In the ongoing effort to ensure humanity has a future offworld, it seems that another major company has thrown its hat into the ring. This time, its the Japanese construction giant Obayashi that’s declared its interest in building a Space Elevator, a feat which it plans to have it up and running by the year 2050. If successful, it would make space travel easier and more accessible, and revolutionize the world economy.
This is just the latest proposal to build an elevator in the coming decades, using both existing and emerging technology. Obayashi’s plan calls for a tether that will reach 96,000 kilometers into space, with robotic cars powered by magnetic linear motors that will carry people and cargo to a newly-built space station. The estimated travel time will take 7 days, and will cost a fraction of what it currently takes to bring people to the ISS using rockets.
The company said the fantasy can now become a reality because of the development of carbon nanotechnology. As Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, explained:
The tensile strength is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable so it’s possible. Right now we can’t make the cable long enough. We can only make 3-centimetre-long nanotubes but we need much more… we think by 2030 we’ll be able to do it.
Once considered the realm of science fiction, the concept is fast becoming a possibility. A major international study in 2012 concluded the space elevator was feasible, but best achieved with international co-operation. Since that time, Universities all over Japan have been working on the engineering problems, and every year they hold competitions to share their suggestions and learn from each other.
Experts have claimed the space elevator could signal the end of Earth-based rockets which are hugely expensive and dangerous. Compared to space shuttles, which cost about $22,000 per kilogram to take cargo into space, the Space Elevator can do it for around $200. It’s also believed that having one operational could help solve the world’s power problems by delivering huge amounts of solar power. It would also be a boon for space tourism.
Constructing the Space Elevator would allow small rockets to be housed and launched from stations in space without the need for massive amounts of fuel required to break the Earth’s gravitational pull. Obayashi is working on cars that will carry 30 people up the elevator, so it may not be too long before the Moon is the next must-see tourist destination. They are joined by a team at Kanagawa University that have been working on robotic cars or climbers.
And one of the greatest issues – the development of a tether that can withstand the weight and tension of stresses of reaching into orbit – may be closer to being solved than previously thought. While the development of carbon nanotubes has certainly been a shot in the arm for those contemplating the space elevator’s tether, this material is not quite strong enough to do the job itself.
Luckily, a team working out of Penn State University have created something that just might. Led by chemistry professor John Badding, the team has created a “diamond nanothread” – a thread composed of carbon atoms that measures one-twenty-thousands the diameter of a single strand of human hair, and which may prove to be the strongest man-made material in the universe.
At the heart of the thread is a never-before-seen structure resembling the hexagonal rings of bonded carbon atoms that make up diamonds, the hardest known mineral in existence. That makes these nanothreads potentially stronger and more resilient than the most advanced carbon nanotubes, which are similar super-durable and super-light structures composed of rolled up, one atom-thick sheets of carbon called graphene.
Graphene and carbon nanotubes are already ushering in stunning advancements in the fields of electronics, energy storage and even medicine. This new discovery of diamond nanothreads, if they prove to be stronger than existing materials, could accelerate this process even further and revolutionize the development of electronics vehicles, batteries, touchscreens, solar cells, and nanocomposities.
But by far the most ambitious possibility offered is that of a durable cable that could send humans to space without the need of rockets. As John Badding said in a statement:
One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a ‘space elevator’ which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea,
At this juncture, and given the immense cost and international commitment required to built it, 2050 seems like a reasonable estimate for creating a Space Elevator. However, other groups hope to see this goal become a reality sooner. The International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) for example, thinks one could be built by 2035 using existing technology. And several assessments indicate that a Lunar Elevator would be far more feasible in the meantime.
Come what may, it is clear that the future of space exploration will require us to think bigger and bolder if we’re going to secure our future as a “space-faring” race. And be sure to check out these videos from Penn State and the Obayashi Corp:
The nation of Japan has long been regarded as being at the forefront of emerging technology. And when it comes to solar energy, they are nothing if not far-sighted and innovative. Whereas most nations are looking at building ground-based solar farms in the next few years, the Japanese are looking at the construction of vast Lunar and space-based solar projects that would take place over the course of the next few decades.
The latest proposal comes from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which recently unveiled a series of pilot projects which, if successful, should culminate in a 1-gigawatt space-based solar power generator within just 25 years. Relying on two massive orbital mirrors that are articulated to dynamically bounce sunlight onto a solar panel-studded satellite, the energy harvested would then be beamed wirelessly to Earth using microwaves, collected Earth-side by rectifying antennas at sea, and then passed on to land.
JAXA has long been the world’s biggest booster of space-based solar power technology, making significant investments in research and rallying international support for early test projects. And in this respect, they are joined by private industries such as the Shimizu Corporation, a Japanese construction firm that recently proposed building a massive array of solar cells on the moon – aka. the “Lunar Ring” – that could beam up to 13,000 terawatts (roughly two-thirds of global power consumption) to Earth around the clock.
Considering that Japan has over 120 million residents packed onto an island that is roughly the size of Montana, this far-sighted tendency should not come as a surprise. And even before the Fukushima disaster took place, Japan knew it needed to look to alternative sources of electricity if it was going to meet future demands. And considering the possibilities offered by space-based solar power, it should also come as no surprise that Japan – which has very few natural resources – would look skyward for the answer.
Beyond Japan, solar power is considered the of front runner of alternative energy, at least until s fusion power comes of age. But Until such time as a fusion reaction can be triggered that produces substantially more energy than is required to initiate it, solar will remain the only green technology that could even theoretically provide for our global power demands. And in this respect, going into space is seen as the only way of circumventing the problems associated with it.
Despite solar power being in incredible abundance – the Earth’s deserts absorb more energy in a day than the human race uses in an entire year – the issue of harnessing that power and getting it to where it is needed remain as stumbling blocks. Setting up vast arrays in the Earth’s deserts would certainly deal with the former, but transmitting it to the urban centers of the world (which are far removed from it’s deserts) would be both expensive and impractical.
Luckily, putting arrays into orbit solves both of these issues. Above the Earth’s atmosphere, they would avoid most forms of wear, the ground-based day/night cycle, and all occluding weather formations. And assuming the mirrors themselves are able to reorient to be perpetually aimed at the sun (or have mirrors to reflect the light onto them), the more optimistic estimates say that a well-designed space array could bring in more than 40 times the energy of a conventional one.
The only remaining issue lies in beaming all that energy back to Earth. Though space-based arrays can easily collect more power above the atmosphere than below it, that fact becomes meaningless if the gain is immediately lost to inefficiency during transmission. For some time, lasers were assumed to be the best solution, but more recent studies point to microwaves as the most viable solution. While lasers can be effectively aimed, they quickly lose focus when traveling through atmosphere.
However, this and other plans involving space-based solar arrays (and a Space Elevator, for that matter) assume that certain advances over the next 20 years or so – ranging from light-weight materials to increased solar efficiency. By far the biggest challenge though, or the one that looks to be giving the least ground to researchers, is power transmission. With an estimated final mass of 10,000 tonnes, a gigawatt space solar array will require significant work from other scientists to improve things like the cost-per-kilogram of launch to orbit.
It currently costs around $20,000 to place a kilogram (2.2lbs) into geostationary orbit (GSO), and about half that for low-Earth orbit (LEO). Luckily, a number of recent developments have been encouraging, such as SpaceX’s most recent tests of their Falcon 9R reusable rocket system or NASA’s proposed Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). These and similar proposals are due to bring the costs of sending materials into orbit down significantly – Elon Musk hopes to bring it down to $1100 per kilogram.
So while much still needs to happen to make SBSP and other major undertakings a reality, the trends are encouraging, and few of their estimates for research timelines seem all that pie-eyed or optimistic anymore.
I came across this stunning photo lately and just had to share it. The man who took it is none other than inspired photographer Yuga Kurita, who snapped a shot of Mt. Fuji at night to create a truly stunning image that makes the iconic Mt. Fuji appear like a galactic volcano. This effect is due largely to the heavens obliging him on a clear night, but also thanks to thousands of people climbing the mountain’s slopes.
Apparently, this is something of a pilgrimage in Japan, where people take their flashlights and climb the mountain at night in order to get a clear look from the peak of the volcano at the sun rising on the following day. Over at his account on Google+, he explains his inspiration to get a snapshot of the mountain at night:
When I arrived at Fujiyoshida in Yamanashi Prefecture, I saw people climbing up Mt. Fuji with flash lights and I thought they looked like lava streams. Then I came up with this composition, since nowadays, the Milky Way appears vertically in the sky so probably I could liken Mt. Fuji to an imaginary galactic volcano, that is, people climbing up with torches are lava streams and the Milky Way is the volcano smoke.
After deciding to get a picture of the “stellar” site, Kurita checked out several maps and then spent an entire day driving and hiking around the base of the mountain in order to get the most pristine shot. And as you can see, it worked out quite well! Between the vertical arm of the Milky Way and the lights leading up the mountainside, it looks like stars are escaping out of the mountain’s mouth and stellar flames are trickling over the edge. Truly cosmic!
To see more of Kurita’s work, click on this link here, or head on over to Google+ and simply type in his name.
Researchers continue to work steadily to make the dream of abundant solar energy a reality. And in recent years, a number of ideas and projects have begun to bear fruit. Earlier this year, their was the announcement of a new kind of “peel and stick” solar panel which was quite impressive. Little did I know, this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Since that time, I have come across four very interesting stories that talk about the future of solar power, and I feel the need to share them all! But, not wanting to fill your page with a massive post, I’ve decided to break them down and do a week long segment dedicated to emerging solar technology and its wicked-cool applications. So welcome to the first installment of Powered By The Sun!
The first story comes to us by way of SpaceX, Deep Space Industries, and other commercial space agencies that are looking to make space-based solar power (SBSP) a reality. For those not familiar with the concept, this involves placing a solar farm in orbit that would then harvest energy from the sun and then beam the resulting electricity back to Earth using microwave- or laser-based wireless power transmission.
Originally described by Isaac Asimov in his short story “Reason”, the concept of an actual space-based solar array was first adopted by NASA in 1974. Since that time, they have been investigating the concept alongside the US Department of Energy as a solution to the problem of meeting Earth’s energy demands, and the cost of establishing a reliable network of arrays here on Earth.
Constructing large arrays on the surface is a prohibitively expensive and inefficient way of gathering power, due largely to weather patterns, seasons, and the day-night cycle which would interfere with reliable solar collection. What’s more, the sunniest parts of the world are quite far from the major centers of demand – i.e. Western Europe, North America, India and East Asia – and at the present time, transmitting energy over that long a distance is virtually impossible.
Compared to that, an orbiting installation like the SBSP would have numerous advantages. Orbiting outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, it would be able to receive about 30% more power from the Sun, would be operational for almost 24 hours per day, and if placed directly above the equator, it wouldn’t be affected by the seasons either. But the biggest benefit of all would be the ability to beam the power directly to whoever needed it.
But of course, cost remains an issue, which is the only reason why NASA hasn’t undertaken to do this already. Over the years, many concepts have been considered over at NASA and other space agencies. But due to the high cost of putting anything in orbit, moving up all the materials required to build a large scale installation was simply not cost effective.
However, that is all set to change. Companies like SpaceX, who have already taken part in commercial space flight (such as the first commercial resupply to the ISS in May of 2012, picture above) are working on finding ways to lower the cost of putting materials and supplies into orbit. Currently, it costs about $20,000 to place a kilogram (2.2lbs) into geostationary orbit (GSO), and about half that for low-Earth orbit (LEO). But SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, has said that he wants to bring the price down to $500 per pound, at which point, things become much more feasible.
And when that happens, there will be no shortage of clients looking to put an SBSP array into orbit. In the wake of the Fukushima accident, the Japanese government announced plans to launch a two-kilometer-wide 1-gigawatt SBSP plant into space. The Russian Space Agency already has a a working 100-kilowatt SBSP prototype, but has not yet announced a launch date. And China, the Earth’s fastest-growing consumer of electricity, plans to put a 100kW SBSP into Low-Earth Orbit by 2025.
Most notably, however, is John Mankins, the CTO of Deep Space Industries and a 25-year NASA vet, who has produced an updated report on the viability of SBSP. His conclusion, in short, is that it should be possible to build a small-scale, pilot solar farm dubbed SPS-ALPHA for $5 billion and a large-scale, multi-kilometer wide power plant for $20 billion. NASA’s funding for SPS-ALPHA dried up last year, but presumably Mankins’ work continues at Deep Space Industries.
Cost and the long-term hazards of having an array in space remain, but considering its long-term importance and the shot in the arm space exploration has received in recent years – i.e. the Curiosity Rover, the proposed L2 Moon outpost, manned missions to Mars by 2030 – we could be looking at the full-scale construction of orbital power plants sometime early in the next decade.
And it won’t be a moment too soon! Considering Earth’s growing population, its escalating impact on the surface, the limits of many proposed alternative fuels, and the fact that we are nowhere near to resolving the problem of Climate Change, space-based solar power may be just what the doctor ordered!
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next installment in the Powered By The Sun series!
Welcome back my friends! A funny thing happened just this morning. I was looking at an old article – titled Dystopian Science Fiction – and realized that something was missing. Yes, this is the article that earned me most of my current followers and the bulk of my traffic on this site, but I quickly came to the conclusion that there was a hidden voice in that little study that never got a chance to have its say.
Basically, when I was looking into dystopian literature, I realized that it and utopian literature are almost the same thing. You might say that they represent two sides of the same coin, not so much opposites as interchangeable facets where one can become the other with a simple turn of the wheel. So I asked myself, why then haven’t I compiled a list of the most popular Utopian literature to go along with my dystopian one? Having read Thomas More’s seminal book that started it all, I’m nothing if not incredibly fascinating by the subject. And anyone who knows me knows that I’m a nerd for research and can’t resist sharing what I find.
So why the hell haven’t I done this yet?! Don’t know, probably got swept away with all those posts about robots, ships, and guns. In any case, it’s a mistake I rectify here and now. Using the same format as my article on dystopian sci-fi, I’ve come up with a tentative list of the greatest forerunners, classics, and modern examples of utopia in literature. The list is by no means complete, but I feel it is a faithful sampling. You be the judge, here goes:
The first acknowledged examples of utopian literature come to us from classical antiquity, when scholars reached beyond the old strictures of writing about dynastic struggle, great wars and the foundations of their empires to tackle issues such as justice, morality, and the driving forces of history. By asking these questions, and offering up possible explanations, they were to have an immeasurable effect on subsequent generations of intellectuals, statesmen and social reformers.
The Republic: Written around 380 BCE by Plato, this is perhaps the oldest example of utopian literature. Written as an account of one of Socrates many dialogues, the chief purpose of this book was in finding the true definition of justice and what it takes to achieve a just city-state and a just man. As Plato’s best known work, it is also one of the most influential philosophical and intellectual texts in the history of western society and maybe even the world.
Made up of ten books, the account follows Socrates and his Athenian and foreign guests as they discuss various topics. Amongst them are whether or not the “just man” is happier than the “unjust man”, the theory of forms and universality, the nature of the soul, the role of the philosopher in society, and finally, what the different types of government are and what makes them just/unjust.
From Plato’s account, Socrates and his peers proposed that philosophers are the ideal statesmen and that justice can best be summed up by considering the common good rather than common sense definitions having to do with personal justice. In addition, the allegory of the cave – how we are all essentially prisoners and merely going by projections of truth rather than truth itself – was advanced. And finally, they listed the four predominant forms of government (timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny) and how they tended to devolve into each other.
Ultimately, the value of this work was in how it showed the connection between political cause and effect, and how it sought to create guidelines for good governance. It’s identification of the four major types of government has been used over and over in the history of political discourse and even became the basis of modern political sciences. And because of its focus on things like the common good and the idea of philosopher statesmen, it was also to have a profound influence on later generations of scholars, particularly Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx.
The City of God: Written by St. Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century CE, The City of God is considered one of the most important texts in the history of Christianity. Written after the Visigoth sack of Rome, the text was intended as much as a consolation to Christians as it was a discourse on theological matters. Basically, Augustine claimed that though the city of Rome had fallen, the City of God, the “eternal Jerusalem” still stood strong and would endure.
Essentially, Augustine advanced a perception of history in this book that was characterized by a dialectical process, or a conflict between opposites. On the one hand, there was the City of Man, characterized by earthly pleasures and decadence, and the City of God, dedicated to eternal truth. The conflict, he claimed, would end with victory for the latter, where people would throw off the bonds of an earthly paradise in favor of a spiritual one.
Thought it did not concern itself with matters of practical governance or how an ideal state could be created in the here and now, Augustine’s treatise was to have a profound effect on the fields of theology and philosophy. Basically, his idea of a city where spiritual purity could be attained became the basis for a theocratic state, while his theory on the dialectical process of history would go on to inspire men like W.F. Hegel and (again) Karl Marx.
Tao Hua Yuan: Otherwise known as “The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring”, this book is considered the quintessential utopian book by Chinese scholars and historians. Written in 421 CE by Tao Yuanming, it is an epic poem of how a traveler accidentally discovers an ethereal paradise where people live an idyllic existence, unaware of the world outside their walls.
Written after the collapse of the Han Dynasty, a period marked by civil war and unrest, this poem tells the tale of how a fisherman sailed up a river that was entirely surrounded by blossoming peach trees. At the end of the river, he finds a village where the people, thought surprised to see him, welcome him and treat him as one of their own. He quickly realizes that the community is an idyllic one, where people live in harmony with nature and one another.
In time, he learns from the villagers that this place was established by their ancestors during the last civil war when the Qin Dynasty was conquering all of China. Since that time, they have been cut off from the outside world and know nothing of its political shifts and wars. Upon leaving, he is told that it would be pointless to recount his discovery of the village to others. He nevertheless makes a note of the village on his map, but when he tells others of it, their attempts to locate it prove unsuccessful.
In essence, the poem suggest that this place, the idyllic village, was otherworldly, and the man’s voyage up the river was in fact a voyage into the afterlife. It also advances the idea that it is only in being cut off from the outside world that an earthly paradise can exist, and those that leave it will never be able to return. This idea was to have a profound influence on Chinese and Asian culture, no doubt inspiring such myths as that of Shangri-La. In addition, the Chinese expression shìwaì taóyuán, which refers to a remote paradise – and literally means ‘the Peach Spring beyond this world’ – has its roots in this poem.
By the time of the Renaissance (14th/15th century CE), Europeans began to have a renewed interest in classical learning. At first, this consisted of merely adapting and translating previously lost texts from ancient Greek and Arabic to Latin and other European languages. However, by the time of the Enlightenment (18th century CE), European scholars were adapting and expounding on classical ideas, bringing them forward into the modern age with new speculations and examples on how a perfect society could be created, or whether or not one was even possible. It was also the age that the term Utopia began to be used popularly.
Utopia: Ah yes, the man who gave it a name! Sir Thomas More, otherwise known as Saint Thomas More, was a Renaissance humanist and THE man who brought the word Utopia into modern usage. Written in 1516 CE, his seminal study on the perfect society has influenced all subsequent generations of social critics, employing social criticism, history and of course, delicious irony to make a series of points about the ideal society and whether or not it can even exist.
The story is told (much like Plato’s Republic) as a dialogue between the author and a fictitious man named Raphael Hythloday, a world traveler and tradesman. In the course of recounting his tales of all the places he’s seen he brings up one in particular place, the island nation of Utopia, which he hails as the best of all possible societies. As the story goes on, he details exactly what it is that makes it an ideal place, and by comparison, all others flawed.
To break it down succinctly, the Utopians do not value gold and silver because they long ago discovered that there worth is merely an extension of their rarity. Instead, they choose to value iron and bronze as precious and keep jewels, gold and silver in reserve in case they need to bribe foreign princes or armies. In addition, their economic activity is based on an egalitarian principle, where all people rotate from one service to another so that no sense of class hierarchy ever becomes permanent.
What’s more, when it comes to education, the Utopian have made it manifest that all people be taught to read and educated on basic matters of logic, philosophy, numeracy, etc. This is to prevent the creation of a philosopher caste which is concerned solely with matters of thought while others toil away and provide for them. Much like with their policy or rotating labor, it is customary that all people divest themselves from their tasks every now and then to pursue matters of art, science and other intellectual pursuits.
And of course, politics, property ownership, and all other forms of activity on Utopia are considered communal. There is no such thing as private property, rule is exercised by council and not by kings and a court, and membership in this council is rotational, popular and considered a civic duty. In short, Utopia is an ideal society because rule by the few, greed and ownership are all forbidden. And though there are few laws to speak of, all of these practices are contained within a strict code of conduct which was passed down by the island’s founder, King Utopus.
And last, but certainly not least, is the issue of religious tolerance. Written during the time of the Reformation Wars, More claimed that in this ideal society, no one’s faith was ever held against them. Provided they believed in a higher power, no discrimination or persecution were allowed under the law. However, there was one exception, which applied to atheists (!). Essentially, it stated that anyone who did not believe in the hereafter, where they would be answerable for their sins, would be allowed to hold public office.
In the end, Hythloday claimed that there was no reason why other nations could not adopt these same principles which benefited the nation of Utopia so. The only reason, he claimed, was because all other nations of his day were “conspiracies of the rich” where enlightened reform is avoided because of greed, vanity and pride. Ultimately, More chooses to disagree with this fictitious character on numerous points as a way of distancing himself from the critique.
In addition, there are several ironic points which seem to indicate that he was also questioning whether or not such a place could even exist. The name Utopia for one translates from Latin to mean “No Place”. In addition, many of the customs he describes sound less than ideal and would seem to suggest that the only way to create a perfect society is to force people to comply with strict rules, which in turn can create its own problems. In the end, it was not clear if More was saying that such a place does not exist, could exist, or will never exist. All that is clear is the influence it had, once again by expounding on the virtues of collectivization, popular sovereignty and the removal of class distinction.
Gulliver’s Travels: Though I included this novel in my previous list as an example of dystopian fiction, there are many elements of Gulliver’s Travels that fit into the category of utopia as well. For example, between every voyage Gulliver undertakes which brings him to a land that parodies some aspect of English and European society, there is a corresponding trip to a comparatively idyllic place.
After traveling to the land of the Lilliputians, a land of moral midgets who’s size matches their outlook, he travels to the land of Brobdingnagians where the same rule applies, only in reverse. Whereas he was denounced by the Lilliputians for not helping them to subjugate their neighbors, to the Brobdingnagians he was considered a novelty and his own moral outlook was received with horror.
In addition, after traveling to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan, all of which are seen to be inherently flawed in some respect, he travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms. These horse people, who boast rational capacities that put humanity to shame, are seen as the perfection of nature whereas humans are seen as brutish. What’s more, Gulliver’s time amongst them makes him inherently sympathetic to them, but in the end they deny him the right to live amongst them since they see him as a danger to their civilization.
Ultimately, Swift did not give any details as to how the morally upright societies which stood in contrast to his parodies achieved their current state. But by including them in his story, he was employing a decidedly utopian tactic – using a fictitious, ideal society to point out the flaws in an existing one.
Erewhon: Also known as “Over the Range”, this novel by Samuel Butler is renowned as a prime example of utopian literature (though there are some dystopian elements as well). Published in 1872, the bulk of the story is an account of the fictional nation named Erewhon which is located within the mountains of New Zealand. Often compared to Gulliver’s Travels and Letters from Nowhere (1890) the tale is about a seemingly perfect society which proves to be less than all that.
In describing Erewhon, Butler paints the picture of an idyllic society where people live close to the land. There is also no machinery because the people of Erewhon fear that it will someday become intelligent and supplant them – a rather unique take on Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection.
However, in time, the author notes several odd customs in this land involving their justice system, religion and system of coinage. For example, criminals are treated as invalids in their society, whereas invalids are treated as criminals. In addition, religious institutions offer their own coinage and act like banks, but are immune to charges of counterfeiting because they are religious institutions. These practices were meant to satirize certain aspects of Victorian society at the time, including its religious hypocrisy, intolerance and anthropocentricism.
Clearly inspired by other utopian writers, Butler even went as far as to borrow a page from More who was also ironic with his choice of title. The name Erewhon, an anagram for “Nowhere”, makes the deliberate point that this society is fictitious, and therefore its better elements are not to be found anywhere. Though by no means a dystopian story, it is nevertheless a poignant allegory for the British Empire during the time of writing, an empire that for all intents and purposes did not live up to its own ideals.
Though by no means as popular as dystopian literature, utopian novels were still a very common feature in the 20th century. And like dystopian lit, it was used repeatedly by authors to mock and satirize the world of their day. By showing a society that had overcome mankind’s traditional flaws, some sought to demonstrate how society could be bettered. Others, however, liked to juxtapose the belief in a perfect society with the reality of an imperfect one, as a way of demonstrating how the quest was noble but was sure to encounter problems.
Men Like Gods: Published in 1923, this work of science fiction by the venerable H.G. Wells explores an parallel universe where human beings live in a world without government. Much like the time machine, the book contains equal parts speculative science and social commentary, involving a world in the future that parodied his own.
Taking place during the summer of 1921, the story opens with a cynical English journalist named Barnstaple who is mysteriously transported through time to an alternate world named (interestingly enough) Utopia. Essentially an advanced Earth, Utopia is three thousand years ahead of humanity, where people live in a perfectly realized anarchy, no government or sectarian religion exist, and scientific research flourishes.
All Utopians live by the “Five Principles of Liberty”: privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism. After a month of staying amongst the Utopians, Barnstaple asks if he can stay amongst them but is refused. According to the people of this world, the best thing for this journalist is to return to his world. This he does, renewed of vigor and committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.”
This was not a political revolution, in Well’s eyes, but rather the march of progress which he felt was already very much at work in society. In essence, such a revolution that was guaranteed by scientific and rational progress, he surmised, would one day wipe away all the current problems of the world. Namely, petty nationalism, sectarian turmoil, and irrational fear.
Childhood’s End: Released in 1953, this story is perhaps Arthur C. Clarke’s best known novel outside of the Space Odyssey series, and the one which established him as a writer. Embracing many themes which would show up in numerous sci-fi franchises, the book deals with the near-future possibility of contact with an alien species and the profound effect it will have on humanity. Broken down into three parts, the book begins with the arrival of aliens, moves onto the effect they have, and concludes with the aftermath of their experimentation and their departure.
The story opens with the introduction of the Overlords, a space faring race that appear suddenly in orbit around Earth in the late 20th century. With their ships poised over every major city on Earth, they issue a simple directive: End all war, now and forever. They assume a sort of indirect control over human affairs, preferring to stay aboard their spaceships, and communicating directly with only the Secretary-General of the UN.
Though many suspect of them of malicious intent, the Overlords influence is largely indirect and they promise to reveal themselves in 50 years. In the meantime, the suppression of war leads to a sort of golden age where prosperity flourishes, but at the expense of creativity. When 50 years is up, the demon-like Overlords emerge and begin conducting some seemingly benign psychic research.
Generations pass and humanity grows antsy due to a general feeling of stagnation. However, many children begin to be born who demonstrate telekinetic powers. Finally, the Overlords reveal that they are representatives of what is called the Overmind – a vast cosmic intelligence created from alien races that have all shed matter’s restrictions and become cosmic beings. The Overlords, for whatever reason, cannot join the Overmind, so they act instead as a bridge, seeking out intelligent life and fostering cosmic evolution. Humanity is now set to join this intelligence, having become post-human and ready to embrace their full potential.
Though some would see this concept of Overlords, Overminds, and tampering with evolution as a negative, Clarke presented it as an unequivocal positive. To him, the idea that humanity would need to be forced to become enlightened seemed like a perfectly plausible means of overcoming its inherent flaws. This is in keeping with Clarke’s Futurist mentality, where progress is not only inevitable and desirable and human antipathy towards progress is based on irrational fear.
The Dispossessed: Published in 1974, this novel is one of several utopian science fiction books published by famed author Ursula K. Le Guin. Written during the Vietnam War, the story takes place in a distant solar system (Tau Ceti) where two empires with diametrically opposed views become engaged in a proxy war when a neighboring state undergoes a revolution.
Set in the same universe as her critically-acclaimed story Left Hand of Darkness, the Tau Ceti system consists of two major worlds – Anarres and Urras. Urras is the focal point of the story, a planet which is dominated by two major nations which are rivals. The A-lo nation (which represents the US) is capitalistic and patriarchal whereas the Thu nation (Soviet Union) is run by an authoritarian regime that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.
To complete the analogy, both states become embroiled in a war when an underdeveloped nation named Benbili experiences a revolution which prompts both sides to invade. Thus, Benbili comes to represent South-East Asia at the time of the Vietnam War, just as Urras represents the world at the time of writing – a world divided between two diametrically opposed empires, both of whom seem to think they are the example of a perfect society (or as close as one can come to it).
As the story goes on, we learn that Anarres, the other major world, was settled long ago by a group of proto-Anarchists who left Urras to escape the planet’s divided nature. Since that time, the Anarrean people have created an egalitarian society which maintains contact with Urras only through its capitol-city spaceport. In keeping with the story, this alternate planet can be seen as a third option for humanity, which finds itself otherwise torn between two extremes.
This calls to mind Brave New World, where Huxley had created a planet torn between madness and insanity, or primitive freedom and “civilization”. In the end, the character of John the Savage, a man who had a foot in both worlds, could not reconcile himself to either and killed himself. Huxley had long expressed regret with this outcome, thinking that he should have offered a third option in the form of the exile communities that dotted the world in his story. Seen in this light, Dispossessed seems to offer solutions to the problem of two civilization fighting over who’s “utopia” is better.
Ecotopia: Published in 1975, this novel is considered a pre-eminent work of utopian fiction and a fitting commentary on the green movement and counter-culture of the 1970’s. In it, author Ernest Callenbach describes a new society which has been founded in the Pacific Northwest by groups of ecological secessionists. Interestingly enough, his critique of this fictional society was based on environmental science and descriptions of actual communes that were being established across the mid-western US at the time.
Set in the year 1999, the story takes place from the point of view William Weston, a reporter named who is the first American to travel to the new country of Ecotopia. Most of the narrative consists of his cables back to the fictitious newspaper he works for, but other details are filled in by his diary entries. These include an affair with an Ecotopian woman, an experience which leaves him transformed and opens him up to the Ecotopian way of life.
Amongst the differences he notes between his world and this ecological utopia are the policies of universal health care, liberal cannabis use, fitness, local art and fitness (as opposed to television and spectacle sports), sexual freedom, and voluntary mock warfare. Curiously enough, they also celebrate gender roles and believe in racial separation. Not sure how those are meant to be utopian, but okay…
In the end, the narrator comes to see that the Ecotopians are not a backwards, regressionary people but simply individuals who want to live a healthier existence closer to the Earth. In addition to using modern technologies, provided they are ecologically friendly, they also maintain an advanced arms industry and stockpiles of WMD’s, a means of ensuring that a potentially revanchist US government doesn’t try to take back their territory by force. In the end, Weston chooses to stay in Ecotopia and act as a sort of cultural liaison to the outside world.
Aside from the issues of gender roles and racial segregation, this book seems to fit the description of an ideal society quite well. By demonstrating that a better life need not mean huge sacrifices or the denial of technology, Callenbach was basically arguing for an open mind when it comes to the ecological and social experiments which were taking place in the US at the time. His idea of an outsider coming to respect and embrace this culture also calls to mind More’s Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels, where the narrators did the same. He also seems to be arguing that a better society is not only possible, but within our reach.
The Giver: Although classified as a dystopian novel by some, this 1993 piece of YA fiction has undeniably utopian elements, and therefore confounds simple classification. Taking place in a fictional community where pain and strife have been eliminated through “Sameness” and people’s roles are selected by a council of elders, The Giver begins as a description of a utopian society which gradually becomes more dystopian in its outlook.
Enter into this world Jonas, a young boy who has been selected by the elders to serve as the next “Receiver of Memory”. This person occupies a venerated position in their society since they are responsible for storing all memories that predate Sameness, just in case they are ever needed to aid in the decision making process.
As Jonas receives these memories, he comes to understand just how powerful knowledge is. People in his society are happy, but only because they are ignorant to any way of life that runs counter to their own. In the end, he faces a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, he could release the memories and enlighten his people, though it will surely mean chaos. On the other, he can keep them ignorant, thus ensuring stability for the time being.
Written for young adult audiences, but intensely mature in its outlook, this story not only examines what it takes to create a perfect society but what the costs of that might be. It is also very poignant in the way it addresses a theme which is crucial to growing up – how the end of innocence is a necessary step to becoming a mature and responsible individual. This is a step we frequently wish we could avoid, but seems inevitable in the long run.
Looking at the extensive list of utopian fiction that has been produced across time, I am once again reminded of just how closely linked it is with dystopian fiction. It seems that all utopian commentaries emerged out of a problematic world, where authors felt the need to offer up a better or even ideal society as a means of satire or consolation. Though they differed in that they were not quite cautionary in nature, they shared the same basic purpose as dystopian tales. At once, they offered people a chance to examine this thing we know as the human condition and ask if something better were truly possible.
Overall, I’m not sure which I like better. When I was penning the article on dystopian literature, I could honestly say I preferred it because it seemed more realistic. Now, I wonder if there is not a profound sense of genius and realism to utopian literature that I was perhaps overlooking. Sure, one could make the argument that works like the Republic and Utopia were simple in their intent, claiming that society could be turned into a model of justice and fairness through basic reforms. But upon closer inspection, one sees the unmistakable presence of irony. In all cases, it seems like the author is agonizing over the question of whether or not such changes are even possible.
Sure, greed could done away with if collectivization were enforced. Sure, if money were abolished, there would be far less in the way of crime. Sure, if people were made to rotate between professions, there would be less class conflict and snobbery. And of course, if government were truly representative and those in power were closer to the governed, there would be less abuses of power. But how do you go about making that happen? How, without resorting to force or Draconian measures, do you get people to treat each other as equals and respect each other.
Like it or not, the question “can’t we all just get along?” has been dogging humanity since the beginning of time. Many solutions have been suggested, like the expropriation of the ruling class, a certain means of production, or a certain way of living. But inevitably, all these proposed solutions get tied up in moral considerations (i.e. killing is wrong), or questions of practicality – i.e. getting rid of all the cars, central heating, AC and electricity will lead to millions of deaths worldwide. So really, is utopian literature meant as a proposition for change, or is it merely a tool to make us contemplate the tougher questions?
I know my answer, but in the end, the point is simply to ask, isn’t it? It’s the exploration that counts, which is precisely why such literature has been penned over the centuries. Waiting for heaven to come might be a pain in the ass, but trying to make it come can also be a ticket to hell!
Back with another conceptual post, this time about something which I’ve been pretty invested in lately. And it comes from the same general universe inhabited by cyberpunk and dystopian sci-fi. And that thing is the concept of the “Mega City”. As I’m sure I’ve said before, this is not only a very cool concept right out of modern science fiction, its also a genuine sociological and geographical theory.
In fact, it was a French geographer named Jean Gottmann who coined the term “megalopolis” in his 1961 book Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. He used this term to describe the massive urban region which extended from the suburbs of Boston to those of Washington D.C. The concept quickly caught on, resulting in names like “BosWash” and “Northeast Megalopolis” when referring to the urban sprawl, and igniting the imaginations of science fiction writers and geographical planners.
However, in recent decades, this same concept has been extended to refer to several other “megalopolis'” as well. And not just in the US; such regions have been noticed developing in Canada, Mexico, Europe, East and South Asia. Wherever one urban center appears to be converging with another, through urban sprawl, connecting townships, and major highways, the roots of mega-cities are being laid!
First off, here are some more examples from North America, grouped from North to South, East to West:
Boston-Washington Megalopolis: As already noted, this baby inspired the concept of a megalopolis thanks to the post-war boom and growth of urban centers along the Eastern Seaboard of the US. In addition to having several major urban centers and ports closely linked by major transportation routes, some of the largest suburban developments in North America exist in this region, which have allowed for these major cities to converge by a very noticeable degree. All told, roughly forty-tw0 million people live in the BosWash according to a year 2000 census with projected estimates for 45 million by 2025.
Quebec-Windsor Corridor: Looking at the nearly unbroken urban landscape which stretches from Quebec city and the Outaouis region all the way down to Windsor on Lake Erie, one could easily get the impression that a mega-city existed throughout these regions, and was merely distributed in a long line because of geographic necessity. Embracing the St.Laurence River corridor and the National Capital Region and Southern Great Lakes Region, the Quebec-Windsor Megalopolis includes such urban centers as Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, London and Winsor and boasts a population of roughly 18 million (as of 2000) and is expected to reach 21 million by 2025. The Great Lakes Region: An alternative to the Quebec-Windsor megalopolis, which is based entirely in Canada, this megalopolis is based around the Great Lakes region and includes urban centers in in the Midwestern US, the Southern Ontario area of Canada, and parts of Pennsylvania, New York, and Quebec. The region officially extends from the Milwaukee–Chicago to the Detroit–Toronto corridor, and includes Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Louisville, Ottawa, Rochester, and Toledo. The region had an estimated population of 54 million, as of the 2000 Census and is expected to reach about 65 million by the year 2025. Piedmont-Atlantic: the Southern US megalopolis, running from Charlotte, North Carolina to Memphis, Tenessee, and embracing the urban regions of Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Columbia, and everything in between. Its population as of 2000 was estimated at a modest 15 million, at least by mega-city standards. However, it is expected to reach a good twenty million or more by 2025. Florida: Named in honor of the fact that all its urban centers are located squarely in the state of Florida, this megalopolis incorporates the urban centers of Coral Springs, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee, and Tampa and has also has a relatively modest population of 15 million with expectations to reach 21 and a half by the quarter century. Texas Triangle and the Gulf Coast: Here are two megalopolis’ that are often considered separately, but which have already converged as far their boundaries are concerned. Thus I think it’s fitting that they be considered as one. From the east, the mega-city range embraces Pensacola and Mobile and extends south and west, with New Orleans in the middle and Corpus Christi at the southernmost tip. However, at the western edge, it then extents north-west, incorporating Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Tulsa, and Wichita. Considered as one, this region boasts a hefty 28 million inhabitants and is expected to reach as high as 40 million in the near future. So-Cal: Fans of Demolition Man ought to know this one right off the bat (if not, see below). Otherwise known as Southern California range, this region encompasses the north-south coastline and the urban regions of greater Los Angeles, San Diego, Anaheim, Tijuana, and Bakersfield, but also reaches eastward to include Las Vegas. It’s overall populated was posted at 25 million in 2000 with a projected expectation of 35 million by 2025.
No-Cal: Comparatively small next to its southern cousin, the Northern California Megapolitan region is still an impressive specimen. Reaching both north-south along the coast, and east-west into the interior, this region encompasses the cities of San Jose, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Stockton, Fresno, and Sacramento. It’s total population, circa 2000, was estimated at roughly 13 million and is expected to reach close to 17 and a half by 2025. Cascadia:Named in honor of the Cascade Mountain Range, this mega-city, like the mountains extends from north to south and incorporates the urban centers of British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon. Beginning with Vancouver and Victoria in Canada and reaching south to include Bellingham, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Portland in the south, the region hosts a modest 10 million inhabitants and is expected to actually recede in population! Fans of space and coastal weather, travel here! You will crushed anywhere else!
The World at Large: Blue Banana: Also known as the “European Megalopolis” or “European Backbone”, this hypothetical mega-cityscape reaches across Western Europe. Stretching along a south to north-east axis (thus forming the shape of a banana), the region runs from Milan in Italy through Southern Germany and the Low Countries and ends in northern Wales. In terms of major cities, the corridor includes Milan, Genoa, Venice, Munich, Luxembourg, Frankfurt, Brussels, London, Manchester and Leeds. It’s total population, hang onto your hats, is estimated at 92.4 million people! Greater Mexico City: The most populous metropolitan region in the Americas, embracing the entire metropolitan area of the “Valley of Mexico” and boasting a population of over 21 million, according to a 2009 survey conducted by National Population Council of Mexico. Although it does not embrace multiple urban centers, its large landmass and density are characteristic or a mega-city. Indo-Gangetic Plain: Also known as the “Northern Indian River Plain”, referring to its geographic boundary in Northern India along the Indus and Ganges river basins. The area is traditionally very dense due to its fertile soil and strategic locations between river basins, the Himalayan mountain chain to the east, and the Iranian plateau to the west. In terms of urban centers, this corridor extends between Pakistan and India to Bangladesh and includes the cities of Karachi, Faisalabad, Islamabad, Lahore, Delhi, Kanpur, Dhaka, and Kolkata. Overall, roughly 1 billion people – 1/7th of the world’s total population – live in this region, making it the most population dense area in the world! Pearl River Delta: Located in Guangdong province in the People’s Republic of China, the Pearl River Delta is one of the most densely urbanised regions in the world and one of the main hubs of China’s economic growth. This is due largely to the fact that such coastal centers as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Kowloon City, and Macua are all located in this relatively small region. In addition to these tightly packed urban centers, suburban developments have led to many geographers to think of the area as a single mega-city. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, the overall population of the delta region is estimated at 120 million people, and growing fast! Taiheiyo Belt: Over to Japan, where densely populated urban centers have been a fact of life for nearly half a century. Translated literally, the term “Taiheiyo beruto” means Pacific Belt, referring to the series of linked metropolises that are nestled on Japan’s western shores. Officially, the region extends from greater Utsonomiya in the north, through to Tokyo harbor, then follows the coastline circuitously through Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, and ends at Saga on the southern island of Satsuma. These areas account for the bulk of Japan’s population, its industrial base, and its major economic centers. In addition, it packs a population of 83 million into a very narrow corridor. Yangtze River Delta: Also known as the Golden Triangle of the Yangtze, this megalopolitan region has much in common with its cousin on the Pearl River. Here again, we see a bunch of urban centers built along one of the traditional river routes that are clustered around the mouth of it. In addition, this area also accounts for a very large and growing portion of China’s economic and industrial infrastructure. Linked by high-speed rail, major highways, bridges, and urban sprawl, this region unites the cities of Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, and a whole lot of others! In total, roughly 100 million people live in this densely packed area in addition to its many farms, factories, and transportation hubs; which, in conjunction with its location at the mouth of the Yangtze, makes it the leading cause of maritime pollution in the Pacific Ocean.
Examples in fiction: Mega-City One: Taken from the graphic novel of Judge Dredd, MC-1 is the setting of the majority of the series. According to the series’ background info, MC-1 grew naturally out of urban sprawl between all the major cities of the East Coast US. It was only officially made into the dark, overcrowded and heavily encapsulated place that one sees in the comics after WWIII took place. It’s current population in the series is estimated at over 400 million, the majority of whom lives in massive apartment blocks that house 50,000 people apiece. And of course, just about everything is automated, all resources (including food!) are recycled, and unemployment is almost universal. Other mega-cities are mentioned in the series as well, including Mega-City Two, which encompasses the greater urban sprawl of Southern California. Metropolis: Not to be confused with the setting for Superman, this city was the focal point for events in the classic movie of the same name. When asked where he got the idea for such a world, director Fritz Lang said that he was inspired by his first glimpse of the New York city skyline. While traveling there by ship in 1924, he saw skyscrapers for the first time, and these left quite the impression on him. This was evidenced in his conception for a massive future city where buildings were designed to look like artistic representations of the Tower of Babel, the rich lived on high in the sun and the workers lived in the dark depth below. No-Cal/So-Cal: The setting of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which California had split into two regions, the one centering around the greater San Fransisco region in the north, and the other around the LA region in the south. Most events in the story take place in San Francisco, particularly the Golden Gate Bridge, which has become a home for indigents and squatters (hence the name of the trilogy). San Angeles: The setting for the movie Demolition Man, in which a cryogenicaly frozen LA police officer is woken up in 2032 and told that it is now called San Angeles, which resulted from the merger of Los Angeles, Santa Barabara and San Diego after the “Big One” Earthquake of 2010 leveled most of LA and Southern California. The Sprawl: Otherwise known as the BAMA, or Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, this mega-city serves as the setting of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson. But unlike the Boston-Washington megalopolis which is likely to have inspired it, this axis extends as far south as Atlanta and is contained beneath a series of geodesic domes.
For starters, one can see without the need for much imagination where the concept for “Metropolis”, “Mega-City One”, “San Angeles”, and “The Sprawl” came from. For the last century, at least, megalopolis’ have been slowly becoming a reality, and this in turn has been reflected in our literature. And when it comes to dystopian science fiction, what could be more dark and gritty than a big, overcrowded cityscape? Especially one where differences in wealth and modern technology make everything just a little more interesting and dangerous? Like most people, I can’t imagine ever wanting to live in such a world, but damn if I don’t want to read about it from time to time!
I’ll admit it, I don’t watch a lot of Anime. I know, that probably makes me a bad geek. But what can I say? You gotta be into that kind of thing and apparently, I’m not. But over the years, I’ve managed to find a few titles that I did like. Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D, and – best of all – Akira! Yes, not only was this the best piece of Anime I’ve ever seen, it managed to tell a story that still intrigues me years later. Not long ago, I watched it for what felt like the umpteenth time and found that it I still get wrapped up by its stunning visual effects, existential ideas, and its post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk theme. I tell ya, the animators spared no expense when it came to visuals, and the story-writing and direction was reminiscent of Kubrick in a lot of ways. Much of what is happening is shown, not told, and those watching it might therefore feel the need to see it more than once. But enough gushing, time to get to the review!
The movie Akira was actually based on the Manga series of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo, who was also brought in to direct the movie. The movie condensed the storyline of the six original Manga novels, but kept all of the major themes and plot elements. Much like the comic, the movie is set in Neo-Tokyo, a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future city where biker gangs rule the streets and an authoritarian government is hiding secrets about human experiments. It was well received by critics when it was first released in 1988 and has gone to become one of the top-rated animated movies of all time, and of course it attracted a cult following in the process. However, there were also some critics who panned it, claiming that it did a poor job of condensing six volumes of Manga into one two hour movie and cut corners in the process (fans of the Dune series can no doubt relate!) These critics tended to be in the minority though, with fans and critics alike hailing the end product for its visual style, its imaginings of a dark future, and its attention to detail. I, if it hasn’t been made clear already, am one of them!
The movie opens on a silent, birds-eye view of Tokyo in 1988, right before it is vaporized by what looks like a nuclear attack. The entire city is engulfed in light and things white out. The scene then changes to an orbital view, where the white light fades and we see what look like thermal images of Tokyo harbor. The white turns to red, which turns to blue, and the outline of a new city, build on the ashes of the old, appears. And then, a close up on the massive crater that was Tokyo and the name in big red letters… AKIRA! What is awesome about this scene is that there is virtually no sound at the beginning. You hear what sounds like a strong wind, but that’s all until the title rolls and a caption tells us that the setting is Neo-Tokyo, 31 years after WWIII. When the sound rolls, its just a series of loud, metallic pangs that chill you to your bones! An effective opening, conveying a sense of apocalypticism and dread, punctuating the visuals and making it clear that more horror and fright are on the way!
We then move to the streets of Neo-Tokyo where we meet the main characters of Shotoro Kaneda, the leader of a Bosozoku biker gang, and his buds. They’re up to their usual thing, battling the Clowns (a rival gang) and making a big mess of the streets in the process. Meanwhile, student and civilian protests are taking place not far away and the riot police are out in full force trying to contain them, shooting them with tear gas canisters and beating them with truncheons. In between all this, a man who is clearly a member of some underground cell is running through the streets and trying to stay ahead of the police. With him is a small boy who he appears to be rescuing, and we can tell he’s no ordinary child because his skin is blue! The resistance man is then shot when they run into the riot police’s barricade, and the boy gives us a preview of some freaky powers when he screams and shatters all the windows in the area, sending everybody running. In the crowd, a young girl and an older man are watching, themselves members of this same underground, and become perplexed when they see the blue boy disappear.
We go back to Kaneda and his biker gang, who appear to have routed the Clowns and are now chasing them down. Tetsuo, the obvious runt of the litter, gets seperated as he tries to chase down too Clowns, and ends up running into the blue-skinned boy. A mere second before impact, the boy freaks out again and Tetsuo’s bike explodes, sending him into the pavement. Kaneda and the others show up just in time to see him wounded but not killed, and the blue boy as well who’s appearance shocks them. Military choppers and shadowy figures show up seconds later, with some big mustached Colonel and an older, blue-skinned person leading them. The boy is taken away, the elder one scolding him for trying to get into the outside world where they don’t belong. Tetsuo is taken as well, with Kaneda and the rest unable to help because they are at gunpoint and face down on the asphalt.
This sets off the three intertwining plot elements that make up the movie. One the one hand, we have Kaneda and his friends trying to find Tetsuo, all the while trying to survive in the hostile environment that is Neo-Tokyo. We have the resistance looking to get back into some government facility so they can free these blue-skinned kids – known as the Espers, clearly the subject of experiments and covert activities. And we have the Colonel, who’s running said facility, overseeing the experiments on these individuals, and trying to figure out what to do with Tetsuo. It becomes clear after just a few scenes that his exposure to this small child is changing him, in the psionic sense, and now they must figure out what to do about it. While he presents an interesting phenomena, a normal person changed through accidental exposure, there are hints that this chance encounter could bring disaster.
In between all this, we get numerous snapshots of what life is like in the post-apocalyptic city, and all of it is interesting and awesome. The police are overworked trying to control a population that is beginning to become unruly after the shock and horror of a nuclear holocaust and the push to rebuild. The public school system is clogged with orphans who’s parents died in the war and who have to turn to biker gangs and deviant behavior to express themselves. And behind it all, there is the shadowy government project being run by the Colonel, who is haunted by the visions the blue kids are showing him and a name which might be a person, a phenomena, or both… Akira! At one point, in a scene that is both expository and foreshadowing, we are shown an underground facility where a massive cryogenic unit sits and waits. As they inspect it, the Colonel is reminded of conversations he had with the resident scientist about the children could be the next phase in evolution, how it is frightening, and how he fears for the city. In any case, we see a name on the big cryogenic unit… AKIRA! Whoever or whatever this is, its clear that the blue kids are related, and that the war itself might have had something to do with it.
At about this time, Tetsuo manages to escape from the military facility. He finds his girlfriend, Kaori, steals Kaneda’s bike, and makes plans with her to get out of the city. Unfortunately, some Clowns find them and begin beating the crap out of them. Luckily, Kaneda and his buds were on their tale and manage to intervene, but clearly something’s wrong. In the course of taking his revenge on one of the Clowns, Tetsuo begins to lose it. When they try to stop him, he starts to lose it and says that someday he’ll show all of them (case of foreshadowing here). To make matters worse, he starts experiencing intense migraines and has apocalyptic visions. He sees the city crumbling, his body falling apart, and hears the name Akira ringing like a shrill bell in his mind. And, wouldn’t you know it, the military shows up again and hauls him away! It seems that whatever is happening to Tetsuo is beyond his control, and naturally, his friends are even more determined now to find him and figure out what’s going on.
Paralleling this, we get a scene where one of the government bureaucrats is meeting with the leader of the resistance. The two watch a public protest where a religious cult begins burning TV’s and other “decadent” possessions, calling forth the name of Akira as some sort of messianic prophet and saying that the time for atonement has come. The bureaucrat explains how this is a sign, how the city is saturated and begiinning to rot like “an overripe fruit”, and how Akira is the seed that will soon fall and grow into a new order (clever metaphor). We are still not sure who or what Akira is at this point, but its clear that whoever or whatever it is, everyone is looking to it for deliverance. The resistance and their bureaucratic ally want it to pave the way to the future, the government wants to keep it under wraps, and the people on the streets see it as the name of the messiah. Real cool! From all of this, we see that at all levels of society, the name Akira is a secretive, powerful, and dangerous thing.
Along the way, Kaneda finds out about the resistance and begins making common cause with them. This begins when he notices that a particular young woman named Kei, whom he is obviously infatuated with, has a way of showing up repeatedly wherever and whenever shit is going down. At first, he was just trying to nail her; but in time, he comes to realize that she is part of an underground cell that is looking to expose a government secret, the same one that Tetsuo is now part of. They agree that they can help each other, mainly because she and her friends can get inside the facility and she is sympathetic with Kaneda’s desire to save his friend. Eventually, they succeed, but their attempt at a rescue coincides with another, scarier development.
In the facility, Tetsuo is still changing, and the process is getting beyond all control. His psionic abilities are reaching dangerous proportions, and he wants answers! He has come to see that there are others like him (the Espers), which happens after a psychedelic episode where the children enter his room in the guises of childhood toys and transform them into nightmarish creatures that try to devour him. It’s not quite clear why they do this, perhaps they grew scared of him and wanted to put him in his place. It is clear to them from their visions of a catastrophic future that Tetsuo is a threat, so perhaps this was their way of telling him to behave. In any case, this scene is nothing short of art! At once nightmarish, hallucinogenic and psychedlic, it manages to intrigue, creep out and terrify, in that order. And, ironically but fittingly, it ends when Tetsuo accidentally cuts himself and the children are terrified by the site blood and flee. However, Tetsuo is now angry and abundantly aware that he is not alone. He sees in his mind’s eye where the Esper’s nursery is, and sets out to find it, them, and the answers he seeks.
In the process, a number of attendees and guards try to stop him, but he makes short work of them all. Yes, Tetsuo has come to understand that whatever is changing him has given him some freaky powers, including the power to kill with a simple thought. As he walks along the hallway, he kills numerous people in sick and ugly ways, a clear indication of his descent into madness and a preview of what’s to come. Once he reaches the blue kids’ nursery, they begin fighting it out with their crazy mind powers, and the effects used to illustrate this are not just cool, they’re crazy! One really gets the sense of the psychic and psychotic; music, effects and dialogue all coming together to intrigue and scare the viewer! In the course of all this, Tetsuo gleams a name from their minds. Seems their is another like them, someone who is even more powerful than the Espers and Tetsuo combined. Tetsuo wants to find this person, this… Akira! He even manages to get the location from their minds before they are interrupted.
That interruption comes in the form of Kaneda and Kei who have successfully broken in amidst the chaos. They have a brief rendezvous, but Kaneda’s attempts to get Tetsuo to leave with them fail. Seems Tetsuo thinks he’s beyond Kaneda’s help now, and that he’s in charge and ready to show him what’s what, as promised earlier. The Colonel and more men enter and attempt to stop Tetsuo, but he kills even more people, destroys the nursery, and flies from the facility (much to his own surprise). Seems his body is now flying him on autopilot and taking him out into the city to find the last known location of the fabled Akira. The Colonel and his troops are then forced to declare martial law, in part because of Tetsuo’s escape, but also because the government has decided that he is not fit to run the program anymore and try to arrest him. After a brief scene where some bureaucrats show up and a minor gunfight ensues, the Colonel orders his troops to arrest all members of the government and get their asses to where Tetsuo is heading! He means business now!
Meanwhile, Kaneda and Kei have been arrested and stuck in a cell. Here,Kei begins to explain exactly what they think Akira represents. In a word: evolution! Essentially, Kei says that the power that has driven single cell organisms and reptiles to evolve into spaceship-making, atom-splitting humans is still at work. Harnessed in the human genome is a ton of energy that is just waiting to manifest itself in the form of freaky powers, the kind that Tetsuo and the Espers now demonstrate. Kei begins to become distant as it is made clear that one of the Espers, the young girl, is speaking through her. She explains that in the past, this process went horribly wrong, but someday soon, it would become a reality and their kind would exist freely. Kaneda is totally lost, but that doesn’t matter for long. Kei snaps out of her dream-like puppet state and reveals that the door to their cell is now open. Seems the Espers are pulling strings to make sure the two of them get out.
With the help of voiceover, they even say that they plan on using the girl to stop Testuo. And they don’t make it far before they put that plan into action. After meeting up with Kai, another member of the biker gang, Kaneda is told that a rampaging Tetsuo killed one of other members. He’s pissed, but is made even more pissed when the Espers show up and make Kei come with her. She walks away (on water, no less), and leaves Kaneda fuming angrily over how helpless he feels. Caught between a friend who’s gone rogue and some freaky kids who are using his would-be girlfriend for their own purposes, all the while caught up in plot he can’t begin to understand, he decides to set out on his own to find Tetsuo and end him!
Speaking of which, we meet up with Tetsuo next and see that he’s been stalking the streets and killing anyone who gets in his way, all the while seeking the other secret facility where, as we saw earlier, Akira is housed. This is without a doubt one of the best parts of the movie, as the street people, seeing some psionic boy in a red cape (yep, he fashions himself a cape!) become convinced that Tetsuo is Akira and start following him like a messiah. They all die, naturally, as Tetsuo’s is forced to fight his way through soldiers and his powers cause untold amounts of collateral damage. When he finally reaches the facility, just outside the uncompleted Olympic Stadium (bit of a side story to that one), he runs into Kei again and they fight. Not so much “they”, more like the Espers fight Tetsuo through her, but of course he beats them/her and breaks into the facility anyway. As soon as he cracks open the cryogenic seals that hold Akira, the Colonel arrived outside the stadium and begins to fill him in via a megaphone.
We then get the big moment of truth: turns out the facility was holding the remains of a boy, a boy named Akira. He is what caused Tokyo’s annihilation in 1988, as he was an evolutionary curiosity that evolved beyond anyone’s control. After the explosion, which started WWIII since everyone thought Tokyo was under nuclear attack, his remains were sealed away for future study. That’s it, that’s all! No mind-blowing conspiracy, no earth-shattering answers, just a bunch of test tubes and tissue samples in formaldehyde. And as for the conspiracy, that was just the government trying to keep the truth of Akira under wraps so they could study it in the hopes of preventing the same thing from happening again. Hence why they’ve been holding the Espers in a sealed location, seems they were Akira’s fellow potentates who survived the obliteration.
Tetsuo is obviously phased and disappointed, but he’s quickly snapped out of it with the arrival of Kaneda. The two get into it as Kaneda tries to talk him down, but a fight quickly ensues with Kaneda employing a captured laser gun and Tetsuo using his freaky powers. The government jumps in and tries to kill Tetsuo with their orbital laser satellite, but this only manages to critically injure Tetsuo by blowing off his arm. The kid proves beyond their control again, and flies into orbit where he takes over the satellite and then crashes it. This, however, gives Kaneda, Kei, and Kai a chance to escape.
A lull follows as the Colonel and his forces lick their wounds, Tetsuo fashions a new arm out of random machine parts, and Kaneda, Kei, and Kai recharge the laser gun and keep each other company. Some time later, they all meet up inside the stadium, where Tetsuo has placed the remains of Akira on a sort of shrine and is sitting in the chair he has fashioned into a sort of throne. Symbolism! The Colonel urges Tetsuo to come home, but he refuses. He is once again losing control and its beginning to show in his body, which is sprouting amorphous blob-like appendages! He is also losing his mind, at once amused and in terrible pain over what’s happening all around him. The Espers show up and begin praying to the remains of Akira, hoping to get some kind of instruction or deliverance. Seems they too revere him since he was the first to undergo what they are experiencing now.
Tetsuo’s girlfriend Kaori is also drawn to the stadium, but she soon dies as Tetsuo’s loses all control over his body and it consumes her. Kaneda returns, shooting his laser and trying to bring Tetsuo down, but the attempts appear to be in vain. Even Tetsuo is being killed by his own abilities now and there doesn’t appear to be any way to stop it. And the scientists watching it all are stunned when the queer instruments they have that measure psionic abilities go off the charts and begin to show the “Akira pattern”. And then, in a blinding burst of revelation (destructive, apocalyptic, revelation!) Akira appears to the Espers! His white light, much as it did at the beginning, starts consuming the stadium and Tetsuo’s amorphous body. Kaneda is willing to risk his own life to pull Tetsuo from the expanding ball of light, but the Espers decide they will take Tetsuo with them and save Kaneda by sacrificing themselves. Essentially, they are going into the light, which means either death, transcendence, or a little of both. Kaneda, Kei, and everyone else, will be sent back in the process so they can live on.
However, Kaneda is still inside the light for a moment and experiences what can only be described as a taste of transcendence, or possibly the afterlife. It is a totally mind-blowing scene, biggest one of the movie, as he watches entire city blocks get mangled in the light, catches glimpses from their and Tetsuo’s life, and hears the Espers speaking to him about the meaning of it all. He gets a chance to say good-bye to his friend, who appears before him as a blinding ball of light, and sees moments of their lives together. He then wakes up next to Kei, safe and sound. Might sound cheesy, but trust me, its sad, meaningful, and above all, awesome to behold. All the more so because you’re not being told what’s happening, you gotta figure it out on your own. The vivid imagery and passing bits of explanation paint a picture, but you’re left pondering what it means.
Meanwhile, the city is once again in ruins, even though Kei, Kai and Kaneda survived. The Colonel has also survived, having found shelter in a nearby tunnel when the apocalyptic light show began. Clearly, they are the survivors of this new apocalypse, and it is to them that the responsibility to rebuild once more falls. The Espers end things by reiterating their final message, how things are changing, and though the world may not be ready, someday what they have will become a reality. “It has already begun…” they say at the end. By it, of course, they mean the next leap in human evolution, where we will evolve beyond flesh and blood bodies and become unrestrained forces of pure consciousness, with all kinds of freaky psionic abilities! Yes, the day will come when we shall all be… Akira!
Okay, I’m feeling mind-blown just recounting all this. Like I said before, this movie did things right, relying on a sort of show-don’t-tell philosophy, psychedelic and existential themes, and an attention to detail that is unsurpassed. From a technical standpoint, there was also the stunning visual effects and a great combination of music, sound and visuals to punctuate the plot and dialogue. But the thing I liked most was the depth and development shown by the plot and thematic elements of the story. For example, the clear religious themes: First off, there was the coming of the messiah and the End of Days. There was also the Garden of Eden or Deluge Myth that was present at the end. Lastly, there is the Fall. All of these were present at one time or another, the first being a recurring theme while the others became clear closer to the end. The fascinating and gritty use of them all was awesome, terrifying and hugely intriguing.
Then, of course, there was the plot. You’d think that with the archetypal and religious tones that were at work, you’d get some cliches or cardboard cut-out characters. But, interestingly enough, the characters were pretty damn realistic throughout. They are at once cynical, greedy, scared, brutal, and sympathetic, no one a crystal-clear good guy or bad guy. Whether it was the overwrought bureaucrats, the cautious and troubled Colonel, the street toughs who see each other as a family, the fallen Tetsuo or the romantic scientists, every character felt genuine and justifiable. Just like real people, everyone is motivated by their own combination of things, no one is perfect, and everyone just wants to do what they think is right. That, plus the fact that the story doesn’t end happily, but with some hope, was also very realistic. In the event that human beings actually began manifesting psionic powers, we can expect that the results would be frightening and probably disastrous. And in all likelihood, it would take a few disasters before humanity found a way to control it or live with it.
That being said, the movie could also be a bit daunting at times. Towards the end, the action sequences and dialogue did get a little drawn out and could even feel emotionally taxing. Like with a lot of movies of its kind, there were moments where I was just like “enough death and destruction! Get on with it, already!” But for the most part, this is effective in that it conveys the right feel and attitude. After all, death, destruction and the apocalypse are not neat and tidy things. They are painful, demoralizing and downright brutal! One would expect scenes or total destruction and terrible strife to be sad and terrible, so I can only say that Katsohiro’s direction was realistic in that respect and in keeping with the overall tone of the movie. Speaking of which, the movie also showed some very obvious insight into the mentality of destruction and holocaust. All throughout the movie, there is a sense of shock and horror at work, and it comes out in full force at the end. But unlike your average disaster movie, the destruction in Akira wasn’t some cheap attempt at action-porn, it was the real deal!
And you really get the sense that this speaks directly to a sense of cultural experience, Japan being a nation that has not only experienced earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes regularly in the course of its history, but is also the only country on the planet that has experienced the horrors of a nuclear attack. When one sees the blast at the beginning, the flashing, cooling orbital view, and then the big, black crater, one immediately thinks of Hiroshima, and not just the physical impact but the terrible psychological toll it took as well. All the scenes involving the orphaned kids, the apocalyptic dreams, the post-war reconstruction; you really feel like Katsohiro was relying on the real-life experiences of those who had been there.
Oh, and one final note: I’ve since seen two versions of the movie, the original VHS release that was available back in the 90’s, and a more recent version which was clearly dubbed in Japan. The Japanese dubbed one is actually more faithful to the original dialogue, but my advice would be to get the version that was dubbed by Hollywood studios. The translation was better, and the dialogue and voices more effective and less cheesy. Don’t know what it is about Japanese voice actors, but the men sound too gruff and the ladies too high-pitched! Also, in what I am assuming was the original Japanese script, the dialogue was also remarkably less subtle. If you can see both versions and compare for yourselves, you’ll see what I mean.
But other than that, this movie is an enduring classic for me. Its appeal is cultish, its style awesome, and its effects stunning even though they are over twenty years old by now. I look forward to the live-action American remake of this movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set for release sometime in the next year, or possibly 2013. One has to wonder how they will spin things and if they plan on sticking to the grit and realism of the original. I sincerely hope so, otherwise I might have to give it a scathing review!