The Architecture of Delay vs. The Architecture of Prolongation

[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.

[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?

Subterranean Machine Resurrections

[Image: Photo by Brian Harkin for The New York Times].

There is clearly a machines-and-robots theme on the blog this morning. I was fascinated last week to read that New York will soon have “its own subterranean wonder: a 200-ton mechanical serpent’s head” buried “14 stories beneath the well-tended sidewalks of Park Avenue.” In other words, a “gargantuan drill that has been hollowing out tunnels for a train station under Grand Central Terminal” will soon become a permanent part of the city, locked forever in the region’s bedrock. It will be left underground—”entombed” in the words of Michael Grynbaum, writing for the New York Times— lying “dormant and decayed, within the rocky depths of Midtown Manhattan.”

The machine’s actual burial is like a Rachel Whiteread installation gone wrong: “In an official ceremony this week, the cutter will be sealed off by a concrete wall; the chamber will then be filled with concrete, encasing the cutter in a solid cast, Han Solo-style, so that it can serve as a support structure for the tunnel. A plaque will commemorate the site.”

“It’s like a Jules Verne story,” the head of construction for NY’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority endearingly remarked. And the machine itself is an alien wonder:

A recent visit to the cutter’s future crypt revealed a machine that evokes an alien life form that crashed to earth a millennia ago. Its steel gears, bolts and pistons, already oxidizing, appeared lifeless and fatigued. A wormlike fan, its exhaust pipe disappearing into the cutter’s maw, was still spinning, its drone not unlike a slumbering creature’s breath.

I’m tempted to write a short story about a cult of Aleister Crowley-obsessed tower dwellers on the Lower East Side, in the year 2025 A.D., intent on resurrecting this mechanical worm, like something out of Dune, goading it to re-arise, pharaonic and possessed, into the polluted summer air of the city. Grinding and belching its way to dark triumph amidst the buildings, now shattered, that once weighed it down, it is Gotham’s Conqueror Worm.

[Image: Promotional poster for the otherwise unrelated film Conqueror Worm, aka Witchfinder General].

But that would be to rewrite something that, to some extent, already exists. In Jonathan Lethem’s recent novel Chronic City, a tunneling machine goes “a little out of control” beneath the surface of New York, resurfacing at night to wreak havoc amongst the boroughs. From the book:

“I guess the thing got lonely—”
“That’s why it destroys bodegas?” asked Perkus.
“At night sometimes it comes up from underneath and sort of, you know, ravages around.”
“You can’t stop it?” I asked.
“Sure, we could stop it, Chase, it we wanted to. But this city’s been waiting for a Second Avenue subway line for a long time, I’m sure you know. The thing’s mostly doing a good job with the tunnel, so they’ve been stalling, and I guess trying to negotiate to keep it underground. The degree of damage is really exaggerated.”

And soon the machine—known as the “tiger”—is spotted rooting around the city, sliding out of the subterranean topologies it helps create, weaving above and below, an autonomous underground object on the loose.

In any case, the entombed drill will presumably outlast the city it sleeps beneath; indeed, if it is ever seen again, it will be a much more geological resurrection. As Alex Trevi of Pruned suggested over email, the machine will be “left there, perhaps forever, and will only surface when NYC rises up in a new mountain range and starts eroding.”

(Thanks to Jessica Young for the reminder about Lethem’s tiger).