Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The highrise in the forest

Here I am, again, still alive. I haven't been blogging for months, what happened you may wonder (if there is still any reader left out there). Well, starting in November my usually hectic travel schedule went totally crazy: I think sometime between November and December I must have broken a record of how many times you can cross an ocean in a week. That was a little too much, I'd say, so my blogging went dead, and me too, nearly. Starting from mid January I have been lazily sitting in the same place (first time it happens in years), somewhere down South on the western coast of the Atlantic, lecturing and perhaps trying to write a paper or two. It's quite a change from the life I had in the past few years, and I cannot deny that I enjoy it quite a bit, especially having 25 to 30 centigrades in January or February and lots of sunshine -- that is, when you are not caught in a subtropical rainstorm. I am justifying my prolonged stay in a single place by doing a lecturing gig at a local university. I discovered it is more pleasant than the usual routine of endless talk performances at conferences. Not bad, I am slowly recovering, but unfortunately time is up, almost. By the end of this month I'll be back to the usual frenzy and to colder and darker climates. I am still hoping that in the future, the near future perhaps, things might change, who knows? I wait.

I got down to quite a bit of interesting reading during the long cross-continent flights of the fall, but didn't find the time nor the energy to write much about it. I might, sometime, now that I have recovered a little. I am not reading so much at present, unfortunately, partly because I do not have that awful lot of time to kill in trains, airports, and long flights.

Right now I am breaking a fever, my throat is on fire, my hearing gone under the pressure of congested sinus and all that. Subtropical maladies, a price to pay for good weather. I don't complain of forced rest on this comfortable ultramodern sofa, large windows on the top of a fifteen floors highrise, looking over miles of green canopy. No, it's not a crazed architect's visionary performance, buildings a highrise in the middle of a jungle, no this is actually the center of a medium size town and not a forest. It is just that, this being the only building that stands taller than one or two floors, from up here all the other human constructions disappear under wide tree tops, leaving one with the impression of being looking over the wilderness.
I came to like this: it still gives me the comforting feeling a city dweller needs of being safely surrounded by concrete and steel, and yet I can look out on a world that suggest the dominance of nature over a nearly imperceptible human presence.

All this keeps reminding me of the setting of the Strugatsky novel Улитка на склоне (the snail on the slope) with its two contrasting scenarios of the Directorate and the Forest, the first a complex of modern buildings, hosting the scientific organization that is supposed to study and perhaps eventually eradicate the mysterious and powerful primordial forest. The story runs on two parallel lines, which always seem on the verge of meeting, but never actually intersect. The two main characters are similarly stranded on the two sides of the divide. One of them is struggling with the incomprehensible bureaucracy of the directorate, its meaningless directives, missions, its kafkian staff and the labyrinth of orders, permits, papers, intelligent and rebellious machines and semi-intelligent humans. He is trying to resign from what is portrayed as a scientific institution gone awry under layers of bureaucracy, but never manages to find a way out: his repeated escape attempts fail, though everybody reassures him that he is free to leave anytime. He does not understand anything of what happens around him: the functioning of the directorate, the strange orders all the other people seem comprehend make no sense to him, nor to the reader who experiences the same frustration. The parallel character, whose story develops along with the first story, in alternating chapters, is stranded in the forest where his vehicle crash landed. He is saved and cared for by a tribe of indigenous habitants of the forest, who name him "dummy" for his poor understanding of their world. Indeed, this character is as much at a loss as his counterpart in the directorate, in making sense of what happens around him. The villagers are hunted by mysterious emanations of the forest, creatures they name "deadlings", while swamps and mushroom growths quickly reclaim cultivated areas and houses. He tries to escape from the forest and return to the base, but every attempt fails as if there were no possible ways for the two worlds to come into a direct contact. The forest more and more appears to have its own logic and it behaves like a gigantic sentient organism. Humans from the outside, the ones barricaded in the directorate, were trying to understand its workings, but their failure to do so makes them slide more and more down the slippery slope of bureaucratization: replacing the difficult problem of understanding the unknown, with the brainless task of following meaningless rules. In the end both characters come full circle without being able to break the spell that keeps them bound to their respective locations. The second character gets to see some of the most secret recesses of the forest without being able to find a way out of it, while the first character ends up being ushered into the innermost secret of the directorate, assuming the position of director himself.

It is surely one of the darkest, yet at the same time brightly humorous, novel of the Strugatsky brothers. It touches upon some of the best themes of Eastern European Science Fiction: the impossibility of communication of the utterly alien (compare the sentient forest with the sentient ocean of Lem's Solaris), the endless fight between science and bureucracy, with additional specific themes that touch upon the progress versus nature debate.

Strugatsky: The snail on the slope