Isopolis

by Gheorghe Săsărman

Introduction by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

In our Summer 2022 issue, we discussed the life and work of Gheorghe Săsărman as an introduction to “Motopia,” one of the descriptions of imaginary cities composing his speculative masterpiece Squaring the Circle – the title chosen by Ursula K. Le Guin for her translation of the Romanian original, Cuadratura cercului. “Motopia” was one of the cities that she had left out of her version, which was intended from the beginning to cover only parts of the collection. She related this to me at the time when I was helping her by reviewing the translation, which was based on my Spanish rendition of the complete body of stories. Before Le Guin undertook her task, Săsărman had already asked Jean Harris to translate a few cities from his book. Two of those did not fall within the scope of Le Guin’s later translation, namely “Motopia” and “Isopolis.” Being aware of this, we asked both Săsărman and Harris to allow us to publish them in Sci Phi Journal. We are grateful for their kind permission.

After “Motopia,” now we are honoured to offer our readers the other city translated by Harris, “Isopolis.” According to its description by Săsărman, “Isopolis” was conceived as a strictly geometrical construction intended to be the material embodiment of a purely homogenous social order. All citizens are equal except for sex and age. All of them act within the same framework of a grandiose, but monotonous architecture, which is described using a scientific style aptly connoting the lack of emotion of people living in a place where individuality seems to have faded away. Isopolis would have endured for ever if Alexander the Great would have not conquered it and burned it down due to the irreconcilable contradiction between his uniqueness and the city’s inability of even conceiving the unique. We might long for the lost city or rather celebrate its destruction. The text does not seem to favour one or the other outcome. Speculative fiction is not about giving answers, but about asking us the right questions in a meaningful way by the means of art. “Isopolis” is but a good example of this.

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Isopolis

Translation by Jean Harris

Imagine a grid made of two groups of equidistant parallel lines perpendicular to each other which, when drawn on a plane, would yield a uniform field of equal squares, like a sheet of graph paper. Now imagine that this graph paper, enlarged several thousand times, is nothing less than a stone platform and that in each of the vertices of its unseen network rises a slender column, the architectural abacuses (or flat tops) of which each support four wooden beams arranged along the lines of the grid. On the main beams rest the square, coffered panels of the ceiling, while each coffer is covered with plate of translucent alabaster. The uniform series of columns goes on as far as the eye can see in both directions. Filtered through the roof, the diffuse light casts no shadow. This was how the city of Isopolis looked before it was set ablaze by order of Alexander of Macedon. Evil tongues say that after a ferocious orgy, in an evident state of inebriation, the underaged conqueror of the world would have set the fire with his own hand. To understand, however, that the order was pronounced by a lucid mind and, what’s more, after mature reflection, the reader is requested to halt for a while in this city as it was at the time when Alexander the Great had not yet crossed the Hellespont.

In those days Isopolis had an extension such that the inhabitants did not know its boundaries and not one of them could recall that he had ever seen the outside of it. The homogeneity of the construction, the perfect identity of the squares of which the city was built, the absence of center or edges, of a privileged place or any preferential system of reference had profound effects on the lives that unrolled under the roof of alabaster. To all appearances, people scarcely resembled each other, but on more careful examination, it could be ascertained that no matter how great the distinctions might be with regard to their exterior appearance—coiffure, style of dress, makeup and way of speaking—these were the result of a constant premeditation and they aimed to counteract the monotony of the architectonic framework. This deliberate mottling was as obsessive and tiring as uniformity would be, and beyond any distinction, the conduct of the inhabitants—their mentalities—proved them to be surprisingly similar. All the citizens (who were, evidently, equal, no matter their age or sex—while other considerations of social difference did not seem to exist) busied themselves with tiring operations, for from the very beginning these people were doomed to fail in finding and taking possession of a privileged place. People moved chaotically here and there, ceaselessly homogenizing the space from the point of view of its occupation. If an empty space formed anywhere for a few seconds or, to the contrary a very dense nucleus took shape that might have served as a point of orientation, the movement of the crowd made it disappear immediately.

Sometimes, very rarely, a person would stop, perhaps tired out with so much straying, or perhaps intuiting that in that Brownian universe lack of movement would represent the only possibility for becoming extraordinary. The intuition would not pass the gate of reason, however. For a while that individual would self-constitute as the absolute center of the city, as the zero point of a unique system of stable coordination. He would become the embryo of the end of his own kingdom, however. Happily, neither he nor those surrounding him would realize these things, and the danger would be defeated by having been ignored. Soon the individual would reintegrate himself in the aimless race. Moreover, even if we would suppose that the solution could have been realized, it would have been annulled, paradoxically, by itself. In truth, if the neighbors had recognized the singularity of the one who stood still, by virtue of the necessary recognition—the monarch having, otherwise, none but an illusory existence—the neighbors would have stopped too, and step by step the generalized pause would have lost its singularity.

Isopolis could not admit the unique.

Alexander was the expression of uniqueness incarnate.

The true cause of the blaze is to be found in this irreconcilable contradiction.

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