by Gheorghe Săsărman
Introductory Note by Mariano Martín Rodríguez
Born in 1941, in Bucharest, Romania, Gheorghe Săsărman spent his childhood and attended high-school in Cluj. He studied architecture in Bucharest and after graduation was employed as a journalist, mainly specialising in articles on architecture and popular science. Politically compelled to abandon public writing, he left Ceauşescu’s Romania in 1983 and settled in Munich, Germany, where he currently lives.
Săsărman made his debut as an author of fiction in 1962, when he won the first prize at a SF short-story contest organized for seven East-European countries. He then began to write science fiction stories and soon acquired his current status as one of the main SF writers of his generation in Romania. A story in the volume Chimera (1979), “Fuga lui Algernon” (“Algernon’s Escape” in English – whose title paraphrases that of Daniel Keyes’s famous novel –) brought the author the Europa Award at the 5th EuroCon convention (1980). After 1989, he resumed publishing fiction in his native country, which he continues to this day. His two latest books are the critically acclaimed novel on the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth in current Munich titled Adevărata cronică a morții lui Yeșua Ha-Nozri (True Chronicle of the Death of Jeshua Ha-Nozri, 2016) and a collection of dystopias beginning each by a different letter collectively spelling out the word “utopia” titled Alfabetul distopiilor (Alphabet of Dystopias, 2021).
This last volume can be read as a science fiction and narrative counterpart to his best-known work, Cuadratura cercului (Squaring the Circle, 1975). This masterful collection of descriptions of imaginary cities, set in fictional past, present and future venues or in dream-like symbolic and fantasy worlds was written without the author having read Italo Calvino’s book Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities, 1972). Both books are, indeed, quite different, since Calvino’s is rather a collection of prose poems only vaguely portraying the life in his invented cities and hardly belonging to speculative fiction, while Săsărman focuses on the relationship between his cities’ physical features and their impact on the posited societies and the lives of their inhabitants. This speculative dimension, which is often critical towards humankind’s psychological, social and political follies, explains why the book had clashed with the communist censorship prevalent at the time, which cut out one quarter of its contents. The unabridged original work appeared in Romanian only in 2001, when it had already been translated into French in 1994. It was translated into Spanish by myself in 2010. Since I knew that one of my favourite writers of speculative fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin, could read Spanish, I sent her a copy. She liked it so much that she decided to translate into English the cities that she liked best, roughly two thirds of those in Săsărman’s volume, based on my Spanish version and with my subsequent revision of her translation with an eye on the Romanian original. Some of the missing cities had been translated into English by Jean Harris, but they have remained unpublished until today. Thanks to the kind permission of both Săsărman and Harris, Sci Phi Journal is able to bring to light in English two further cities among those untranslated by Le Guin.
For the present issue, we’ve chosen “Motopia.” It is the description of a city where motor vehicles are so important and prevalent that they have even fused with humans into a new nature/machine hybrid species with terrifying results. This is written with the objective style of a non-fiction report, which makes all the more harrowing the description of the city and the consequences of certain societal choices. Although its subject can be seen as topical, we should not forget that it is above all a superb piece of speculative literature, as well as of fictional non-fiction. It also shows what Sci Phi Journal stands for as regards the art of writing, and why Săsărman is one of our acknowledged masters in the literary field.
Translation by Jean Harris
It is not known with certainty when exactly it appeared, or when it began to expand, or what force fueled its expansion. Few dare approach the difficult subject of its future though many fear that nothing can stop its growth. Motopia is a city in a state of explosion. But is it, really, a city?
Imagine an area with clearly marked limits—though here figures can be only approximate—of a circle with a diameter of c. 100 kilometers. The perimeter of this circle is made up of over 100,000 gigantic machines [with bulldozing action, inter alia], placed one next to the other and engaging in a slow radial motion toward the exterior. To the extent that the machines move away from the center, intervals of free space begin to form between them, at which time other machines fill the gaps at the forefront of activity. These genuinely and completely automated moving factories prepare an offensive.
Hills and slopes are leveled; depressions are filled to the extent that even the steepest mountain is reduced to a perfect, horizontal plane. Forests are transformed into timber and cellulose, the vegetable earth of the planes is removed and compressed into certain desiccated lakes, the rivers are turned into covered canals and the whole body of fauna is assigned an industrial value. The machines do not simply execute a simple leveling operation, though; a fabulous network of roadways takes shape in their wake. This lattice of multi-leveled highways ramifies in tens of directions that intersect in a stupefying lace of concrete and asphalt. Above and below ground parking lots, garage towers with tens and tens of levels, and warehouses locked by enigmatic metal gates all site themselves in the cells of this network. Several hundred meters above ground level, a bluish cloud floats over the city day and night, wide-spread and wrapping the entire horizon.
The city is exclusively inhabited by a fecund species of humobiles. Accounts have been written by the few intrepid deponents that have miraculously managed to return. Bearing in mind their pronounced disturbance—even after extremely short stays—as well as the many mutually contradictory points in their accounts, the pieces of information judged worthy of being put in circulation are summary at best.
The existence—at least the public existence—of the humobiles begins at the gates of their warehouses from which they exit, hourly, in compact groups. It seems that only mature specimens with high tank capacity and many cylinders appear at these gates. Different subspecies distinguish between themselves only by the type and position of the heart, transmission, suspension and other such anatomic data. Each family is characterized by a certain auto-body construction, individual differentials localizing themselves particularly at the level of line, color, number or headlights—or else they limit themselves strictly to registration numbers. A common trait, about which all accounts agree, is the presence of a red eye, like a bleeding wound, on the top of the individual’s head, where it blinks hideously, without any intelligible sense.
The humobiles manifest an irresistible vitality consumed particularly through apparently senseless travel at considerable speed within the highway network evidently destined for this purpose. This lack of sense is, in truth, only apparent: in reality this magic dance of speed supports the process of natural selection, which unfolds in specific ways. Only the most robust specimens with the most diabolical reflexes, well-adapted to the infernal rhythm of existence survive this demented race over the asphalt lanes. Any defect in the breaks or of the directional signaling systems involves terrible risks. The slightest deviation of the vertebral column is fatal. Special vehicles, of great tonnage, transport the cadavers to the vicinity of the warehouses, where—after a preliminary pressing into rectangular shapes—they are recovered in a mysterious way, probably serving the complicated procreation of new hotrods.
Outside the prolonged hours belonging to the fierce highway confrontation that is their daily struggle for existence, humobiles find brief respites within the confines of their parking lots. Silent, motionless, insensible to the approach of their rivals, the humobiles sack out in a peculiar torpor, often with their backs toward the gigantic screen where an oppressive film inspired by the hard life of the digging machinery plays interminably. When they are not consuming themselves on the highways, the Motopian families spend their nights in the tower garages, touched by a metallic sleep without dreams.
The most horrifying detail of the life of Motopia’s inhabitants—and which makes the growth of the city so perfectly odious—is their way of feeding themselves. In short anthropophagy is practiced here. Human beings are the humobiles main food. Lured from their traditional cities by false but well-directed propaganda, captured as a result of their proverbial naïveté, people who have been lured there are discharged in large numbers into the train stations and airports of Motopia, where they are flung directly to the starving hordes or transported in bulk to special warehouses, pompously called hotels and joined directly to the edifices in which the inhabitant families spend the night, to be served live for breakfast. Satiated, bloated, with their bellies hanging within several fingers of the asphalt and leaning lazily on the curbs, the humobiles start to digest their prey. Their opaque, beveled foreheads hide their thoughts. With the exception of the few deponents mentioned above—and they are our true saviors, for the greatest danger isn’t so much the existence of Motopia as it is ignoring its existence—no one else has returned from that lugubrious city. In parenthesis, let it be said, the phone calls and enthusiastic letters through which those who have arrived there express their supposed delight or announce their wholly improbable decision to remain in that city forever can only be counted as desperate acts extracted under menace of death, if they are not vulgar travesties, grotesque forgeries from whole cloth.
The survivors tell us hair-raising things about the limitless cruelty of the humobiles, who, though they can only nourish themselves with live prey, often kill not for food but for pleasure. As the prisoners, meanwhile, start to become aware of the danger threatening them, they center their thoughts around a possible life-saving escape. And as pedestrian flight is the only solution, they try to leave the cells of their ill-omened hotels. The refined sadism of the inhabitants shows its true measure only now: the exits are not even guarded. The humobiles know—and their cynicism surpasses imagination—that over the course of those several tens of kilometers to the boarders of Motopia, travelling by night, when the level of traffic is reduced, and hiding by day, human beings will have to cross so many lanes of asphalt that only a miracle will allow them to succeed. Happily, several such miracles have taken place. But a huge number of fugitives have paid with their lives for these rare miracles. For allowing them hope and then surprising them in turn, hounded and hungry, the humobiles have crushed escapees relentlessly, gnashed them to bits in the most sinister way, and left their dead bodies to rot on the sites of their terrible executions, unburied, so that their bones will whiten on the asphalt, so that their terrifying brain cases will attract the attention of others and choke any thought of escape from the beginning.