Big Echo

Critical SF

Fallinghome: A Re-Evaluation

by Stewart C Baker

Interlocking perpendiculars, hyperbolic spirals, and catenarian arches: these are the hallmarks of Akiko Cheung, whose work after the destruction of Earth in the gravitic anomaly of 2168 needs no introduction. To this day, her trans-Neptunian ring-worlds and Valles Marineris habitat stand as iconic structures of post-anomaly architecture.

Despite her acclaim, though, Cheung's early works languish in obscurity. Most are used solely as examples of mediocre neo-Futurist structures. And then there is Fallinghome, the tenth and final individual residence that Cheung designed, which tumbles ceaselessly, end over end, as it slingshots through space around the supermassive planetesimal that was once humanity's only outpost in this cold, uncaring universe. When the twisting corridors, jutting walls, and bizarrely juxtaposed architectural styles of Fallinghome are mentioned at all, it is only in dismissal, as an idle curiosity, a folly, an aberration in the life of an otherwise peerless genius.

This essay presents an alternative view.

For despite its strangeness, Fallinghome must occupy a central place in the works of Akiko Cheung if her vision is to be understood at all. If humanity's expansion in the century and a half following the destruction of Earth is to be viewed as anything but headlong terror and flight.

Historical Context

Cheung, like all survivors of the gravitic anomaly, was deeply affected by the destruction of humanity's home planet. In many ways, however, her personal experience of the disaster was non-standard. She was one of the closest survivors of the cataclysm, and one of only tens of thousands of Earth natives to survive at all. It is to this that we must first turn if we are to understand the impossible aesthetics of Fallinghome.

By 2168, Cheung (then forty years of age) had established herself as a successful — if uninspiring — architect in the neo-Futurist style. When the disaster struck, Cheung was overseeing several projects, among them a private residence for extended family in her native Australia and a scientific station on the Lunar dark side. It was the latter job, towards which she was shuttle-bound on the day of the disaster, which saved her from the fate which wiped out most of humanity — some 14 billion souls.

Although most survivors of the anomaly lost family and friends, Cheung's loss was complete. Unlike those who had emigrated to the burgeoning Martian colony or the struggling habitats on Jupiter's moons in the decades before the disaster, every single one of Cheung's family and loved ones lived on the doomed planet. Her husband, her infant daughter, her mother, her father, her siblings: except for several employees and apprentices who were with her, every single person Cheung knew was suddenly and irrevocably gone.

The shuttle had just rounded the moon at the time the anomaly destroyed Earth, and — given that the moon itself was torn apart by the strength of the implosion — her survival is nothing short of miraculous. Little has come down to us of what struggles the crew and passengers faced until they arrived, three months later, at the Sub-Tharsian colony, battered, exhausted, and starving — but nonetheless alive.

A subnet journal entry from the Cheung Estate Archives reveals the same deep sense of grief, guilt, and hopelessness that all survivors record in their personal accounts of the cataclysm:

"Day after the disaster, ship-time. We still have no idea what's happened, but it's clear that Earth is gone. (Gone! John and Ella — oh Ella! — Mum and Dad, everyone just no longer here. No longer anywhere. I can't accept it, my mind won't let me.)

"All of us on the ship are torn between disbelief and horror, it's such an impossible thing. Some of the crew have been trying to access the last broadcasts on the subnet, but there's too much chatter, and none of it means anything. (Does anything mean anything anymore? All that history, all those lives, gone in an instant. What use is meaning anymore?)

"All of us have lost so much. While the crew bury themselves in work, we passengers sit in the common room and try to find a way to move on. But everything carries about it an air of irreparable loss. A sense that after so much anguish and heartache we will never again find peace."

The Aesthetics of Meaninglessness

At Tharsis, Cheung disappeared for several months. When she re-appeared, it was as a regular at the famously debauched parties of Augustine Jehar, the heiress of Jehar Industries.

Cheung and Jehar soon began a relationship that blurred the lines between professional and romantic. Jehar gave Cheung several lucrative contracts, including the colony's Grand Hilton, the earliest of Cheung's buildings still extant today; the two also moved into shared quarters.

After several years, Jehar ended her bacchanals, and the two began making a name for themselves as outspoken activists for Earth-born survivors. Cheung built the Jehar House, a sleek, two-story neo-futurist home, and the couple — newly married — took up residence within it.

If Jehar had not been assassinated by Jakob Muetter — who blamed Jehar-funded scientific research for the gravitic anomaly — Cheung may well have settled into her new life on Mars, and the course of post-anomaly life would have been very different. Jehar's death and Muetter's acquittal on a technicality, however, set Cheung on a far more difficult path. Her wife dead, the killer set free, Cheung retreated once more from architecture and public life.

For the next four years, Cheung did not so much as set foot outside the home she had shared with Jehar. News reports of the time make much of her suffering and her anguish, but upon her re-entry into public life Cheung was filled with energy. In a subnet interview shortly after, she seems unable to sit still: footage shows her leg jittering as she speaks; sweeping gestures accompany her every word.

And what she speaks of is just as drastically changed. Gone are the sleek lines and rounded shells of her neo-Futurist designs. Instead, Cheung embraces what she calls "the aesthetics of meaninglessness," which colour every element of the sketches she displays. Martian city-bubbles whose roofs look half-collapsed; space stations whose habitat rings bend perspective; hollowed-out asteroids tunneled together to form a single habitable station as wide as the solar system, but with only two square meters of space inside at any given place.

Although she never built any of these fanciful designs — it is unlikely that she ever intended to — the colonies watched, awestruck, as she set forth her new manifesto.

Fallinghome as Nightmare; Fallinghome as Tomb

In the days after her re-entry into public life as an architect, Cheung hired dozens of workers and tore Jehar House apart, piece by piece by piece. These fragments of the home where she had once been happy were transported to a temporary station constructed in orbit around the ruins of Earth.

Cheung and her team worked tirelessly, smashing together architectural styles in a nightmarish hodgepodge that defied planning, logic, or reason. Photos of the residence show a building several stories tall, with the neo-futurist core of Cheung and Jehar's former home conjoined to Song Dynasty outbuildings. In other parts of the new "home," Nagara-style roofs span Byzantine columns, which abut Gothic naves that end in timber frame walls which would not look out of place in early Colonial America. Shots of the interior show stairs which lead into ceilings, walls which twist and buckle, tatami floors torn to shreds but left in their frames.

The construction process on the house dragged on for nearly a decade, and the public had long since lost interest when Cheung returned to the subnet. The recording shows — again — a very different woman than the wild and manic visionary who had outlined a manifesto for meaninglessness years before. She floats unmoving in a cavernous station chamber, her form hidden in a bulky utilitarian spacesuit which is tethered to the ceiling. Her creation lurks behind her, monolithic, monomaniacal, insane.

She does not speak, but closes her eyes as the rear wall of the chamber folds away and Fallinghome is gently pulled free of the station by automated tugs. We see, distantly, the first burst of fusion fire from its directional jets, and the home drops from view.

Cheung floats in front of the camera for several minutes — eyes closed, unmoving, unspeaking — and then the footage abruptly ends.

Moving On

After the completion of Fallinghome, Cheung appears to have recovered her earlier drive as an architect of livable spaces. Her design and construction work over the next several decades cemented her reputation as much more than a humdrum neo-futurist. It was during this period that her best-known works were produced — icons of humanity's struggle to adapt to the new environments it found itself in after the destruction of its ancestral home.

Such works, like the trans-Neptunian ring-worlds, are often viewed as antithetical to Fallinghome, but they owe their power and glory to its meaningless insanity. It was only through entombing the personal tragedies she had suffered that Cheung was able to move on, and only through the attention to scale and fine detail she learned from her experiment that she was able to create such unique, evocative large-scale designs.

In 2340, after a wildly successful career and a life extended by early longevity treatments, Cheung made one final subnet broadcast. Seated in a simple nano-carbon armless chair, she looks unerringly at the camera.

"I am old," she says, "and I am tired. I have done too much, and it is time for someone else, now, to come forwards."

The colonies lamented, but on the evening of the first day of her 221st year, Akiko Cheung ceased to be.

Her final reported word, "Fallinghome," has long been understood as regret for the time wasted on her nightmarish creation, and scorn for the "aesthetics of meaninglessness" she had once espoused. But her life and work make clear that, instead, Cheung understood the importance of keeping some part of the past within oneself, even while taking aim at the future. That to truly hold dear the memories of loved ones, it was necessary to grieve, and to move on.

That if peace could not be found, it must be built instead.

this is a footer