by Gheorghe Săsărman

Translated from the Romanian by Monica Cure

The sixth sense—stereognosis, as the special sense of spatial orientation had been named—stood no chance of hereditary integration. The categorical verdict of the geneticists had provoked intense agitation among the Stereopolitan population and stirred up heated discussions throughout the entire world. Visionary geniuses had dreamed up the audacious project of a fully dimensional city, in which the tyranny of the horizontal and the vertical, of the right angle, of the plane, would be abolished; many generations of constructors had toiled to pave the way for the realization of the materials and technologies that would make such a feat possible. No one had foreseen the terrible outcome.

The fully dimensional city—Stereopolis—was now a reality. A reality in which a humanity of tens of billions had put its hopes, as the ultimate chance for survival. It had become evident that only complete control of all three dimensions in urban planning could halt the covering of the entire surface of the planet in an endless carpeting of city that would slowly suffocate it in its own malignant tissue. The slanted curve, tridimensional surfaces, and spatiality, made possible not only the free and organic composition of functions, but also the full inhabitation of the environment, the rational resolution of constructional problems, optimal sun exposure and ventilation, convenient distribution of consumer goods, and efficient waste collection. A score of locations, where the Stereopolitan prototype in variants of increasing perfection would be repeated, had been prepared. A dozen construction sites had already been set in motion; the complicated process of assembling the spatial elements was directed by the most powerful computers in existence.

After the new Stereopolitans had settled into their freshly-made residences, the first worrying signs began to appear: the people weren’t able to adapt to the completely unprecedented demands on their sense of orientation. It was as if an ant, accustomed to moving across a piece of straw or among the stalks of a wheat field, had been buried in a pile of sand, from which it was expected to immediately emerge. Numerous disappearances were registered—especially from among the elderly and teenagers, who were unable to rely on the help of electronic guides—and the time lost during daily commutes was incomparably greater to what it had been before (though the distances to be crossed now were much shorter), which caused complaints. Under the pressure of public opinion, of lengthy media campaigns, special measures were adopted to supplement the means of public transport and perfect the automatic guidance system. The number of those who got lost sharply declined; however, a strange illness, later dubbed stereopolitis, appeared, which caused quite a stir throughout the entire world. At first, those affected by this malady suffered from spells of dizziness, accompanied by the persistent feeling of nausea. Then, their balance was thrown off and they experienced piercing occipital pain. By the time the doctors found an explanation, and decided on a treatment, the patients had succumbed to the illness, because it evolved extremely rapidly. In the end, an agreement was reached that the only solution was for people who had just been affected by stereopolitis to be evacuated from the city; in this way, though they would never completely recovery, it was possible (after a long period of convalescence) for the formerly ill to be reintegrated into a life of useful activity—under the interdiction, of course, of ever returning to Stereopolis.

Given that the number of illnesses were skyrocketing, they began taking preventive measures: the city’s entire population was subjected to special tests, which resembled those employed for the selection of candidates for long term missions in outer space. Those who passed the preliminary stages then went through an intensive training period, which ensured relative immunity. Those who “flunked” were not admitted; for their own good, everyone who lacked the aptitudes was evacuated. In time, the illness died down and very rarely did a case or two flare up. Visitors were advised not to stay in the city more than a week, and those who wanted to move there definitively—if they were not rejected after the first tests—did their prescribed training period. It seemed as if the situation had been definitively resolved. Meanwhile, several new fully dimensional cities were about to be brought into use. The selection committees were busily winnowing out the candidates, the training of the first sets had started, some had already moved in. The official inauguration was expected to take place any day now. That is when the truly dramatic turn of events happened: it was determined, as I was saying, that stereognosis—which the locals had struggled so hard to obtain—was not transmitted to one’s descendants except completely at random.

Those hit worst by the geneticists’ conclusion were the inhabitants of Stereopolis itself. For their children’s sakes, many left the city, only to find out afterward that they could no longer readapt to the predominantly bi-dimensional, traditional orthogonal urban space; in the end, a few of them returned. Others made the decision never to procreate; but it was against their nature and it did not last long.

—I fear for the future of this city… thought the Architect.

He saw people abandoning their children in order to avoid endangering their lives, he saw them committing them to special institutions until the age when they would undergo the tests—and woe to those who failed to pass them! He saw how, void of meaning, the family itself disintegrated, preparing society for a new kind of individual freedom, but plunging the individual into the darkness of isolation, loneliness, and bitterness.

Is there really no other way?


1 Comment

  1. Oh, these are fantastic! I have to get my hands on the le Guin translations immediately; thank you so much for your work translating the rest of this fascinating book into English.

    This story in particular makes me think of declining birthrates in developed countries like Western Europe and Japan. It also reminds me a lot of Michel de Certeau’s argument that attempts to rationalize city space often has unintended consequences, destroying all these old nooks and crannies where the real life of the city used to take place.

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