Along the Dystopia Line 1: I am your density
The first in a series.
Today’s theme is ultrahigh density, the prospect of which looms large among the many possible trajectories for the near-future development of the Western city.
There are so many credible drivers of higher density arrayed before us at present that it can come to seem a little overdetermined, whether it emerges from a conscious process of “urban infill,” as a way of wresting the highest possible efficiencies from extant infrastructure, or as a consequence of massive immigration from failed states and/or regions of ecological collapse. Whatever the cause, there are sound reasons to argue that we’ll soon be seeing higher human concentrations in the cities of North America and Western Europe than have tended to be the norm for the past century or so.
(To put things in their proper perspective, it’s worth remembering that things have not always been as they are now, even here. In relative terms, the peak density observed on the Lower East Side – 440,640 people per square mile at the 1905 census – may not hold a candle to the highest recorded in human history; compare that of Kowloon Walled City circa 1990, at 3.5M/sq.mi. Nevertheless, in absolute terms, it is much, much higher than Manhattan’s average 1998 density of 88,300/sq.mi.)
Science fiction, by and large, teaches us that crowding in and of itself is a breeder of social pathology. Perhaps reflecting subconscious anxiety over postwar prosperity’s transformative impact on an island nation, it was a common enough trope of the British New Wave, from beginning to end. J.G. Ballard‘s “Billennium” (1962) sees housing in a densifying city mercilessly subdivided and subdivided again, until people are living in closets and interstitial circulation spaces; the psychological impact gives new meaning to the word “quartered.” (We’ll be returning to the topology of Ballardian space in a future installation.)
The preoccupation is even embedded in the very title of John Brunner’s 1968 magnum opus Stand on Zanzibar: at the book’s start, a Dos Passosian chapterlet announces that all of humanity can still fit comfortably on the eponymous island; by the end of the novel’s action, roughly a year later, we’re collectively up to our ankles in the Indian Ocean.
Zanzibar‘s spinal thesis is that we have met the enemy, and they are us. Brunner’s l’enfer, c’est les autres stance is brought to its fullest expression in a particularly memorable set-piece scene in which an exhausted police captain explains to the hapless protagonist – who has just inadvertently triggered a fatal conflagration, merely by strolling through the ever-thronged Lower East Side – that the densepacked city now constitutes such a volatile fuel-air mixture that he considers a random wander indistinguishable from incitement to riot:
Donald forced himself to his feet, trembling. He said, “You mean a man can be forbidden to walk the streets of his own home town nowadays because something might happen to him like happened to me?”
“You calculate the odds,” the captain said. “So far, we have evidence of one hundred per cent certainty that it does happen.”
In the unlikely event that it should escape the reader, the theme is reinforced throughout by repeated quotations from the works of Chad C. Mulligan, another of the pop-sociologist figures Brunner deploys as kind of a Greek chorus in each of the novels of his “apocalyptic quartet.” Though his storytelling method is beautifully braided, in the end Brunner’s message is straightforward: too many people in too constrained a space means trouble with a capital T, at a level so visceral and even pheromonal as to be beyond even the possibility of control.
Contrast this to the treatment in Brian Aldiss‘s hard-to-find 1968 short story “Total Environment,” in which a long-running UN research project seals some 75,000 souls in a single fifty-story megastructure, somewhere in India.
Although there are profound problems with the story, inherent to its ventriloquizing of the brown Other, it at least betrays a recognition that culture is likely to play the decisive role in any given population’s response to conditions of high density. Though Aldiss depicts the life of Environment as improbably debased – four human generations emerge over the experiment’s twenty-five years, with each successive generation shorter in stature and reaching sexual maturity earlier – the Hindu and Buddhist notion of “dharma” is seen to play a greater role in forming the occupants’ subjective understanding of their world than the fact of massive population stress.
of urbmons and conapts
On this side of the Atlantic, Malthusian concerns with crowding and density animate the action of 1971’s The World Inside. Robert Silverberg stashes his world’s multibillions in “urbmons,” vast, self-contained and all-providing megastructures not so different from those seriously proposed by Buckminster Fuller or the Tokyo Metabolists at the time. Silverberg’s disposal of the, well, monadic urbmons in a landscape otherwise entirely given over to agricultural production recalls the Corbusian ville radieuse, pursued to its logical conclusion. (This scenario also has strong resonances with arguments about planetary carrying capacity published more recently – as provocation, I devoutly hope – by MVRDV.)
Silverberg’s maxed-out urbmon planet is admittedly an extreme; the Portland of the first, pre-dream segment of Ursula K. LeGuin’s lyrical The Lathe of Heaven is a more typical depiction of the claustric city. Heaven‘s treatment of housing is reminiscent of “Billennium”; protagonist George Orr’s apartment has been recuperated from a decommissioned parking garage, and all its floors slope and smell faintly of oil. LeGuin’s is a world in which the human response to hyperdensity is to get by and make do, rather than rely on heroic technological/infrastructural interventions to carry the load.
Another period work that betrays its concerns from the title forward is Harry Harrison’s 1966 Make Room, Make Room, later filmed as Soylent Green (1972). But for the fortified aeries enjoyed by the very few wealthy and powerful enough to live above it all, Harrison’s New York City of thirty-five million is an unrelievedly grim place:
Its trees were burned decades ago, its hills levelled and the fresh ponds drained and filled, while the crystal springs have been imprisoned underground and spill their pure waters directly into the sewers…Unable to expand outward, Manhattan has writhed upward, feeding on its own flesh as it tears down the old buildings to replace them with the new, rising higher and still higher – yet never high enough, for there seems to be no limit to the people crowding here. They press in from the outside and raise their families, and their children and their children’s children raise families, until this city is populated as no other city has ever been in the history of the world.
Although Malthusian stress is both the prime mover and efficient cause of the things that take place in it, it’s clear that the world in Make Room has suffered a more comprehensive collapse, one that will be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Jim Kunstler’s “Long Emergency.” Internal combustion has been replaced by human-powered “tug trucks” and “trishaws”; Western Union messenger boys enjoy great demand for their services, presumably because there are no longer any trees to provide the paper for message slips; Manhattan’s surplus population is domiciled on a flotilla of rusting ships, moored across the full span of the Hudson.
Amidst this Kolkatan grime and grit, Harrison treats his city as a cheek-by-jowl mixing chamber, a place where accident cannot help but leap from life to life, in a tragic and rather Altmanesque cascade. It lends the book a melancholy and force that’s nowhere to be found in Soylent Green.
The population of Soylent‘s New York City has been pumped up a notch to (a more worrisome?) forty million, and the action moved ahead to the suitably futuristic date of 2022. Most of Harrison’s detailed texture has been stripped away to make room for the weak rogue-detective-in-love narrative, although we do see people living in cars and on stairways, and claustrophobic scenes of a market panic are effectively counterpoised with the spatial extravagance of the fortified executive quarters.
Although it’s mostly implied rather than shown, this New York clearly relies on more or less heavy-handed social control measures to manage its millions: a loudspeaker announces “first stage removal” – “Streets prohibited to nonpermits in one hour” – while human-scooping plows are used for riot control. The jazzy, crosscut explanatory montage that opens the film remains the best thing about it, although Edward G. Robinson’s performance as police “book” Sol Roth has a genuine poignance. (Roth’s single offhand comment about a suspect “cross[ing] the city line into Philadelphia” does more to convey the reality of unchecked sprawl than any cheesy matte painting might have.)
The most enduring filmic depiction of high-density dystopia is, of course, Blade Runner, the 2019 Los Angeles of which has been so thoroughly mined for significant implications (most notably by Mike Davis) that I’m not going to get into it here. Ironically, in the Philip K. Dick novel on which the film is based, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the world has become depopulated by war and ecological collapse. The Phildickian “kipple” that fills both page and screen is presented in the former as the entropic result of the world’s abandonment. In this, it compares to the Bellona of Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren: the city at low ebb, emptied by the hallucid ruptures – epistemic and physical both – that wash across it in succession.
Rather than choosing to depict this desolation on screen – charitably, we can imagine that perhaps it wouldn’t have struck quite the right mood – Ridley Scott built Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles from his own experience of late-Seventies Hong Kong and Tokyo. Despite the overwhelming beauty of his creation, it’s this sense of the everyday life of the Other framed as chaotic, degraded and inherently inhuman that finally leads the sensitive observer (OK, this sensitive observer) to break with SF tradition.
billions and billions served
The relentless emphasis on high urban density as driver and incubator of pathology I encountered in the SF of my youth now strikes me as more than a little parochial. Much if not most of humanity dwells uncomplicatedly at levels of concentration higher than those the genre routinely depicted as catastrophic – and has for decades. To offer a single developed-nation example: Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station at its sleepiest is about as crowded as the busier sidewalks of Manhattan at peak load, rarely dipping below LOS-D, at least during daytime.
And if the high-density favelas and sprawling squatter colonies Robert Neuwirth explores in his impressive Shadow Cities can hardly be said to offer “wholesale hope,” they do at least constitute a surprisingly stable way of life for a billion of us.
So of all the perspectives we’ve seen here, LeGuin’s in The Lathe of Heaven probably gets closest to the observed reality. People adapt. They make do. Or at least they do so swimmingly, if their culture equips them to.
It’s not quite like Brunner made it out to be in Zanzibar, in which crowding past a certain threshold, wherever and whenever encountered, spontaneously breeds murderous “muckers.” Peel away his – SF’s – ethnocentricity and it becomes easier to see that surviving high-density crowding is entirely a matter of socialization and acculturation.
None of which means we’re quite out of the woods with respect to our densifying places. What I see is that contemporary American culture fits us out with precisely the wrong instincts to deal with concentration. We bristle when crowded, because we feel instinctually that space is a zero-sum game – and we, fabulous rockstars manqué that we are, deserve it all.
Neither has science fiction, that I’ve been able to see, been particularly sophisticated about the interiority of people living under such circumstances. Inasmuch as it confronts us with the practical inevitability of being exposed to one or another sort of surveillant gaze, big city density also offers the comfort of the crowd, of anonymity. There’s a kind of solace that can be taken from magna civitas, magna solitudo, and if there’s a work in genre SF that explores this subjectivity I remain unaware of it. But then, maybe that wouldn’t properly be a dystopia anymore.
It was either Ben Bova or the most regrettable Jerry Pournelle who pointed out that the classic midcentury political dystopias, consciously or otherwise, depicted worlds lacking space exploration programs; the argument was that efficiently pervasive repression requires the absence of a planetary escape valve. It’s a canny insight, at least as it applies to the mood and psychology of literary dystopia; the only exception I could think of, both off the top of my head and for years afterward, was Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, whose “namebered,” heavily doped, genetically optimized and deeply creepy Family of Man has at the very least established a viable Mars colony. (Maybe that wasn’t sufficiently canonical.)
Whatever its merits as a bargaining chit in the testosterone-drenched rhetorical swamps of mid-Seventies SF, this is an argument we’ll all of us soon be putting to the test. It’s pretty clear by now that we’re not getting off of this rock, certainly not in significant numbers. It might not be such a bad idea for us to learn to get along with one another.