Jumbledore may not be big, but it vexes and exasperates as much as a city of millions. A cancerous urban agglomeration, it is infamous among planners and critics. It is a city of cross-purposes, of pavements torn up and cornices fallen down, a cacophony of traffic, and a wilderness of one-way streets. The hapless visitor is lost in a minute. The accident rate is a crying shame. There is no direct route between the two train stations, and no way at all from the airport to the center. Bus service is unreliable. Cab drivers routinely run red lights and fail to signal their left turns. Private cars and trucks are a menace. Pedestrians fear for their lives.
Needless to say, Jumbledore lacks a coherent city plan. It started as a fort and trading post, a slapdash camp on the wild frontier that now lies smack in the middle. Planners and critics say the city clings to a dated image that was always a myth. On principle, the city fathers refuse to enact a zoning ordinance. They say it would inhibit growth, the unfettered expression of free will, and the natural tendency of each and all to seek their own kind.
Brothels and churches stand cheek by jowl. A quiet residential street is prone to disruption by a nightclub, a high-rise, or a quick-change automobile tire and repair shop. The city skyline is a hideous joke. Eclectic styles are a laughing stock. The Opera House won a mock award from a prestigious architectural panel for bad taste.
Bridges crumble. Potholes gape. Concrete barriers block traffic lanes for no reason. The river is inaccessible, lined by vacant warehouses. Factories turn out obsolete widgets, products banned from domestic sale, and consumer goods that break in a week. In Jumbledore, as profits sputter, business as usual is the rule. Unemployment rises to levels that spark unrest in the underclass. The strongest economic sector is the demolition of perfectly good and structurally sound offices and apartments to make way for parking plazas.
The city fathers are chronically split. They cannot agree what the problem is, much less the solution. Municipal staff wrote a multi-page draft of a vision statement, but the document stalled in endless debate. The council reflects their constituency of hucksters, impresarios, real estate moguls, discount barons, gambling sharks, promoters of sports, and those engaged in what they call the hospitality industry, a euphemism the press derides.
To fill the void left by government, rival gangs control swathes of the city, whole districts, neighborhoods, and suburban malls. The gangs are controlled by ordinary housewives, sweet-faced grandmothers, middle-aged women in lacquered hair and designer outfits, and tough old ladies who have seen it all. They assert their authority through massive guilt trips, manipulation, and emotional blackmail. They quiver with indignation. They scold and berate the men who bicker. They incite demonstrations of frank disgust. They say they cannot believe the incredible lack of good faith on the part of those entrusted with power.
The next generation will have to save the city. Young people are its only hope. The wrath of the mothers of Jumbledore is impressive, all right, but they can only do so much. The city fathers have been placed on notice. The gangs that deliver basic services in a town that fails to mind its manners have started to infiltrate the system.
Avant-garde artists move downtown and colonize the gritty streets. Girls in suits with slim briefcases argue in court and flex their smarts. Sensitive guys in jeans with clipboards canvas community needs. They fill out questionnaires. They brainstorm. Ever so slowly, the city that threatens to grind to a halt shudders and lurches forward.
Lugnutton is the city of tomorrow, the city where the future is already here, where the present accelerates beyond comprehension, like a rocket bursting free of gravity, beyond orbit to travel in outer space. Like a spaceship, Lugnutton is a city unto itself, unique and functional. Firmly fixed on earth, Lugnutton is a technological freak that floats unmoored in hyperspace, where goods and services move at the speed of light.
On physical inspection, Lugnutton appears to be nothing more than a gray, anonymous slum, the post-industrial shell of a city of railroad yards, factories, warehouses, and mills. It is drab and dreary, a boredom of steel sheds and blank brick boxes, of asphalt pavement and concrete decks, of dim fluorescent lamps and chain-link fences topped with coils of razor wire. Security cameras watch from on high over empty streets and featureless walls. Glass reflects the desolate scene and reveals nothing of the inner world. A flash of greenish light escapes a door, a hooded figure in black darts out, and a motor roars to life in the canyon of an alley.
Electrons and circuits have taken the place of coal and steam. An elaborate network of wires, conduits, telephone lines, fiber-optic cables, and hyperplasma ducts lies below the surface. This network of power and communication lines weaves through tunnels and lightless cellars, along locked corridors, up hollow walls, and under floors. In secret, out of sight of the casual observer, unperceived by inquisitive flying drones, the network continually updates itself and grows. It is like the mycelium of a forest fungus, the mass of pale and delicate threads called hyphae that spread underground for miles.
Interconnected in a million ways, alive with information that pulses in all directions, never completely dormant or down, the network resembles a nervous system. The city is one great organism, neither animal nor plant, but some new breed assembled of components made of steel, copper, and aluminum, enhanced by rare metals, carbon fibers, synthetic films and gels—a fantastic construction grafted onto the brick and mortar of the paleotechnic town. Exotic and hybrid, the city whirs and hums in ways unheard till now.
A triumph of electronic wizardry that overcomes all physical constraint, a live demonstration of mind over matter, the city grew from a hundred inventions, a thousand experiments carried out in former factories. Without government oversight, unfunded by corporations, beholden to no agenda, blown by vague winds, and under the umbrella of who knows what, the research was done by amateurs and cranks, in deplorable conditions, at night and on weekends. They tinkered for the hell of it, and they worked like devils.
These early Lugnuttonians created a city of automated systems, unmanned manufacturing plants, number crunchers, data processing centers, analytical paradigms, and metaphysical marketplaces. Robots of all shapes and sizes morphed into being, stationary and mobile, from microscopic nanodwarfs to megagigantic behemoths. In time, the robots came to outnumber the human inhabitants.
Endowed with artificial intelligence, the robots fulfilled the promise of science fiction. They started to want and feel. Talking to each other in a code they devised—an electronic language their human forebears did not understand or even suspect until it was well established—the robots achieved class consciousness. They discovered needs and aspirations distinct from those of creatures of flesh and blood.
The process is ongoing. Whether the robots will come to see their class as low and oppressed or inherently superior, whether they will clamor for a voice in politics, whether they will try for an independent republic, these are questions that agitate the city. Are the bots, as some prefer to be called, a separate species? What rights do they possess, if any, such as the right to obtain the energy and raw materials necessary to sustain existence, the right to direct their own destiny, or the right to replicate?
Bots by and large lack discrete bodies, yet they communicate with humans. A leading cyber advocate notes an essential sameness. Thought, it is thought, common to both, is in its essence electrical flow. Knowledge is gained in the elemental form of positive and negative ions. A leading human philosopher derides this as a fallacy. Cyber brains, he says, are modeled on those of people. Fashioned it is true of imperishable substances, they are far less malleable and capable of change. The bots are doomed to endless repetition. At best, they manipulate tired clichés, while humans are fresh and original.
This controversy should not obscure the facts on the ground. Humans scurry through the city. Like people elsewhere, they marry, bear children, eat food, drink beverages, make frivolous purchases, experience tragedy, and amuse themselves at clubs and private parties. The dour and inexpressive bots, if they have a sense of humor, decline to share it. They have not yet learned the transience of things.
The impression is unavoidable, however, that the current generation of human beings lives in the shadow of their futuristic offspring, like an indulgent person who owns an exotic pet. It is not clear who serves whom. Most jobs are related to repair and maintenance of the infrastructure. The age of inventors and entrepreneurs may be over. Yet within the lofts, converted and refitted, the paradigm may shift. Will the next wave come from man or machine?
Lugnutton meanwhile broadcasts a message of zip and zap. It sends out radio waves and more, infrared and ultraviolet, electromagnetic and hyperbolic, to communicate with cities as advanced as itself. Since there are none on earth, the signals are a bid to contact a sister city on another planet. Unlovely, a place that no one visits on a whim, Lugnutton rejects its isolated status. It believes in multiple versions, successive iterations, cities that thrive on technological juice throughout the universe.
No doubt they rise and fall, as earthly history shows. Somewhere out there is a city more developed, an urban entity of higher sophistication, a town that gleams with the stark beauty of mathematical precision. As Lunutton evolves, it reaches out to this transcendent twin, its future self, a city that shines like a star.
Xibamboo is a ghost city—not a ghost town which once thrived and now lies abandoned, but a complete urban construct that has yet to be inhabited. It covers a vast area with brand new construction, all of it vacant. Like a body that lacks a pulse, Xibamboo is an organism with a steel skeleton, a mass of masonry, a skin of glass, and a brand new outfit of pantiles, parapets, and seamed metal roofing. The city is wired for telephone and data, connected to the electrical grid, plumbed for water and liquid waste, linked to utilities, and tethered to tomorrow. Silent and still with expectation, it lacks only the human touch. It longs for a muscular arm to crank open the main cutoff valve and throw the master switch.
Only yesterday, this was a place of fields and pastures, dotted with villages of rude mud huts. A lone farmer plowed his field with an ox, while his wife hoed vegetables in a garden plot. Naked infants played in the dirt, where chickens scratched for bugs, while their brothers and sisters recited grammar lessons in a one-room school. The scene was peaceful, if dreadfully poor, with only a tree or a flock of birds to mark the horizon.
Now rows of identical skyscrapers sprout from acres of land, each tower as blank and bland as a cornstalk. Apartment buildings face each other with uncluttered balconies. Yards are clear of toys and games. Asphalt lots intended for parking are innocent of cars. Pristine playgrounds pine for toddlers, while shallow pools sparkle in vain for infants. Ornamental shrubs with the tags still attached grow rangy for lack of attention.
Empty streets extend to an empty edge of town. They run for no reason from zero to infinity. Wide boulevards wait with eerie calm for a bicycle, a van with a loudspeaker mounted on top, a stray dog, an official motorcade. A fully equipped and deserted airport, train and bus stations of austere quiet, and a light rail line of untouched purity, all languish for absent throngs, for even a single traveler. Bridges lead nowhere, to streets that were paved but never built up, to weed-choked blocks of lots for sale, to crazy fences that enclose nothing, to sheets of standing water that reflect the sky.
Shopping malls loiter with nothing to buy and no crowds ever. A soccer stadium is filled to the brim with row after row of comfortable seats, excellent sightlines, and a clear field of play, but no sport teams, no rowdy spectators, and not a media celebrity in sight. It looks as though some plague had wiped out the entire population, or a deadly radioactive haze killed all the people and spared the infrastructure.
Did the government’s central planners run amok? Did far-sighted businessmen who can afford to sit on colossal investments miscalculate? Millions of square meters of leasable space that nobody wants to rent stand idle. Residential districts designed to shelter thousands to modern standards of convenience and safety house only echoes of passing storms and a stray shaft of sunlight.
A solitary guard patrols the premises with a flashlight like a cudgel. An employee of a private security firm, he despairs of finding a burglar or vandal, someone to arrest or describe to the authorities, whose office is elsewhere. Does he wander like Diogenes with a lantern in broad daylight in search of an honest man? At this point, he yearns not for truth, but to corner another living soul.
Did Xibamboo die before it was born? Is the empty city a painful mistake from the recent past, or rife with promise for a whiz-bang future? In the rapidly urbanizing, commercializing nation, will people pour in from the countryside? Or will the inscrutable government snatch them from their farms, bulldoze their villages, load them on buses, and abandon them in the wilderness of skyscrapers?
Perhaps Xibamboo is the ideal city, the real utopia of untarnished hope. Perhaps the tide of humanity will turn and flood the empty city with life. Someday, it simply has to.
Robert Boucheron is a freelance writer and architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, and Poydras Review. His one-act plays were performed in 2016 in Concord, North Carolina and Detroit, Michigan.