Nesson 8: Sprawl

Nesson is a serial novel about living with technology and sprawl in the near future. Learn more or start from the beginning.


It was a short trip. They left Shack Island, as Helen had named it, a little after dawn. Their shadows were still long and narrow when they set foot on their destination. It had only been an hour, maybe two, but they were a world away. Helen looked left and right at her awestruck companions. A horrified admiration laid plain on their faces. Helen set her countenance hard, determined.

They had driven through the haphazard sprawl of pacific California and Hawaii, walked beneath the towers of New St. Louis, and watched a wilderness in between. When she added Open Acres and her childhood in the sprawl, Helen was sure she had seen the full spectrum of existence. Now she found this fully built, unoccupied city. It was not that the place was finished and empty, that was common in Nesson. It was the houses themselves and their surroundings. So much wood and metal, rock and brick. It was generally considered that recycled and raw materials were identical, but it was clear now that people only believed this because they had never seen homes built from raw material. Only the wealthy bothered to use non-recycled materials in any capacity. These were usually accent pieces, not full construction.

This place was unattainable. It was nonexistent on a map, so there was no way to get here. There was no telling how much the houses cost to build, let alone for how much Links was selling them. Yet here they were. She guessed she owed Mike some credit, and maybe she owed Earl her thanks. Earl, for all his rough edges, was a good guy. Helen felt her stomach turn when she thought about how they had lied to him and used him. Even if he was working to build something they wanted to destroy, he was one of the most welcoming people she had ever met. That was not saying much, but his generosity was important to her nonetheless. Open Acres, despite its name, offered none of this graciousness, if that word could apply to a man like Earl.

There was no motive in Earl’s charm; he barely acknowledged that Helen was a woman; he was just naturally accommodating. In contrast, Mike had become increasingly friendly the past few days, but not in a way Helen enjoyed. It was one thing if they had made some connection from the start, but until recently, he had shown nothing but distaste for everyone. A distaste he still seemed to have for Patrick and Al. It was not that Mike was unattractive; he had a prickly quality that usually interested her. In fact, he reminded Helen of a boy she dated in college, Hunter. Hunter was always half unshaven and three quarters clean and dressed. He liked to speak about ecology and communal living. If she thought about it, he was probably why she was here. Whatever resemblance Mike had to Hunter though, Mike’s demeanor was naturally repulsive. His artificial kindness was almost as hard to take.

Memories of a past relationship mixed with the realities of the people who currently surrounded her. An icy regret was rolling in her stomach. In an attempt to turn from her guilt and frustration, Helen focused on the city before her. It had a sort of polite charm, warm hominess beneath its affluence. Of course, no one had ever lived on this island, except for a shopkeeper in the central store. Earl said he knew the guy and figured he must be going out of his mind living alone.

“Then again,” he said, “Mark never did care much for people.” Earl asked if they had everything they needed and headed for the center of the island, leaving them at the dock.

The good feelings this place evoked had to be a manufactured, right? Helen could not help liking the island. The whole settlement was walkable. On foot, they could travel the whole island in a day. The houses were close; whoever lived here would have neighbors and the appearance of community. It had potential to be a real town. The place was hard to hate. It actually encompassed many of the principles of ecological living. So why was she still angry, why did she still feel it needed to go?

Over the course of the trip, Helen had developed some doubts. Her heart had not turned, but her mind felt like it was swimming. She was grasping at the source of her beliefs. What was wrong with a place like this or one like New St. Louis? Sure, the land bridge was harmful, shameful; it enabled an unsustainable lifestyle. Did that mean they could not keep the good? Maybe this island was where the bridge would connect and whence Links would plan further development, but did they have to destroy something beautiful? What was her responsibility as a journalist? She could not help but be involved, but how far should she go? Would it be ok to try to talk them out of their plan? Would it be right not to?

“Dibs on that one!” Pat called.

“On what?” Mike asked.

“On that house. That’s where I’m squatting.”

“What about me?” Al asked, pretending he was not already invited to join Pat. The house was three stories and looked like a page ripped out of Modern Housing and Right Angles Quarterly.

“No one is calling dibs,” Mike said, “We’ll pick one house for all of us.”

“But no one else is here and there’s all these new houses. Why shouldn’t we have our own?”

“What do you mean, have your own? We’re not on vacation here, I don’t even like the idea of breaking into any of them. We’re certainly not breaking into three houses. We should probably sleep outside.”

“Who’s breaking? Look.” Al ran up to the front door of a home that looked to be fifty percent raw wood and fifty percent glass. He pushed the door open with one finger and looked back to Mike.

“Not locked?”

“Come on Mike, why would they lock these places when there is no way to get here?” Al said, still hesitating between the threshold of the door and returning to the street.

“We’re here,” Helen said, “maybe they should have locked them.” Al’s eyes widened and Helen smirked.

“Alright, ok. But still just one house.” Mike put a hand over his eyes and began scanning the distance.

“Aww.” Said Pat, “Can we still stay in that one?”

“What? You want the first one you see?” Mike asked.

“So now we’re being selective? I thought you wanted to sleep outside.” Al said.

“Yeah, well, if we are going to break in…”

“But we’re not breaking in!” Pat corrected.

“Ok, if we are going to sneak into a house that is not ours, shouldn’t we pick a nice one? What? Why are you all looking at me like that?”

“So…” Helen interjected, “Who has the food? I don’t want to go house hunting on an empty stomach.” The guys all looked at each other and shrugged.

“I took that can of ham from that last island,” Al said. At the time, this had been a great source of humor to them all. If the concept was not bad enough, the packaging was worse. The picture of the food on the cover was not even close to appetizing.

“I found some dried noodles,” Pat said, “but I ate those on the boat.” Helen looked at Mike.

“Don’t look at me.” Mike said.

“Great. So we go to that store Earl was talking about?” and so they did. It was easy enough to find the way. The island had been designed so that the store was at the absolute center. It mattered little where they wandered, the store was always visible, being three stories taller than the houses and always a straight shot via one of the boulevards.

“So much for our low profile,” Mike muttered.

“It’s just one guy managing a store Mike, what’s the big deal?” Al said.


“Justinian! The villagers are demanding grain and more housing.”

“Forget them! I need a new wing on this castle.” Two young men stood on a hillside overlooking a village surrounding a modest, relatively modest anyway, castle. Both concealed their healing acne with two months’ worth of overgrown hair. The houses below were arrayed in an organic serpentine pattern with meandering roads running between. They were huts made of mud, stone, and whatever debris was adjacent at the time of construction. On top of them were thatched roofs of surprisingly clean and yellow hay. Some had tendrils of smoke flying from earthen chimneys. The two boys wore leather vests and tight pants. They each sported embroidered, gilded crests on their chests and swords on their hips about as tall as themselves. Though they had shaggy hair, each was oddly well gelled for a medieval lord.

“But Justinian, they’ll riot.”

BlOOP them!”

“Wait… what? Did you just make a bleep sound? How did you do that?”

“Oh,” Justin flushed, “my mom put a language filter on our holoroom.”

“Lame,” Art said, checking the direction of his waving hair then resting his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“No kidding, it BLOOP BLOOP.”

“Hah hah.”

“Arthur! Look out!” Justin cried. At the base of the hill opposite their town came marching a band of warriors led by Rob and Becky. “It’s Robert and Rebecca on a raid.”

BLOOP them!” Art said, “They agreed to a truce. Remember when I gave Becky the answer to that question in class the other day? Now they want to attack my city!”

“Your city? You mean our town.”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant.”

<Justin, time to get out. I’m expecting a call.>

Justin could see Rob and Becky giggling in the distance, why did his mom always have to use the public channel? He tilted his head about thirty degrees. “Mom, ok, just a second,” he turned to Art, “So embarrassing.”

“Aw, it’s alright, most parents don’t have a clue about how to use holorooms.”

“Why can’t I just have my own, like you guys?” he was pointing to Art, Rob, and Becky with a sweeping motion. Before Art could offer any commiseration, an arrow flew between their heads.

BLOOP!” Justin said.

BLOOPBLOOP,” Art said, “hah hah, BLOOP BLOOP BLOOP.” Laughing and cursing they ducked from the arrows while Art fumbled for his bugle. Rolling down the hill towards the town he let forth a mighty blast. As they stumbled towards the village, fleeing the arrows of Rob and Becky, Justin began to look agitated.

“Say, what’s taking so long?”

“Told you, you should have built that granary.” Art said. A moment later saw a band of AI villagers emerging from the town, still tightening their armor and adjusting their swords.

“AI, finally,” Justin muttered. “YOU, MEN, CHARGE!” and charge they did. Rob, Becky, Art, and Justin approached each other on the sidelines of the ensuing battle. Over the clang of men’s swords could be heard the juvenile japes.

“Dude, we’re totally taking your town.”

“Nuh uh, we’re kicking your BLOOP out of here.”

“Wait, what was that? Justinian, do you have a language filter on?”



“Totally lame.”

Justin was about to agree with his friends’ assessment of his mother’s lameness when the world turned sold green and his mother’s hand was on his shoulder. “Come on mom!”

“I told you, I’m expecting a call from your sister.”

“What? From Allison? You didn’t say that, you just said ‘a call.’”

“And that should have been enough.”

“Ok, you’re right. When is she calling? I want to see her.”

“Mmm. Not this time.”

“What? But we haven’t seen her in months, not even virtually.”

“And maybe there is a reason for that. If she asks for you I’ll get you.”

“Fine. I’m going out then.”

“Sure, not past the front gate though.”

She had always treated him like a kid, but since Allison left, she went into overdrive. It was like being twelve again. “What? I was going to take the car.”

“You will do no such thing. Where do you think you’re going to go anyway?”

“Does it matter?” Justin knew that there was really nowhere to go. It would take fifteen minutes to get to the next house, maybe an hour to see something interesting. “Whatever, there’s nothing to do anyway.”

“Oh come on, I’m going to be on one call. You’ll get the holoroom back in less than an hour I’m sure. Just be glad you have one, when I was your age…” a synthesized musical chime sounded on the house intercom, eliminating the need for Justin to interrupt his mother’s story of her youth. “Oh, I bet that’s her.” She patted Justin’s head and closed the holoroom door behind her.

Justin Fahr walked upstairs to his room and closed the door. He waved his pass-pattern at the wall. His arm floated here and there as if fencing while the look on his face was bored. Where there was a wall covered in science fiction and fantasy themes, there was now a wide screen, full depth display. A medieval village, surprisingly still intact, was before him. He had a three quarter view from a tall hill. It was enough to see his town but not his rivals’. It looked like Becky and Rob failed in their attack, despite his interruption.

“Enter legacy mode,” he said. The village disappeared and the display flattened. Video streamed across the wall and Justin flipped his fingers to change “channels.” It was a rising trend for teenagers to mimic, as best they could, their great-grandparents’ television habits. They ran scripts to create channels from hundreds of programs streaming simultaneously. Justin and countless others wanted to recapture a spontaneity from the past. They sought an element of randomness, a lack of control. Technology allowed people to mold their lives into whatever shape they wanted. Traffic and distance penned them so that nothing outside their designed lives could penetrate. Justin’s generation was discovering chance as something desirable. The aleatoric din created by rapid changes in music, voices, and sound effects drove most parents insane. They were unaccustomed to it, found it distracting. Parents were continually yelling at their children to shut the door and keep the racket down.

Justin found that channel surfing allowed a sort of trance state. One both watched and did not watch. It was watching for the sake of watching or “meta-watching.” The term started as a joke, but it became standard usage. Full attention to one program could not be granted for the thought of what else might be on that could be missed. Attention to the outside world diminished such that it might as well be another channel. People became absorbed in the art of watching itself, an expression of pure sensory utilization. Justin and his friends just called it ‘channel surfing.’ American youth could not understand how streaming supplanted this kind of experience.

No one could really change channels like people did in the days of Television sets. There was no more broadcast, no more use of radio waves to disseminate the same shows to all. Entertainment had shifted from enjoying whatever happened to be on, something with mass appeal, to choosing something. Usually that something was highly idiosyncratic. Here inlay the problem with recreating channel surfing. The channels had to be composed of programs designed for streamers, programs that would appeal to a niche market. Hundreds of channels could be made of these programs, but there may only be one or two worth watching from any individual perspective. The general feeling was that you might as well stream, if that was the case.

VJs had recently emerged, looking to create a true channel surfing experience. They create channels based less on subject and more on spirit. Some of these VJs even started creating original programming; viewership for these shows was exclusively under 30 years old. A universal favorite was VJ Analog’s Retro Broadcast Network (RBN). Analog’s Network could only be streamed live, no on demand viewing. Even recording was locked, not that channel surfers would record anything. Only the most flippant would joke about it.

Allison used to watch RBN with Justin. They could chuckle along with a laugh track on old sitcoms. They would nod their heads to new dramas satirizing Holodrama, the stuff of his parent’s generation. He was used to her commentary, as if it was part of the television experience. Now the news was on and he was alone with no one to gossip.

<.. ening sanctions if efforts to claim islands developed by Links Corp are not ceased immediately. China’s Foreign Minister claims no foul play.>

“As if anyone wants piles of trash in the ocean,” Justin said to no one. Who cared who owned remote islands with nothing but road, tracks, and a few scattered residents housed on them? China still has large living cities. If anything, the US should be after those.

Justin imagined living in a city: walking out of his door to find other people on the way to work, to school, to restaurants, doing these things in person with other persons. He imagined being able to walk to his friends’ homes, the way kids did in the old shows. He even got a little thrill thinking about the dangers of crime and staying off certain streets, fearing people instead of cars. Physical crime was as much of a relic as the city. Some of his classmates claimed to have family in the cities that they even visit sometimes. These stories were exaggerations at best. Perhaps they had been to a large suburb, denser than average but no New York City. New York, once considered a sort of world capital was rarely mentioned anymore. One heard of the vast spread of L.A., but what people were doing in Manhattan? You may as well ask what people did out on those trash islands. Justin promised himself that he would see for himself someday. There had to be places left where people bumped into each other on the street, strangers surrounded you, and your neighbors might show up at your door unexpected. A mode of life could not just disappear completely could it?

The pseudo window on his wall showed it was not yet dark, the sun had set but a faint glow fell from the clouds onto the grass, turning the lawn purple. It was not actually his yard; he did not think it was anyway. It was somewhere in the neighborhood though. Of course, he had not actually gone outside in a few days. Justin could not be sure that it was really dusk out there, maybe it was noon. He trusted the view that his video wall gave him and the clocks on every screen. The screens told him what time of day it was and when it was time rise, eat, and sleep. It was 7:36 pm, too early for bed, but Justin grew tired watching a 1990s sitcom about nothing in particular. His head nodded twice and his eyes slid shut. That night he dreamed that The City welcomed him into its void and he would never be heard from again.

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