Brian Aldiss, Carter Scholz, Cordwainer Smith, Daniel Defoe, Elizabeth Hand, Greg Egan, H.G. Wells, Iain Banks, Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard, James Lovegrove, Jorge Luis Borges, Lucius Shepard, Mervyn Peake, Michael Marshall Smith, Robert Silverberg, Steven Millhauser
It is, I promise you, pure coincidence that today’s reprint begins with the same writer featured in the last one, Steven Millhauser. But then, it is time to come to another of my Cognitive Mapping columns, this one was first published in Vector 213 (September-October 2000).
Through honeycombs of stone would now be wandering the passions in their clay. There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings… And there shall be a flame-green daybreak soon. And love itself will cry for insurrection!
Titus Groan (1946)
It was said that to descend into the world beneath the world was to learn the secrets of heaven and hell, to go mad, to speak in tongues, to understand the language of beasts, to rend the veil, to become immortal, to witness the destruction of the universe and the birth of a new order of being; and it was said that if you descended far enough, down past obsidian-black rivers, past caves where dwarves in leather jerkins swung pickaxes against walls veined with gold, down past the lairs of slumbering dragons whose tails were curled around iron treasureboxes, past regions of ice and fire, past legendary underworlds where the shadowy spirits of the dead set sail for islands of bliss and pain, down and down, past legend and dream, through realms of blackness so dark that it stained the soul black, you would come to a sudden, ravishing brightness.
Martin Dressler (1998)
The fabulous land has been the setting for most fantasy and a lot of science fiction for as long as these genres have been written. Occasionally this realm will be (or at least contain) an unsettling and disorienting maze, whether this is the original labyrinth where Theseus defeated the Minotaur, or the more cerebral landscape of Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘The Garden of Forked Paths’ (1941). In the main, however, these fabulous realms have a geography little different from our own familiar world, with streets, houses, palaces clearly modelled on those we might see around us. Even if the story was displaced to the Moon, as in so many satires from Daniel Defoe’s The Consolidator (1705) to H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901), the architecture and furniture of this new land followed a familiar terrestrial pattern.
This started to change after the invention of the lift by Elisha Otis in 1853 allowed the modern urban landscape to be transformed. The height of buildings had always previously had a natural limit imposed by the need to walk up stairs. It took architects and the public some time to realise that Otis’s invention rendered that limit obsolete, but by the end of the century, particularly in New York, new skyscrapers were soaring to ever greater heights. Steven Millhauser’s superb modern fable, Martin Dressler, perfectly captures this period when the optimism of America’s new entrepreneurial elite was reflected in the ever greater size of their buildings. Dressler is an hotelier in turn-of-the-century New York whose ambitions lead him to build larger and larger structures, each of which must therefore contain more and more within its walls. The immense folly that finally ruins him contains, in effect, an entire imaginative world — in fact its multiplicity of basement levels become an almost literal descent into hell and into madness. In a parallel story, ‘Paradise Park’ (1999), Millhauser makes this explicit: it tells of a Coney Island amusement park beset by similar follies of grandeur and gigantism, in which the final underground park is known as ‘Devil’s Park’ and features real suicides. Dressler’s progress tends to mirror the way that writers of the fantastic have reacted to the world within a world possibilities of immense buildings.
Once the real world began to grow upwards rather than outwards, the world of the future began to grow in the same way. In the popular imagination, represented by films such as Things to Come (1936) or stories such as ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ by Cordwainer Smith (1961), the city of the future became a place in which skyscrapers were transformed into slender towers linked by high-level walkways between which buzzed flyers in air cars or jet packs or private aircraft. For many this was a glittering, glamorous vision of a future devoutly to be desired, and the idea that such towers and walkways might grow together into a city that eventually would encompass the whole world, as Trantor does in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (1951), was both inevitable and desirable.
Already, however, there were warning voices. In ‘A Story of the Days to Come’ (1899), for instance, H.G. Wells presented such a city of the future in which the raised walkways and beautiful towers were the preserve of an elite, while the masses toiled in the darkness beneath the walkways, a social division in which the evolution of his Eloi and Morlocks (from The Time Machine (1895)) is clearly visible. By the time the 1960s began their experiment with high rise living, the enforced enclosure of society was more and more being seen as a bad thing. In Non-Stop (1958) Brian Aldiss had already presented the enclosed world of a generation starship as an agent for social decay, and it requires no great imaginative leap to see the similarly enclosed world of a high rise apartment block in the same light. Which is exactly what Robert Silverberg (in The World Inside (1971)) and J.G. Ballard (in High Rise (1975)) among others, did.
Tall as Silverberg’s tower block was, and it really did scrape the edges of the atmosphere, and varied as were its inhabitants, the world inside was one of conformity, each floor following the pattern of the one below. Such massive structures have often served this purpose in science fiction, the storeys providing a neat illustration of social stratification. In such varied novels as Aestival Tide by Elizabeth Hand (1992) or Spares by Michael Marshall Smith (1996), for example, we see the higher floors of the edifice are the spacious, airy abode of the rich and powerful, while the lower down one goes the more dark, dangerous and chaotic it gets.
Some writers, however, have extended this chaos throughout the structure, bringing the labyrinth within the building so that it becomes immeasureable and, apparently, infinite in content. The archetype for this is the castle of Gormenghast in Mervyn Peake’s trilogy. Only in the final part of the trilogy (Titus Alone, 1959) do we get to leave the castle, before that it is literally the world, a place that has grown beyond any one person’s comprehension. The structure of the place, an insane arrangement of rooms and staircases and roofs that follow no logical order, provides a physical representation of the world it encloses, a world that obeys its own rules (or lack of them), where, as he says, ‘love itself will cry for insurrection’, and in which the grotesque cast of characters can exist and operate in ways that would be impossible in our more ordered reality outside.
One precursor of Gormenghast and its fellows is the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel (made explicit in Borges’s story of an infinite library, ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941)), in which a tower to the heavens gives birth to madness and incomprehension. Such mis-rule, in which the labyrinthine madness of the castle mirrors the disorder of its inhabitants, plays a central part, for instance, in The Golden by Lucius Shepard (1993) and Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks (1994). Both make clear the insanity of their enclosed worlds by making them realms of the dead, vampires in Shepard’s fantasy, computer-encoded personalities in Bank’s novel. (Greg Egan has, typically, gone even further by creating not an enclosed world but an enclosed cosmos of the (computer-encoded) dead in Permutation City (1994).)
In general, it seems, we are not happy with the move from cottage to tower block. The larger the building, the more it is cut off from what we might term normality. The Gormenghastly structure is a place that imposes its own rules upon mankind, a place where madness and mayhem rule. Thus, both James Lovegrove (in Days, 1997), Michael Marshall Smith (in Spares) and Steven Millhauser (in ‘The Dream of the Consortium’ 1999) have created gigantic department stores in which war breaks out. Meanwhile Carter Scholz, in ‘The Amount to Carry’ (1998), brings together three artists — Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives — who also worked in insurance, the unfettered imagination deliberately contrasted with the structured conformity of their everyday occupations. Gradually we realise that the ultra-modern hotel which houses the insurance convention they are all attending is actually the sort of labyrinthine, near-infinite structure Martin Dressler might have built. The hotel offers far more than might be expected, except that there is no way out. As with so many of these buildings, it comes to feel like a representation of the twentieth century, a mad, labyrinthine edifice of our own making in which we are trapped.