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gheorghe sasarman

Sinurbia

by Gheorghe Săsărman

Translated from the Romanian by Monica Cure

The inhabitants of Sinurbia suffered from an indeterminate nostalgia…

At first, the calm waters of the gulf rolled here, contrasting picturesquely with the precipitous cliffs of the shore. Later, after the idea was born of building a floating city near the overpopulated island, the waters of the gulf came to be streaked with bizarrely shaped ships. Not even a month passed before the inauguration of the first neighborhood—that of the builders. Soon, the other neighborhoods were added to it, the downtown, places of work and leisure; then the builders gathered up their tools and left, aboard their strange ships, just as unexpectedly as they had arrive. Their purpose destined them to an irremediable restlessness.

The city, suspended over the infinite greenish depths of the sea, had its traffic routes arranged in such a way as to avoid any intersections. The highways, subway lines, those of the monorails, and the pedestrian walkways, together made up an immense spider web, organized on several levels, which opened onto monumental esplanades and squares, flanked by the public buildings representative of that metropolis. Though they maintained an intense and agitated civic life, at home, the Sinurbians became quiet, meditative, as if only then did their true nature rise to the surface. As a result, out of all the edifices, homes enjoyed the greatest consideration. The houses—over which European fashion had failed to exert even the weakest influence for over a century—preserved an unaltered simplicity that had become tradition. The storage furniture was skillfully concealed behind the sliding walls; similar walls allowed the separation or combination of different rooms. The floor itself, whose elasticity and hardness could be adjusted according to one’s wishes, served as chairs and beds. Among the bright colors of the interiors, white dominated. In the living rooms, in a niche in one of the walls, a painting, a sculpture, or a simple flower vase could be seen.

And still, the inhabitants of Sinurbia felt themselves affected by an indeterminate nostalgia…

One day, one of them started turning their yard into a garden, in which they worked hard to reconstitute, in miniature, the landscape of their island of origin: rocks, sand, moss, bushes, a pool of water and an arched bridge, a pathway made from a few stone slabs, a gazebo with an upturned eave. The idea proved to be contagious: in short time, each inhabitant was one garden richer, a garden that was arranged according to the ability of its owner, but resembling, without fail, the native landscape. At once, the Sinurbians were free of the nostalgia.

Inexplicably, the waters of the gulf—proverbial for their calm—lost their tranquility. The face of the sea furrowed in ever more threatening billows. The sun vanished behind a dark curtain of clouds. A formidable typhoon shook the city from its very foundations. The foundations held firm. Built with foresightedness, the buildings, streets, and houses held firm as well. Only the gardens were completely devastated by the fury of the waters; at dawn, when the storm abated, the gardens had been replaced by deep sinkholes, caving in, at the bottom of which a tiny pool of sea darkly glistened like an eye.

Grimly determined, the people filled in the sinister pits, replaced the slabs, and started over arranging their gardens, to which they now felt their existence organically linked. Another typhoon made their work all for naught, and another, and another… Several people, terrified, exhausted, abandoned the fight. The number of those who had given up skyrocketed. Soon, only the first gardener, the one who had taught the inhabitants of Sinurbia how to get rid of their nostalgia, still stubbornly insisted on reinstalling, in the patched up yard, the bushes, the rocks, and the gazebo. But as soon as he would finish, a typhoon would start up again.

They advised him to quit. To no avail. Then, boiling with hatred, they shoved him into the chasm which again gaped in the middle of his yard, which he had been just about to refill. The sea’s eye gleamed wildly and smacked, swallowing him. They returned to their homes grinning, and accompanied by the curses and wails of his widow, by the heartrending cries of the three now fatherless children. The waters of the gulf became calm again, the sky cleared up; since then, not at a single typhoon ever descended over the city again. In each yard, however, the sea’s eye kept watch.

The Sinurbians were suffering again now, but not because of the indeterminate nostalgia of before; they were tormented by an overwhelming sense of dread. Every time they looked at the dark mouth that had taken the place of each of their gardens, they had nightmares. In secret, they gathered up their families and possessions, and one by one, they abandoned the city, vanishing without a trace by moving to the swarming island. Here, in complete safety, they atoned for their crime by teaching the islanders the fine art of gardening.

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Virginia

by Gheorghe Săsărman

Translated from the Romanian by Monica Cure

*** Editors’ note: With this tale, we continue our series of publishing the missing entries from Săsărman’s groundbreaking 1975 urban fantasies’ cycle. The original collection of imaginary cities was censored in Communist Romania, and appeared in various states of incompleteness in other languages, incl. translated into English by Ursula K. Le Guin. We are grateful to Monica Cure for her faithful translation of the remaining pieces of the puzzle, hitherto unavailable in English language. For more information, read the introductory note to Motopia, the first entry in the series. ***

—Who’s there! Antiope snapped, bolting upright.

She thought she had heard the padding of footsteps on the marble flagstones; the noise sounded again. She grabbed a torch from its stand and moved forward a few paces. Who dared to defy orders and enter, in the middle of the night, the palace? Just what were the girls from the gateway guarding? Right as she was about to call the guards, the intruder showed himself from between the pillars; instinctively, she put her hand to her hip, forgetting that, before going to bed, she had put away her sword, belt and all. Their eyes met in the flickering torchlight. Her heart suddenly struck by Eros’s arrow, the feared queen demurely lowered her eyelids.

—How dare you?… she struggled rather unconvincingly in the vigorous arms which had lifted her into the air, as if she were a child, making her feel the ground slip from under her feet.

Until that moment, she had never suspected that she could be carried in this way, rocked almost imperceptibly, but still dizzyingly, by a virile torso bursting with strength, and set down afterward, with such natural ease, in her fragrant bedding. The pointless question which had remained on her lips from the initial second left her, along with any thought of resistance. How this disturbing young man had managed to reach her chamber no longer interested her in the slightest, nor how he had successfully made it through a citadel as well guarded as that of the Amazons, on whose streets a man had never stepped until then.

Defeated without a fight, Antiope surrendered to the pleasure of discovering love, with whose complete arsenal her people had been so uselessly and unsuspectingly equipped until then. As only a perfect warrior could, she deployed—as if she had known then since always—all the snares of the art of loving and being loved: the fiery wide-eyed gaze; the mischievous glance, shot from beneath eyelashes; the fierce, suffocating embrace; the delicate caress of fingertips; the chaste kiss on the forehead; the tender kiss on the eyelids; the shy kiss on the cheek; the guilty kiss in the palm of the hand; the perverse kiss at the base of the ear; the long breathtaking kiss, with bloodied lips; the greedy kiss; the weightless kiss, like a shadow, like a memory…

The passion unleashed by the game stole her last ounce of lucidity. She whispered invented names for her unknown groom, she called him, she desired without knowing, without being able to put into words that state of excruciating expectation that had reached a paroxysm, which tortured her as not even the most terrible wound could have. The closer she felt him, the more intense that state became, driving her mad. The unexpected scream which started from the base of her throat, from the bottom of her chest, or maybe from deeper, was not so much a cry of pain—an unknown, unrepeatable pain—as it was a sign of the flesh’s victory over the barren tradition that had subjugated the city of virgins until then.

Alarmed by the piercing scream, the Amazons on guard duty rushed in, and seeing their queen writhing and moaning, speared the one holding her captive under the weight of his body before she could make the slightest gesture of resistance. And by the time Antiope roused herself, they had snatched the dead body from the profanatory embrace and dragged it into the square, to the entrance of Artemis’s temple, where they intended to let it rot. The unhappy queen, however, stole the corpse one night and secretly buried it.

She futilely tried afterward, even at the cost of her reign, to break the androphobia of the Amazons, to end the barbarous custom of invading neighboring citadels and kidnapping girls—whose right breasts the Amazons would later cut off so that once the girls became warriors they could more easily wield the shield and spear—in vain she proclaimed love, the union of woman and man, which had been destined by nature from the beginning as the fulfillment of life. Not even the miracle—never before seen in Virginia—of maternity had the power to convince the adamant ascetics. Cast off the throne, pelted with stones and banished from the citadel, fate refused Antiope even her final consolation: her child was born a girl!

~

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.

~

Motopia

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.

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Motopia

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.

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