Walk along, and you’re six hundred foot under Manhattan. You’re at approximately 30th street or something. You’re in the middle of the greatest city in the world. Nobody even knows you exist. Nobody has a f-. Nobody has a clue. It’s just… It’s just… Beautiful. — A sandhog, on water tunnels1
Sometimes, in the dead of night, I would go on long runs. I had been doing so for years. Back when I still lived in Palo Alto, I had two favorite routes that I still recall vividly. One is through the suburban streets, passing by piles of leaves and urban forestry, among the modern-traditional McMansions, Tudor homes, and Bohemian backyards. The second runs along the highway, bordered by endless panels of noise barriers on one side and an expansive desolate marshland on the other.
These days, I run mostly in Taipei. The city is a mishmash of highrises, old and new, run-down metal housing, temples, and skyscrapers. On a typical night, I might run along the river embankment and catch my breath at the derelict amusement park. Or I could run the other direction, ascend the hundred-twenty steps, to the temple atop the hill.
Almost always, I would go out after midnight, often closer to three or four in the morning when there are a mere few sleepwalkers and slumberers and the true sleepless on the streets. I enjoy the isolation the city offers at this hour. The acoustic sound of a distant car; the occasional grotesque truck lined with hung carcasses of flayed whole pigs; and the strays that hide themselves in the daytime and the recluse who feeds them—there is an otherworldliness to the city. There is also an intimacy in owning those odd encounters.
Those are the feelings the immersive cyberpunk world of Tsutomu Nihei inspires. Filled with architectural marvels, his mangas read like art books. The story—what little exposition readers might gather—is secondary to his art. Pages and full spreads of Brutalist structures, tech-noir and Gothic elements, and layers upon layers of indecipherable blocks and sewer pipes and Escheresque stairs, Blame! and Biomega present complex cityscapes at near unimaginable scales. They are devoid of most life, except for the rare pockets of civilization. And us, the lone protagonist and the reader. We aimlessly explore their corners and crevices. We alone appreciate the beauty.
Fictional versions of futuristic urban life has largely changed: from a gritty dystopia to a sterile augmented society. The protagonist has shifted from an outsider adrift in a desolate world to one who is hyperconnected to the infrastructure.2 An idea remains constant though: the loneliness of living in the city. The loneliness that is especially emphasized by the grandiose and busyness of a large metropolis. I matter not in the face all that is happening and all that have been built. Oddly, however, I find comfort in being unnoticed. Forgotten.