Cities Through Telescopes

Cities! It was a discovery to shift worldview
and bring hope to a lonely species. The farseeing
Cycloptic Telescopic Array spanning the Earth and moon
provided blurry images of what appeared to be
globe-spanning cities located on the surface of an exoplanet
light years away. The case for cities was carefully
built from context to compelling evidence. Earth-like
size and mass. Nitrogen and oxygen-rich atmosphere.
Possible methane. Several large bodies of liquid water
on the surface. Images and spectra of probably
purple-green vegetation that smothered the surface.
Researchers discounted vertical columnar jointing
on a massive scale in basalt or granite uplifts,
or carving of rectangular shapes by natural processes
that might be mistaken for design. Possible metal and glass
signatures teased out of spectra and a method to the building
recognized by machine image-recognition algorithms parsing such
wide pixels for regularity. It made us want to believe.

My father peered out the window of his own skyscraper
in New York City at places that were not really out there,
I could not visit, and he could not explain. For humans,
there were no means by which to travel to the stars
and there was no escaping time or dementia, either. He aged
until he no longer spoke. He had had a long, active life,
an enviable healthspan within a lifespan that could not
be extended past the point of no return, which for all humans
despite our technological prowess was no later than
one hundred twenty years old. It was a hard
limit that loomed godlike and brazen, impossible to breach,
not unlike the magnitude of the alien buildings in the images.

See this star? I projected it into his room.
The one that’s a little green, a little more than ours.
There’s a planet there and on the planet life, like life
we now see teeming all around us on other worlds around
other stars. This one is special. This one has cities.
Intelligent life, dad. Alien civilization. Just like you hoped.

From our vantage point hundreds of light years away,
with even a single light year too far for us to travel,
all we could do was look, and every few years with better eyes,
at this alien civilization. Their thriving metropolis
hung like a jewel dangling in seaweed. I saw my dad in the same
way, through a telescope of age that resolved him
into wrinkles and age spots like byways and dirty city
centers. His sagging skin and the animation lost
as age cut his puppet strings one at a time resolved
into my own future. He died. My future a clear image.

The array of technologies and spacecraft the astronomers finally built
when I was as old as my father got to be but with more sense
to appreciate the effort and results was one that spanned our solar system.
What was blurry would come into sharp focus. It would detect more signs
of activity there, the alien quotidian itself, and glimpse
details that would suggest what they looked like, what the aliens
were like as individuals who together had built sky hugging building
so much like our own skyscrapers but so beyond our own in extent
and number that they could be seen from so far away. We would peer
into the past, hundreds of years ago, at aliens who would never
hear our hastily sent radio greeting. Generations
of their children’s children might look our way, too,
with telescopes and technology better equipped to spot
our tinier architecture, if the scale of their cities was any indication
of their advancement over us. When our signal arrived they might
see alive the long dead earthlings who had sent it.

Calibrated and checks checked, the new array began to take
new images. What it recorded was their cities in detail,
cities of cities, mountains of cities, artificial
but with orographic intent, not just along the edges
of their natural mountains but honeycombed throughout the rock.
Cities of metal and glass, as expected, and standing taller
than we would ever need our own dwellings to stand. Cities
of obvious capability and appreciation for form and beauty.
Cities under clouds of satellites that resolved like rings
in orbit of the planet. Cities so advanced that commentators
immediately wondered why they had not visiting us already,
or had already tried to call us. Were we ants to them, bacteria
unworthy of their attention? Were they shouting in a way
we couldn’t hear yet? Were they already on their way?
Might they arrive soon, an arrival planned for soon
after we spotted them? The images kept coming. The story resolved.

Cities, but cities long devastated and emptied. Ruins.

I stare out my window a kilometer above my surroundings
in my apartment where my century is almost over. I have
at most fifteen years left to live. I have no children,
no one to tell me about distant cities under alien starlight
and why I should hold on a little longer, because in cities
so alien and grand there must be answers to a great many things.

#NaPoWriMo 2017 Day 4

Discussion:

This was a rough night of writing. I thought I had a good idea for a poem this morning, when I should have written it, but I waited until after work and wrote it in growing frustration and dislike. Whatever I was trying to capture, that feeling that sparked my interest this morning, was unrecoverable this evening. The second poem I wrote was silly and the third poem worse.

These words were enough to clean out the cobwebs, though, and poem number four arrived longer in word count and much greater in scope, and it kept me at the keyboard for over two hours.

As poetry, though, I’m not sure this poem works very well. I use a little lyricism, but I lose lyricism, too, to world-building and exposition. The ragged right form bugs me. Attention to enjambment is cursory; I can do a lot better. This is very much a rough draft. I would like to find the poetic heart of it.

As science fiction, I like this poem a lot more. I like the contrast between the personal and the cosmic. I’m really interested in life extension research and I frequently imagine the interplay between such breakthroughs and specific characters, especially those who might be underrepresented in such science fiction stories. Not to say that I have crafted specific and engaging characters yet here in this poem. In rewrites, I would focus more on who these specific people are and why they are the lens through which I want to see this discovery of distant alien cities and how that is relates to the reality of human aging.

Someday. I guess I’ll have to move on to poem number five of NaPoWriMo 2017 tomorrow…

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.