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Consider this scenario:

A religious man, whose followers are persecuted and killed by sneering locals, gathers thousands of his co-religionists for a perilous trip into a barely-charted region: all worldly possessions will be packed away into vessels and brought across the vast wasteland. He draws meticulous plans for a new community, and then the journey begins, taking years and years: slowly, the new colonists trickle in, although many die en route and he himself cannot make the journey. The planned city is created. A new language evolves. Cut off from outside resources, the colony is forced to become self-sufficient, and focuses many early efforts on securing natural resources in order to build its industrial base, all the while preserving its unique religion and, under the pressure of continuing divine revelations, taking it farther and farther from the original doctrine of those left behind.

This is a favorite trope of science fiction: outer space colonies, seeded by a fanatical group of one stripe or another, and allowed to bear twisted fruit. In recent fiction, I think of the world of George R. R. Martin's "The Way of Cross and Dragon," the monarchists of David Weber's Basilisk and the zealot's dyad of Grayson and Masada; the bizarreries of Jack Vance's Gaean reach, Dan Simmons' Templars. Let a fringe group explore the stars, and the result will be a patchwork of marvels, and often a shockingly weird culture for Our Heroes to encounter.

Except I wasn't thinking of a fictional group in my example above; I was thinking about the Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City.

I've always been interested in Mormonism, partly due to my proximity to its genesis -- Mormonism began in Palmyra, New York, not far from my hometown of Rochester. As a result, there's an active Mormon presence here -- a classmate from my Catholic high school ended up converting to Mormonism so he could marry; Mormons come to our door once every year or so and preach to us; a woman I canvassed attempted to convert me as I attempted to solicit money from her.

The biggest and most obvious aspect of Mormonism in Rochester is the Hill Cumorah Pageant. The Hill Cumorah is the spot where Joseph Smith claimed to have dug up golden tablets containing a new Testament, which became the basis for the changes that Mormonism introduced to Christianity. It's become the center of a complex including Joseph Smith's rebuilt house, and a couple other sites where Joseph spent his time, now museums and archives, all in this quaint woodsy wilderness. The Mormon Church sponsors a massive pageant there every year, where lasers and actors and massive scenery and spotlights combine in a multimedia extravaganza illustrating key passages from the Mormon history of the world. (The year I saw the pageant, the script was written by Mormon SF author Orson Scott Card. Perhaps that's what got me thinking about the connections between Mormonism and science fiction.)

Now, the Pageant is full of odd sights and sounds. The Mormon history of America involves lost tribes, Europeans sailing to America before the time of Jesus, and great fallen civilizations. The show involves lots of people in bright colors, seeing angels, fighting wars, smiting foes, and the like. Watching the show, you can't help but be wowed by the spectacle and the color and the strangeness of the story: it's like Vance's worlds of unusual custom, where a slight misunderstanding of syntax, the wrong gesture, can get the unwary foreigner killed, or engaged to be married. This Mormonism is a science fantasy world, an alternate history story with a cast of thousands. It's also isolated in a forest, not really near a major town, lost in the sticks. Another analogy might be the old village mystery plays, which still survive in touristy form at places like Oberammergau. There's a quaint, unreal atmosphere, a relic of the past, an antique whisper of a bygone, or never-gone place.

Then I came to Salt Lake City, which is a high-tech utopian's dream. Salt Lake City is still flush from hosting the Winter Olympics in 2002; as it boasts, it's the largest city to ever host the Winter Olympics, and it has capitalized on the profits to both install a new light rail system, and expand and beautify its downtown. Salt Lake City is the cleanest city I have ever been in, and one of the most structured. Tall buildings, unobtrusive malls, and a complex of religious sites known as "Temple Square" organize the downtown area, which is filled with prosperous storefronts and bustling businesses, and people walking at all hours of the day and night. The area blooms with color: in the middle of a desert, Salt Lake has trees lining every street, and formal gardens aplenty. Even the rooftops of some of the buildings are gardens. The Salt Lake Valley itself is a narrow strip of arable land in a hot, dry state, and the unnatural profusion of green in town is quite shocking: sprinklers flow all night long to maintain the verdure.

What struck me the most about Salt Lake City was its planned nature, especially as opposed to other Western towns I've visited recently. Often, a frontier planet in a work of fiction is a site of chaos and free-wheeling business, modeled, perhaps, on the Old West boom towns. Indeed, some places I visited on my recent trip, like West Yellowstone, Wyoming, or Arco, Idaho, spread for miles, and featured glitzy tourist traps and chintzy souvenir stands, or fast food places and motels, haphazardly arrayed, with confusing streets and seemingly no guidance. Houston might be the grossest example of this chaos, since it lacks zoning codes, but it's certainly not the only place in confusing disorder. Idaho Falls had a well-structured downtown built around a river, but a sprawling and meandering landscape elsewhere. The secret of its tight urban core? The Mormon temple at its center.

Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church believed in structure. A number of architects and builders joined the Church from the very beginning; the beehive, symbolizing industry, was the favorite symbol of early convert Brigham Young, who later took over as leader. Perhaps as a result, the Mormons planned and executed their migrations with great care and skill. Smith developed a "plat," essentially a schematic, for the towns that he hoped to settle in the West. These plats, on display at Mormon museums, remind me a lot of a Sim City landscape: an organized grid of blocks, whose development is planned in order to ensure sanitation, beauty, and ease of access. Settlers adhered closely to Smith's plans, appropriate, perhaps, since certain locations were said to be revealed to him by God Himself (just as God would later tell Brigham Young where to site the Temple in Salt Lake City). While Smith didn't live to see the Mormon migration to Salt Lake City (he was killed while in prison by locals who objected to his policies on polygamy), his plan, or rather plat, survived him, and the resulting Mormon settlement was based on a grid.

The streets were wide enough for carriages to turn around (about four lanes in today's measurements -- a width that it took Baron Haussman a massive slum-clearing demolition campaign to achieve in Paris). The blocks were uniform, and built around the great Mormon Temple. They were numbered, based on their distance from the temple: 1st streets east and west, north and south, then second street, then third. The city has retained its numbering system and its block structure. That means, in practice, that it's incredibly easy to navigate the downtown of Salt Lake City, and also that it's perfectly simple to judge the location of a place, just knowing its street address. Idaho City and other Mormon settlements retain this grid-based numbering system. Salt Lake is certainly not the only gridded city in the US, but it seems to me to be among the simplest and most effectively laid out. One reason for this is that the physical geography of the area helps to structure the city. Salt Lake is a narrow city, because the fertile and watered area is not wide. Most of the population of Utah is concentrated in Salt Lake City for much the same reason: hostile environmental conditions prohibit the development of much of the state.

This yen for organization also extended to an attempted restructuring of the entire English language: the "Deseret Script." Brigham Young was fascinated by British attempts to simplify the English language, through tools like shorthand. (A little later, George Bernard Shaw also became a proponent of a similarly simplified language.) Young set a group of Mormon scholars to the task of developing an improved script for the English language, and after a few days they produced a new phonetic alphabet, which was refined over the course of two years into a 32-symbol script which used no Roman characters at all. The Book of Mormon was printed in this new script, as were other documents, but it failed to catch on, and nowadays there's little mention or record of it. While other Mormon innovations and ideas have left their mark on Salt Lake, the Deseret Script has died away.

Salt Lake also maintains a Disneyland quality, because of the stewardship of the Church and its maintenance of the Temple Square area, as well as other downtown attractions. Salt Lake attracts gawking Mormon tourists much as St Peter's lures Catholics: it's a popular site for marriages as well as a pilgrimage site. But the Disneyland quality comes from both the gardenwork, and the presence of numerous similarly-dressed guides who approach you every few moments among the Mormon landmarks. The Temple Square area is filled with these young women, about 21 or so, who are completing their year of service to the Church partly by serving as tour guides and proselytizing to passersby. Wearing a perpetual smile and a badge with the flags of their home countries, they are multiethnic and multilingual, meaning that a traveler should be greeted with his or her native language after arriving. They also maintain the pleasant, trying-too-hard image of The Temple area, which abounds with greenery, moreso than the rest of the city: the sculptured, landscaped look brings to mind the topiary of Versailles or the formal gardens of a British palace.

The Mormons have ploughed much of the wealth of their church into beautifying the downtown and making sure that their own landmarks remain glorious and impressive. The Mormon tabernacle couldn't hold enough people, so the Mormons built a giant Assembly building, with UN-style instant translation devices to accommodate converts worldwide. A new convention center and a new public library are architecturally showy and also highly impressive, designed to lure in travelers (the public library is heavily advertised, even in tourist books.) The light rail and the city's walkability mean that there is little traffic, at least during my visit, and the pleasant strolling through modern structures and lush greenery seems a perfect mix between technology and the pastoral.

The question is, are space settlements more likely to resemble the Mormon city of Salt Lake that we see today, or the loose, frontier settlements of the Wild West, the gold rush towns and the Arcos and West Yellowstones?

I think that the exigencies of planning suggest that the Mormon model is the best way to think about future city-building. Right now, the economics of sending a colony even to the moon are overwhelming. Various groups are scheming to set up a commercial space station on the cheap, but the travails of the International Space Station show that, for a trip to succeed, planning and foresight need to take precedence over money, and merely throwing money at a situation will not result in a useful or viable colony. It seems clear that any attempt, even by a religious group, would be a massive effort and so the subject of massive plans. Any possible colony would be designed, re-designed, over-designed, and re-over-designed. The layers of bureaucracy and government planning that would be brought to bear on a NASA attempt would be mind-boggling, and even a leaner, meaner corporate approach would no doubt face years of planning and organizing well before any sort of settlement occurred. It's also pretty clear that narrow natural resources, and difficulties in settling patterns, will force any settlements into small spaces which will need to be centrally organized in order to succeed.

This brings to mind the settlement of Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson's novels, with its initial strict settlement. Robinson's suggestion of an eventual anarchic flow, of the opportunistic settlements that result in confusion when the first Hundred can no longer recognize everyone present, strike me as less plausible. It makes a great story, but it seems unlikely that Mars would develop in anything but a structured or planned way for quite a while. The sticking points remain shipping and transport, the same problems that faced the Mormons: it would take massive resources and massive planning to develop a world with any technology available today. Even if drives got cheaper and faster, the sheer cost of moving material makes planning and organization necessary.

But along with organization comes public relations. Just like Salt Lake City, any site of contact with the outside world would seemingly be designed with contact in mind. Instead of a sense of alienation and strange customs being foisted upon the unsuspecting foreigner, I believe that the model of Salt Lake, with its young multicultural girls spreading the gospel of the Church subtly and winningly, is more likely to prevail, and what tourists, travelers, and traders will see is not a strange world, but a familiar one; that similarities will purposely be played up. Arriving at a New World will result in a greeting by more of the same, a carefully-designed guided tour geared towards not offending sensibilities: the group behind a settlement will also be sure, through its very existence, to keep visitors at their ease.

The gardens of Salt Lake, maintained at great expense, remind us that a colony will remember and value what it has lost in its new journey. The greenery reminded me a lot of Herbert's Arrakis, or, in the real world, the architecture of Moorish Spain -- buildings and porches contained grooves in the middle of the floor to carry water, and there were ornamental and drinking fountains everywhere, like the Alhambra palace. It's clear that the display and control of blooming plants and the flowing of water are powerful psychological symbols to a group trapped in a desert, and lacking the comforts of home. My father, the retired environmentalist, tells me that this flow of water is actually unsustainable and is shrinking the Great Salt Lake, but this sacrifice seems worthwhile to the locals.

The water-poor planned cities in our own world, like Israel and Salt Lake City, often "make the desert bloom," and this desire for what is gone is something that might be reflected in colonies: an Earthlike garden, or perhaps even a flock of pigeons, might serve the same psychological purpose as the garden does in Salt Lake.

A few words about architecture. The big-name architects nowadays spend their most time devising cultural creations for cities and countries: art galleries, libraries, museums, and convention centers. The massive buildings they construct, like the new convention center and public library in Salt Lake, reflect both the attempt to lure tourism into a town and the belief that the prestige of a place is based on its artistic merit. A colony may not be as functional and drab as writers suggest; the huge initial investment in planning might also extend to architectural design. Imagine a Frank Gehry moonbase.

What the failure of the Deseret script suggests to me is a reminder of the barrier to new languages. Perhaps it is in the blood of visionaries and utopians to publish their own scripts; More created one for his Utopians, and the abbess Hildegard of Bingen created an entire new language for her contemplation of God, as she exercised her own control over the monastery. But the future of new languages and scripts looks bleak. While subcultures embrace Klingon and Sindarin, the chance of a genuine new language emerging, or diverging, seems to me to be limited. Interconnection and mass media are unifying and homogenizing language, and even the separation of a galaxy may not be enough to ensure a break with the old. With the advent of recorded speech, changes in the English language become more and more difficult to implement. While vocabulary changes, the language remains understandable and the words intelligible, from the phonograph to the MP3. New scripts and new languages may be imposed, but they will not conquer.

It may be deceptive to think of space as the final frontier. What Salt Lake suggests is that a modern colony will not resemble what we think of as a frontier town, but something like the organized settlements of the Israelis or the Mormons, something gridlike and structured, a garden in the wilderness.


Copyright © 2003 Fred Bush

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Fred Bush is Senior Articles Editor at Strange Horizons. His previous publications here can be found in our Archive.

Fred Bush was Senior Articles Editor at Strange Horizons.
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17 Jan 2022

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