Tag Archives: architecture

Materiality: FAKE

DD4_layersI’ve got two short articles in MATERIALITY: FAKE, now online at Pinknantucket Press:

An uncanny valley in reverse is a brief illustrated attempt to explain the computational underpinning of deepdreams for a lay audience.

Vermiculation, on the use of fake rustic textures in classical architecture and its colonial domestic descendants.


Black Streamers in the Firmament


Come, let us march against the powers of heaven,
And set black streamers in the firmament,
To signify the slaughter of the gods.
Marlowe, Tamburlaine

After I saw Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, I wanted to write a follow-up to my original post on space megastructures: the superweapon. (This post contains spoilers.)

Many reviews of the film have commented on the repetition of elements from the 1977 movie, particularly Starkiller Base, which is an even bigger Death Star. It’s worth remembering that this repetition is a process which started in the third film, which ends with the destruction of the incomplete successor to the original moon-sized space station. I’m not here to venture on the picayune task of criticising the Empire’s war economy but to tease out some of the literary antecedents and cultural implications of this compulsive tendency to the Next Big Gun.

The megastructure in general is enigmatic, often abandoned, usually dangerous but in some sense neutral. It inflates architecture to cosmic scales in a way which excites our awe and consoles both our nostalgia for the heroic engineering feats of the past and our terror at just how large the universe is. Superweapons grow out of another aspect of architecture, which has always gone hand-in-hand with fortifications: just as the superhero magnifies the human figure in action so that it can scale up to respond to the violence of technology—faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive—the superweapon takes that very technological violence and brings it to bear on the heavens themselves, albeit in a way which is strangely retrograde.

The history of warfare up to the twentieth century is one of growth: bigger castles, bigger armies, longer supply lines, bigger fronts, and bigger guns. Although the very largest bombards in medieval siege warfare were reckless vanity pieces which fell on the far side of a trade-off between actual military efficacy, cost and safety, the general trend is clear. Two factors changed this: aircraft and modern explosives, which drastically warp the previously linear relationship between the size of a machine and the amount of destruction it could cause.

One of the more uncanny aspects of nuclear weapons is the sheer disproportion between their size and their effects. On the scale of a city, a fission bomb is a speck—it’s as if an ant were to detonate and destroy an entire meadow. The enormity of the forces which nuclear weapons unleash takes an effort to comprehend, which may be why Lucas’ superweapons don’t even bother to try. In a manoeuvre which matches the Star Wars universe’s blend of futuristic technology and ancient or medieval politics and cultural forms, the Death Stars and Starkiller Base don’t unleash the terrifying forces latent within the atom or unwind space-time or dissolve worlds into collapsing nuggets of strange quarks or anything like that. They’re just plain big, the spacegoing descendants of cannons like Mons Meg or Big Bertha rather than Fat Man and Little Boy.

As an aside: the avoidance of technobabble is a great strength of the Star Wars franchise. Literary sf has a flourishing roster of world-killing machines and substances which don’t rely on mere size, but on subtle reconfigurations of matter—Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-nine, a polymorph of water ice which is stable and solid at room temperature, is my favourite—but the good Star Wars films never slow down enough to require the audience to comprehend anything more complicated than “great big laser beam” or “mystic energy”. The “midichlorians” of the prequels were a violation of this implicit deal with the audience. We find unseen and insidious world-killers a bit hard to get our collective head around in real life as well, as our reaction to the carbon dioxide output of our largest real-life megastructure, the global industrial, transport and energy network, shows.

The renaissance in written sf of wide-screen space adventure in the past few decades has seen a rebirth of superweapons. Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series features a post-sentient machine species, the Inhibitors, who are practically connoisseurs of the different ways in which a spare gas giant can be reconfigured so as to sterilise whole systems, and the idea of forces hostile to life wielding weapons of galactic destruction also dominates the gaming franchises Halo and Mass Effect. However, the literary ancestors of the superweapons of Star Wars are much older: E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman novels, originally published as serials in the 30s and 40s, which share with the Star Wars universe an Elect wielding quasi-magical psychic powers, a never-ending succession of bad guys who are mere puppets of more shadowy even-worse guys, and an ever-escalating succession of Brobdingnagian weaponry. Although atomic bombs are mentioned in passing, these are squibs on the scale of the vertiginous arms race in the Lensman universe, in which entire planets are shunted between dimensions, rendered “inertialess” and used as faster-than-light wrecking balls.

A crucial distinction between the two legendaria: Smith’s heroes (the antecedents of Green Lantern as well as the Jedi) have few compunctions about using these nightmarish devices, whereas in the Star Wars films, superweapons are strictly for the Sith, and are defeated not by bigger guns but by plucky saboteurs and pilots with help from the Force. Partly this is down to historical background: Smith has a can-do WWII attitude, as opposed to Lucas’ muddle-headed, if sincere, boomer antiauthoritarianism. But it also leads us to an idea which is entirely absent from Smith and only present in a halting or partial form in Lucas: the superweapon as blasphemy.

Combien de fois, sacredieu, n’ai-je pas désiré qu’on pût attaquer le soleil, en priver l’univers, ou s’en server pour embraser le monde? (How many times, by God, have I not wanted to be able to attack the sun, deprive the universe of it, or use it to set the world ablaze?)
—Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom

Since the beginning of time, Man has yearned to destroy the sun.
—Montgomery Burns

Building a weapon to destroy a planet or a star, or both at once—Starkiller Base almost exactly matches the dream of de Sade’s libertine, as a sun is consumed in order to fuel its planet-busting energy beam. This seems like the ultimate act of Promethean defiance, even after we have emerged from a closed pre-Copernican universe to one where the sun is not an unique object but one of a swarm of billions: going far beyond the crime of an individual murder, or even genocide, to the willed act of snuffing out the grounds of living existence itself, or like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, impiously setting one’s sights on the heavens. However, despite the spacefaring civilisation in Star Wars being dependent on planets—the only permanent space-dwellers we see are the crews of the Death Stars themselves—and although the Jedi’s vague spirituality privileges life forms and some idea of cosmic balance, there’s no suggestion in any of the films that the ambition to destroy a world or its sun is an evil in itself, in addition to the billions of deaths which it can cause.

Near the beginning of The Force Awakens, we see a beautiful image: an enormous spacecraft which has been wrecked on surface of a desert planet, shimmering through the hazy air like a mountain of metal. Ruins are part of the inheritance which science fiction bought over from the Gothic, and they’re part of the “used universe” aesthetic of the original Star Wars trilogy (unlike the prequels, which are distinctly lacking in the picturesque and decrepit—their scenery is glistening and fresh from the CGI render farm). Almost all of the architectural spaces occupied by the good guys are a combination of the old, the futuristic and the natural: caverns in ice or creeper-covered temples, fitted out with shiny battle computers. The ruined Imperial Star Destroyer turns this blend of the natural and the artificial into something transcendent, which might be called the post-Anthropocene sublime. The same progression is also evident on the Dark Side. The Death Stars, large though they were, were still essentially big buildings with interiors like austere yet lush corporate headquarters. Starkiller Base, by contrast, is an entire world, with a rather romantic landscape of mountains, glaciers and pine forests surrounding its equatorial canyon and vast red maw. It’s not clear whether it’s a planet which was transformed into a weapon, or a monstrous machine which accreted a rocky crust, weather system and biosphere, and perhaps in the post-Anthropocene aesthetic this distinction doesn’t really matter. The series’ repetition of the Big Dumb Gun idea can be forgiven for the sake of the object’s sheer insane beauty. Starkiller Base is lovingly rendered with imagery that corresponds to the ISS astronauts’ view of Earth combined with genuinely Cyclopean architecture: an apotheosis of the Teutonic, as if a Caspar David Friedrich landscape were transformed into a killing machine beyond the darkest dreams of Albert Speer and the Organisation Todt.

This blending of the natural and artificial may be what robs the superweapons of Star Wars of any Promethean transgression: if there’s no real difference between the two, then the ambition of Sade’s libertine to transmute mere individual crime into an absolute desecration loses its power. Even though Starkiller Base is inherently excessive—destroying a system’s sun would seem to be quite destructive enough without spewing the stolen fire back on all of its planets—and as much as it might suit the petulant, melodramatic character of Kylo Ren, the new trilogy’s villain, it’s only an instrument of mass murder, not cosmic blasphemy. Revealingly, the true test of his loyalty to the Dark Side is not the destruction of an entire inhabited solar system, but the murder of one man.

But even if Ren has the makings of a Sadean libertine, this would be too individualistic and aristocratic a role for the fascist bureaucracy he’s working within. The Dark Side can’t really defy the Universe or the Deity, because the Light Side it’s rebelling against never actually spells out its precepts, never says what rules it should break, apart from all the moralising about anger, fear and hatred. It would be like planning a Satanic revolt against cognitive-behavioural therapy. So all the Empire has to fall back on is the very un-Sadean concept of Order, and go back to the drawing boards for the next superweapon. Or does this very repetition betray the Sith’s darkest secret? The ennui of the Sadean libertine cannot be assuaged, after all, by taking the battle to the heavens, it’s the same story all over again, one planet is not enough, not even a whole system… Maybe next time, with a bigger gun

Castles in the Sky

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Kepler satellite, tasked with the meticulous examination of thousands of stars to detect the minute dips in intensity which are caused by the transits of their planets, has detected something odd about the light curve of KIC 8462852. (It’s customary in popular journalistic accounts of this sort of thing to make a sarcastic crack at the fact that the star is known by a catalogue number rather than a name, to which I want to respond, ok, you think up names for the 2.5 million or so stars now known to science, if you’re so smart.) The objects orbiting KIC 8462852 are more numerous than is expected of planets, but inconsistent with the star’s observed age: young stars are surrounded by swarms of dust and rubble, but this star’s spectrum indicates that it’s mature. The objects might be debris from a planetary collision which we are just lucky enough to observe before all the fragments have dispersed, or they might be a large family of comets – the hypothesis favoured by the scientists who, with the help of amateur observers, brought the phenomenon to the press’s attention. But the idea that’s got the article retweeted is far more engaging: alien megastructures.

In a fictional setting, I like a megastructure as much as the next guy: the Death Star, the Other, Larger, Death Star, that big cloud or whatever in the Star Trek film that started out as a space probe. Not to mention the even more grandiose offerings of science fiction novels: Larry Niven’s Ringworld and its descendants in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, Arthur C Clarke’s Rama, down to the drastic reconfigurations of the Solar System undertaken in Charles Stross’ Accelerando and Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief trilogy.

Megastructures, however, straddle that strange territory between science fiction and, if not exactly science fact, then at least science I’ve-got-tenure-so-let’s-see-how-big-these-brain-farts-can-get. The theoretical musings of physicists such as Freeman Dyson, whose eponymous Sphere is a shell constructed in order to capture the entire energy output of a star. Or the Anderson Disk: a circular plate the size of the orbit of Mars, with a hole conveniently placed in the centre in which a sun suffers the indignity of bobbing up and down to provide a day-night cycle. The epitome of this mindset is the Kardashev Scale, formulated by a Russian astronomer in 1964, which rates civilisations on their ability to marshal the energy output of their entire planet (I), their star (II) and their home galaxy (III).

This mode of speculative cosmic architecture is usually recounted with a poker-faced seriousness which goes beyond the fun of science fiction into something stranger and more touching: a deep and unrequited nostalgia for that Heroic Age of Insane Infrastructure, the twentieth century. In a world where both sides of the Cold War contemplated using fission bombs as the world’s least environmentally-friendly earthmoving technology, reprocessing the planet Mercury as the raw material for a sun cosy is just the logical next step. It’s also a displacement of the colonial engineer’s ambitions, thwarted by environmentalism on this world, set free to rend asunder the rest of the Solar System without restraint.

Leaving aside the fact that no known or even hypothetical material has the strength to throw hoops around stars or build artificial moons, none of the scientists, and very few of the science-fiction writers, ever address the social or economic transformations which would be needed to organise any of this. The further we get from the fever of the Cold War, the more the prospect of industrial societies organising any project larger than a cluster of skyscrapers seems to dwindle; on a planet where the nation with the largest economy seems to be forgetting how to maintain its road bridges, it’s hard to imagine, even if we were given the technology and an unlimited budget, how we could sustain the focussed attention required to build even a modest space elevator before we got bored and switched over to Netflix.

Which is why, of course, megastructures are almost always built by aliens (or, in the admirable works of Finnish sf author Hannu Rajaniemi, a particularly brutal and industrious clade of post-humans). Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International stands as the minatory architectural ghost of utopian communism, and it could be that the space-entrepreneurial plans of Elon Musk and Richard Branson will serve future generations as a virtual memorial of capitalism. But aliens—who, like robots, are a sort of dumping-ground of wistful but incorrect ideas about our own capacities—never faced these disappointments; their Tatlin’s Towers reach all the way to the stars.

In fiction, megastructures are usually abandoned, enigmatic and perilous, and when we read pop-sci articles which treat them as a serious possibility, we should remember their true nature as aesthetic objects: the grandest incarnation of the statue of Ozymandias that our culture has yet produced. In his novel The Pastel City, M John Harrison wrote of the empires that preceded his beautiful and melancholy city of Viriconium:

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but noone who came later could read it.