Friday, October 9, 2009

Book Selection: "City of the Sun" (sci-fi version)

Watching Obama’s continued mesmeric effect upon the world, I was reminded of another utopia-related book I want to mention during my “Month of Utopia”: City of the Sun — not the original utopian novel of four hundred years ago by Tommaso Campanella mentioned on this blog earlier this week (nor last year’s crime thriller by the same name), but the 1970s sci-fi novel by Brian Stableford.

Stableford asks what it would take to really create a unanimous, collectively-acting city-state, and his somewhat disturbing answer is: a parasitic brain fungus that turns all the city’s inhabitants into a single colony-organism.  The big dilemma for our astronaut-explorer heroes (the crew of the intrepid Daedalus used in multiple Stableford novels) is that they can’t decide whether this fungus/human arrangement, now generations old, constitutes an emergency or simply a new, respectable form of life.

It’s very much the dilemma that anthropologists confront about whether to judge societies by external or internal criteria — though in this case the answer could determine whether the society survives or gets nuked by forces from Earth.

(Speaking of anthropological criteria for judgment, tomorrow I’ll take a look at a movie that influenced my thinking as a teen precisely by treating anthropological observation as a tour of foreign horrors: Mondo Magic.)

I happened to spot this City of the Sun on my childhood bookshelf on a visit home several months ago, not long after deciding to read the Campanella original and without, as far as I recall, ever having read the Stableford book back when I was a kid.  I went on to read it while sitting in Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty and a man in a Spider-Man costume within view, in between a bar gathering of conservatives and a Village party of leftists fond of substances other than alcohol.  It was an odd day.

But perhaps the strangest state of mind in which I’ve found myself this week occurred Wednesday morning, when I dreamt — without any assistance from alien mushroom spores — of a creepy, quite poignant situation that, when you think about it, will likely confront all humans someday: In the dream, I was immersed in a convincing 3D playback of a conversation with a deceased friend — in this case, a cute female one closely resembling a young Lea Thompson in Back to the Future (I didn’t quite peg her as such during the dream, but long after waking it struck me as sort of fitting).

At one point, the female figure even said something about feeling weird at the thought that this 3D simulation might someday be played back when she’s dead — to which I said, joking but heartbroken, “How do you think I feel?”  I woke up vaguely sad — but not nearly as sad as we’ll all be when, in all likelihood, we experience this sort of thing for real in the near future.  The dead aren’t really with us as part of an undying collective organism, but it will increasingly seem so if we want it to feel that way.

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