He breathed on the lens of the camera before he took the shot. Thought about wiping it clean, again, but only had his sweater cuff and didn’t want to introduce any possibility of a scratch to the milled German precision optics.
He took the shot. The water’s surface completely still; black; glassine. Perfect.
His sweater began swatting against him as a breeze picked up, rocking the small dinghy and setting up wobbles and ripples across the lake. He had been just in time.
Mountains troubled him. Folded rock; rumpled earth. Geographic, geologic processes worked all wrong there: freeze/thaw left rough jagged edges. Where he wanted to be, where he felt much more comfortable, where he could stop picking and chewing at his nails, was at the shore. That calmed, placated him. The rolling and jostling in the breaks made, eventually, perfect ovoids from even the hardest rock. If only the waves themselves could be made flat; the surf becalmed.
At home, surrounded by multi-layered, many syllabled flouropolymers. Smoother than anything produced by nature. Polytetraflourethylene, polyvinylflouride, polyethylenetraflouroethylene. Frictionless, dry, sterile at the molecular level. Made for the space race, of course, what became his wipe-clean surfaces should have been shearing through the atmosphere cleanly, leaving no turbulence. Touching nothing and being touched by nothing. Not even the thin air they were in.
The opposite of his beautiful, American-lab-made kitchen coatings (clean) was the city (unclean). So many sticky, scraped, shuffling things, everywhere. When he wandered its streets, he couldn’t help noticing how horribly organic it all was. Of course, he had been to the museum, seen its unrelenting sprawl from above in twee dioramas. Fishing village turns to trading port turns to colonial provincial capital, and on and on. Just grown - without any plan at all! And now - as he turned around himself, head tipped to see the peaks of the City banks gleam - it was everywhere, and unending, and irredeemable. Watching from above, he thought, staring up at the millionaires’ viewdecks, it must seem like an infernal hive. Insects scurrying along pheromone trails. Or vermin back and forth through tunnels. GPS trackers active in every tailored suit pocket, cell towers triangulating on every handbag. Trace those, he thought, mind spinning to an imagined control room, trace those and you could recreate the city plan. Each telephone signal a light on a black background; Oxford Street a cable-thick trunk; Piccadilly Circus a seething cauldron; Hyde Park a chasm crisscrossed by strollers’ paths, ribbon-thin and campfire-spark bright.
He had heard, or read, or perhaps just it had just been a black-and-white photograph in a film magazine that had lodged in his memory, about how special effects shots had been produced, back before VFX and Pixar and server farms. Spaceships, space stations, and the like. Models, of course. The technique was to rough out the substrate, plank together the balsa or the carbon fibre or such. Next came the functional components: the light-speed power drives, or space lasers, or other nonsense. After that, once they had created whatever box-, dart-, or disc-shaped marvel for their intergalactic adventures, clean and sharp and idealised, they would glue on irrelevant surface details. Cubes; windows; pipes; corners; foliations. They called them greebles. The thought of it. Taking an slick, atmosphere-cutting surface, and - on purpose - adding intricacies, depths, angles, corners, edges, crenellations. Shudder. Clench fists. Cold fingers and wet palms.
He had the photograph blown up and printed on glossy professional quality paper, then framed in black aluminium. After hanging it in his flat, he looked at his collection in turn. He supposed that a casual viewer, some interloper, would think that they appeared identical, or at least a number of shots of the same object. But what object? He had gone to some effort to make them appear so, but each was a photograph of a different thing or place. There was cut obsidian, mined in Armenia and polished in Antwerp; black gabbro, reflecting away the light it could not absorb, from a blank face of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington; the frontispiece of the newest Apple iPad, unsullied with epidermal grease, shot on a cavernous production line in Shenzen. And this latest, the surface of an English Lake District mere, still and blank. Scree-grey, the day had been, he recalled, the carpet of cloud descending almost to touch the fells about his dinghy. It had been an unsettling sensation as he sat, waiting for the marks on the surface from his oars to fade. Like being in the centre of an amphitheatre, or - yes - a city square. The sense of crowding, towering presence on all sides.
But that organic growth was really as organic as those DuPont lab-grown materials, wasn’t it? The placement of those corporate headquarters and monuments and cathedrals, avenues and yards and lanes was actually as calculable as molecular formulae. Or a set designer’s fake details, his nurnies and greebles. Now, because scale plastic models glued all over with cutoff Airfix was a twentieth century bygone, surface detail such as that was generated by computer, by algorithm. Calculated randomness; fractal redundancy. And so it was with the city, seen from above just another scale model. Korzybski and Borges had it right, except that they had never seen CAD or RenderMan. Now the model was the territory. Run an algorithm, calculate a set of paths. Generate a machine-intelligence swarm of insects, run them loose between honeypots and breeding areas, map those paths according to six-limbed footfall, build a Starbucks on either side of the the fattest.
He woke abruptly. His dream had placed him on the ground, very small. He had been standing on a giant rubber sheet. White elastic underfoot, stretching in all directions to the horizon. He had become aware of vibration; rhythmic thudding. The noise grew, and as it became louder the rubber took up vibrations underneath him. The amplitude grew greater and greater, pitching him up and down, higher and higher. In an instant the noise became very loud behind him, and, turning, he saw a huge, grotesquely enraged Tetramorium ant with mandibles raised. Its carapace black, slick, reflective. Jaws outstretched and reaching. He flung himself back, arms reaching, and, for one instant, one hundred thousand reflections of his own horrified face filled his vision as the giant head swept down to attack. Back in his room, he reached for the bedside lamp, pushed back his cotton sheet, felt sweat roll off him, and all over, a crawling.