Monday, February 02, 2004

Cyberpunk sightseeing in Barcelona

In Count Zero, the first sequel to William Gibson's iconic cyberpunk science fiction novel Neuromancer, set at some indeterminate time a few decades in the future, a young Parisian art dealer named Marly Krushkova, who has recently become disgraced due to vouching for some artwork that she thought was a "box" created by Joseph Cornell but wasn't, is called in for a job interview for some unexplained reason by a man named Joseph Virek, who is one of the richest men in the world and who is a sort of media/industrial mogul figure. She goes to Brussels for the interview, and discovers that Mr Virek is not actually there but is going to meet her in a virtual reality simulation instead. She then finds herself in a simulated version of Parc Guell in Barcelona, where she is told that Virek is in fact very sick, that his body is in a sort of suspension in a vat of yeast that is keeping him alive in an industrial suburb of Stockholm and he communicates with the world via system of virtual reality. The fake Cornell boxes somehow appear to have come from the same source as other technological developments that might provide a cure for his illness, and that he therefore wants Marly to search for the source of them.

This sounds completely ludicrous, but it works in the context of Gibson's style. And, I think that in a way it did capture the essential weirdness of the future that was coming, the merging between technology and art and design, the way in which what is made and designed and grown are merging together, and I suppose the medical developments that are taking us towards something - I know know what. Immortality? Post-Humanity? Singularity?

This meeting occurs in a virtual Parc Guell, the original of which is in Barcelona. I am not sure when I first read the book - it was published in 1986 - but it was early 1990s somehow. In particular I am not sure whether I first read it before or after I visited Barcelona for the first time in 1993. Probably before, but I couldn't say for sure. If I read it before, I wasn't at the time familiar with the qualities of Gaudi's architecture. Gaudi's park is an extraordinary mix of turrets and viaducts and marble and ceramic mother of pearl, and strange angles and all kinds of things.

But within this it is a scruffy environment on the top of a rather rugged hill. The feeling that it is something both grown and manufactured and designed as a work of art all at the same time is apparent there, too. So it is in keeping with the Cornell Boxes, and with the strange artwork in the middle of a technological future in the book. The park was created as a playground for the rich, but ultimately the money ran out and it became ultimately a public park, and ultimately it came to be considered one of the glories of Barcelona (and it is listed as a world heritage site).

But in the Gibson book, the scene set there evolves.

She knew this place She was in the Guell Park, Antonio Gaudi's tatty fairyland, on its barren rise behind the center of the city. To her left, a giant lizard of crazy-quilt ceramic was frozen in midslide down a ramp of rough stone. Its fountain-grin watered a bed of tired flowers.

And so it goes on, and Virek makes his strange request in this strange environment. Eventually, Marly has a Hemingway moment.

And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.

And there we are. The whole scene needs to be read in one go to really get Gibson's rendering of the place right. That is what I like about Gibson's writing in general: the sense of place. You can feel the location where something is set all around youand it sort of seeps through. In Europe over the last couple of years I have been to a lot of places where his books are set and felt it. But the Parc Guell sequence in Count Zero I missed the first time. I read the book and found it an effective sequence without knowing the place, and I sort of got the hang of Gaudi without going to Parc Guell on the first trip to Barcelona, but I never put the two together, until now.

And part of the reason I went to Barcelona recently was to put them together, which I have now done. And although the scene was effective already, it is more effective with a knowledge of the place.

However, I was struck by one further thought, which is that when Kerry Packer is running Channel 9 in Australia from a vat of yeast in a ghastly industrial suburb of Stockholm, his virtual reality simulation is going to be much less classy and rather lower brow than this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice pictures and interesting article.
A trip to Barcelona wouldn't be complete without strolling down Las Ramblas through stalls selling flowers and birds, the street artists inventing even more intriguing things to mime and be painted up as statues, and buy packs of fresh fruit from the colourful market. That's why I choice from many Barcelona hotels one, which is close to Las Ramblas.
Interesting fact that there are two official languages spoken in Barcelona: Catalan, generally spoken in all of Catalonia, and Castillian Spanish.
I think, that Barcelona is a nice place to spend holidays.

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