Too Much of Something in the Wrong Place

by Tony Ballantyne


I found myself on Milan Central Train Station this summer.

The station was built under the premiership of Mussolini. The platform area with its wide metal and glass canopy is impressive, the arrival hall and gallery beyond even more so. Marble faced walls, statues, and frescoes: the building looks exactly like the monument to fascism it was designed to be.

I arrived at the station right in the middle of a heatwave. The temperature was around 40 degrees Celsius, the humidity high. People were sweating, their shirts plastered to their skin. That’s when I noticed this:

Tony Ballantyne.jpeg

The pipe leads from the air-conditioning unit in the Moleskine shop out onto the platform. The people in the shop were effectively pumping their hot air out into the station so that they could be a little bit more comfortable. At least people in the past had the grace to shout “Gardyloo!” before throwing their shit out of the window into the street below. Temperature records have been smashed this summer (, and the shop’s little contribution to global warming was no doubt helping to ensure that future summers will be even hotter. I could have become indignant about what they were doing, I could have made a stand, but instead I did what you probably would have done. I went and waited in the shop where it was cool, with a look on my face saying I dare you to complain. So I suppose I too was exacerbating the problem.

As I write this, just a few miles from where I live, there’s a dam that may be about to collapse. There have been exceptionally heavy rains over the past few weeks, and the excess water overflowing the dam has ripped off some of the concrete from the spillway, weakening the dam wall. There is a real risk that the dam will fail. People have been evacuated from their homes, engineers are working to pump water from the reservoir to ease the pressure, but a storm is approaching. The race is on. The reservoir will fill up very quickly because of the steep-sided hills on either side that run into it.

Both the dam and the air conditioning stories illustrate the same thing. Too much of something in the wrong place.

Contrast this with the story I heard on the news this morning. Our new prime minister (I’m from the UK) is proposing to give 1.8 billion pounds to help out the National  Health Service. What made this news was not the money, but rather the questions asked are about whether the money is real. The public are bored with politicians double accounting. Unlike the water behind the dam or the heat on the railway station, there’s a suspicion the money doesn’t really exist.

“Trespass,” the story in this edition of Analog, is based in the universe of my Recursion series of novels. The novels explored the difference between—in Nicolas Negroponte’s words—bits and atoms. In some ways those terms seem quite old fashioned now, but I think the distinction is more important than ever. There is a growing tendency to treat the real world as a virtual world.

Faced with increasing amounts of heated air or a lot of water in the wrong place, we can’t copy and paste it elsewhere, we can’t carbon offset it away, and no amount of tweeting will make the problem go away.

The digital world has advanced enormously in my lifetime. The analogue world . . .


Tony Ballantyne is the author of the Penrose and Recursion series of novels as well as many acclaimed short stories that have appeared in magazines and anthologies around the world. He has been nominated for the BSFA and Philip K Dick awards.

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