From the Tower of Babel to Science Fiction Media

This paper was presented at the 76th World Science Fiction Convention in San José, California. The Worldcon took place from August 16th to 20th. It was a great honor to be part of the Academic Track and of the whole Worldcon experience!

It is also part of the basic thesis of my PhD project about the visualization of architecture in the modern Fantastic and its roots in the arts, using the tower motif as example.

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Good afternoon everyone,

my name is Dominic Riemenschneider, I am a PhD candidate in Art History at the university of Mainz in Germany and live in Berlin. It is a great honor for me to present you some thoughts about architecture in Science Fiction here today. This is part of my PhD project about general forms, functions and ways of reception within the visualization of architecture in the fantastics and their roots in, especially European, art and architecture.

So, what makes a city in Science Fiction look like a futuristic one? How do we know know the movie or tv show or game is set in a close or distant future? How do you create „Future“ when it comes to architecture?

It can be stated that most visual Science Fiction settings are either located in space with spaceships or on a planet (of course there is not so much else left). A futuristic planetary setting, may it be utopian or dystopian, is normally shown as a city. There are different aspects in creating the right atmosphere like the size of the city, general monumentalism and modern or visionary styles in architecture. But one type of building is almost always to find in Science Fiction: high, overtopping buildings like skyscrapers or, to use a more general word, towers. They are a significant motif for centuries to show technological progress, economic and representative power and the human claim for the skies.

In this talk I want to discuss with you the iconographical meanings of towers that were really build or just imagined, while using the example of the Tower of Babel. We will see how this first „skyscraper“ in human history influenced art and architecture through the centuries and how it made it into Science Fiction in different ways.
Due to the limited time these short remarks will end with some examples from Science Fiction movies and TV shows and their connection to real architecture, followed by the opportunity for questions and discussion.

The story about the Tower of Babel can be found in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament in the bible. It is part of a couple of short descriptions about the human errors after the fall of mankind.
To make it more obvious how this very old story is connected to Science Fiction, technological progress and towers as symbols, I will quote the important sentences:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

So what are the main points all of this, concerning our topic? As humans were still speaking one language, the necessary collaboration for such a huge project was easier. They invented new materials and construction technologies like burning bricks. They were driven by a necessity to build something great, something to outlive themselves. But also curiosity and the pursuit of reaching the heavens is important. It can be seen as the general human ambition to go further, to cross boarders and to evolve.

It is not surprising that the Tower of Babel became one of the most illustrated stories of the Old Testament in the arts. There are two focusses shown in the images: first a focus on the construction of the tower with people collaborating and working together and always up to date with the technologies shown.

The second focus is about the human hubris, the Confusion of Tongues and the destruction of the tower in a divine storm. This is an addition of Flavius Josephus, a Roman historian of the first century which had an huge impact on paintings of the European Middle Ages and the illustrations of the 19th century. He also added the narration about Nimrod, the king of Babel, and his intension to built the tower as a sanctuary and a protection for him against god’s wrath and a potential Second Deluge.

Maybe the most influential illustrations of the Tower of Babel were painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. He was one of the most famous Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painters in the 16th century. The two versions he made, one in Vienna, one in Rotterdam, show each the tower unfinished. They are both very detailed when it comes to the construction of the tower with its base, supporting arches and pillars. You can also see cranes, scaffolds and stone cutters in a realistic way. Very important are also the coiling structure of the tower in the Rotterdam version and the monumental dimensions of both of them in comparison to the surrounding cities and landscapes. We will see this as an important and recurring motif when it comes to skyscrapers in Science Fiction again.

Shortly I want to show you an illustration from the book ‚Turris Babel‘ by the German polymath Athanasius Kircher who wrote scientific articles and books in the 17th century for the Holy See in Rome. In this book he explains that the Tower of Babel could not be real as the distance between earth and heaven is around 165.000 miles, so he calculated that 4.5 million workers had to build the tower in 3400 years and that the weight of it would have pushed the earth out of the center of the universe. I mention this to show on the one hand that a somehow ‚scientific‘ debate about construction, engineering and technology started already with the beginning of the sciences as we know them. And on the other hand that towers reaching the sky, literally skyscrapers, were illustrated early too. Of course, in this context to reach for the divine as heaven was seen as a literal boarder.

But I want to conclude that the sky as a boarder that humanity is constantly trying to reach or to hit or even to break is a topic with a very long literal and artistic tradition.

The Tower of Babel and its different interpretations are also an important part of the first feature-length Science Fiction movie ever: Metropolis by Fritz Lang that was released in January 1927. In a gigantic, futuristic city called Metropolis, the society is divided into two parts: the wealthy and powerful who live on the surface and rule the city from their towers overtopping the rest of the city, and the workers who have to live underground and maintain the machines that keep the city alive. The city’s master’s headquarter is the so-called ‚New Tower Babel‘. This tower in the movie is shown as a monumental building in a modern, futuristic style. But also it is compared to the ‚historical‘ one shown as a perfected version of the motif we saw in the Renaissance paintings by Brueghel.
The Tower of Babel and towers in general are shown here as manifestations of wealth, power and rule for the first time in a Science Fiction context. Still, the connection to the older illustrations of the biblical story and the motivic tradition in the arts is kept by design and nomination.

Part 2: Towers in Science Fiction with Examples from The Expanse, Altered Carbon & Star Wars

Note: I do not own the copyright of the images, they belong totally to the copyright holders.

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About the Author Dominic Riemenschneider

Independent scholar & PhD candidate in Art History with research about the Fantastic, its reception and roots in art and architecture. Also offering services, workshops and lectures about the Fantastic and the connection to real world events, society and developments.