Based on JG Ballard’s “The Concentration City”
It’s an enclosed universe.
The City is all its inhabitants know. It extends in all directions, east and west, north and south, up and down. It is built into a matrix of incredibly hard rock, which is only slowly cut away with plasma torches. The rock, extending indefinitely upwards and down, should be compressed to white heat in spite of its enormous strength, but gravity is strange here: it shifts in direction if you travel far enough. There is no “center” of the world gravity pulls towards. About 40% of the rock matrix has been cut away to create voids to house endless layers of buildings, and networks of tunnels to connect the open spaces. Stacks of buildings, in standardized layers a hundred feet deep and twenty blocks to a mile, are supported by massive braces attached to the sides of the rock walls as well as their foundations, hung like birdcages on the immovable stone walls. Everything is very solidly built, and engineers and architects boast that they build for millennia. But the City is very old, and eventually entropy catches up with building stacks if they are not (at very long intervals) demolished and replaced: regional governments get careless and ever now and then a cave-in occurs, dozens or even hundreds of layers pancaking down onto each other, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or even millions dying.
Such numbers are insignificant in the City, and don’t happen often enough for people to worry about them. No, what worries them is fires, which can quickly consume the confined atmosphere: all the interconnecting tunnels and passageways have emergency airlocks to seal off and isolate areas in flame. All buildings are equipped with advanced chemical fire-fighting equipment, but at times all efforts fail, and sometimes such damage is done that it is considered uneconomical to repair and it is sealed off permanently. The fear of fire is such that in many areas it is almost impossible to get a hot meal. (But then most food is synthetic anyway). Arsonists are the most despised of human beings, and riots often break out at the slightest rumor that someone is an arsonist.
(Of course, corruption works here: “undesirable elements” in a neighborhood are often accused of being “Pyros”).
The City is linked by a hierarchy of ever-faster elevators (the largest travel so far they actually have sleeper compartments), and ever-faster trains and subways, from slow local trolleys to long-distance express trains (“Super Sleepers”) that magnetically levitate in 300-foot wide evacuated passages, and are sped along by rockets, reaching peak speeds of hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. Fiberoptics carry information and entertainment. Fuel is not a problem, power coming from a form of zero-point energy drawn from the fabric of space itself, but raw materials are more of an issue. Plasma separators can get a number of elements from the rock matrix, but for safety reasons there is only so much of the rock that can be removed, and it does not contain all elements necessary for life in the correct proportions: so in the end everything is recycled. The very dust in the air is filtered and sifted. While plants grow in window boxes and gardens and in enclosed parks, they are insufficient in themselves to manage the oxygen cycle: the air and the water are also recycled. Repairing and replacing endlessly the life support systems (which are not called that: makes people nervous, such terminology) employs a sizeable part of the population. Systems are generally highly redundant, with many self-sufficient systems within each vast building-filled cavity, so local failures and machines in the process of being replaced rarely has a serious impact on living conditions.
The City is old beyond measure: nobody knows for sure how old. The traditional dating system holds that the current year is three millions and some odds since the Foundation, but nobody is certain as to the accuracy of the dating system. Some might ponder the fact that the birds which sing in people’s cages or in the parks have all become flightless, but the fact that there are such things as flying birds is unknown to the inhabitants of the City: the very idea of flight is a strange one. The people are short and pale and large-eyed, but everyone is, so that is not a source of notions either. There is no discipline of history, since the past is assumed to be pretty much as the present. There are many illustrative examples of failures of local government, instructive disasters, etc. in social studies and City management classes, but they are unmoored in time. There are City records and archives, but nobody really bothers to preserve them after a few centuries, and those which survive for more than a few millennia tend to be badly corrupted. Most people who think about these things hold the City has always existed. This is true even among most scientists, although public lip service is given to the notion that it was carved out of the virgin rock starting some three million years ago: where people came from before the City is unclear in most accounts (there is no science of natural history, because there is no nature save tamed samples in the City), although some tales hold that they burrowed there from somewhere else – perhaps from an earlier City? Most people don’t bother to think about such things.
Even vaguer and even less spoken of is the idea of what lies _beyond_ the City. Among those who consider such things, most hold it goes on forever: the notion of it having bounds is difficult – it can’t be floating in the middle of nowhere, can it? Some speak of an impenetrable wall surrounding it or virgin rock where the City still, slowly, expands. A few think there may be other cities, perhaps with nonhuman inhabitants (such alien cities are always said to be an almost unimaginable distance away from wherever the speaker dwells, and therefore are a source of slightly chilling entertainment rather than an actually frightening thought). A very few think in terms of a vast void or open space beyond the City: the agoraphobic majority scoff at such absurd horrors. And some know that there is no way out of the City.
City government exists at various levels, with local governments nominating people to higher levels. Blocks and neighborhoods and districts. Counties with populations of tens of millions: Sectors with populations in the billions: Local Unions with populations in the trillions. Supposedly there is an overall City Administration, but it is pretty much impossible to reach: there is an almost insurmountable telephone tree to get though, which usually dumps people out at various levels, and once one gets far enough times between sending and receiving an (almost always automated) response lengthen into minutes as the speed of light makes itself known. There are always rumors about the one guy or gal who finally after a telephone marathon manages to get through, only to be routed to a voice mail that never responds or a dead line or a silence that breathes: nobody has ever actually proven this feat, at least as far as the general public is aware. Libraries generally lack information about the City beyond the few hundred nearest Local Unions.
Science per se really doesn’t exist: scientists seek to consolidate existing knowledge and systematize and reinterpret the discoveries of the past, not seek genuinely new knowledge. There is after all an endless sea of data to trawl through. Engineers and medical scientists seek to slowly and incrementally build on past knowledge to improve the state of the art, but radical change is neither wanted nor, most of the time, even imagined. Philosophy is a practice pursued by private individuals on their own time: the notion that the state should teach something so impractical was abandoned a while back, although in most places still within remembered events. There are Standard Texts, such things as encyclopedias and dictionaries, which are used throughout the City: as they are migrated, generation after generation, to new media, each library cross-checks with hundreds of others to make sure no corruption has set in, and the standardized texts throughout the City keep language from drifting into incomprehensibility over huge distances even the Super Sleeper trains take a long time to cross. Still, there has been decay over the ages: the definitions of some words, like “sun” and sky” have long been lost.
Gene flow has been hampered by distance, even with the Super Sleepers, to the extent that people in the most distant parts of the city are no longer entirely interfertile, although physical and mental differences remain small enough that long-distance travelers aren’t too shocked at the sights. There are regional differences in dress and the sort of synthetic food that is eaten, and over the very longest distances even in popular cable programs.
There are those who think the City is sick, and that its people are fundamentally unhappy with the way things are. Some doctors say that as many as 15% of the population has occasional Pyro impulses, and one day it will all perish in flame. People move around less: there is talk of doing away with the Super Sleepers. Some talk of local autonomy, of each street and avenue being locally self-supporting, with its own power services, aerators, recyclers, reservoirs, farm laboratories.
Some think the higher level governments (wherever and whatever they are) don’t want people travelling.
There are black areas in the City. Areas with no power, no lights, no services, where some initial failure of the life support, the social fabric, _something_ has cascaded catastrophically through the system. Some extend for millions of cubic miles. They seem to be growing. Some say the reason governments want to discourage travel is so people will not know how numerous these places are. Some say that after they are sealed off, trains are rerouted so they do not pass through them. Some say the majority of the City is actually already dead.
Beyond Unions lie Federations, 10 thousand Unions to a Federation. Beyond Federations lie Greater Federations. Beyond Greater Federations lie Metropolitan Empires. Beyond them lie Greater Metropolitan Empires.
It is possible to cross the entire City on a single Super Sleeper ticket, as long as you never leave the stations. It takes ten days, in which one covers one hundred and eighty million miles. At this point you will have returned to where you left off. Since nobody normally rides more than a few hours and the staff never rides in the same direction for more than one shift, most people are unaware of this, as are they of the fact that not only does one return to the same place as one left from, but the very hour and very day you departed.
The City can be calculated to have a volume of 5.17 times 10 to the power of 35 cubic feet, or 8.57 times 10 to the 23 cubic miles. It is finite but unbounded, being essentially a hyper-sphere curved through four-dimensional space. Assuming average population densities and uninhabited areas being insignificant, it can be estimated as having 2.57 times 10 to the 26th inhabitants. The population is entirely theoretical, and might in fact be much smaller. The City has never had a census, at least not one that has left any records.
Very few people, percentage-wise, ever make the Long Trip. Of course, even one person in a trillion is one of many in the City. Some kill themselves. Some are happy to know the reality of their world. Others try to spread the knowledge and are considered mad and sometimes forcibly aided by psychiatrists. Some actually go mad.
Some are sure they know what the City is. Many of them conclude it is hell.