13 May 2011

Currently reading: "The World Without Us"

I've finally started reading--that is, gotten beyond the preface of a book I bought a few months ago: "The World Without Us," by Alan Weisman. As soon as I saw it on the shelf of the Fully Booked branch at Bonifacio High Street, I knew that it was something I had to read, and every visit to the store afterward would include a trip to the science section just to look at it, pick it up, think about buying it, decide that I couldn't afford it at that time of the month, and put it back with regret. This is the reason many interesting-seeming books escape me, because I tell myself that maybe I should wait till next time. For once, though, my dithering was rewarded with a sale at Powerbooks, where I managed to get the book for near-half price.

I'm even happier now that I've actually started reading it (kudos to you for getting this far in the entry, by the way, and not closing the tab after that long exposition), because it's turning out to be all I imagined, which is an exercise in imagination. "The World Without Us" is just that, a peek into the future of the planet should our race suddenly disappear:

"Picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.

"Unlikely, perhaps, but for the sake of argument, not impossible. Say a
Homo sapiens-specific virus--natural or diabolically nano-engineered--picks us off but leaves everything else intact. Or some misanthropic evil wizard somehow targets that unique 3.9 percent of DNA that makes us human beings and not chimpanzees, or perfects a way to sterilize our sperm, Or say that Jesus--more on Him later--or space aliens rapture us away, either to our heavenly glory or to a zoo somewhere across the galaxy.


"Could nature ever obliterate all our traces? How would it undo our monumental cities and public works, and reduce our myriad plastics and toxic synthetics back to benign, basic elements? Or are some so unnatural that they're indestructible?

"And what of our finest creations--our architecture, our art, our many manifestations of spirit? Are any truly timeless, at least enough so to last until the sun expands and toasts our Earth to a cinder?"

-- from the Prelude: A Monkey Koan

The first reason I was attracted to this book was that I was already trying to write something like it, though less a scientific projection and more, "What if a virus killed everyone, and Metro Manila existed only as a tribute simulation program run by anthropomorphic biocomputers, and none of the humans left over knew if they were real or just program code?" Yes, it is just as pulpy as it sounds, which is why I don't talk about it often.

Mostly, though, I'm attracted to the idea of ruins, particularly the idea of ruined cities. I like watching Metro Manila crumble around me, even as I'm in the middle of my morning commute. I like looking up at the underside of a flyover and seeing a patch of weeds that has sprouted 20 feet above the ground and in absence of deep soil. It's particularly gratifying to visit a retail and recreation center and see the cracks in the sidewalk, the grime gathering on the fake Hollywood-Mediterranean-Balinese facade, the paint on the fake concrete trees fading to a more turd-like color.

A good part of the area where I live now is packed with ruins--dilapidated old banks, hardware stores, and closed restaurants, with their windows broken or boarded up, and their overhangs shelter for no one but a dozen homeless families sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes. When I pass by these buildings on the way home, I think of something Geoff Dyer said in "Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It," something along the lines of, ruins don't show us the past, but the future; ruins tell us that this is what the future looks like. This is what the future always ends up looking like.

So when I walk around the city, particularly in places like Cubao that--as my colleague's father said recently--were once the place to be but are now shells rotting from time and weather and neglect, I imagine that I'm in the future. And when I see some sign of us trying to fight entropy--these Manhattan Garden condos, and the New Frontier Cinema with its soon-to-rise-type sign announcing GATEWAY TOWER over its old name--it's just as easy for me to imagine dead and sagging concrete giants, rusting girders and cables, and empty, littered streets, as it is for the developers to imagine a gleaming new mixed-use development bustling with commercial activity.

And I have to say that half the work of imagining all this has been done for me by the huge degree of urbanization. Imagining an empty city gets easier the bigger that city gets. When you take the train from one end of EDSA to another, or a cab from one end of C5 to another, you don't always see the people who live and work in these thousands of tenements and high-rises and informal settlements and processing plants and schools; more often you just see these walls and window frames staring silently at one another and the road and you. Unless you're travelling with someone, you don't talk to people on the train or in the jeep; you might as well be riding alone. That's why it's easy for me to imagine that the people I do notice are the survivors of a 21st-century plague.

All that, in turn, is why I like Mr. Weisman's book so far (I'm still in the chapter where he's describing how nature will take over New York City--plenty of flooding and crumbling and invasive flora and fauna and even explosions involved; not too far from what we saw at the deepest dream level of "Inception"). It lends scientific likelihood to the things I imagine, explains the order, for instance, that certain species of trees will take during the reforestation of Manhattan.

Of course, that's just a really long way of saying, "This book is full of the kind of geeky details that appeal to a person who's maybe too affected by life in the city and should go lie down."

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