Arcology in Popular Culture

arcologyHello and good evening. Welcome to the third and final installment in my Arcology series, addressing the use of the concept in various popular culture sci-fi franchises. After researching the term and learning all about Paolo Soleri and the concept he created, I’ve come to see that his vision of future cities where the needs of ten of thousands of inhabitants could be met in sustainable ways helped to inspire the a great deal of speculative fiction.

Here are just a few examples that I can recall or have been able to find…

Chi-Town:
Many years ago, some friends of mine came to me with a new RPG by the name of RIFTS. A sort of sci-fi/fantasy crossover, the game was set in a post-apocalyptic world where inter-dimensional gateways, known as “Rifts” had led demons, monsters and mythical creatures into our universe, where they began wreaking havoc. After many years, several new nations emerged, the most powerful of which were the Coalition States, a dictatorship dedicated to fighting the invasion and reestablishing order.

The seat of this government is a large arcological city known as Chi-Town, which was built on the ruins of Old Chicago (hence the name). A self-contained city, the structure is somewhere between a pyramid and a rectangle in terms of shape. And of course, its hierarchical structure mirrors the social divisions at work within. The lower levels are the most densely populated, have the most indigents, and experience the most crime, while the upper levels are more spacious, opulent, and well-maintained.

In addition to being a fortress city and a safe haven for human beings in the ruins of the United States, Chi-Town is also a fitting example of an arcology. Within its walls, all things, including water, air, food and energy, are providing by internal systems and subject to recycling and treatment. Again, the issue of quality is dependent on where someone finds themselves within the structure, but the principle is still the same. In a world that has been devastated and rendered inhospitable, the response was to create a mega-structure that could both shield and provide for its many, many inhabitants.

Coruscant:
coruscantFans of the Star Wars franchise are certainly familiar with this planet-encompassing city, even before it was featured in the prequel trilogy. As the capitol of the Old Republic, Empire and New Republic, respectively, it has a very long history of habitation, and a very sizable population! As a result, its architects and engineers had to get very creative with the use of space on this planet, and several massive buildings were the result.

In truth, Coruscant was not so much a single city as thousands upon thousands of interconnected arcologies that ran across its surface. These various mega structures measured roughly a kilometer in height, dwarfing even the nearby mountain chains, and housed hundreds of thousands of residents each. In addition, the need to feed and provide for the staggering number of inhabitants required that every structure come equipped with a massive network for recycling water, waste and food.

Officially divided into megablocks and levels, every section of the city had its own means for providing food, water, and manufactured goods. This in turn required the presence of internal systems for processing air, drinking water, food waste, human waste, and industrial waste from its manufacturing warrens. In addition, in the sub-city where natural light did not reach, holograms and artificial lights were also built in to the environment to provide its inhabitants with illumination. In addition, it is also indicated in a number of sources that agricultural operations were housed in various sections and relied on recycled water and either artificial or filtered light.

Though food and waste still required a great deal of shipping and processing, which resulted in a staggering amount of transport traffic, much of the cities needs were taken care of by means of these internal measures. This ensured that the roughly three trillion inhabitants of the planet would never become wholly dependent on outside sources of food and goods, as well as ensuring that pollution and harmful waste wouldn’t accumulate to disastrous levels.

Habitats:
In the works of Peter F. Hamilton, particularly the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, much attention is given to the kinds of futuristic living spaces humanity will someday occupy. For starters, there is planet Earth in this future setting, which is so overrun by human beings that all cities have evolved to become self-contained arcologies. On top of that, there are what’s known as “Habitats”, floating megacities which exist out amongst the stars.

One of the most notable of these is Eden, the first ever habitat to be created, and in orbit around Jupiter. As the closest thing to a capitol in the Edenic culture, it was built using Bitek – aka. Biotechnology – which resulted in a living structure that was psychically linked to its inhabitant through a process known as affinity.

Here, as with other Habitats, the structures are massive, measuring several kilometers in length and width. In addition, each is entirely self-supporting, providing food, water, electricity and artificial gravity to its inhabitants. The latter is created through the rotation of the whole structure around its axis, while a central light tube which runs the length of the station provides light. Food and water are produced via biological processes and are recycled to ensure minimal waste, which in turn is also processed and converted for later use. In addition, interstellar material is frequently intercepted by the habitat and converting into any and all goods which its people require.

Ultimately, the only thing a habitat needs is a supply of external matter which it will use to grow and mature during its formative cycle, and an external power supply to maintain its functions. This is last necessity is provided by a series of external conductor cables which grow on the outer hull of the structure where they are positioned to pick up charges. Due to the rotation, these cables then cross the electromagnetic flux of the nearby gas giant and thus produce electrical energy. All is provided and nothing goes to waste. A true future city!

Urban Monads:
The setting of Robert Silverberg’s fictional study in overpopulation, The World Inside occurs almost entirely within the hyperstructure known as Urban Monad 116. As the name implies, this massive, three-kilometer high city tower is but one of many on the planet, which have become necessary now that war, disease and starvation have been eliminated, but people still continue to procreate without restriction. During the telling of the story, which takes place in 2381, the total population has reached 75 billion.

Much attention is given in the novel to how urban monads (or “Urbmons”) are arranged and meet the needs of their 800,000 respective inhabitants. For starters, groups of these skyscrapers are arranged in “constellations” so that one’s shadow does not fall upon another. Each Urbmon is divided into 25 self-contained “cities” with 40 floors each, in ascending order of status, with administrators occupying the highest level with population and production centers sequestered below.

In order to see to the needs of this rapidly expanding population, all arable land not currently occupied by Urbmons is dedicated to agriculture. However, within the Urbmon communities,  resource management still counts for a lot, with all foods and goods being held in common and the people expected to share them. Beyond that, however, sustainability is not exactly the name of the game, as the right to engage in free expressions and sex and reproduction are considered the highest forms of activity.

Hence, Silverberg’s Monads break a few of the basic rules of arcology, but the basic premise is still there. Designed to house a rapidly expanding population that threatens to overpower the Earth, Urbmons take advantage of the concepts of megastructures and 3-D planning to ensure that every living soul is housed and provided for. Now if they could just stop reproducing so much, they’d be in business!

Tyrell Corp Building:
Though not specified as an arcology in the strictest sense, I couldn’t possibly make this list without including the infamous Tyrell Corp building. I mean just look at the thing. Imposing, Gothic, and very, very big! And let’s not forget highly symbolic, as the design, size and scale of the thing was meant to evoke the feeling of awesome power that the corporation held.

Though not much is made clear of what life inside the building is like, it was clear that it was made up of many, many levels and sections, each of which fulfilled a different purpose. At ground level, the building was protected by automated systems which “fried” one of the story’s Nexus 6’s when they tried to break in. Farther up are various industrial areas that are dedicated to the production of the company’s Replicants, as well as office spaces and administrative areas. Another Replicant was detected in one of these sections, right before it shot the man who had detected it – Detective/Blade Runner Holden.

At the apex of the building is the living area for Tyrell and Rachel, the experimental Nexus unit that was modeled on his niece. This level is accessible only by elevator which runs along the outer edge of the building, and can only be accessed by authorized personnel. Here, Tyrell lives amidst opulent surroundings, vast marble floors, stone columns, and even an aviary for his pet owl. Although it is not explicitly said, it appears that Tyrell spends all of his time here, never venturing to the outside city or to another domicile. Hence, we can only assume that all of his needs are seen to here, even if everything he consumes is flown in and all the waste produced is shipped out.

Mega-City One:
judge-dredd-megacity-oneThe setting of the Judge Dredd franchise, Mega-City One is essentially a massive urban sprawl which stretches from the Quebec-Windsor City corridor to the peninsula of Florida in the south, growing out of the Northeast Megalopolis to occupy Southern Ontario the entire Eastern Seaboard. And in addition to stretching so very far and wide, this city is also made up of arcologies in order to see to the needs of its roughly 800 million inhabitants.

These arcologies come in the form of huge apartment blocks which house roughly 50,000 people each. Within each block, citizens are attended to by automated systems which recycle everything, waste, water, and even food. As for manufactured products and consumer goods, these too are largely created in industrial warrens that housed within specific blocks.

This system of every need being handled by automated systems and machines was designed to ensure that the survivors of the nuclear holocaust (aka. The Apocalypse War) would be tended to. However, it had the unwanted side-effect of also leading to rampant unemployment and listlessness amongst the population. This is one of the main reasons why Mega-City One is awash in petty criminals and organized crime syndicates. This, in turn, is what led to the creation of the Judicial System and its army of Street Judges.

Trantor:
Perhaps the first example of a ecumenopolis appearing in fiction, Trantor went on to become a source of inspiration for many science fiction franchises. And according to Asimov, it represented what he believed would be the end result of industrialization and human technology, which was an encapsulated population living in cities that spanned entire planets.

Consisting of buildings that reached deep into the ground and reached several kilometers above sea level, Trantor was home to roughly 45 billion people at the height of the Empire. It’s overall population density was 232 per km², and just about every human being was dedicated to the administration of the Empire or the needs of its population. Though by the time of Foundation, most of the population’s needs were met by importing food and basic necessities from every major planet in the region.

However, according to Prelude to Foundation, Trantor’s basic food needs were once fulfilled by the planet’s vast system of subterranean microorganism farms. Here, yeast and algae were produced as basic nutrients, which were then processed with artificial flavors to create palatable food sources. These farms were tended to entirely by automated robots, but their eventual destruction during an uprising forced the planet to turn to external sources

The Sprawl:
Also known as the Boston-Atlanta-Metropolitan-Axis (or BAMA for short), this mega-city is the setting for the majority of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. Encompassing the classic cyberpunk tales of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the concept of arcology is raised on numerous occasions in reference to the massive apartment blocks that make up the city.

On such building is Barrytown, an arcology in the projects which is the setting for much of the second novel. Throughout the novel, it is indicated that the people here generate their own food, such as the catfish farms that exist near the top of the building. Trees are also grown on specific levels to generate oxygen which is then fed into the building’s air recirculation system. And finally, mentions are made that there are air turbines on the roof of many project buildings which generate electricity for the inhabitants.

Being such a massive, futuristic city, the Sprawl features many such structures, all of which are described as giant skyscrapers that house tens of thousands of people within their tall frames. And ultimately these are all contained beneath the a series of geodesic domes which encapsulate the city and generate peculiar weather patterns consistent with micro-climates. In this way, the BAMA itself is one massive structure, containing hundreds of millions of people under a single roof.

Zion:
The last remaining free city that humanity could still call home, Zion was not a megastructure per se, but nevertheless fit the definition of an arcology to a tee. An underground habitat that was home to roughly 250,000 men, women and children, Zion was the picture perfect representation of a self-contained living space that handled all the needs of its inhabitants internally.

As Councilman Hamann intimated in Matrix Reloaded as he and Neo walked along the Life0-Support Level, all of Zion’s needs are attended to by machines. These provide power, heat, water, and are constantly recirculating and recycling them.  Meanwhile, food seems to be either grown in special hydroponic areas, or synthesized in bio facilities dedicated to that purpose.

In terms of its internal layout, Zion is ovoid in structure and consists of many levels, each with its specific purpose. At the apex rests the Dock, where Zion’s army of hovercrafts are stationed and automated defenses protect against intruders. Beneath that are the Gathering Spaces, where new arrivals who have not yet been assigned permanent quarters are temporarily housed.

The middle section is entirely dedicated to habitation, made up of family quarters, and the Council Chambers which houses Zion’s ruling council. The lower levels consist of the Meeting Hall, Life-Support Level, and Geo-Thermal Generation, where the cities power and heat are supplied from. At the very bottom lies the Temple, a large cavern where religious gatherings are held and people gather to hold celebrations and mourn the dead. This area also serves as a last defensive position in the event that the automated defenses were destroyed and the Dock overrun. This of course became the case in Matrix: Revolutions when the machines attacked Zion and nearly destroyed it.

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What did I tell ya? Clearly, the idea has made the rounds since Soleri’s time. And in all likelihood, we are sure to see the concept popping up more and more as the problems of overpopulation and environmental impact become more acutely felt. There are some who might express disgust and even fear at the idea of living an encapsulated existence, but given the growing need for sustainability and places to put people, will we really have a choice? One can only hope!

Favorite Cult Classics (Part the Second)

Welcome back! As promised, the second half of my nostalgic, cult classic favorites for you to peruse! Let me know what you think, and feel to add some contenders of your own. Cult hits are nothing if not personal, and what constitutes a classic is open to interpretation. Okay, six to ten, here goes:

2001: A Space Odyssey:
Yes, this movie deserves top billing for being a classic! And yet, the movie really doesn’t seem to garner much appreciation from audiences, not unless they are self-professed film buffs or hard sci-fi fans. Not sure I qualify for either, but I loved this movie for the simple reason that it was packed full of mind-blowing themes. Much like Akira, it was chock-full of things that got my young mind thinking and completely shaped my outlook on science fiction.

Sure, there are those who complain that this movie is boring and esoteric, but I found all that a fitting price for the kick-ass subject matter, not to mention the mind-blowing climax. You got a mystery, speculations about human evolution, ancient aliens, space exploration, and existential singularities! All the while, the weight of the philosophical implications are weighing at your mind…

And let’s not forget how inspiration this movie proved to be. Today, the concept of ancient astronauts, aliens who came to Earth millions of years ago and tampered with human evolution, has become all the rage. From Star Trek to Stargate, Battlestar Galactica to Prometheus, the concept of ancient astronauts has played out. And frankly, 2001 has them all beat! Between Kubrick and Clarke, their concept of the aliens and how they altered the course of evolution on Earth was the most realistic I have ever seen.

But I think what I liked best about was the fact that the movie was the subtle nature of the whole thing. At once speculative, philosophical, and visually stunning, this movie was characteristic of Kubrick, who preferred to convey things visually rather than coming out and telling people what was going on. You never really quite knew what happened during that eye-popping final scene, but those who love sci-fi and imaginative filmaking were sure to have ideas!

Alien:
Granted, this movie wasn’t exactly under-appreciated, but compared to the lavish attention the rest of the franchise has garnered- even though it was all downhill after Aliens – this first installment truly was the diamond in the rough. Not only did it have a cool concept, awesome set designs and a kick-ass back story, the direction and cinematography captures the story’s sense of dread and claustrophobia perfectly.

Little wonder then why this movie spawned an entire franchise, because it really did have everything. You had your blue-collar peeps working for the major interstellar company (Weyland-Yutani), a frightening discovery made on an uncharted planet, a mysterious derelict belonging to an unknown race, and a terrifying creature awakened from its slumber. And not just any kind of creature, but a complex symbiote that was designed for and possessed of a single purpose.

Or as Ash put it: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” He had a point didn’t he? In fact, all structures in this movie were pure genius, whether it was the Nostromo, the Derelict, or the Facehugger and Chestbuster combo. As with everything Scott does, attention to detail and the careful construction of a universe was paramount. Every set was richly detailed, well shot, and clearly made to elicit the right feel and impressions on the audience.

Much of the credit for this goes to H.R. Giger as well, the surrealist artist who brought Lovecraftian horror to the alien concept and set of the alien ship. Years later, I still find myself tuning in just to get a glimpse of that Gothic reconstruction, or to see the Space Jockey sitting in its chair, the tell-tale hole punching through its chest. Few movies have managed to capture that same sense of awe and wonder for me, with the possible exceptions of 2001 and Akira

Johnny Mnemonic:
Some people might think I’m crazy for listing this movie as a personal classic, but it can’t be helped! And my reasons are pretty simple. On the one hand, this movie kind of has that “so bad, it’s good” thing going on, but at the same time, I also felt it possessed some real signs of quality. Sure, the acting was pretty wooden, the fight choreography total crap, and the low-budget nature apparent throughout. But it was still a pretty faithful adaptation of Gibson’s work and introduced to that world at a still-young age. Hence why I come back to it every few years just to see it again.

Filmed in the mid-90’s, this movie is an adaptation of the short story by William Gibson and previewed a lot of what he wrote in Neuromancer. For example, you’ve got the big bad corporations, the cyberspace jockeys, freelance assassins, Yakuza, and the character Molly Millions. Things are also set in “The Sprawl”, the megapolis that stretches from Boston to Atlanta and is contained in geodesic domes, and the look and feel is definitely of the cyberpunk variety.

Into all this, Gibson introduced the revolutionary concept of mnemonic couriers, people who have “wetwire” implants in their brains that allow them to carry vast quantities of data from point A to point B. Basically, these couriers are the answer of what to do in a world where information is the most precious commodity, and all databases are vulnerable to hacking and protected by “Black ICE” – hostile Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics (aka. viruses)

And, in keeping with Gibson’s style, the story involves a titanic corporation that is fighting to maintain its monopolistic grip, while freelancers, smugglers and assorted little people are fighting to undermine them and distribute the information freely. Naturally, the main character of Johnny is an unlikely hero who is forced to take a break from looking out for number one and help others for a change. Might sound cheesy, and a little cliche, but it works and delivers on Gibson’s style. At the very least, it’s a guilty pleasure flick for me.

Screamers:
Now here’s a movie that’s high on the pleasure, low on the guilt. While a low-budget sci-fi flick that was (like Johnny Mnemonic) produced and filmed entirely in Canada, it had many signs of quality that immediately made it a cult hit. There’s the post-apocalyptic setting, the frightening tone, and the Cold War feel of the thing, updated for the 90’s. All the while, there is the knowledge that this is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Second Variety, which sort of makes it a must-see of PKD fans.

Much like in the original story, the plot of the film involves a race of self-producing, self-upgrading machines that are designed to infiltrate enemy territory and eliminate all combatants. But of course, things begin to go awry when the people who produced them realize that they have upgraded to the point where they can impersonate human beings. And whereas the original story was set on Earth and took place between the US and Russia, the updated story takes place on Sirius 6b, a pining planet that became the front line between a the political-economic entity known as the NEB  and those who chose to resist its rule.

Personally, I felt the updated version works. Not only does the conflict seem more relevant, being between a mega-corporate entity and a coalition of workers and dissenters, but the off-world setting also feels more realistic. Perhaps it was the fact that in the post-Cold War world, nuclear war between two superpowers didn’t seem a likelihood anymore. Or it could just be that the whole NEB angle was reminiscent of Weyland-Yutani and Alien. All I know is, I liked it!

What’s more, a good deal of attention went into creating the setting and modelling the Screamers – aka. the automated machines that kill people. Designed to be the perfect terror weapons, they emit a high-pitched “scream” before making their attack, and can toy with their targets for some time before moving. This concept, combined with some good shooting, really created a sense of tension which is felt throughout. And of course, the paranoia which is engendered by the appearance of human-like machines was a very nice touch! A good movie, and a fitting adaptation which managed to capture PKD’s cautionary tale about the dangers of runaway progress.

Time Bandits:
And last, here is the classic time traveling tale that I first saw in my childhood. Recently, my wife was told by a coworker that she should ought to see it, and my memory was jogged! Yes, this is indeed a cult classic, and one which is deserving of plenty of kudos and praise. Well cast, well written, witty and poignant, it’s one of those quintessential 70’s movies which has been rediscovered by several generations of film buffs and sci-fi fans.

The story opens with an imaginative and historically-minded child who lives in an overly-bourgeois neighborhood with his materially-possessed family. But upon realizing that there is a time-portal in his wall and that people from the past and future can come through it, his world is turned upside down. Quickly, he become the unwitting companion in a group of dwarves who are traveling through time, stealing precious artifacts, and being pursued by both the “Supreme Being” and an evil sorcerer.

Immediately, one can see the layered and inspired plot taking shape here. On the one hand, you have some decidedly Judea-Christian elements, plus a tale of childhood imagination and escapism. The dichotomy of the Supreme Being who possesses the power of time travel and the sorcerer who wants it for himself are representative of God and Lucifer, after a fashion. The dwarves who stole this power for themselves are a sort of Icaran allegory, or possibly Adam and Eve once they ate from the tree of knowledge. And ultimately, the way they are saved in the end from evil represents their redemption.

All the while we are left wondering if the boy is merely dreaming, or if what he is experiencing is real, which is an element that is intrinsic to all tales of childhood fantasies. On the one hand, the protagonists flights of fancy are seen as a weakness and immaturity to those around them, whereas we tend to see as it a rare gift to see past the surface. Should it all be a fantasy, then the story is left without a formal sense of resolution; but if it is real, then the hero has been vindicated and proven right. Appropriately, the movie plays with the two possibilities, going back and forth, but then giving strong hints at the end that it was in fact real. So really, you have a story that is inspired, imaginative, and also suspenseful!

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Well, that’s my top ten list for the best cult classic movies of all time. What’s yours? I know I have a few in common with some people ’round these parts, and I also know that a few were previously unheard of. Hence why I want to here from others. I have a feeling there are some which I need to see and would very much enjoy. Already, I’m poised to watch Sunshine, A Boy and His Dog, and a few others which I’ve heard good things about. And I hope that in the course of swapping lists, I might be able to find a few more I’d like to see. Take care, and enjoy the rest of the long-weekend, those of who are reading this in Canada. As for the Yanks in the audience, and the rest of the world for that matter, enjoy the work week 😉