled over, you literally examine each individual scratch mark on the vehicle, because a scratch can tell you about the orientation of the vehicle as it hit the ground, and it can also tell you where the vehicle was when the scratch was made, since asphalt makes one kind of scratch, while dirt or gravel will make a different type of scratch.

For one case I worked on—a high-speed rollover where the vehicle rolled three or four times—we printed out a big map of the accident site. In fact, it was so big we had to roll out down the hallway. It showed all of the impact points that the police had documented, and it showed all of the places where broken glass had been deposited as the vehicle rolled. We had a toy model of the car, and we sat there on the floor and rolled the toy from point to point on the map, trying to figure out which dent in the vehicle corresponded to which impact point on the ground.

I remember the vehicle had rolled through a barbed wire fence, and that there was a dent in one of the doors that looked like a pole of some kind had been jammed into the sheet metal. We figured it had to be one of the fence posts, but we struggled with it for weeks, because everything else in the roll motion indicated that, when the car hit the fence, the door with the dent in it would have been on the opposite side of the vehicle. We kept trying to change the roll motion to get that door to hit the fence, but it just didn’t make sense.

Finally, one of my colleagues was going back through some really poor-quality police photographs. We had scarcely looked at them, because they were so blurry you could hardly see anything. But he happened to be going back through them, and he noticed a fireman with a big crowbar. And we realized the crowbar had made the dent! They had crowbarred the door open.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Sometimes, though, even after all that meticulous attention to detail, and even if you believe you have the physics right, you end up playing with it a little, trying to get the motion to look real. There’s wiggle room in terms of, for example, where exactly the driver begins braking relative to where tire marks were left on the road. Or, what exactly is the coefficient of friction on this particular roadway? Ultimately, you’re planning to put this in front of a jury and they have to believe it.

Twilley: So there’s occasionally a bit of an interpretive leeway between the evidence that you have and the reconstruction that you present.

Arvin: Yes. There’s a lot of science in it, but there is an art to it, as well. Pig Accident 2, the crash that Ellis is trying to recreate at the start of my book, is a good example of that.

It’s at the start of the book, but it was actually the last part that was written. I had written the book, we had sold it, and I thought I was done with it, but then the editor—Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial—sent me his comments. And he suggested that I needed to establish the characters and their dynamics more strongly, early in the book.

I wanted an accident to structure the new material around, but by this time I was no longer working as a reconstructionist, and all my best material from the job was already in the book. So I took a former colleague out for a beer and asked him to tell me about the stuff he’d been working on.

He gave me this incredible story: an accident that involved all these feral pigs that had been hit by cars and killed, lying all over the road. Then, as a part of his investigation, he built this stuffed pig hide on wheels, with a little structure made out of wood and caster wheels on the bottom. They actually spray-painted the pig hide black, to make it the right color.

He said it was like a Monty Python skit: he’d push it out on the road, then go hide in the bushes while the other guy took photographs. Then he’d have to run out and grab the pig whenever a car came by.

[Image: A stuffed pig on wheels, “like a Monty Python skit”; photo by Nicola Twilley].

But there wasn’t any data coming out of that process that they were feeding into their analysis; it was about trying to convince a jury whether you can or can’t see a feral pig standing in the middle of the road.

BLDGBLOG: That’s an interesting analogy to the craft of writing fiction, related to the question of what is sufficient evidence for something to be believable.

Arvin: Exactly. It’s so subjective.

In that case, my friend was working for the defense, which was the State Highway Department—they were being sued for not having built a tunnel under the road for the wild pigs to go through. In the novel, it takes place in Wisconsin, but in reality it happened in Monterey, California. They’ve got a real problem with wild pigs there.

Monterey has a phenomenal number of wild pigs running around. As it turned out, the defense lost this case, and my friend said that it was because it was impossible to get a jury where half the people hadn’t run into a pig themselves, or knew somebody who had had a terrible accident with a pig. The jury already believed the pigs were a problem and the state should be doing something about it.

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

BLDGBLOG: In terms of the narrative that defines a particular car crash, I’m curious how reconstructionists judge when a car crash really begins and ends. You could potentially argue that you crashed because, say, a little kid throws a water balloon into the street and it distracts you and, ten seconds later, you hit a telephone pole. But, clearly, something like a kid throwing a water balloon is not going to show up in PC-Crash.

For the purpose of the reconstructionist, then, where is the narrative boundary of a crash event? Does the car crash begin when tires cross the yellow line, or when the foot hits the brakes—or even earlier, when it started to rain, or when the driver failed to get his tires maintained?

Arvin: It’s never totally clear. That’s a grey area that we often ended up talking about and arguing about.

In that roll-over crash, for example, part of the issue was that the vehicle was traveling way over the speed limit, but another issue was that the tires hadn’t been properly maintained. And when you start backing out to look at the decisions that the drivers made at different moments leading up to that collision, you can always end up backing out all the way to the point where it’s: well, if they hadn’t hit snooze on the alarm clock that morning

Twilley: Or, in your novel’s case, if they weren’t married to the wrong woman.

Arvin: [laughs] Right.

We worked on one case where a guy’s car was hit by a train. He was a shoe salesman, if I remember right, and he was going to work on a Sunday. It just happened to be after the daylight savings time change, and he was either an hour ahead or an hour behind getting to work. The clock in the car and his watch hadn’t been reset yet. He’d had this job for four years, and he’d been driving to work at the same time all those years, so he had probably never seen a train coming over those tracks before—but, because he was an hour off, there was a train.

So, you know, if he’d remembered to change his clocks…

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: That reminds me of something that Boggs says in the book: “It’s a miracle there aren’t more miracles.”

Arvin: Doing that work, you really start to question, where are those limits of causality and chance? You think you’ve made a decision in your life, but there are all these moments of chance that flow into that decision. Where do you draw a line between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you? What’s just happenstance?

It’s a very grey area, but the reconstructionist has to reach into the grey area and try to establish some logical sequence of causality and responsibility in a situation.

Twilley: In the novel, you show that reconstructionists have a particular set of tools and techniques with which to gain access to the facts about a past event. Other characters in the book have other methods for accessing the past: I’m thinking of the way Ellis’s father stores everything, or Heather’s photography. In the end, though it seems as though the book is ambivalent as to whether the past is accessible through any of those methods.

Arvin: I think that ambivalence is where the book is. You can get a piece of the past through memory and you can get a piece through the scientific reconstruction of things. You can go to a place now, as it is physically; you can look of a photograph of how it was; you can create a simulation of the place as it was in your computer: but those are all representations of it, and none of them are really it. They are all false, to an extent, in their own way.

The best I think you can hope to do is to use multiple methods to triangulate and get to some version of what the past was. Sometimes they just contradict each other and there’s no way to resolve them.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Working as a reconstructionist, I was really struck by how often people’s memories were clearly false, because they’d remember things that just physically were not possible. Newton’s laws of motion say it couldn’t have happened. In fact, we would do our best to completely set aside any witness testimony and just work from the physical evidence. It was kind of galling if there was not just enough physical evidence and you had to rely on what somebody said as a starting point.

Pedestrian accidents tended to be like that, because when a car runs into a person it doesn’t leave much physical evidence behind. When two cars run into each other, there’s all this stuff left at the point where they collided, so you can figure out where that point was. But, when a car runs into a person, there’s nothing left at that point; when you try to determine where the point of impact was, you end up relying on witness testimony.

Screenshots from a PC-Crash demo showing load loss and new “multibody pedestrian” functionality.

Twilley: In terms of reconciling memory and physical evidence—and this also relates to the idea of tweaking the reconstruction animation for the jury—the novel creates a conflict about whether it’s a good idea simply to settle for a narrative you can live with, however unreliable it might be, or to try to pin it down with science instead, even if the final result doesn’t sit right with you.

Arvin: Exactly. It sets up questions about how we define ourselves and what we do when we encounter things that conflict with our sense of identity. If something comes up out of the past that doesn’t fit with who you have defined yourself to be, what do you do with that? How much of our memories are shaped by our sense of identity versus the things we’ve actually done?

Twilley: It’s like a crash site: once the lines have been repainted and the road resurfaced, to what extent is that place no longer the same place where the accident occurred, yet still the place that led to the accident? That’s what’s so interesting about the reconstructionist’s work: you’re making these narratives that define a crash for a legal purpose, yet the novel seems to ask whether that is really the narrative of the crash, whether the actual impact is not the dents in the car but what happens to people’s lives.

Arvin: I always felt that tension—you are looking at the physics and the equations in order to understand this very compressed moment in time, but then there are these people who passed through that moment of time, and it had a huge effect on their lives. Within the work, we were completely disregarding those people and their emotions—emotions were outside our purview. Writing the book for me was part of the process of trying to reconcile those things.

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

BLDGBLOG: While reading the book, I found myself thinking about the discovery of the Higgs boson—how, in a sense, its discovery was really a kind of crash forensics.

Arvin: You’re right. You don’t actually see the particle; you see the tracks that it’s made. I love that. It’s a reminder that we’re reconstructing things all the time in our lives.

If you look up and a window is open, and you know you didn’t open it, then you try to figure out who in the house opened it. There are all these minor events in our lives, and we constantly work to reconstruct them by looking at the evidence around us and trying to figure out what happened.

BLDGBLOG: That reminds me of an anecdote in Robert Sullivan’s book, The Meadowlands, about the swamps of northern New Jersey. One of his interview subjects is a retired detective from the area who is super keyed into his environment—he notices everything. He explains that this attention to microscopic detail is what makes a good detective. So, in the case of the open window, he’ll notice it and file it away in case he needs it in a future narrative.

What he tells Sullivan is that, now that he is retired, it’s as though he’s built up this huge encyclopedia of little details with the feeling that they all were going to add up to some kind of incredible moment of narrative revelation. But then he retired. He sounds genuinely sad—he has so much information and it’s not going anywhere. The act of retiring as a police detective meant that he lost the promise of a narrative denouement.

Arvin: That’s great. I think of reconstruction in terms of the process of writing, too. Reconstruction plays into my own particular writing technique because I tend to just write a lot of fragments initially, then I start trying to find the story that connects those pieces together.

It also reminds me of one of my teachers, Frank Conroy, who used to talk about the contract between the reader and the writer. Basically, as a writer, you’ve committed to not wasting the reader’s time. He would say that the reader is like a person climbing a mountain, and the author is putting certain objects along the reader’s path that the reader has to pick up and put into their backpack; when they get to the top of the mountain there better be something to do with all these things in their backpack, or they are going to be pissed that they hauled it all the way up there.

That detective sounds like a thwarted reader. He has the ingredients for the story—but he doesn’t have the story.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: In the novel, you deliberately juxtapose a creative way of looking—Heather’s pinhole photography—with Ellis’s forensic, engineering perspective. It seems rare to be equipped with both ways of seeing the world. How does being an engineer play into writing, or vice versa?

Arvin: I think the two things are not really that different. They are both processes of taking a bunch of little things—in engineering, it might be pieces of steel and plastic wire, and, in writing a novel, they’re words—and putting them together in such a way that they work together and create some larger system that does something pleasing and useful, whether that larger thing is a novel or a cruise ship.

One thing that I think about quite a bit is the way that both engineering and writing require a lot of attention to ambiguity. In writing, at the sentence level, you really want to avoid unintentional ambiguity. You become very attuned to places where your writing is potentially open to multiple meanings that you were not intending.

Similarly, in engineering, you design systems that will do what you want them to do, and you don’t have room for ambiguity—you don’t want the power plant to blow up because of an ambiguous connection.

But there’s a difference at the larger level. In writing, and writing fiction in particular, you actually look for areas of ambiguity that are interesting, and you draw those out to create stories that exemplify those ambiguities—because those are the things that are interesting to think about.

Whereas, in engineering, you would never intentionally take an ambiguity about whether the cruise ship is going to sink or not and magnify that!

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: I wanted to switch tracks a little and talk about the geography of accidents. Have you come to understand the landscape in terms of its potential for automotive disaster?

Arvin: When you are working on a case—like that rollover—you become extremely intimate with a very small piece of land. We would study the accident site and survey it and build up a very detailed map of exactly how the land is shaped in that particular spot.

You spend a lot of time looking at these minute details, and you become very familiar with exactly how lands rolls off and where the trees are, and where the fence posts are and what type of asphalt that county uses, because different kinds of asphalt have different friction effects.

BLDGBLOG: The crash site becomes your Walden Pond.

Arvin: It does, in a way. I came to feel that, as a reconstructionist, you develop a really intimate relationship with the roadway itself, which is a place where we spend so much time, yet we don’t really look at it. That was something I wanted to bring out in the book—some description of what that place is, that place along the road itself.

You know, we think of the road as this conveyance that gets us from Point A to Point B, but it’s actually a place in and of itself and there are interesting things about it. I wanted to look at that in the book. I wanted to look at the actual road and the things that are right along the road, this landscape that we usually blur right past.

The other thing your question makes me think about is this gigantic vehicle storage yard I describe in the novel, where all the crashed vehicles that are still in litigation are kept. It’s like a museum of accidents—there are racks three vehicles high, and these big forklift trucks that pick the vehicles up off the racks and put them on the ground so you can examine them.

A vehicle scrapyard photographed by Wikipedia contributor Snowmanradio.

BLDGBLOG: Building on that, if you have a geography of crashes and a museum of crashes, is there a crash taxonomy? In the same way that you get a category five hurricane or a 4.0 earthquake, is there, perhaps, a crash severity scale? If so, could you imagine, at one end of it, a kind of super-crash—a crash that maybe happens only once a generation—

Arvin: The unicorn crash!

BLDGBLOG: Exactly. In fact, Nicky and I were talking about the idea of a “black swan” crash on the way over here. Do you think in terms of categories or degrees of severity, or is every crash unique?

Arvin: I haven’t come across a taxonomy like that, although it’s a great idea. The way you categorize crashes is single vehicle, multiple vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, and so on. They also get categorized as rollover collision, collision that leads to a rollover, and so on.

So there are categories like that, and they immediately point you to certain kinds of analysis. The way you analyze a rollover is quite a bit different from how you analyze an impact. But there’s no categorization that I am aware of for severity.

I only did it for three years, so I’m not a grizzled reconstructionist veteran, but even in three years you see enough of them that you start to get a little jaded. You get an accident that was at 20 miles an hour, and you think, that’s not such a big deal. An accident in which two vehicles, each going 60 miles an hour, crash head-on at a closing speed of 120 miles an hour—now, that’s a collision!

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

You become a little bit of an accident snob, and resisting that was something that I struggled with. Each accident is important to the people who were in it. And, there was a dark humor that tended to creep in, and that worried me, too. On the one hand, it helps keep you sane, but on the other hand, it feels very disrespectful.

Twilley: Have you been in a car accident yourself?

Arvin: I had one, luckily very minor, accident while I was working as reconstructionist—around the time that I was starting to work on this book. I heard the collision begin before I saw it, and what I really remember is that first sound of metal on metal.

Immediately, I felt a lurch of horror, because I wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but I knew it could be terrible. You are just driving down the road and, all of a sudden, your life is going to be altered, but you don’t know how yet. It’s a scary place—a scary moment.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I’m interested in simply how someone becomes a reconstructionist. It’s not a job that most people have even heard of!

Arvin: True. For me, it was a haphazard path. Remember how we talked earlier about that gray area between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you?

I have degrees in mechanical engineering from Michigan and Stanford. When I finished my Masters at Stanford, I went to work for Ford. I worked there for about three years. Then I was accepted into Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so I quit Ford to go to Iowa. I got my MFA, and then I was given a grant to go write for a year. My brother had moved to Denver a year earlier, and it seemed like a cool town so I moved here. Then my grant money ran out, and I had to find a job.

I began looking for something in the automotive industry in Denver, and there isn’t much. But I had known a couple people at Ford who ended up working in forensics, so I started sending my resume to automobile forensics firms. It happened that the guy who got my resume was a big reader, and I had recently published my first book. He was impressed by that, so he brought me in for an interview.

In that business, you write a lot of reports and he thought I might be helpful with that.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: Do you still work as an engineer, and, if so, what kinds of projects are you involved with?

Arvin: I work on power plants and oil and gas facilities. Right now, I am working on both a power plant and an oil facility in North Dakota—there’s lots of stuff going on out there as part of the Bakken play. It’s very different from the forensics.

Twilley: Do you take an engineering job, then quit and take some time to write and then go back into the engineering again? Or do you somehow find a way to do both?

Arvin: I do both. I work part time. Part-time work isn’t really easy to find as an engineer, but I’ve been lucky, and my employers have been great.

Engineers who write novels are pretty scarce. There are a few literary writers who started out in engineering but have gotten out of it—Stewart O’Nan is one, George Saunders is another. There’s Karl Iagnemma, who teaches at MIT. There are a few others, especially in the sci-fi universe.

I feel as though I have access to material—to a cast of characters and a way of thinking—that’s not available to very many writers. But the engineering work I’m doing now doesn’t have quite the same dramatic, obvious story potential that forensic engineering does.

I remember when I first started working in forensics, on day one, I thought, this is a novel right here.

• • •

A slightly longer version of this interview previously appeared on Venue.

Thanks to Scott Geiger for first recommending Arvin’s work!

Conic Sections: An Interview with Sol Yurick

I interviewed novelist Sol Yurick back in March 2009. Rather than publish the interview on BLDGBLOG as I should have, however, I thought I’d try to find a place for it elsewhere, and began pitching it to a few design magazines. Yurick, after all, was the author of The Warriors—later turned into the cult classic film of the same name, in which New York City is transformed into a ruined staging ground for elaborately costumed gangs—and he was a familiar enough figure amidst a particular crowd of underground readers and independent press aficionados, those of us who might gravitate more toward Autonomedia pamphlets, for example, where you’d find Yurick’s strange and prescient Metatron: The Recording Angel, than anything on the bestseller list.

Looked at one way, The Warriors tells the story of a city gone out of control, become feral, taken over by criminal gangs and faceless police organizations, its infrastructure half-abandoned or, at the very least, fallen, limping into a state of quasi-Piranesian decay. The everyday lives of its residents whirl on, while these cartoon-like groups of armed militants spiral toward violence and disaster. Yurick was thus an urban author, I thought, suitable for urban and architectural publications, his insights on cities far more useful than your average TED Talk and about one ten-thousandth as exposed.

In the interview, published for the first time below, Yurick freely discussed the back-story for The Warriors, which was the question that had motivated me to contact him in the first place. But he also drifted into his interests in the global financial system, which, at that point in time, was melting down through a domino game of bad mortgages and Ponzi schemes, and he went on to offer an even more dizzying perspective on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Dante, in Yurick’s unexpected retelling, had actually written a series of concentric financial allegories, tales of monetary wizardry starring lost, beautiful souls searching for one another amongst the impenetrable mathematics of paradise.

Along the way, we touched on Mexican drug cartels, the Trojan War, the United Nations, and a handful of forthcoming books that Yurick was still, he claimed, energetically working on at the time. 

Image from Paper Tiger, via Sheepshead Bites

Alas, I pitched the wrong magazines and, soon thereafter, hit the road for a long period of travel and work; the interview simply disappeared into my hard drive and years went by. Then, worst of all, Yurick passed away in January of this year

The New York Times described him as “a writer whose best-known work, the 1965 novel The Warriors, recast an ancient Greek battle as a tale of warring New York street gangs and earned a cult following in print, on film and eventually in a video game.” Writing for The Nation, Samuel Fromartz specifically referred to several “out-of-the-blue interview requests” that had popped up in Yurick’s latter years, asking him about, yes, The Warriors. As Fromartz writes, “despite the delight he got in its cult status, it did not mean a lot more to him” than his other books, The Warriors being simply one project among many. 

And so this interview sat, unpublished, till I came across it again in my files recently and I thought I’d give it a second life online. It’s a fascinating discussion with an aging writer who unhesitatingly looked back at a long career of writing both fiction and political analysis, a life of deep reading and even a few eye-poppingly abstract interpretations of Dante.

What follows is the final edit of our conversation. Yurick was an engaged and pointed conversationalist, and, while I was obviously just another out-of-the-blue interviewer curious about the broken city of The Warriors, I hope this text does justice to his creative and sharp vision of the world. 

So this is for Sol Yurick, 1925-2013.

* * *

BLDGBLOG: I’d love to start with the most basic question of all, which is to ask about the back-story behind The Warriors. What motivated you to write it when you did?

Sol Yurick: Well, initially it started off when I was talking about some ideas with a friend in college. I’d just finished reading Xenophon and the concept popped into my head. This was the early 1940s.

Then, later, maybe in the 1950s, I read Outlaws of the Marsh, and the combination of ritual and violence in Outlaws of the Marsh just took my breath away. Those things mixed—Xenophon, ritual violence, Outlaws of the Marsh—and, on top of all that, I had already been working on a novel of my own. I was trying to get it published and it kept getting rejected—maybe 37 times?

BLDGBLOG: Wow.

Yurick: To move on to the next step, I wrote The Warriors. I did it in about three weeks. By this time, a lot of these ideas had matured. I’d been thinking about the whole question of gangs. First of all, the youth gangs at that point in time, running into the 1950s and ’60s, had no economic basis whatsoever. They mostly came from poverty-stricken families. You remember the film Rebel Without a Cause, right? That kind of stuff. It was viewed as kind of a national problem.

However, there were also gangs that came out of the suburbs—gangs nobody had ever heard about. No sociologist had wrote about this. In fact, I was big on sociology at the time, especially the works of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, the founders of modern sociology. I wanted to write about stuff that approached reality—that was based in social reality—and that was not bound by a lot of the clichés or conventions of fiction as I knew it. I wanted to deal with a different stratum of society, something that wasn’t getting the attention it deserved in fiction at the time.

By the time I was actually writing the book, though, the whole 1960s had already started, and I eventually had a different take on it. In the book, it’s really about making a revolution, not just a criminal gang taking over the city. After all, it takes place on July 4th! But, in the book, that holiday is like a slap in the face for my characters—at least that’s the vision of the gang leader, looking at all the things that keep these people down. It’s Independence Day—but independence for whom? Independence from what?

Since that time, I’ve thought an awful lot about gangs and I began to see them in a very different way, as almost a biological formation. People make gangs—men and women, what have you. Cliques, clans, whatever you want to call it. There seems to be a big impulse there, something deeply social and political, but also maybe something biological.

I’d been thinking and meditating on this whole thing—this whole problem of the gang and what makes it. The interesting thing about gangs, as I wrote about them at that point in time, and as I mentioned, is that they had no economic basis. That all began to change during the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially in relation to Vietnam, when more and more heroin began to be imported into the United States—a chunk of that coming through the good offices of the CIA. So, especially looking at the drug cartels in Mexico today, but also looking at this phenomenon of organized crime all over the world, the more you see that gangs are essentially capitalists. Within that system, they organize themselves: they have hierarchical principles and their leadership gets the best of everything. The lower strata are just the soldiers who risk their lives and don’t make out too well.

Look at the other gangs and mafia in ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria, the Camorra, the Japanese gangs, the Chinese triads, the Bulgarian gangs, the Russian gangs, all of that. It’s a business. Essentially, there are connections between these phenomena and corporate capitalism and politics, one way or another. On some level, there are always connections to something else—some other group, level, or economic phenomenon. In fact, no phenomenon, whether we’re talking physics or chemistry or what have you is totally isolated. Total isolation, or the making of discrete sets, is really an intellectual concept. No social formation is isolated in and of itself. It just isn’t.

What’s interesting is that, wherever you go, the gangs develop their own cultures. What makes them alike is generally their structures—their hierarchical structures—and the necessity for their leadership, whether it’s male or female, to exhibit charisma, machismo or machisma. And I don’t care whether you see this in corporations, which are supposedly rational entities but that, really, are not—because, otherwise, why would people talk about the “culture” of a corporation as something that can drive it into bankruptcy or make it successful? And how is that culture different from another corporation? So, in gangs and corporations both, we’re seeing a kind of driven necessity—maybe biological—to make and sustain a culture. But each culture is different.

Structurally, things look the same, but, culturally, things look different. That fascinates me.

Also, I grew up in a Communist household. Starting in the 1960s, I went back to reading Marx. In the back of my mind, though, there were aspects of Marx that seemed inadequate as a theory. It was very Western-centered; the number of classical and historical references in all of Marx’s work was just overwhelming to me. For all of his references, it felt limited. Then, as well, I began to think more in terms of neo-Darwinism. I don’t mean social Darwinism. Leftists and liberals deny the question of human nature, but what if it’s true? So that also became a consideration in my thinking—mixing the two: Marx and Darwin. 

All of that was part of the back-story for The Warriors.

BLDGBLOG: Before we move on to other topics, I think it’s interesting how much the built landscape of New York has changed since you wrote The Warriors. I’m curious, if you were to update the story of Xenophon again and rewrite The Warriors today, if there is a different location you might choose, whether that’s a different city or a different part of New York.

Yurick: Well, I would make it global, for one thing. And I would try to bring into it questions of finance—things like that. I’m not sure, though; I haven’t thought of that. Yes, there was a political and economic connection to Xenophon, and to Xenophon’s story—essentially, these gang members were mercenaries, and they were also a surplus population pushed to the edge of society. They were, after all, kids. And they were revolutionaries, not just street criminals. But I don’t know exactly how I’d handle it today.

Again, the whole question of making a revolution in the old way—it’s a tricky one. From my way of thinking, what happened in the Russian Revolution is: you had an uprising. People were discontented and what have you. Then a moment of opportunity came along, when it was a complete breakdown, and, at that point, Lenin stepped in. It was purely opportunistic. There was nothing decent in his move. There it was. It happened. Boom. He took advantage.

BLDGBLOG: In your book-length essay Metatron: The Recording Angel, you combine so many of these interests—everything from finance to electronic writing, looking ahead to what we now call the internet, and so on. I’m curious if we could talk a little bit about how Metatron came about, what you were seeking to do with that book, and where you might take its research today?

Yurick: When I wrote that, it was still early on. Computers were not universally around. I had a friend who was a computer expert—he had become an expert in the 1950s—so I was introduced to computers and the idea long before there were PCs or anything like that. I knew, when I saw stuff that would later become the internet—exchanges between scientists who had access to this kind of stuff—I knew I was looking at a different world. I began to see signs that this was going to become a big phenomenon, one of information and the effects of information. And again, this was before anybody had home computers.

Then computers began to come in, bit by bit. We’re talking maybe 1979. What happened then was that I got tied up with an organization trying to promote the use of satellites for global education. By this time, though, having been through the 1960s and 70s, I was telling them that this was just not going to happen. You’re not going to get money for this kind of thing; they’re going to use satellites for any other purpose for the most part, maybe military purposes, maybe propagandistic purposes, certainly for telecommunications.

But I went down to Washington with these people a couple of times, and we sat in on the committee hearings. Then I wrote a piece—an essay—to sort of introduce our organization. I forget when it was—maybe 1979 or 1978—but Jimmy Carter was coming to the UN and, because of the connections of several people in this organization, somebody got my essay to Jimmy Carter’s people. He almost incorporated a piece of it into his speech at the UN!

That didn’t happen, of course, so I decided I would submit it to this little publishing house, and they asked me to expand on it. I did that, and that was Metatron.

So my mind was ranging over all these things. I was trying to think of what the effect was going to be of computers and networks and satellites, trying to anticipate a lot of side effects. There was a lot I didn’t foresee, but there were some things I saw beginning to happen—that then, in fact, did happen maybe ten years later. Things like running factory farm machines by satellite and, now, running drones over Afghanistan from a place in Nevada. Things like that.

Anyway, having been getting more and more involved in many areas, while at the same time trying to find a basis for writing my fiction from new perspectives, became very destabilizing. Because most writers—most people—just stop growing at a certain point. They stop taking in more stuff because it gets in the way of their writing. But the opposite was happening. For instance, with The Warriors, I was able to make an outline chart of how the themes would develop. I could coordinate everything: what happened to the clothing, what happened at a certain time of day, and so forth and so on. Interestingly, the form of the chart I borrowed from a business model called program evaluation. It was a review technique. So I could do this thing and it came easy.

But when I tried to do it with The Bag, it didn’t work. I had such a hard time doing The Bag. The chart began to expand and expand till it was about ten feet long; I had different colors on it; it just didn’t work right. But I was learning so much.

Anyway, at certain points you’ve got to say enough. I forget which writer said this: “You don’t finish the work you abandon.”

BLDGBLOG: The financial aspects of your work are very interesting here, as well.

Yurick: Do you mean the economic?

BLDGBLOG: Well, I mean “financial” more specifically to refer to the system of writings, agreements, valuations, and so forth that constitute the world of international finance—which, if you take a very basic, material view of things, is just people writing. It’s numbers and spreadsheets, stock prices, contracts, and slips of paper, licenses and patents—its own sort of literature. You imply as much, in Metatron, with its titular reference to the archangel of writing.

Yurick: OK, yes. You know, I’ve been saying for years to people that this is coming, this moment [the financial crisis of 2007-2009], and it’s happening now. I read the newspaper and I see it: these people manufacturing money out of their imaginations. Sooner or later the bubble has got to burst, and it’s bursting.

In a certain sense, what’s taken place—what’s taking place now—is a series of mistakes. In other words, you don’t hire the people who caused the problem in the first place to try to rectify it, yet that’s what’s happening. It’s very interesting, I think, to look at this in terms of the criminal elements that we discussed—the gangs—and to see that what they do is done through extortion, prostitution, the selling of illegal things, illegal commodities, and what have you. They accumulate money and they launder it. But this also happens at the very top levels of finance: they imagine money and then they objectify it in terms of mansions and things like that.

When you’re dealing with this kind of stuff, you’re dealing with fiction—and when you’re dealing with fiction, you’re in my realm.

BLDGBLOG: The financial world that’s been created in the last decade or so often just seems like a dream world of overlapping fictions—of Ponzi schemes and collateralized agreements that no one can follow. It’s as is people are just telling each other stories, but the characters are mutual funds, and, rather than words, they’re written in numbers. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, it’s as if sufficiently advanced financial transactions have become indistinguishable from magic.

Yurick: A long time ago, I started to write a book in which I invented a planet, and the planet was ultimately nothing but finance. I called it Malaputa. Do you know Jonathan Swift’s work at all? One of the trips Gulliver takes is to an island called Laputa, which really means, in Latin, the whore or the hole. There he encounters nothing but intellectuals building the most astonishing mental structures and doing the stupidest things imaginable. Now, Malaputa would be the evil whore.

So the planet I began to invent was a world that interpenetrates ours and it works by the rules of our world, but it’s not visible. Ultimately, it resides in the financial system in which, as you get to the center of it, its mass and velocity keep on increasing potentially. It’s the movement, ultimately, of symbols.

I realized, at a certain point, that what I was also talking about was, in a sense, The Divine Comedy. The descent into the Inferno, if you remember, is in the form of a cone—the inside of a cone. The ascent to the top of Mount Purgatory is also a cone, but you climb on the outside. Then, to move on to heaven, you have a series of concentric circles, at the center of which is the ultimate paradise, which is where God resides. The circles are spinning, but they’re spinning in an odd way. If you’re at the center of a spinning circle, you’re barely moving around. If you’re on the outside, you’re moving with great velocity.

In this case, Dante tells us that the center of the circle spins with the greatest velocity, and the further out you get away from it, the slower it moves. What does finance have to do with this? The woman who Dante idolized—Beatrice—was a banker’s daughter. You could say his interest in her was partly financial, pursued through these circles and cones of symbols. Anyway, that’s the architecture of The Divine Comedy that I was getting at.

From this point—as all of this was going into the stuff I’m writing now—I began to meditate on the question of surplus labor value. Which, as Marx said, is the unpaid part of what a worker doesn’t get, the part that the owner—the owner of the means of production—expropriates.

BLDGBLOG: The Malaputa idea was for an entire standalone novel, or it’s something that you’re now including in your current work? 

Yurick: It was originally going to be its own book, but I’m going to change that. I’ll incorporate it; I’ll reinvent it. 

I wrote a piece a long time ago for—I forget the name of the magazine. It was on the question of the information revolution, the dimensions of which were not yet clear at that point. I think it was the mid-1980s. I was talking about, even at that point in time, the speed of the transactions, and the infinitesimally small space in which transactions occur—against the space that you have to traverse either by foot or other means, like to the market village or the shopping mall or the warehouse floor.

In other words, I’m saying that finance has a space—it has an architecture. You might want to transfer billions of dollars from one country to another, but both are accounts in one computer space. What you’re doing might have enormous effects on the real world—the world of humans and geography—but what you’ve done is move it a fraction of an inch, at an enormous speed, with an enormous velocity and mass. And that has real effects thousands of miles away.

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if you see other future developments of these works, or if there’s something new you’re working on at the moment.

Yurick: Yes—I’m working on two things that may intersect. One is a kind of biography that I call Revenge. What I realized, in a certain way—partly because I grew up in the Depression under bad circumstances, and now I see those same circumstances coming back again—I realized at a certain point that my novels Fertig and The Bag were revenge novels. That was a theme that was not clearly in my mind at the time, but that came into my consciousness relatively recently. 

Revenge begins with trying to pick a starting point—to impose a starting point—because wherever you begin, there is no ultimate beginning. Someone did something to someone else, in reaction to something that came before that, and so on and so forth. You start in the middle of things, and choose a starting point. It’s like a lot of the things we say about The Iliad, for instance. They start in the middle of things, in medias res.

There was an essay I wrote for The Nation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which I panned the novel. But what I realized, even at the time I was writing it, was that, in a certain way, the story in that book—the true story it was based on—wasn’t just a random killing. It was a revenge killing. It was about two people who are, in a sense, dispossessed. But the person who got killed—not the family so much, but the farmer himself, Clutter—was no ordinary guy. He was no ordinary farmer, but a well-to-do guy with 3,000 acres and some cattle and maybe an oil-pumping system. He was important. He’d worked in government and he’d worked as a county agent. I won’t go into the history of the county agents and their ultimate role in making agribusiness as we know it today. But he was important enough in 1954 to have been interviewed about a kind of global crisis in agriculture in the magazine section of the New York Times.

This wasn’t the story Truman Capote told. Capote was given an assignment by the New Yorker and he went and he did it. He didn’t know or understand any of this background. He didn’t talk about the role of this guy. Not that this guy was the ultimate villain—this Clutter person—but, the fact is, he had a very key role. If he was important enough to be interviewed in a section on changes in agricultural policy in the New York Times Magazine, that means he’s not just nobody. The fact that he conjoined the outlaws, the killers—the fact that they conjoin, in a sense, with the Clutters—I think is a piece of, you can almost say, Dickensian chance. It’s like how some novelists will start out with two or three random incidents that are not connected at all and then mold them together.

I don’t know if you’ve read The Bridge of San Luis Rey? It’s about six or seven people who are on a bridge that collapses; it falls and they’re killed. What it is is an exercise in what brought these people together: what did they have, or not have, in common? Why this moment and not another moment? That’s what I wanted to develop with this, to go a little into the background of how I came to this line of thinking.

Now, one of the killers: his mother was an Indian [sic] and his father was a cowboy. The other one’s parents were poor farmers. So, here, we have three social groups expressed in these people. In the long struggle between corporate agriculture and the individual farmer, this is what develops: they get pushed off the land, these social groups. In fact, this also connects back to the old story of Joseph, in Egypt. With Joseph in Egypt, yes, he predicts the coming famine—the good times and the coming famine. But, when the famine does come, first he takes the farmer’s money, then he takes their land, and he moves them all into the cities. What you’ve got there is kind of an algorithm for the way agriculture develops: we’re talking Russia, the Soviet Union, China. We’re talking the United States. It looks different in different places, but the structure remains the same. You urbanize the people and you consolidate the land.

Then, of course, with the book I go into my own reactions to all kinds of literature, and I stop to try to rewrite that literature. For instance, suppose we think of The Iliad as one big trade war. Troy, as you know, sat on the route into the Black Sea, which means it commanded the whole hinterland where people like the Greeks and the Trojans did trading. The Trojan War was a trade war.

BLDGBLOG: The mergers and acquisitions of the ancient world.

Yurick: So that’s the kind of stuff I’m working on.

In the end, of course, the smaller farmer fought agribusiness tooth and nail, and they lost. We see what agribusiness has done to food itself, creating all kinds of mutational changes in seeds and so forth. Again, I think of the collectivization period in the Soviet Union in which, in order to win, you had to starve the peasants. That’s what the intellectuals of the time wanted, without understanding the practicality of life on the ground, so to speak. It was a catastrophe.

On the other hand, one of the images I had when I was a kid, during the Depression, was: you’d go see a newsreel and you’d see farmers spilling milk and grain on the ground because they couldn’t get their price. People didn’t have enough food, but they were just dumping their milk in the mud. These were smaller farmers—agribusiness hadn’t happened yet. So you’ve got two greed systems going on here.

Anyway, I use all that as the novel’s jumping-off point. In a sense, I’m saying Clutter had it coming to him—or his class had it coming to him.

But I’m in the very early stages. It becomes like a little race between living and doing it, and ultimately dying. I’m not rushing myself, but I’m having fun.

* * *

This interview was recorded in March 2009. Thank you to Sol Yurick for the conversation.