The Fever of Urbicande, Chapter 3 (Cont.)
by Julian Darius, published before on Sequart Research & Literacy Organization at Monday 28 November 2011
We’ve previously looked at The Fever of Urbicande‘s prologue, some of that prologue’s implications, chapter one, chapter two, and the beginning of chapter three. This time, we’ll conclude our look at chapter three, in which the city really begins to feel the network’s affects.
I’ve also previously introduced The Obscure Cities series and discussed its first volume, The Walls of Samaris. You don’t need to read them to understand The Fever of Urbicande, but they’re there if you’d like more.
The following page begins the next day, marking the first time a chapter has covered more than one day. Whether Eugen and Sophie had sex the previous night or not, he’s clearly not been in touch with Thomas, despite the network’s alarming growth. As much as that suggests that Eugen has occupied himself with Sophie, it also suggests that his mind, while clearly intelligent, is also fickle. It’s bounced from the issue of Bridge Three to the network before, and now it seems as if it’s bounced again, this time to Sophie. This fickle nature seems part of his character, which is defined by a kind of focused intellectual curiosity but seems incapable of multitasking.
Eugen Robick is working at a desk, apparently in his library, because his main office is consumed by the network. He narrates that he hadn’t contacted Thomas the day before, marking the first day Thomas has not appeared.
Thomas arrives angry and says he’s “stupefied” by Robick’s “placidity” while the network threatens to “overturn the whole of our social fabric.” He warns of “chaos and anarchy” if the network isn’t stopped. Despite Robick having realized that “Thomas was right” the day before, he’s back in the position of needing to be prodded by the more alarmist Thomas. He apparently agrees to walk with Thomas, although we aren’t shown him doing so; the next thing we know, they’re walking through the city.
This again occasions Schuiten’s beautiful depictions of the city’s architecture. We see Robick’s building, where the network has clearly grown again and now sticks out of three sides of the building’s spherical top. The artwork is so lovely that it would be impolite to complain that while the network has advanced, it doesn’t seem to have advanced as much in the last day as it did in the day before that, despite that its pace is said to be accelerating. Equally, Robick’s building appears isolated next to the bordello, away from other buildings, making it less likely that he would never have run into Sophie before. But these are relatively minor complaints, especially in the face of Schuiten’s artwork.
The conversation between Thomas and Eugen is surprisingly illuminating, because Thomas raises quite legitimate points about Eugen’s architectural philosophy. Eugen’s main objection to the High Commission’s decision not to build Bridge Three was that it violated the principle of symmetry, leaving the city looking off-kilter. Thomas thus asks how Eugen could tolerate the network, which might be growing symmetrically but doesn’t fit into the architecture he’s so carefully crafted.
Robick’s response is a key one, suggestive of a change within him: “Things aren’t so clear cut, Thomas… contrast, don’t forget contrast! Who knows if monumental art doesn’t have a need for subtly discordant touches that can make us appreciate the much larger whole…” It’s an excellent point, going back to the old idea that an apparent flaw can serve as a foil, making a larger whole actually appear more impressive. But it’s also one that calls all of Robick’s own work into question.
Schuiten accompanies this dialogue with a masterful illustration of Robick’s monumental style. The two seem immersed in an enormous plaza, framed on either side by colonnades that are accented by long reflecting pools. In the distance, the plaza terminates in a massive staircase the height of a small skyscraper. Even the trees that dot the design are massive. In the foreground, large statues, seen from behind, stand at attention, as if ready to do their duty. Because of this brilliant composition, those statues overwhelm the scene, in which our characters appear submerged. The architecture isn’t merely “monumental” but pompous and reflective of totalitarian values. It looks altogether too composed, too perfect, too symmetrical — and because of this, too impersonal. Moreover, the looming statues and the word “mortalis,” carved in huge letters above a colonnade, feel somber, even threatening.
As Eugen and Thomas continue their walk, Eugen says that he’s never cared for too much detail, and he condemns the style of Xhystos (which we’ve seen in The Walls of Samaris) as “obsessed with curves and arabesques.” He hasn’t changed his opinion on these matters, but he foresees how the network carries “the possibility of a transformation in… how to put it…” Robick doesn’t finish the sentence, nor is it clear how he might have. But he seems to be straining for something which, if fully realized, would at least modify his entire architectural paradigm.
Of course, that paradigm has vast implications. To Robick, it might seem as if all he’s talking about is leaning how to use “subtly discordant touches” to augment the majesty of his monumental designs. But those designs support Urbicande’s power structure. They affect not only the physical paths that the city’s inhabitants take but the mental ones as well. And what Robick’s created is as undeniably oppressive as it is impressive. Its every use of monumental scale and its every statue lets the city’s inhabitants know that they are only tiny mice compared to the city’s unfathomable power structure, which the same architecture imbues with values such a greatness and patriotism. All of this, as with all totalitarian architecture, indicates insecurity. And an insecure, totalitarian power structure cannot admit the kinds of flaws or aesthetic discord that Robick now seems to be contemplating.
As mild as Robick’s observation is, it’s very much revolutionary. He doesn’t know it, because his mind isn’t political, as the High Commission itself pointed out (in chapter one). But he’s not only calling into question his life’s work. He’s calling into question the basic assumptions of Urbicande as a city-state.
Thomas doesn’t seem to see the implications of his friend’s thoughts either, but he lacks Eugen’s intellectual curiosity. He cuts Eugen off to focus on what he sees as a very real and pressing problem: the need to find “a remedy” for the network.
Robick immediately rejects that “a remedy” is even possible. The network hasn’t needed them to grow, and it’s apparently impartial to everything around it. Robick has no problem recognizing their impotence.
It’s an impasse between the two friends. Thomas says he “hope[s] for your sake you manage to convince the High Commission,” and he says that he’s parting ways with Robick. “Don’t count on me to support you,” he says.
What Thomas means, about the High Commision, isn’t clear, but it doesn’t take long to figure out. A frustrated Robick heads back to his building, where he finds a retinue carrying flags around the lead member of the High Commission, seen in chapter one (when he denied Robick’s appeal about Bridge Three). The commissioner jokes that he’s had to wait for Robick this time. He speaks respectfully: “The commissioners and myself would like to ask some explanation of your latest invention.” But underneath these kind and jovial words, honoring Robick’s position and history, is the reality of this pompous display of power.
Robick is hardly in a mood to bow and scrape. He says that the network is “a scientific problem” and that he’ll only explain his “conclusions” about it “before the Academy.” His narration suggests that the lead commissioner protests but relents, and the Academy holds a “special session.” How the Academy, which manages scientific matters, relates to the High Commission in Urbicande’s bureaucracy isn’t completely clear, but it’s likely that the High Commission is the superior body, given that it seems able to compel Robick’s appearance and seems capable of summoning the Academy into special session.
The Academy has a large and lavish hall, in which Robick addresses the body. Like most of the city, it’s filled with statuary, indicative of the links between such statues and the authority they implicitly represent. Curiously, the room is largely filled with empty seats, perhaps indicating that most of the Academy’s members were not able to arrive for the special session.
Robick claims to have derived a formula that can confidently predict, “hour by hour,” the network’s growth, and he’s got it displayed behind him as he speaks. What Robick describes is a simple geometric progression, and it doesn’t take much to realize that the number of cubes in the network will soon surpass 1000 and that the length of their sides will be “several meters long.”
The Academy scoffs at this, mocking Robick. It’s easy to see why: the network is still small, and it’s hard to imagine it growing to the size Robick suggests. But to him, this is a matter of impartial mathematics.
The final straw comes when someone demands that Robick describe what the network is made of, and he replies, “We are obligated to consider, as fantastic as it may appear, the possibility of an auto-generating material…” The Academy erupts into derision. “Get this fraud out of here!” shouts one member. Robick doesn’t help himself when he adds that the material seems to be “indestructible.” One member says the he “never trusted this Robick.”
Robick descends from the extremely elevated podium. “I’m leaving, gentlemen. I’m not in the habit of speaking to imbeciles.” A prominent member of the Academy, without rising, calls out to him, “Watch yourself, Robick! Your arrogance will be the end of you.”
A dejected Robick exits the building, and this image ends the sequence. The next page begins on the following day.
It’s worth asking how the Academy, which supposedly oversees scientific matters, could be so “incompetent,” as Robick puts it. To be sure, what Robick’s saying does sound fantastic, as he himself points out. And the Academy hasn’t seen the network’s development, unlike Robick and readers. But the arrogant way in which they denounce Robick, proclaiming his speech a disgrace to the Academy, goes beyond simply ignorance.
One answer is that the Academy is hardly composed of scientific experts, despite its dominion over the field. It’s possible that the Academy is appointed for political reasons, which wouldn’t be altogether surprising in a state like Urbicande, of haves and have-nots. While their incredulity is somewhat understandable, their comments don’t seem to be particularly scientific. Indeed, they seem far more concerned with their own power, as visually indicated by those statues and the absurdly high podium. If the Academy has been turned into a political body, through appointment of cronies rather than the best scientific minds, this might also explain why so many members don’t bother to show up, even if this is a special session.
Robick’s disgust with the Academy seems to suggest this. He narrates that he “had never imagined that the commissioners […] could be so incompetent.” It’s not clear if, by “the commissioners,” he means the Academy members of the members of the High Commission that might have appointed the Academy’s members, but the underlying message is the same either way. Robick, who has already begun to subtly doubt his own architectural principles (and through them the principles of Urbicande), has now experienced a loss of faith in the city’s organization. The failure to build Bridge Three might show aesthetic ignorance, but the incompetence of the city’s scientific body reveals a far deeper problem.
Robick hasn’t said so, but the reader can guess that, underneath all that pompous architecture and the flag-carrying retinues, the high-and-mighty ruling classes seem far more concerned with their own privileges than with meriting their positions.
The network, which is by definition uncontrolled and uncontrollable, threatens this power structure. In this regard, it’s worth noting another aspect of the Academy’s architecture, beyond its pompous statuary and podium. Its ceiling is covered with inset square patterns, which probably serve an acoustic function, helping to amplify sound. The same principle can be seen in many real-life auditoriums. But in the context of The Fever of Urbicande, it’s hard not to notice that the grid formed by these square patterns strongly recalls the network itself.
This is never more apparent than in the corners, where the lower level of ceiling around the room’s edges rises to meet the ceiling of the room’s central portion. There, as if to ease the transition between the two forms, cubes have been cut out of where the two surfaces with their square patterns meet. This too may have acoustical benefits, but it’s hard not to see a reflection, in these piled cubical voids, of the network itself.
(This zone may be seen in the large, first panel to show the Academy’s interior, but it’s much more visible at the top of the sequence’s final page, in which we look up and at Robick on the podium. Robick’s arm is raised to emphasize his point, but it because of the panel’s composition, it also happens to point to this zone.)
To read this correlation too literally would be a mistake. But it’s another sign — a sutble, visual one — that the story’s original A-plot, involving Bridge Three and Urbicande’s power structure, is intimately related to what was the story’s original B-plot, involving the anomalous cube that became the network. One cannot be considered without the other.
The day ends at the end of this sequence. It’s the fourth day of the story, 27 June, and the second so far in this chapter. But whereas the first two days, given one chapter each, showed both morning and evening, these next two days have each been cut off before completion — with a somewhat jarring effect, in the case of the previous day, in which Robick met Sophie.
But these more recent two days are different in another respect. The first two days stay comfortably within the elite world of Eugen and Thomas as they navigate the High Commission. The third and fourth day involve adjacent worlds, neither of which are flattering to Urbicande. The first of these is an underworld, barely beneath the surface, of sexual pleasure, which intersects with the world of power and privilege but which has a very different tone. This fourth day involves another elite world, that of the Academy, but it’s a world of ignorance and — one suspects — cronyism. Both of these two new worlds push Robick away from the city’s power structure: the first through providing an alluring alternative, embodied in Sophie, and the second by exposing the corruption and incompetence of the city’s elite.
This second concern continues into the next day, which is given only a single page. It begins with Robick narrating how “they sent a team of workers” to his building to try to stop the network. Despite Robick’s protests that they’re wasting their time, they use steel-reinforced concrete to wall up an entrance, at the bottom of a staircase. This three-panel sequence concludes with a marvelous final panel, in which we see the network poking through this construction, visually indicating the total impotence of the authorities. In the background of the same panel, Robick sits at his alternate desk (seen at the beginning of the previous day’s sequence) and narrates how the workers “succeeded in breaking down a door and ruining some furniture.”
Robick’s position in the panel visually communicates how withdrawn he is from these events. Since his appearance before the Academy, he’s clearly no longer being consulted by the powers that be, who have sent a work crew because they disbelieve what he’s said. Perhaps more tellingly, despite his elevated position in the city, his private space has been violated, not only without his consent but without his prior notification. One couldn’t ask for a clearer indication of how much Robick’s status has changed — nor of how little Robick cares for status.
Yet it’s noteworthy that this is accomplished without ever spelling out either of those points, which Robick could simply be made to narrate. The sequence demonstrates, in microcosm, how well The Fever of Urbicande communicates in the manner, having left everything about the city’s totalitarian culture implicit, rather than explicit.
The page concludes this fifth day of the story with two large panels that illustrate the wider city’s response to the growing network.
In the first panel, a crowd has gathered to look at the network growing out of Robick’s building. Some, in the foreground, take a high vantage point, while tiny silhouettes of figures may be seen on the ground below. Over this, Robick narrates, “People are disturbed and exited at the same time. They gather in the streets, despite the increased security checkpoints. Each appears to be waiting for something still unformulated.”
The narrative has so far had no clearer sign that Urbicande represents a totalitarian state, and without Robick explicitly saying so, revolution seems to be in the air. The network is a tiny flaw upon the monumental city, not unlike Robick’s new aesthetic theory. But instead of augmenting the majesty of the whole, as Robick muses, this single stain seems instead to threaten the whole. Because, tiny as it is, the state cannot control it. And this network, this one thing the state is helpless to stop, has demonstrated the fragility of the regime.
Of course, the regime is aware of the threat, and it’s already cracking down, in the form of “increased security checkpoints.” And in the next panel, by posting an “emergency decree,” which may well include those same checkpoints, as well as other curtailments of civil liberties. And by sending futuristic police vehicles through the streets broadcasting warnings: “Our city is today the victim of a momentary crisis that certain people hope to exploit for subversive ends. In these difficult moments, we can only exhort the population to remain calm.”
It’s a thoroughly polite message, but that politeness is radically undercut by the armored (and perhaps armed) look of the vehicle delivering it. But the rhetoric itself also displays the sort of abuse of language that George Orwell famously identified with authoritarian regimes. It claims that the crisis is “momentary,” although we have every indication that this isn’t the case, as Robick has stated about the network’s growth to the Academy. The term “certain people” is vague, avoiding blame, and we may well wonder whether it’s Robick who the phrase is supposed to mean, although it could equally be the case that the city’s leadership suspects that some ringleaders are encouraging people to take to the streets. Ultimately, the intended meaning of the phrase (if one even exists) doesn’t matter, since its real effect is to instill a climate of fear and suspicion, in which one may suspect one’s neighbors of being “subversive” — or even alter one’s own behavior, for fear of the same suspicion falling on one’s self.
Then there’s the way the message claims that the city is a “victim,” although the vehicle delivering the message doesn’t look easily victimized. It’s obvious that the message is speaking less about “our city” than its ruling elites, and such an equivocation is a key sign of corruption, if not authoritarianism. That’s not to say that the powerful can’t ever be victimized. But beware of powerful people claiming to be victims of the comparatively powerless.
Finally, what is the ostensible point of such a message, if not to intimidate? To “exhort the population to remain calm.” Well, what happens if the population does not remain calm? Could this menacing vehicle, by any chance, be turned on that population? Is this not implicit?
What sounds like a polite message of caution is in fact anything but. Indeed, to threaten openly should always be considered less offensive than to threaten and to intimidate by implication. Nothing makes a snarl more objectionable than when it’s hidden behind a smile.
That’s not to say the city’s elites have nothing to fear. In the previous panel, we learned only of crowds gathering, in defiance of the city’s increased controls. In this second panel, we see graffiti behind the posted decree — something we’ve never before seen in the pristine, quasi-utopian Urbicande. It’s a minor form of protest, to be sure — but if it weren’t seen as threatening, why would it have been covered up so quickly, not only by the decree but by what look like multiple previous layers, as if it were already papered over even before the decree was posted?
And in this, we have a perfect metaphor for the insecurity that underlies totalitarianism: the slightest bit of dissent, mere words on a wall, nervously papered over and then covered, in turn, by an “emergency decree” that uses this “crisis” to justify the curtailment of civil rights.
This fifth day of the narrative ends there, after a single page. When we turn the page, it’s 1 July, some three days later. It’s the first time a day has been skipped completely, let alone two at once.
It’s worth noting how the narrative so far has accelerated; each day has so far been shorter than the last. The first chapter ran nine pages, covering a single day. The second chapter ran eight, covering the next day. This third chapter’s gives six pages to the third day, then five pages to the fourth. The fifth day is reduced to a single page, and the next two days get zero. So while these days might feel increasingly truncated, this pacing echoes the acceleration of the network’s growth. It also helps make the reader feel as if events are spiraling out of control as the network grows. This culminates in the final two panels of these 29 pages, which pull back to discuss the city as a whole for the first time, showing an Urbicande that seems on the verge of revolution.
The last two pages of the chapter break this pattern. Three days later, Urbicande seems on the verge of chaos. Robick narrates, “More and more often, people are seeking me out to ask my advice.” We see Robick making a house call, and the prongs sticking through the wall and furniture confirm that the network has, in the preceding days, stretched through the dwellings around Robick’s building. It’s a ritzy home, reminding us of the South Bank’s status and privilege: it includes a bear-skin rug and paintings, which a man nervously secures away from the network’s path.
Over this, Robick narrates that he responds to those who seek him out with “elementary remarks, recommending that people don’t sleep before verifying that no post threatens them.” Over the next panel, he explains that “Several people have found themselves trapped for hours. One hears whispers that some have died of hunger or asphyxiation, but it’s officially been denied.”
It’s a fascinating implication of the network, a logical extension of its properties. At the beginning of this chapter, we saw how far the network could grow during the night, trapping and even impaling Robick. That experience is bound to be repeated more and more, as the network expands. It is possible that someone might wake up pinned, as in the rumors Robick mentions. But it’s far more likely that someone would be impaled and, not being as logical or patient as Robick, hurt himself or herself by trying to move.
Of course, we shouldn’t take the official denials as meaningful, given what we’ve learned of Urbicande’s state. And the fact that Robick doesn’t know the truth only cements how he’s on the outs with the city’s power structure.
Accompanying Robick’s report of rumors, we see him walking intently through the street. If he’s disturbed by his loss of status, he doesn’t seem disturbed by it. In the foreground, we see two armed soldiers, standing at attention in a manner that recalls the famous guards outside Buckingham Palace. The soldiers don’t seem to be threatening anyone, but their presence on the streets is a show of force, an attempt at intimidation, not unlike the armored vehicle seen earlier.
On the other side of the same panel, a man stands, arms raised, on what look like crates and speaks to a small crowd. He preaches that the network is a “sanction for our pride,” presumably from a deity of some sort. Here, in miniature, we realize that the network’s effect extends even to religion, as most social turmoil does. It’s another brilliant but logical implication of the network, which has already grown to touch everything.
Before the page is over, we cut to the next day. Robick narrates that he’s received word from Sophie, and he’s walking through the gardens in front of her building. The network’s already filled them with cubes.
No doubt like many in Urbicande, Sophie refuses to believe that Robick didn’t create the network. One can see why: not only is Robick known as a genius, but the network started in his office. Sophie says that “Even if it’s not you who invented it, it’s not by chance that it started in your building!” Sophie, it seems, doesn’t believe in coincidence. No, like much of Urbicande, Sophie thinks politically.
She wants to create “a movement” to support Robick. “We must overthrow these incompetents, Eugen! They’re driving us straight to a catastrophe…” She claims that Robick is the only one who can lead this movement — she does not use the word revolution.
This invitation may surprise readers, largely because we’ve followed Robick and know he neither is responsible for the network nor has political motives. But it’s a completely logical development. After all, what’s easier to believe: that a fantastic network like this started growing of its own accord and is truly unstoppable, or that Robick’s created it? Which are the residents of a state so preoccupied with control going to believe? Presumably, it’s no secret that Robick’s a genius, nor that he had a dispute with the High Commission over Bridge Three. Would anyone believe that the network simply happened to begin growing in Robick’s office, following the refusal of Bridge Three? Even Thomas, Robick’s friend, seemed to harbor such suspicions at the end of chapter two, and he’s subsequently abandoned Robick.
But why would Robick create the network? Obviously, the network bridges worlds, making it an apt response to the lack of Bridge Three. But the result of the network has been social chaos, to the point that the state clearly fears revolution. It’s a social chaos that, knowing Urbicande, Thomas was easily able to predict. And having witnessed it, Sophie (and others, we may assume) have quite naturally assumed that this social chaos was the network’s function all along — and therefore, Robick’s intent.
Of course, that’s not at all what we’ve been shown. The truth, while it relies on the fantastical elements of the network, is one defined not by conscious intent but by historical happenstance. The cube was brought to Robick’s office because it was unearthed on a construction site. It has grown at an askew angle because that’s how Thomas happened to set it down, before it expanded into Robick’s desk. These are completely intelligible events, yet they are defined by circumstance, rather than conspiratorial intent.
Such conspiratorial thinking is satisfying, because it presumes that someone has control over the situation, rather than that situation being the result of a confluence of ostensibly random or accidental factors. Such thought presumes that intent, not accident, drives human events. It presumes a very close tie between motivation and outcome. And such thought is particularly appealing to those without power, whose lives are so obviously subject to forces beyond their control, because it provides a psychological bulwark against the rather obvious conclusion that theses forces, to which we are all subject, are governed as much by randomness or unintended accident as by conscious planning. “Since I am not in charge,” the thinking goes, “someone must be, or else my life (and perhaps the universe) feels meaningless.”
Yet despite the appeal of such thinking, that’s not what history teaches us. History is filled with such accidents, which have had far-reaching consequences. Columbus, knowing the world is round but miscalculating its circumference, sets sail for the Indies and discovers America. Over and over, kings and emperors and presidents die randomly, and their successors change policies. The Roman emperor Julian restores religious toleration and classical learning, but is felled by a stray arrow, and Europe plunges into the Dark Ages. Weather has routinely swayed military victories, saving both the English and the Japanese from naval invasion, as well as the outcome of the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Economic and political decisions that seem rational at the time often have the opposite of their intended effect. And at every step of the way, cultural preferences begun decades or centuries before, established for narrow reasons of historical circumstance that no longer hold true, influence these decisions. As uncomfortable as our brains may be with such radical ambiguity, as wired as they clearly are to see patterns and intent even in forces of nature, the history of the world is at least as much one of error and accident as one of passionate design.
But Sophie, while clearly as subject as most to fallacious, conspiratorial thinking, says something equally fascinating: “Even if it’s not you who invented [the network], it’s not by chance that it started in your building!” She seems to be hinting at some sort of divine intervention, and the language of the street preacher indicates that Urbicande isn’t immune from the hubristic thought that some unspecified divinity or supernatural force might deign to intervene in the affairs of Urbicande.
But it’s also possible to read Sophie’s words here as practical and opportunistic, despite their thin veneer of piety. Of course, that’s hardly anything novel: religious statements are often used to justify or bless actions which are personally advantageous, and it’s clear from evolution that this is a large part of what religion is for — bans against incest or eating food likely to be contaminated aren’t moral at all, of course, except in the broadest sense, in which being practical might be considered a communal good.
And indeed, a sort of practical truth underlying Sophie’s words. The network did start after the High Commission demonstrated its unreliability and lack of commitment to Robick’s plans, which it had earlier approved. And the network has subsequently exposed not only the incompetence of the Academy but the fragility of Urbicande’s totalitarian controls. Even if the network wasn’t Robick’s design, it has had these effects. The network itself may well have occurred “by chance,” despite Sophie’s claim. But its effects have not been “by chance” at all. Rather, they have been logical outgrowths of the network, and they have consistently exposed the corruption and weakness of what Sophie goes on to describe as “these incompetents.”
Sophie’s worldview may been deeply flawed, and she makes the mistake of ascribing intent for the network’s creation. But this pattern-making mind isn’t wrong in seeing the pattern of the network’s effects. And it’s one that she seeks to seize upon.
Just as she doesn’t seem to fully recognize the practical basis for her allusions to divine intervention, Sophie doesn’t seem fully comfortable attributing her own opportunistic motives. She runs a house of prostitution, and her language earlier this chapter made it clear that she has a low social status because of this, at least compared to Robick’s before his fall from grace. She’s not necessarily wrong that the city’s power structure is corrupt and needs replacement, but she couches this in language extolling the good of the city. “They’re driving us straight to a catastrophe,” she warns, perhaps referencing the city’s crackdowns, which she may believe are unduly harsh and are steering the city towards the potentially violent chaos of a revolution. But she refuses to admit, at least to Robick, how her own practical self-interest plays into her apparently noble intentions.
Of course, she thinks Robick has a similar practical self-interest. And given the suspicion now placed upon him, as well as the likelihood of escalation, Sophie’s quite right in this. But as we’ve already seen, Robick’s virtually incapable of thinking practically.
And so, in response to her invitation to essentially be the campaign manager for a revolution that would put Robick in charge of the city, what does Robick do?
He stares, hand on his chin, while she speaks, as if deep in thought. But he’s got his back turned to her. And then he interjects, “You know, Sophie, you could make this hall much more dramatic… Look, all you’d have to do is get rid of those plants there and add a statue instead.”
In his own way, Robick is as incompetent as the High Commission or the Academy. He’s so immune from political thinking that he hasn’t even heard her, so lost has he been in aesthetic considerations. He’s the ultimate absent-minded professor, his head in the clouds.
If Sophie’s intellectual sin is conspiratorial thinking, assuming intent and meaning in patterns, Robick’s intellectual sin is a constitutional inability to think practically — which can be equally dangerous.
For the purposes of illustrating Robick’s disinterest, he could remark upon any aesthetic matter in the room. In a lesser work, his remark would be, well, unremarkable except for how it advances the narrative. Yet here, his words also illustrate that, while he may have begun to question his architectural principles, he’s far from escaping his old mentality. Nothing could better represent the cold, totalitarian architecture of Urbicande than the suggestion that one should replace plants with another pompous statue. Robick may be questioning himself, but he hasn’t really changed. And this aesthetic stasis is tied to his intellectual stasis, in which he cannot force himself to be practical, even while he’s at the center of the city’s budding revolutionary and counter-revolutionary tensions.
Robick thus fails to seize the moment.
There may also be some sexism at work, in Robick’s failure to take Sophie’s suggestion seriously. We’ve already seen how awkward he was with her in the garden, at the beginning of this chapter, when Sophie was able to appeal to him in part by derogating her own intelligence. And Urbicande is a male-dominated society: there are no women in either the High Commission, nor the Academy. When he introduces Sophie’s offer, he writes that “she’s gotten [this idea] into her head.” His dismissive tone may owe more to the idea than the speaker, but we may well ask whether he would have listened better, had it been Thomas who broached the proposal.
But if Sophie detects any sexism, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she seems to thank him for his aesthetic advice, even though that same advice was really a dismissal of her political advice. She says, “You’re kind, Eugen,” and she kisses him.
It’s such a French response. She doesn’t berate him. She doesn’t ask him to change. Instead, she sees that he’s incapable of thinking practically, and she accepts this. There’s such a loving acceptance of his nature in this kiss, this affectionate gesture that says everything without literally saying anything.
Robick reacts with surprise. This may suggest that the couple hasn’t been physically intimate (following the cut at the end of this chapter’s first day). But it may also simply suggest that his head was in the clouds, and he didn’t expect her to react this way. He’s hapless.
His reaction to the kiss ends the chapter, and that’s apt. Sophie was featured in the chapter’s first day, and she doesn’t return until the chapter’s final one. But the kiss is also an apt ending to the chapter because it feels like both a beginning and an ending, much as the chapter ends but the story is only getting started.
It almost feels like a kiss goodbye, and it’s certainly an acknowledgement, on Sophie’s part, that Robick can’t be a part of her practical or political observations. That’s a part of who Sophie is, a part Robick cannot touch.
But it’s also a kiss hello, whether or not it’s the first kiss they’ve shared. Because Robick is there, responding to her note summoning him. He may not be able to respond to her politically, but he may still be able to respond to her personally. It would be wrong to suggest that her note and her political ideas were merely a lure to spend time with him. But these two options are not mutually exclusive: she may be serious about her suggestion, which she’s clearly put some thought into, and also wish to spend time with him, using her idea as a justification.
Human motives are rarely singular, and any action is likely to be the result of multiple, even sometimes conflicting intents — in the same way that Sophie may well wish to help the city, while also elevating her own position. Her mind, with its sense of pattern and purpose, may not fully recognize the ambiguity of human events, but her actions demonstrate that same ambiguity so well.