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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

I Can See Your House From Here

E-ElevatorSm.jpg LEVATOR TO THE STARS" read the unobtrusive, classically-lettered marquee; and bracketed below, "(World's Tallest Thermometer)." The once-tiny town of Baker, CA - last town on the long desert highway to Nevada state line - squat on the salt-flat Mojave floor at the fringe of Death Valley. A tiny town once, but nowadays transformed, subsumed, eaten almost, by this living, growing beastly progress? Where once were Denny's, Bob's Big Boys, Mad Greeks, homes, trailers, and various sundry gas stations - rest stops baking in the Baker sun - now are tendrilled roots, convincingly organic, spread and spreading miles wide, miles deep and - most famously of all - miles high. I was here to pay my respects. And of course, to take the trip.

Beyond the simple labelled portal, with its long vine-sheltered lines, a vestibule opens onto an atrium, impossibly high-ceilinged, bordered all around by check-in desks, check-out desks, bellhops and ticket scalps - by all the humdrum orderlies of modern-day resorts. The walls - no, not walls, that barely does them justice - the cavern faces shimmer and dance with color in the manner of deep-water squid and cuttlefish; now dark, now light, now flitting flashing shapeless shifts curling and jiving and streaking in every direction, up and away; always somehow tasteful, subdued? How incongruous, then, amidst this flittering wonder, that spaced at four-desk intervals all around, the waving, faux-humble portraits of the man behind it all: Smilin' Tom McEnnerby. This unassuming small-town rancher, who had taken-on the wide wide world and won, now smiles lop-headed, sheepish even, on we his fellow flock? Do not be fooled: his sly desert cunning it was that masterminded what many regard as the dirtiest, the nastiest, the ballsiest zoning commission in history? Regardless of your view of it, the McEnnerby campaign must surely rank the most entertaining? "One way or another," he had promised, "The people of Baker, California, will hold that thermometer and that record. It is our birthright." And so he mote it be: the Thermometer you can see from space! This man, this ruin of Presidents and foreign governments alike, this man who had persuaded one Governor - the revivified movie mogul R-Walt Disney, no stranger himself to nanobiological construction - to declare the town and its surroundings "Injun Land", as he so-incautiously quipped, and grant to it the commensurate "Rights and Benefits Thereto &c." This man had turned his sleepy tumbleweed town, against all probability, into an absolute law unto itself, himself, beyond the reach of governments, State, Federal, and Foreign. He is no sheep, this man, but rather the shepherd who corrals and fattens his fluffy-tailed lambs to lead them more happily to the slaughter. He lives, as they say, "up top", and from his Palace du Sol he powers the entire western seaboard - our homes, our businesses, our air-conditioning and pool pumps. Our benefactor.

I digress - but who cannot? To stand here in this glorious hall, at the very foot of the Beanstalk, in this fabulous nanofabbed creation and not for one moment reflect upon the man who planted it here? The world's first, and only, Space Elevator? He is, if ever there was, The Man.

As I say - respect.

The elevator, as most of you already know, is a "living", growing organism modelled - loosely, it must be said - on Papaver Somniferum: the Opium Poppy? A hundred kilometers tall, it's "leaves" unfurl at its base here on earth and form a soaring five-mile canopy for its jungleform network of "roots". Those same spreading roots that firmly plant the towering stalk to the planet, they embody within them this very cathedral, its malls, restauraunts, casinos, and all its legion of guest rooms. It is a giant weed, built of self-replicating nanocells coded with lab-created NanodanoTM - there is no nature here - our furthest reach towards deity, or hubris, according to perspective? Phoney DNA, of course; Lego DNA, Meccano DNA, Transformer DNA: think of any kiddie constructor kit, some wag columnist will have suffixed "DNA" to it and even your granny will know what is meant by it? It's creators - pun very much intended - take great pains to explain that Nanodano is not actual DNA of any kind: it is, for one thing, completely understood by them, they tell us, unlike the real thing? It is nothing more than software, only that: software coded into every nanobot that tells it what to do and where and when, and for how long? How very reassuring.

Cynicism, columnist's friend, is very much alive on the outside looking in, and from the comforts of hindsight looking back: but upon arrival at the site itself, "live" as it were - whether upon approach from Victorville, upon standing in line at the gate, or upon finally gaining entrance - at all such points our otherwise-trusty cynimascope is simply overwhelmed by the grandeur and magnificence, the wonder of this endeavour? Consider: it is a long walk from entranceway to elevator - a very long walk - and the winding path, never direct, is paved with slot machines and gaming tables and the teeming thousands of gamblers, visitors, and tourists who are content to rest here at the foothills, at base-camp, and leave the climbing of the mountain to those of sterner constitution? For which read "richer", for only the very wealthy, highest of High Rollers, can afford an apartment up there. I can feel your lips curling, your sarcasm slowly biting; but - believe me - were you there, in the very midst of it, your mouth would be wide agape, as was mine, in shock and utter submission to its majesty. Trumped by incredulity, your correspondent can only offer his apologies.

Moving along, press-pass firmly in hand, my ticket, passport, through crowds of poorly-dressed mid-westerners and snake-eyed elderly ladies removed from ghosttown Vegas now returned to dirt and dust, ears ringing and wrung, traipse the yellow-brick carpeted road to the Liftport. You know from the literature that there is no One elevator, but many - two hundred and fifty-seven, to be exact - arranged in barrel formation rather like a Gattling gun. But that is book knowledge, of a kind that recalls the Great Wall of China or the Great Pyramid of Cheops? To be forwarned is not to be forearmed, contrary to popular wisdom. Two hundred and fifty-seven elevators - a number chosen as a joke by its creators as the least-probable number in all of computerdom - are a remarkable sight when arrayed. Deploy as a Gattling gun, behave as a Gattling gun: you sit within a bullet. Terrifying. And yet... somehow comforting? You are conducted to your padded stall as a rube by carnies at a fairground ride. Nine rings of seven seats revolve columnwise, one by one, to be filled and fitted with a body. Strapped-in tight and spun past the gate until all the seats are filled and the door finally closes. A soft-toned presentation begins: "Welcome, and thank-you for choosing the Betty McEnnerby Spaceport, Elevator to the Stars. The gate is now clear, and we are clear for departure. Our destination today is Otherworld, and our expected flight time is thirty-sevent minutes. The temperature outside is ninety-seven degrees. In the unlikely event..." I won't bore you with further details, except that in the end, several minutes later, at last, we are treated to a countdown: "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, T minus five seconds and boosters are go, three, two, one..."


I mean - WHOOOOOOOSH !!!!!. Amidst the amplified roar of non-existent rocket motors, we launch. We are propelled - literally - rifling through the barrel. I have no words to describe how the senses react to such acceleration, and find myself reduced, shamefully, to invoking the much-overused "awesome". Totally. I think of the billions of tiny polarized gyroscopes whose precession makes my journey possible? Each strike from below repelled to the perpendicular, but woven into a cunningly-contrived alignment that spins and propels onwards and upwards, velocity in the vertical approaching 300 km/hr. One grows quickly accustomed to the forces, as the body accomodates, until one is sitting quite comfortably, if safely constrained by the harness? But later - seven times in all, and without warning - the capsule hits the boosters and the bumpers as it progresses through the tube. The boosters shoot forward, faster: the bumpers brake. Thrilling and stunning. Almost the most thrilling, the most stunning thing you will ever experience. Almost, but not quite. It is, after all, an elevator. Nobody speaks, we avert our gaze, calming muzak spoils the background for those without laptops. Faint smell of urine.

But all is different at the top.


Literally, another world: a nation unto itself, were such a concept meaningful there? Of course everyone who leaves the capsule wants only to run to the windows... or so I thought? Two ladies headed-off in search of bars and clubs and restaurants and casinos - any kind of gathering place or entertainment pallisade? They, I later learned, sought other stars? Not content with unparallelled views of Polaris or dogged Sirius, they fled in search of Brad Pitts, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Ronaldo Linguinis? Without success, it transpires. Whereas I, who gaped and gawped and held oceans between pinched fingers, I stood next to Patrick Stewart. Rather shorter than I imagined him to be?

The inside view from Otherworld is of our planet: all of the US, Canada, Mexico, and a lot of Pacific. The outside view, on the other hand, is of the carpeted madness of the Milky Way, and utterly transcendent. This, I quipped, is what we mean by "Spiritual".

How curious my desire to lay some human context upon this scene? There in the vasty space of God, I found myself quietly humming "Blue Danube."


Anonymous stephenesque said...

Mmm. I had always thought that the Music of the spheres would sound like an incompetent violinist playing a piano concerto on an oboe .. very, very slowly.

2:37 PM  
Blogger F.C. Bearded said...

Any sphere dominated by the loathsome complaint of an oboe, no matter how sweetly played, is one that deserves to be aimed at skittles and rolled down the alley!

5:07 PM  

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