Co.Design

Straight Out Of Sci-Fi: Cyberpunk Author Plans Tallest Skyscraper Ever

Neal Stephenson's Tall Tower project imagines a record-setting skyscraper that can shoot rockets from the top.

Science fiction is increasingly becoming plausible reality, as technology catches up with our starbound fantasies. The Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI), a roundtable of scientists and sci-fi writers, was formed a year ago expressly for that purpose. Operated by Arizona State University, CSI hopes to provide a platform for the intermingling of sci-fi ambition with scientific rigor and exploration. The organization has found a spirited collaborator in Neal Stephenson, the acclaimed author behind cyberpunk classics Snow Crash and Quicksilver. Stephenson and CSI have unveiled plans for a stunner of a skyscraper that, if ever built, would possibly be mankind’s crowning achievement.

The project envisions a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) tower capable of launching rockets into space. It would scale the upper registers of the troposphere to scrape the bottom of the stratosphere, climbing so high that its top half would be perpetually obscured by fog and clouds. Stephenson’s high-concept construction would be 24 times the height of the Burj Khalifa, utterly dwarf Mt. Everest, and nearly double the maximum heights for commercial airspace.

For Stephenson, who developed the idea with ASU structural engineer Keith Hjelmstad as an extension of the former's Hieroglyph initiative, the Tall Tower is a "somewhat playful, somewhat serious attempt" to stir the minds of a generation starved of innovation. The novelist has made his disappointment with the contemporary state of creative technologies well known, faulting, among other things, the Internet for instilling the world’s brightest and youngest with a sense of debilitating complacency. "Everything got put on hold for a generation," he told Technology Review, nodding to Silicon Valley’s obsession with measly product advances (e.g. app culture) and self-flattery.

The problem, Stephenson writes in his online manifesto "Innovation Starvation," is "our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff." Tall Tower embodies the kind of ambitious thinking he's talking about. Though the initial renderings smack of creative license, he and Hjelmstad had originally planned to work out the design using existing steel technology. In other words, the tower's creators are putting a 20-km-tall exclamation point on the fact that we already possess the tools to launch 100 pyramids into the sky.

Only we don’t. Not exactly, anyway. Speaking to the BBC, Stephenson explained the structural enigmas that plagued the project and forced Hjelmstad and him to "hit the pause button." The outstanding challenge was that of wind: "In a windless environment, making a structure that tall would almost be trivial. But when you build something that is going to poke up through and get hit by the jet stream from time to time, then it becomes shockingly much more difficult."

Whether they decide to take up the designs again remains to be seen. Still, Stephenson and Hjelmstad have already accomplished what they set out to do: thrill readers with the tantalizing and quasi-realistic prospect of building a futuristic Tower of Babel, or at least aim their creative ambitions a little higher than the next ground-level app.

(Image: Utkarsh Kumar, Violet Whitney and Vineet Bhosle)

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