Back | Next


Shortly after the end of the twentieth century, history branched in a way that would have struck its human captives—had they possessed the power to view their counterparts in the divergent branch—as curious and unforeseeable. But they had no such power. Like most of us, they believed their lives linear and single, the results of a host of successive past choices that were now past recall. The captives of one branch had no awareness of those in the other, who truly mirrored them in the only aspect of their divergent lives that even in their alternative realities they shared: the splendid crazy-quilt robes of their humanity.

This narrative, then, is a history of the aforementioned other branch and its otherwise inaccessible human captives.

In 2004, the American Republic ceased to exist. For more than twenty years the nation had stumbled on a drunkard’s walk toward collapse. The Jeremiahs who foresaw the end harped on different strings, often plucking out monotones that drowned in the full orchestral resonance to which, sadly, their adherents remained deaf.

The threat, argued these one-note prophets, was (choose one, and only one) Communism, fiscal irresponsibility, military unpreparedness, technological disaster, unyielding partisanship, or spiritual decay. If the people failed to (choose one, and only one) reassert the values of the nation’s founders, restore the credibility of the dollar, restock the nation’s war-making arsenals, reject the allure of machines and computers, return to Nature, elevate country over party, or rededicate their souls to Christ, the United States of America would fly apart like an ill-made wheel.

As it happened (along the divergent branch of history that this book chronicles), the Republic collapsed not so much because things fell apart as because the center could not hold. The central government, under an unremitting barrage of regional priorities and narrow local solutions, ceded its place to an amalgam of virtually autonomous city-states, or Urban Nuclei, that separated from the heartland, so that the USA became the twenty-five poleis of the North American Urban Federation.

The symbols of this new social order were the immense, computer-designed domes capping the cities. Linked by seldom-used transit-tunnels, these Urban Nuclei rose like giant geodesic mushrooms from the cluttered neon and aluminum wilderness of the nation. The country had so leveled its landscapes that the forests of New England and the deserts of the Southwest were mere local variations on an inescapable suburban theme. It took a decade for the cities to erect their hemispherical shells, with resources that the plundered countryside yielded grudgingly. It also took so many lost human virtues—cooperation, ingenuity, perseverance—that few of the people under the domes realized what stifling secular infernos they were creating for themselves and their descendants.

Or why they were doing it.

The why arose from the irrational popular notion that the ultimate urban ecology must exist beneath a bubble or a dome. A science-fiction cliché for decades, this notion proved, if only in retrospect, an embarrassment to those who had adopted it without examining the preconceptions on which it was based. Indeed, it eventually proved such an embarrassment that in order to deny the sources of their chagrin, they invented reasons for staying as they were and resisted returning to the light. As a result, many Urban Nuclei inhabitants believed they lived in domes to protect themselves from the polluted air and pathogenic sunlight of the World Outside. This belief was in error, but for most it served.

For those demanding less facile explanations, several other theories arose. One stipulates that the domes had gone up because the materials and methods for building them had come to hand; that, in other words, the ability to engineer something not only presupposes but ensures that feat. Another theory posits the notion that the domes were the cities’ means of declaring economic and cultural independence from the rest of the nation, a divorce made possible by climate control, rooftop and hothouse cultivation, tank farming, and the creation of many kinds of chemical foodstuffs. (In truth, trade between the countryside and the cities continued unabated, albeit conducted in secret via fortified urban receiving points—as if for an Urban Nucleus to admit any degree of dependency was shameful.) A third theory embodies the bizarre but useful concept of “Preemptive Isolation,” the implication that the North American Urban Federation was concertedly resisting foreign attempts to entangle it in an unworkable Government of the West. The originators of this derogatory term were the leaders of New Free Europe.

Meanwhile, having engaged in a long nonnuclear war along a common frontier, Russia and China had neutralized each other as threats, making a confederation of domed cities in North America a viable alternative to union. In turn, the efforts of New Free Europe to annex the U.S. as one of its western polities had led to the local conclusion that the domes were not an option but a necessity: they represented an architectural barrier to the spores of foolish optimism and utopian meddlesomeness wafting westward across the Atlantic.

Finally, a few discerning Americans believed that the impulse behind the domes was not much different from that behind the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids. They were monuments to privilege, and tombs for all those trapped within. They were unparalleled feats of engineering, prodigious works of art, and unutterably loony memorials to human folly. They seemed, once they had arisen, as abiding and indestructible as the Earth. Like Everest and Annapurna, forever and always they were there.

Atlanta followed New York, Miami, and Los Angeles in raising a dome. During its construction, Atlanta’s leaders accepted under its girder-etched honeycombing half a million people from the surrounding countryside. This was the First Evacuation Lottery, an allegedly random computer selection of Georgia’s rural inhabitants. Surprisingly, most of those selected chose to obey their summons—perhaps because they were delighted to have won a lottery or half-panicked by realizing that someone had deemed an evacuation from the countryside crucial to their preservation.

Over half a decade, three more Evacuation Lotteries—each larger than the last—emptied the fields and town squares of the state and swelled Atlanta’s population to the bursting point. By the time the dome had been completed, the city housed most of its citizenry in topside tenements, dilapidated hotels and motor inns, and boxflats along the eerie concourses of its nine excavated understrata. Catacomb years, Atlanta’s residents called them, and, a few years into the twenty-first century, they seemed to extend before their denizens forever.

During the Catacomb Era, you could go crazy without ever realizing the depth of your madness. The apparently sane and the sadly deranged were often indistinguishable. You lived from day to day in the buried hope that your old age would deliver you to the dignity of death under a clear blue or star-spackled sky. Meanwhile, you sought to shape fragile human alliances against the terms of your imprisonment.

Back | Next