Sally Formica is walking home. Home is on the outskirts of town, one of many squatter camps chiseled out of toxic land. Where the steady sodium light is replaced by the smoky living light of fire. Fires in oil drums. Candlelight. Wooden pallets burning in braziers. Oil lamps. And the people lie thick on the floors. Head to toe and shoulder to shoulder. With bedsheets or lengths of old carpet hung from the ceiling or girders in lieu of walls, dividing one lot of personal space from another. Where houses are corrugated iron and driftwood. Plastic sacking and straw. Where waste accumulates outside the doors and is never taken away. Where electricity is purloined and its supply is erratic and volatile. Where old diseases flare up again like vindictive ghosts. Cholera. Yellow fever. Smallpox. 18 miles away. Long foot slog through city streets. Where the roads don't go. Where dirt tracks wind aimlessly through filth.
But for now she walks through great canyons of Xanadu, in the shadow of skyscrapers. Where capital reaches its greatest point of concentration, and the buildings grow tallest and most vigorously. Each one pressed hard against the other, fighting for space. A rainforest of skyscrapers. A dense ecosystem where money is sun and rain and soil.
The the very air crackles and flashes with imagery. The sigils of advertisers. Dragons swoop down at her, making her heart race in response. Adrenal glands spark. Handsome men with come hither smiles pose in their underwear, 6 packs rippling in low bedroom light. Gesture to her. Whisper words in her ear. The siren songs wrench at her heart. Surges of bittersweet memories. Erotic fantasies. Orchestral strings emote. Fanfares of triumphal brass. The heart flutters. Micro-narratives snare the attention. A shorthand dependent on a shared image bank. Hours spent immersed in sound and moving image. Archetypes of the mediasphere.
Nostalgia for things which never happened. Transplanted memories. Fictional childhoods running through the wild flowers. Happy families around a dinner table laden with food. Archetypal idylls more vivid than her own past could ever be. Rope swings over laughing rivers. Toy yachts catch the breeze on glittering lakes. Kite flying on windy hilltops. Golden sand, blue sea and sun sets. Endless days of exquisite languor. Sand between the toes. Swaying of the hammock. Swaying of the Palm trees. Salty tang of the warm sea. Romance in the waves. Salt in the kissing sea. Birthday partys. Gaggles of giggling friends. Cake and jelly and ice cream. and all these things able to be triggered in quick concatenations of image and music. The heart gasps. Overwhelmed. There's a hollow feeling in the gut. A surfeit of ersatz emotion. A hollow feeling that wants more stimulation. that fears being cut off from its supply. But it is getting late and the walk is long. There is no time to linger in the matrix.
As she walks the adverts grow simpler. Cruder. Reliant on older technology. Towards the periphery. Where the money begins to run out. The people on the streets look more tired. Their clothes cheaper. Their gait slower. Their posture stooped. Torn billboard posters for discontinued brands. The buildings grow less densely. Vacant weed grown lots. Shattered windows. Collapsed roofs. Walls blackened with soot. Sally is walking home. To CanalTown. Where the canals criss-cross old industrial estates and wasteland. Clogged with squatters. The exhausted canals choked with algae and rubbish. Sewage dumped directly into the reeking canals. Dense and green and putrid. Lined with houseboats and barges with makeshift roofs. Tarpaulin stretched over the barges. And people sleeping inside pressed together for warmth. And the rats are everywhere. Huge and fearless and black. Mould grows everywhere on the damp walls. Sprouts from cracked plaster and concrete. A persistent dampness. Clothes and sheets and blankets all impregnated with the damp. Inescapable. Weakening the lungs. Everyone hawks and coughs up gobbets of thick green phlegm.
People living on rotting houseboats and barges. And in the factories and derelict warehouses. Building fires on the concrete floors. Thousands and thousands of them. Priced out of the housing market. Priced out of the city centre. Priced out of the suburbs. Rats running over prone bodies. Working in the sweatshops for the tailors. Haute couture. Sweat shops. Making one off items. Sewing quetzl feathers into headresses, diamonds into the hemlines of ballgowns. Febrile micro-enterprise. Legal, quasi-legal and illicit. Fermenting fruit or honey and spices in old iron bathtubs, synthesising psychoactive drugs in makeshift laboratories, flogging quack cures and counterfeit medicines to desperate families, running protection rackets, cloning credit cards, cultivating cannabis and opium, growing herbs and vegetables in roof gardens, recycling rubbish, harvesting scrap metal, resurrecting expired electronics, reviving exhausted furniture, varnishing, reupholstering, faking fashionable handbags, sunglasses, t-shirts, football kits, stealing and robbing and extorting, preaching Apocalypse and salvation, building lean-tos and shacks, purloining electricity from the grid or conjuring it from the sun and wind, renting sleeping space in rooms owned by someone else entirely. The watermen who haul wooden handcarts heavy with sloshing urns behind them, essential in a neighbourhood with no water mains. a whole range of scams and ruses and schemes for survival. Every ecological niche is filled. Every way of extracting a living from the environment. A huge cast of characters thrown back on their own resources. Preyed on by mobs and thugs and confidence men. Harassed by officials and private security guards. Always in fear of losing what little they have. Disease as ubiquitous as the rats. Gangsters preying off the defenceless. Teenage hoodlums thrilled by the fear they induce.
Sally's heart sinks. A roadblock. Wolfram Security. Checking papers they know she doesn't have. Bribe hungry. She recognises Canaltown gangsters lurking around a smoking brazier. Security guards and gangsters. Wolfram gives the gangsters free rein over CanalTown in exchange for their cooperation is crushing dissent, organised resistance, political agitation. The gangsters identify trouble makers. Act as provocateurs. Eliminate leaders. Break up incipient organisations. Instill fear.