China Mieville: The Rope is the World

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words China Mieville

What do you want to see?

What is the nature of your enterprise?

When did you become aware of what the rope is? Well.

The Earth is a thin-spoked wheel. Its spokes are irregularly spaced: we must look like the plucked remnants of some bicycle ridden by a ragged girl or boy. But only to God.

You could say this is Tsiolkovski’s world, at last, but his fin-de-siecle lattice of girders would never have held itself up. Our spokes don’t push down; they’re stretched out.

For a long time in pre-pre-history these elevator shafts, these guy-ropes, spacewires, these towers, were impossible. They were a joke, an academic wheeze. A recherché thought-experiment. But one day, and abruptly – whether it was due to the explosive advance of carbon nanotube science, the augmented energies of the slippage engine, the de- and revaluation of American industry and the rise of the parabuck economy, or whatever – they looked possible. They were possible.

During the years of it’s-all-in-fun what had been stressed were the savings the economics of lift would, theoretically, if-we-really-meant-it, allow. Initial outlays were clearly gigavast, but lifting one tonne of cargo out beyond everyday gravity to orbit by elevator was this or that many times cheaper – a vast margin – than doing so by rocket, by shuttle, by alien indulgence. Now that the space elevators, the skyhooks, the geostationary tethered-dock haulage columns, were shockingly feasible, research projects were all human-spirit this and because-it’s-there that. As if, faced with them, the mere savings were as vulgar as they in fact were.

Equatorial nations, with real estate on that precise vector where geosynchronicity could occur, all that way above, were bullied, cajoled, annexed and wooed. The economies of Gabon, Indonesia, the several Congos, Brazil, Ecuador and Nuganda went behemoth with parabucks and renminbis toxic with intricate conditionalities and obligations. Twenty-seven years of UN-backed Ecuadorian martial law after preparing the first orbital platform with all kinds of fanfare (years which in retrospect really flew by) Freedom Tower, the first space elevator humanity ever started, that had descended splendidly and slowly over years, a glimmering spindle from the sky, to Isabela Island in the Galapagos, opened.

It was redundant, of course. The technology at its centre of gravity, its base station, the first part built, in the Clarke Belt, was antique compared to that at the Earth, (the recipient dock), when the extruded tower finally reached it. The owners and managers rebooted and re-equipped the spaceside platform as best they could, and it wasn’t bad: but the shaft itself ascended in skyhook archaeology, the lifts rising through old space science, that grew more au courant, too late, towards the cutting edge, way above.

In any case, this, Freedom or Isabela Tower, the Rope, was the first to be started, but the third to open. Brotherhood Tower II and the New World Trade Centre, starting later and with more up-to-date tech, had overtaken it during the building, in Gabon and Indonesia, run by a Chinese-headed and US consortium respectively. Freedom Tower’s hauling capacity was no longer competitive by the time it opened its doors. It was born a freight museum. It tried to scratch an income by reconfiguring itself, adding elements of a holiday block and viewing tower and folly, to entice the curious. It was favoured by perpetrators of spectacular suicides. Depending on the level chosen and their skill in evading security, a person could jump to and burn up in their death, simultaneously. It was the lack of oxygen that really did for them, but even though everyone knew that, the image of the igniting fallers searing on re-entry was impressive. Mount a heat-resistant camera on a frame bobbing a few metres from you and pointing your way when you “meteored”, as it was called, and you could stream impressive images of your burning fall until the machine melted and/or you were ash and gone. Launched from over 23,000 kilometres to avoid that atmospheric immolation on the way to their perigee, the most flamboyant suicides could aim their bodies in particular directions, in eccentric orbit. Theoretically, uninterrupted, they would continue their lifeless circumnavigation for ever, though much of the corpse-litter was cleaned out of orbit by various means.

There were three, then seven, then eleven space elevators. The specifics were various, the external designs surprisingly divergent, but the basic paradigm was the same. A terrestrial base, on land or afloat, on that gold-dust equator: a counterweight in space, swung on the end of the absurdly long tether. These moonlets or junk masses or whatever were quickly known, as British schoolyard slang viralled, as conkers. And stretched between the conker and the Earth, more than 36,000 kilometres of columnar carbon and neosteel.

Some were considerably longer, if their conkers were on the small side. But all were at least that magic number high, just shy of 36k, where geostationary orbit occured, so the towers jutted straight up, unmoving, anchored 90 degrees endlessly. And from that base orbited effortlessly and keeping its lift-shafts straight, little voidcraft pootered back and forth to the colonies carrying the payloads brought up on the huge elevators like vertical trains.

Ranging from the size of city blocks to the silkiest skyscraper thin, the tracks and reinforced columns, the unspeakable tons of matter, studded with windows, extrusions of opaque purpose, satellite dishes, cables and airlocks, rose and kept going. Up through the measly few kilometres of breathable air; past where planes flew, a new piloting hazard; through the strato- and mesospheres; past the Kármán line where space is; past the space stations orbiting at their paltry three, four hundred kilometres; into the permanent night, adding the glimmers from their speck-windows to the light pollution. Defences were designed to keep them safe from meteorites, to deflect radiation, to withstand the buffets of any falling lifts or gloryhunters, the ripples from earthfarts that might resonate destructively carried up two, three times the distance of earth’s whole diameter. The earth itself sat, sits, a fat wheel-hub with its spokes.

Several of the towers tethered lumpy asteroids; one extended its filigree out and out like a reaching tendril, like a jellyfish; two made sure to shape their counterweights, finding sponsorship to help defray the epochal costs. One spelt the keyword of a financial consulting firm, the other was bombed until it bore a city-wide training-shoe swoosh. 

Some carriers straddled the outside of the towers like ticks on a giraffe; most were conduits for many-carred vertical train elevators within. All the towers were freight elevators, and all had crews. Crews, very far from home, working further from home than anyone had worked before, had their  families join them. Their families demanded amenities, and so on.

It’s unclear what the watching extraterran emissaries made of all this. The Sab, the Posin, the Hush had arrived with various norms of etiquette in Earth’s cosmic neighbourhood over the preceding decades, and proposed trade and interaction of varyingly comprehensible kinds. Earth’s many trade representatives would point out the features of our space elevators, and by all accounts the visitors uttered alien equivalents of polite, uninterested “hmmm”s, like a queen visiting a biscuit factory. It’s completely uknown how or if their own vessels exited their own planets’ pulls.

The towers were – and are – named. Freedom Towers I, II and IV (III having suffered a structural failure during building; Gabon never recovered from the debris); Brotherhood Tower; Enterprise Skyhook; the New World Trade Centre; Mansour Column; Virgin Tower; Knowledge-of-Self Tower; the Equatorial Pill; and Space Elevator 7X0-K. Some changed names, due to sponsorship deals, at various points. In any case they were mostly popularly known by other monikers, derived sometimes from the most notorious of their sponsers: The Real Thing; iTower; I Can’t Believe it’s a Space Elevator. Mostly though what stuck was more generic, though by some process of concretion these generics became specific, so only one of the towers was called The Beanstalk, one The Skyhook, one the Skytower, another the Spacefinger and so on. Only one was The Rope.

Between 1 and 1½ million storeys each, and each with a workforce the size of a huge city. Thousands of kilometres of vertical track in those pressurised tubes; viewing stations; zones for education and recreation; guard and/or police stations; waste disposal engines and rubbish chutes longer than Russia; workers’ hostels; engineering labs; tool sheds; little gardens. The overriding purpose, though, was always to haul things up and haul them down.

What’s important to stress is that the decline, certainly its beginning, predated the later concatenation of events, the various staccato mini-catastrophes that sort of, later, became comprehensible, some said, as the end of the world. That first, Freedom Tower – Isabela Tower as it was known, for the island it had transformed; and the Rope – had been going bad since before it was born, remember.

As useless as an Olympic village the day after. Of course it could not be allowed to fall. Crews kept the impossible white elephant up, kept the external safeties half-heartedly safetying. Passengers took lifts up: a few romantics, sightseers, deathwishers and lost. It was open for what it still considered its core business, but what freight travelled 
up it now was owned by those who could not afford the more salubrious towers; or who wished to avoid their more stringent security. The dull compulsion of economics pushed Isabela Tower into becoming a grey operation, complicit with, reliant on, vertical criminality, pirate payloads, tax evasion, theft. Stretches of shaft broke down, and could not be or were not fixed, so cargo became cheaper still, but had to be unloaded and shifted from one lift to another, at various celestial junctions, throwing up an economy of stevedores and porters, and the brigands who preyed on them, in the corridors and staircases, corridorsmen.

Power failed on certain floors way above the troposphere, killing those within and marooning workers to either side between many rooms full of void. Those who had not yet left were left now because they could not or for some unlikely predilection would not get out.

It was those advanced ends, at ground level, and by the rejigged computer-driven powers on the orbital station, that needed each other. Systems linking those two teloses were improved. And section by section, over years, the intervening tower was – not decomissioned, but pushed out of focus. Left to its own devices. It is always startling how fast a generation passes, then another, and so on. And when more and more of the spacebound storeys failed, and went out, the lights, the heat, the oxygen? So long as the pressurised elevators could still travel through them, hauled by generators in more advanced levels, no matter how dark, or cold, or mummy-littered they were, those floors did not so much matter.

It’s a tragedy when anyone dies anywhere, everyone can agree. But the international legal issues of space and airspace remained contested on certain issues of sovereignty. It was hard to relate to the fourth-generation welder, or cook, or whatever on level 1,118,007 as a citizen of whatever state the nanotubes below her feet eventually tethered to, and on which she had never set foot. She was many times further from the country’s capital than was the furthest spot from it on Earth. It’s sad when anyone dies, or goes missing, of course, but to whom do they belong is not always an urgent question. And there is, there has to be, security in place to protect the base at one end and satellite at the other from attack or invasion, or exvasion, too. Security must be tight, and the elevators must be armed, and accompanied by posses and soldiers, when they pass through those needy layered lands.

It’s important to stress that this was the direction it was all moving before those debated events, that perhaps-apocalypse. Where the Rope had desultorily led, other towers were following. The “end-times”, at worst, were an acceleration, and the questions of what, if anything, ended, and how, if it did, it did, and whether any such end was irrevocable, are beyond the scope of the discussion here.

Other towers failed. Some moulder empty, more energetically emptied than the Rope. One fell. Two were decoupled from their base-stations in audacious terrorist acts that, with a little carefully placed thermite, saw the vertical thread-cities suddenly and awfully yanked centripetal up from the Earth trailing cables and spilling elevators and people, receding spaceward into dreadful orbit at speeds vastly too great for somethings so big.

Some continued in some capacity. The Earth is still an irregularly spoked wheel.

You do not know how they live, those on the levels where people still live, those of the 1,200,000 floors of the Rope. These were isolated communities before you or your parents were born. We have only travellers’ stories. You don’t know what languages they speak, what they make or learn, to what they pray, what stories they tell their children as they look out of the portholes or call up external camfeeds on the Isabela Tower, Freedom Tower, and stare up at space, or down the perspective line of their shaft towards Earth as lifts full of foreign cargo rise and fall through their territories; how they mark it when those they love die; or if they are there at all, those people for whom the Rope is the world. The Rope is the world.



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