Ask the Next Question: stories + images inspired by Theodore Sturgeon - Glenn Dixon
About 15 years ago, when I was an art critic, I made an offhand remark about an old movie I’d just seen to Brian Miller, an architect friend I ran into at a gallery opening. A couple of times since, he has reminded me of it, for which I am grateful. I tried to make it work as a magazine pitch, perhaps a prognostication about the future of urban and social planning. But it seemed too dreamy a notion. My editors were journalists, and this was not journalism. I actually hadn’t read Sturgeon when Marissa Long of the Museum of Science Fiction asked me to submit a story, but his work gave this lost idea new life.
The way I think has been shaped by my training in physics, which I left when I began to prefer many good and conflicting ideas to just a few correct and congruous ones. Writing about art meant exposing myself to a powerful proposition about how the world could be and then interrogating my reaction to the new frame of reference. It was a means of experimenting on myself, of finding out what kind of universe I was inhabiting. And that universe changed every week.
Each of the Sturgeon stories I most responded to—“The Other Celia,” “The Golden Helix,” and “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff”—likewise offers a new universe. The characters have to figure out the rules they are living under. They are explorers, and as such, they at times are blunderers and bunglers. But then aren’t we all?
I wrote most of this on a hospital daybed at my father-in-law’s bedside. It didn’t occur to me until later, after he died, that I really was mulling over how hard we work to be remembered and how thoroughly we are forgotten. Another thing I didn’t realize until after I’d finished the story is that Dr. Tak’s more laudable qualities are drawn from several art historians I had the pleasure of working with at the Smithsonian. Her faults, however, are precisely mine. Not that I could follow in her footsteps. The reason I am neither a scientist nor a historian is that I find sometimes the exhilaration of discovery is worth the expense of being wrong.
By Glenn Dixon
Mineral viruses had been hailed as the first humane quasibiological weapons—well, somewhat humane. Infrastructure would perish, but slowly enough that the populace could reorient itself to a preindustrial, agrarian way of life. Dissolving buildings, pipelines, the electrical grid, and every shred of digital technology would produce casualties—in the billions, of course—but they were considered by the Environmental Committee to be necessary to reset the planet and make it habitable again. Not even collateral damage, really. They had to go.
But the virus had adapted, its reproduction scaling exponentially, its appetite quickening in tandem, and a mutation led to periods of dormancy followed unpredictably by furious resurgences. Visiting from off-planet was out of the question. There was no means of descending to the surface and returning safely to the Platform, at least none that depended solely on neoagrarian technology.
Dr. Tak had not been dissuaded. With the discovery of the archipelago of structure islands—landlocked areas the virus had not penetrated, where architecture remained at least partially intact—came the barrage of applications, and hers had been among the first accepted, not because it was a brilliant proposal, more out of dumb luck. One of the largest of the islands happened to enclose the City.
And she had all but written its history. It was her imprimatur that was required to lend any panel discussion of Loganian culture the desired gravitas. She was, after all, the foremost scholar of the rare scrolls known as Devin’s Epic ‘70s Torrents [sic], a collection of audiovisual artifacts of unparalleled paleoarchaeoanthropological importance. Classified by the original archivist as a “hella sweet cache,” these texts offered keyhole views of the most sacred public rituals of the American medieval era. They held passkeys to its holiest sites—the discotheques for dancing, the sofa clubs for swinging, the arenas for what had been called “rocking.” For decades, Dr. Tak’s work had represented the pinnacle of interdisciplinary torrential studies. She had debunked the commonly accepted theory that the high-pitched cries of the vocal group known as the Bee Gees were the result of diminishing air quality. And she had been the first to demonstrate the confluence of myth and fact represented by the religious practice the Late Motionpicturist cult had called “shooting on location.”
The narrative torrents were primitive tales, subject to the bigotries of their day. They were the products of minds accustomed to thinking of singular heroes, solitary movers. The messianic figure who stood apart from the society that had shaped him was a man exposed and alone, like a statue in a vast piazza—a fairly ridiculous conceit, to be honest. If she granted herself the luxury of dispensing with professional distance, though, Dr. Tak could not deny the fascination they held for her—the willful independence of Taylor, voiceless among the ascendant higher primates of the planet he could no longer recognize; of Jonathan E., muscular and violent, subject to the whims of his corporate overlords, yet an enthralling figure for a time that craved physical heroes; and of Thorn, who ferreted out the secret that kept an overpopulated world fed—was he more detective or muckraker? (Why he and Taylor shared an avatar with the Omega Man, Neville, well, that was a subject for further research.) Their tales were roughly told: simple, sequential collages that targeted only the visual and auditory cortexes. But in their crucible, Dr. Tak’s career, her status, her intellectual life had been formed.
The hero she loved best had haunted her the most. So much promise in the world he had inhabited—the pursuit of pleasure, of happiness, the freedom from drudgery—yet so much secrecy, so much dishonesty, so much wasted time. Nothing was known of the City of Logan 5 after the Awakening, which the scrolls of Devin dated to Year of the City 2274. But she had at last located the site.
Dr. Tak had released the surveyor pigeons shortly after her descent, and had watched them spiral out across the viral perimeter. In several days, almost all had returned, their brains freshly imprinted with the topography of what was still, if only ironically, called Sanctuary. She tapped their cortexes and uploaded the maps. Within the space of an afternoon, she had been able to trace the Holy Run of Logan 5, Jessica 6, and the Old Man back from the Assembly of Cats to the Cenotaph of the Bearded Giant and from there across the Rectangular Marsh to the Murky River, and then up the Toll Road to the City.
The next day, she hovered in her short-range rover over crumbling streets. She didn’t need to follow the gentle, deliberately inefficient curves the planners had drawn for rubber-wheeled automobiles to follow, but she chose to. She glided slowly, wanting to grasp the sense of place the planners had worked so judiciously to create. From time to time, hollowed-out steel frames protruded from thick shrouds of greenery. Having spent all her days among the Platform’s rigidly policed vegetation, she could not believe the splendid course that nature had run. Where they were visible, the ruins were picturesque, harmonious, possessed of dark and light, form and void, unlike the colorless wastes of the viral zone, where there wasn’t even rubble, only powder.
But natural vistas, even those attractively undergirded by ruins, were not what truly moved her. Dr. Tak’s heart might as well be made of liquid stone, what the long-ago planners had called “concrete.” Devin’s torrents recorded the dramatic, angular interiors of the domed city, but she had read in a brief letter whose florid script had recently been decoded of one plaza whose majesty outshone the rest. It was lined with chapels devoted to ritual commerce and appointed with altars that held immovable concrete shapes: cones, cylinders, abstract figures in niches. Sadly, no images survived. The illustration on the reverse of the writer’s “postal card” was of agrarian structures from an area named for a rudimentary cooking implement, Frying Pan Park. Devin’s torrents had altogether neglected to include the grand piazza. Dr. Tak theorized that the site was so sacred that it was forbidden to depict it. But she knew where it should be. As she glided silently toward her reward, she whispered the names of the streets below, recalling them from the cellulose fragment she’d analyzed years ago for her thesis research: Baron Cameron Avenue, Wiehle Avenue, North Shore Drive, all leading to the majestic open-air cathedral of Lake Anne.
Dr. Tak didn’t like to sound vain or grandiose, not in front of her colleagues. Or her assistants, several of whom were currently on the live feed. She’d trot out the same line for them every semester: “The scholar cannot throw into the shadows the culture she unburies.” The only ones who ever heard her were those who didn’t need to be told.
Not to bother. Her students would no longer be her lasting legacy. Muting the feed and disengaging autodrive, she tipped her head back as the interpreter sifted her merely mechanical intentions to pilot the drifter from the turbulent swirl of thoughts higher and deeper. She slid back the roof and pulled herself up on the console. Gathering speed, she craned her head above the windscreen and shouted, exultant, high on the endorphins of conquest. “I am Heinrich Schliemann! And my Troy is Reston, Virginia!”
But the ocean? That riddle would have to wait for later.
GLENN DIXON’s journalism has appeared in outlets including The Washington Post, Washington City Paper, Washingtonian, The New York Times Magazine, CityLab, Smithsonian.com, The New Republic, Pacific Standard, Artforum, and Harvard Design Magazine. He divides his time between Maryland, Florida, and North Carolina. He has been a museum publicist, a Los Alamos collaborator, a survey researcher, a liner note editor, and an art critic. He dropped out of physics grad school and casino dealer school. This is his first work of fiction.