Category Archives: Ferroculture

In the Hacker’s Bazaar

The Printer’s Quarter is universally distrusted in Nagspeake; at the same time, everybody wants to live there, go to parties there, be able to talk casually about “last weekend in the Quarter.” (In this city, starting an anecdote with “last weekend in the Quarter” is like opening up with “one year at band camp.” You just know something is going to go  dreadfully wrong, and the only question is whether hilarity or slaughter is going to ensue. At the end of the anecdote the listeners sigh, wishing they’d been there for the highbrow hijinks/funny romantic escapades/death and dismemberment because it was clearly the social event of the season.) It just makes sense that when anything goes not-quite-according-to-plan with disastrous citywide consequences, it originates in the Printer’s Quarter. This time it started with nomenclature.

When you know there’s a pretty strong likelihood that your writing is only going to survive for only a finite period of time, measurable in the twenty-five year increments between archival burnings, it creates a certain sense of urgency. This urgency manifests itself in weird ways amongst academics, of which there is an abnormally high concentration in the Quarter. For the last month a debate between a cabal of professors from the City University’s Crypto-Urban Studies department specializing in Architectural Drift and a pack of Conservatory for Urban Expression editors has been slowly elevating past theory and discourse into the realm of monomania. The debate is this, and I am not kidding in the slightest: does the term feral metallurgy really apply, when most supposedly feral metals tend toward expression that can be interpreted as conforming to urban form and function?

If you’re rolling your eyes now, so was the rest of city academia. Except for about ten people who were laughing their asses off: City University’s actual department of Special Topics in Feral Metallurgy. Yes, that’s right, the actual academics at CU whose purview this was were not involved, except for being the shit-starters behind it all. The Architectural Drift people are notoriously touchy about the fact that their specialty is widely considered to be along the lines of researching Bigfoot, and somebody in Ferroculture sidled up to somebody in AD and did some faux commiserating. We understand your frustration; nobody takes us seriously either, look what they call our department. Feral Metallurgy, when half the city wouldn’t be standing today if not for the Old Iron holding it up. Feral, like it’s a badly-housebroken dog.

Well, if there’s one thing your average Architectural Drift researcher can do, it’s get his back up over a perceived slight to the legitimacy of somebody’s line of research. And since the average AD researcher hasn’t got the evidence to back up his own research, it’s like a gift from above when he can get on a high horse about something like Old Iron which , if not precisely explainable, is at least observable. Old Iron exists for sure, which is more than you can say about unanchored abandoned houses that supposedly move at will around the city.

The people at the Conservatory for Urban Expression are not a bunch of kids looking for a fight. They are a no-nonsense bunch, they like quantifiables, and they felt that debate over exchanging the term Feral Metallurgy for Civically-Minded Holding Us All Together Metallurgy was a waste of everybody’s time. But the Conservatory Press is City University’s publisher, so that’s where AD went to whine. The Conservatory, predictably, told the AD people to go bugger off and find something real to do with their time. The AD people went for the strategy of annoying the hell out of the Conservatory until it had no choice but to answer back. The resulting firefight has involved everything from scholarly debate to TP-ing Conservatory editors’ front yards. The Conservatory fought with pen and ink at first, publishing editorials about the absurdity of it all, and then they gave up on the pens. They posted snipers with ink-filled Super Soakers on the Conservatory’s front turrets. They turned up at Architectural Drift classes, locked the doors, and set off sprinkler systems in the classrooms in which the water had been miraculously replaced with ink. Supposedly one AD professor opened his car door only to have a flood of ink pour out of it, the way beer pours out of cars in those commercials about the evils of drunk driving. All good fun and games, until the AD people decided to do a little infiltration of their own. They decided to try and find a way to rig all the typesetting machines at the Conservatory Press so that every time someone tried to enter the phrase feral metallurgy, the machine would override it and set the acronym CMHUATM (civically-minded holding us all together metallurgy) instead.

Amazingly, this plan had a shot. Conservatory Press still uses phototypesetting machines, and when the typesetter wants to enter a phrase, he or she enters it on a keyboard with no display and types it a second time to confirm the content. If the two entries match, a piece of punched tape comes out. You feed that into the typesetting machine, and the machine produces an image of the page that’s used to make a plate for printing. So all the AD people had to do was figure out how to get the keyboard to recognize the hated phrase and replace it with the new acronym. The substitution would be caught eventually, but it would certainly freak some people out in the process, and maybe, just maybe, drive the point home. They probably could’ve found a consultant somewhere in the city to do this; however, if these were men and women willing to look for the simplest solution, they would never have wound up in Crypto-Urban Studies in the first place, let alone in Architectural Drift. They went straight to Shantytown, and this is where things went wrong.

There are lots of dodgy places in Shantytown. Most people avoid the tenements behind the basilica of St. Horace Rye, where sometime in the last century the groves of trees that had once decorated the cemetery were torn down to build the thin, tall tenements that stand like overgrown mausoleums among the gravestones. Most keep out of Slaughterhouse Row, because it is what it sounds like and blood literally runs in the gutters. Considered worse than either of these, though, is the Hacker’s Bazaar, a short street of warehouses not far from where I live in Creve Coeur.

Wires overhang the street like jungle vines. Occasional sparks run along them like little lemurs. The scents of ozone and melting soldering wire are omnipresent. Snips of stripped wire and tiny bits of the bright plastic coating accumulate in between the cobblestones along with candy wrappers and empty Mountain Dew bottles. The occasional castoff from a keyboard crunches underfoot like a little square beetle.  The hiss of a compressed air can makes you jump and turn to look behind you. From a window above, a burst of frosty air pours down onto you, air conditioning allowed to run wild and out of control. Where the makeshift curtains haven’t been yanked all the way closed, the flickering light from a LAN party illuminates a human head, neck bent at the unnatural angle of someone who is computing on the floor. From everywhere, you see the ghostly glow of tiny blinking lights like mismatched eyes. On market days, the streets are lined with booths piled with cardboard boxes full of parts, antique computing arcana, discarded manuals and cds of pirated software and anime labeled in Sharpie. Behind the boxes, young men and women studiously ignore you as they work on pimped-out electronics or play old-school computer games on their laptops or re-read Cryptonomicon for the fifth time.

It is the ultimate tech support zone: the answers to everything are there, held by a populace of geeks and nerds who may or may not render up those answers depending on whether or not you look like you already tried re-booting your system before bothering them about it. Most of them, raised on the hundreds of YourLittlePCs donated by Deacon and Morvengarde to underperforming school districts around the city in the 1990s, learned how to field-strip, diagnose, and repair at about age ten in order to be able to use the shoddy laptops. They are all-knowing, totally dismissive and yet vaguely threatening at the same time.

I don’t know–nobody does–what happened when the diplomats from AD ventured into the Hacker’s Bazaar looking for someone who could take on the phototypesetting machines at Conservatory Press. Somehow, somebody knew enough about talking the talk to get an audience with the Savant, a shadowy uber-geek who all but rules the Bazaar. Supposedly when he ventures onto the cobblestones, people actually look up from their screens, lower their dogeared paperbacks. When his navy appears in FreeCiv, all lesser empires tremble. He has more Twitter followers than Neil Gaiman. And when the AD people approached the Savant about their project, his entourage scoffed. Of course the Savant could do this. But why would he? Any two bit hacker out there in the Bazaar could do it. This is not the sort of thing you bothered the Savant about. Away, academic rabble!

But the Savant put out a soothing hand. Yes, any hacker could tell a phototypesetting keyboard to produce X when a user enters Y. But the great one was wise enough to see the potential here. What was being offered was a way into  the city’s publishing heart–something the Savant had wanted for a very, very long time. He agreed to the AD’s request.

The Savant’s program was installed and executed and did what it had been programmed to do: it replaced a thousand or so instances of Feral Metallurgy in the next few weeks, but that was only the smallest part of its functionality. It also made copies of everything it encountered and saved them remotely. It began to create an alternate archive in a secret location out there somewhere in the ether, one that would be protected from archival burnings forever. One of the Conservatory people discovered the hack; he was a kid who had grown up on one of those YourLittlePC’s and, when the acronym CMHUATM started showing up, he took apart the keyboard he’d been working on and found a little piece of something or other that he recognized from childhood days he’d spent tinkering with his own laptop. Immediately he knew something had been compromised, and when the AD people admitted to what they’d done, the Conservatory editor knew that the Savant’s program was some kind of Trojan Horse.

One of the great reasons the Hackers and their wild Bazaar are anathema in Nagspeake is the unease the city feels for any information that isn’t subject to the redemption-by-fire of the archival burnings. How can the city truly take back its history and give itself a fresh start as it claims to do every twenty five years if there’s a copy somewhere, a copy that doesn’t exist in the real world? (There are conspiracy theorists who hypothesize that Deacon and Morvengarde had something shady up its sleeve when it donated the YourLittlePCs to the city schools in the first place, that it somehow intended to raise this weird army of counterculturists, that it has plans for the Savant and his people. These theorists are held in only slightly higher regard than the Architectural Drift people–or would be, if they didn’t go to such great lengths to hide their identities.)

The riots that followed have already been written about, as well as the city’s thwarted efforts to put Shantytown under martial law and raid the Hacker’s Bazaar. From my balcony in Creve Coeur I can see the cordon of police milling uneasily a few yards from the line of robotic guards holding them off at the near end of the Bazaar. The robots are a ragtag collection of weaponized Roombas and science-fair projects and the things that look like somebody’s attempt to build the bot from Short Circuit or Wall-E. I can see at least two life-size R2-D2s with something that looks like trebuchets mounted on top of them. I can’t see what they’re supposed to launch. The police are trying to get clear shots at the geeks that occasionally peer out of the windows of the warehouses on the assumption that they’re the ones with the remote controls. It’s the most absurd standoff I think I’ve ever seen, and somehow I don’t think it’s going to end anytime soon.

Every now and then, a silhouette in a long black coat emerges on top of one of the warehouses and crouches down to peer over the roof, keeping an eye on the tension below: the Savant, I have no doubt. In the right light, he stops looking like a geek and starts to look a little like a lonely, doomed anime hero keeping an eye on his army of mechanical ronin as he draws his duster around him like a cape. Which is probably the look he’s going for.

What you didn’t know was weird about Old Iron

There’s a wrought iron balcony outside the apartment I rent in Shantytown. It took me two weeks to grasp the fact that the iron was moving. When I finally noticed it I thought I was drunk.

I assume Nagspeake is not the only place in the world where iron flows. I learned as a child about the liquid-like nature of glass and how really old panes of glass are thicker at the bottom because the glass is flowing, obeying gravity in its slow, viscid way. I thought that was mind-bendingly weird at the time, so I’m trying to keep an open mind about the unique properties of iron in Nagspeake.

It’s very difficult for me.

smaller-close-iron-for-web

Nagspeakers have grown up with their balletic, hive-brained iron “animalcules,” so I wonder if my readers can imagine what it’s like to be an out-of-towner discovering the motive capability of Nagspeake iron for the first time.  I know, I know, I’m not the first person to freak out and have to have things explained in a series of small, simple words delivered in a comforting tone accompanied by either a stiff drink or a cup of tea. However, I might be the only one with a website, so I’d like to take you through the series of encounters that have made up my tenuous understanding of what Nagspeakers call “Old Iron.”

Encounter #1:
My solicitous landlord warns me as he hands me the keys for the apartment I’ve just rented not to fall asleep on the balcony. I ask why (forgetting entirely for the moment that I don’t make it a habit to sleep on balconies) and he says, “Because it’s old iron, honey.” I assume he means it’s rusting and unstable or something. It doesn’t quite explain his precise exhortation per se, but I preferred it at the time to my first interpretation of his caveat, which was more along the lines of “There are bad people in the world, missy, and did you happen to notice you rented a flat in Shantytown, for Christ’s sake?”  Old iron I could handle.

Encounter #2:
Drunk on some kind of intoxicating tea ordered from one of the endless mail order catalogues that have begun showing up at my door, I stare for hours at a flourish at one corner of the balcony and watch it bloom, curlicues and whorls moving like fast-growing ivy as they take possession of a railing…then the phone rings.  I look at my watch, having expected a phone call from a particular friend what seems like hours ago, and discover only five minutes have elapsed since I drank the tea. Out on the balcony the flourish is still twisting slowly. I watch it, convinced the tea is behind this prank. The iron reconfigures itself, but it’s as if it’s obeying a fractal pattern or some kind of weird choreography. It never fully takes another shape; it stays confined to roughly the same 9″x12″ space and it moves only slightly faster than a plant does when its leaves turn on their stems to lean into the light. Fast enough to be seen, slowly enough to go unremarked just as easily.

I record observations throughout what I don’t yet know to call “the grey hours,” and yet the whole time I’m still convinced I’m drunk and hallucinating and recording the effects of the tea. In retrospect I could’ve saved myself the cost of the herbs and just watched the balcony in the first place.

Encounter #3:
I’m invited to a party in the Printer’s Quarter and sometime in the night overhear someone lamenting the total lack of effect she experienced from an herbal tea that was supposed to have intoxicating properties.  Recognizing this as my perfect entree to the conversation, I jump in and comment that she must’ve gotten the dosage wrong because I’d spent a good three hours watching iron move on my balcony after a cup of the same stuff. I assume the resultant laughter is because I’ve just admitted to being a total junkie and slink away to stuff my face with canape-size crab cakes.

It took some work, but I eventually figured things out and then went in search of a physicist willing to sit down over a string of beers and explain the dynamics of Old Iron and its constituent animalcules in terms I could understand. Sort of. To me, to someone for whom iron had always been inert, Nagspeake iron still seems something like a cross between a clockwork interpretation of a plant responding to light and a sentient, serpentine kind of hive. An elemental Borg.
Maybe he didn’t get it as clear in my head as I thought.
That was Encounter #4.

After that I went through several phases of realization and denial, most notably laboring for a while under the conviction that the entire city was having one over on me and then the conviction that I was mad, which precipitated a near-month of panicked fear; I knew I had gone off the deep end and that someone was eventually going to notice it and I had talked to way too many people about “the iron” already–I was seeing it move all the time now, forcing myself to stay awake through the grey hours every night (the time when the iron cools fastest, the animalcules, as I understand it, performing a quantum-level, half-organized sort of elemental yoga), lying on the balcony watching the belly-dancing flourishes, feeling the floor of the balcony itself move under my back…after a while the sensation is like floating on water in continuous but gentle motion. I wondered if I disobeyed my landlord’s injunction and fell asleep on this iron sea, would I wake up somewhere else? Would it bear me away to another place?

No, I never fell asleep out there. I did, however, stop leaving my apartment. I was so afraid someone, some well-meaning citizen, would find out about my madness and  have me committed to St. Whit’s, where I would grow old and die without ever coming out of my mania. Plus I couldn’t stand to stop watching my balcony. I went at least one two-day stretch without eating because of it, and let me tell you, I will never, never run out of Ramen noodles again. You can eat that stuff dry, straight out of the wrapper if you have to.

I got tired of being mad after a while and went back to work, but it was a distracted existence because although I had sort of decided I wasn’t crazy, I was still trying with pathological single-mindedness to figure out what was really going on. I had stumbled onto something for sure, the physicist had probably been speaking in code and now it was up to me to figure it all out.

What I learned:
I’m not crazy. The properties of Nagspeake iron have been documented by thousands of people over the years. The physics is still a little beyond my understanding, but what really interest me these days are the competing theories on the origins of the stuff: depending on which hypothesis you ascribe to, the “Old Iron” found all over the place was either brought to Nagspeake back in the days when the city sheltered pirates year-round, or pre-dates the city altogether.

Theory “A” adherents say there was a particularly devastating hurricane one year followed almost immediately by a citywide fire.  A fleet of pirate ships intent on doing a good deed for their adopted town went out and burned another city down the coast clear to the ground and salvaged the iron infrastructure, which they then brought into Nagspeake the way they always came to town: via the Quayside Harbors on the inlet side of the hill separating the Magothy frontage portion of the city from Shantytown. At the time, it took considerable work to move anything big overland from Shantytown to Nagspeake proper, so most of the iron stayed where it landed. This is why, despite the fact that most of Shantytown is the same ragtag collection of dives and flophouses and dubious warehouses that it was back in the golden age of Magothy piracy and smuggling, the largest transported structures and most beautiful ornamental iron is to be found there.  My apartment, for instance, has that balcony, which you really have to see to believe. There are doors, the great gates of the destroyed city’s cathedrals and churches, giant bells. New Orleans has NOTHING on Shantytown.

Theory “B” is weirder and cooler. It states that the iron underpinnings of the city, all the crazy structural stuff and the ornamental bits and the huge lanterns and grates and the wrought stairs and so on and so forth–all of it–was here first, a skeleton that the inhabitants of what would become Nagspeake used as a foundation. Some people have tried to link this theory with speculations about the Ferrous Sanctus Monastery on the western slopes of the hill, an institution of equally foggy origins–and why not; the monks don’t speak so its anybody’s guess. I think this theory has infinite niftiness over the other one–except in my paranoid moments when I think the iron is going to rise up and destroy the city the way it (possibly?) destroyed the last one, tearing it delicately and gracefully to pieces until only it remains, the gaunt blueprint of a city that once was, left for another people to build upon. If any remain. The monks of Ferrous Sanctus, protected by their devotions, will look down from the hill with bleak resignation, having, sadly, seen this kind of thing happen before.

I still sit up some nights, through the grey hours and into the dawn, watching the iron. More and more it symbolizes this little harbor city to me: rooted but mobile, it expands and contracts and spills over the bones of its basic shapes as it heats in the day and cools in the night.  Its inhabitants and its ships come and go, but the city remains, shifting and sighing, imitating the distortions of the shadows it casts on the ground, dancing in place. When all the people are dead and all the wood rotted away and plaster and brick eroded into the sands of another beachfront a thousand years from now, the iron will remain, older but unchanged, still waving at the sea from its place on the shore. Perhaps (I think sometimes) Nagspeake, the city, is alive in ways that other cities are not.

Or perhaps there’s a room in the asylum being made up for me this very minute.

(From 27 May, 2007)