August 9, 2020: “The City of the Sunsphere” by Andrew Farkas

Hope you’re having a good Sunday, Story366!

We’re on our way back to Springfiel today after our mini-vacation to Galena, Illinois, a charming little town up in the northwest corner of the state. We had a great couple of days there, then hooked over to Chicago so we could visit with my mom for a little while. It was literally a little while, as we adhered to social distancing, sitting in the back yard with masks on, more than six feet apart. We ordered some pizzas, had a Zoom with other family members, and exchanged some holiday gifts—yeah, it’s been that long since we’ve seen Grandma. We were in and out in two and a half hours, which seemed odd, but it was hot and humid and my mom really couldn’t sit outside in the yard any longer than that. By dark, we were in a hotel in the middle of the state, swimming in the pool, ready for today’s trek.

The best news of all is that my sister, who had tested positive for COVID-19 three weeks ago, has now tested negative. The virus lasted in her system about a week longer than expected, but by this past Wednesday, her fever was going down without medicine and her cough was disappearing. She and her family took tests on Friday and got them back last night, all negative! So, my most immediate run-in with this son of a bitch seems to have turned out okay, no spreading, no need for hospitalization, no tragedies. Everyone goes back to work on Monday, and hopefully, stays healthy. If I’m grateful for anything this year, it’s that my sister has recovered.

Now, let’s keep everyone else healthy, too.

Today I’m starting up another two-timer week at Story366, or should I say, Two-Timers Week—I think I need to capitalize Story366 holidays, especially within the blog itself. I did a week like this last month, as I had so many good second books by authors I’d covered already, I couldn’t resist. So, today is the first of seven more, then we’ll go back to new authors, or at least authors I’ve never covered before.

Today’s Two-Timer is Andrew Farkas, aka Andy, a guy I’ve known and admired for a lot of years in this business. I covered Andy’s story “The Committee for Standing on Shoulders” from his debut, Self-Titled Debut, back in June of 2016, and am thrilled there’s another collection for us all to enjoy. Sunsphere came out last year from BlazeVOX [books]and I’m excited to share my thoughts on it now.

Sunsphere is a concept book, and what I mean by that is there’s a motif, to put it mildly, running throughout all these stories. That motif centers around the Sunsphere in Knoxville, Tennessee, a mini-monolith built for the 1982 World’s Fair (which they had in Knoxville, Tennessee, for some reason). It’s about four stories tall (fact check: it’s twenty-six stories tall!) with a shaft as big as the gift shop on the first floor and a big gold ball at the top, made of panels that form a pattern; it’s not quite a geodesic dome, but it looks like it’s trying. The Karen and I visited when we cut through Tennessee fifteen years ago or so, and mostly, the sphere was dilapidated as tourist attractions go, not serving any real purpose. There were shops and other touristy acoutrement around it—we got some fudge, I believe—but it’s mostly just standing there, doing nothing. It’s pretty, but has not found a purpose other than being a thing that stands there.

To me, the sphere will always be immortalized by Simpsons episode where Bart and three other kids get a fake driver’s license, rent a car, and go on a road trip. They come across the Sunsphere and find out it’s being used to store wigs, the largest and prettiest wig depository ever. They call it the Wigsphere and I’ve called it that since. When Karen and I drove into Knoxville, I distinctly remember saying, “Hey, let’s stop and see the Wigsphere!”

The state of the Sunsphere isn’t as bad as all that, though it’s also no Eiffel Tower, another structure built for a World’s Fair—like a hundred years earlier and a thousand times better. So, yeah, the Sunsphere.

Anyway, Farkas got an MA at UT, so he spent a couple of years in the Sunsphere’s shadow. That provided him enough inspiration to write this book of stories, stories that place the Sunsphere at the center of every tale. There are nine stories here and I read three of them, trying to get a grip on what this book is doing. I typed “The City of the Sunsphere” in for the title today—it has the word “Sunsphere” in it—but really, this write-up is about all the stories I read, about the project in general.

Basically, if I’m following this correctly, Farkas pits the Sunsphere as the center of a new universe. I got a D in physics—in both high school and college—so I only have shitty conversational knowledge of any of this stuff, but I’ll give it my best shot. Anyway, sometime around 2054, a large, universal event took place in Knoxville, causing the fake sun to be turned into an actual sun, or at the very least, a pure cynosure. Farkas has a lot of fun with this, especially in “The City of the Sunsphere,” as he uses real locales and historical facts about Knoxville as parts of his joke. There’s also something about another such event, SN1054, happening a thousand years prior, that is helping those trying to figure all this out. Farkas tells us that no one in Knoxville has died for over twenty years—too much energy would be released is the best I can translate this—though cults surrounding the Sunsphere, both for and against, have formed. The sphere is also exchanging energy with something called a Crab Pulsar out in deep space, and much of this universe’s existence hangs on the health of a scientist named Yang Wie-Te, who was found passed out and near dead on the outskirts of town. There’s also a whole lot of math and astrophysics here, which Farkas weaves into the narrative like found poetry, all of it sounding really smart, though most of it, I expect, is hooey—the Sunsphere is not a new center of the universe, nor will it be in 2054 (we’ll have to wait and see, I guess).

“The City of the Sunsphere” is second in the book, but before that, the lead story, “Do Kids in California Dream of North Carolina?” proves exponentially more narrative. There’s still a lot of physics, and metaphysics, present, but this story has some more easily identifiable characters and arc. It’s about this couple, Trevor and Kat, who are trying to find their happiness, their center. Trevor believes this is based on when he’ll solve the Rubik’s Cube, though it appears if their existential angst is more the product of their own relationship failures. They move from the East Coast—which they think is the cause of their problems—to the West Coast, soon discovering the same. Much of the story is told in the form of “Trever once said: …” and “Kat once said: …,” followed by long, philosophical meanderings that help characterize each of the (non)lovers. We start to see the hints of that other story, too, as the Crab Nebula comes up, as well as other physics-type lingo and theorizings.

“Zeno’s Shotgun Paradox” presents five different paradoxes, all of which try to explain the meaning of the universe, in relation to the Sunsphere, of course. I can barely explain the universal paradox—as it pertains to fiction and verisimilitude—so these of course broke my brain. Still, I can see the sly parody of real science here, what Farkas is doing, how he can fave fun with science and fiction, all at the same time.

Andrew Farkas’ Sunsphere is one of the more original collections I’ve read, this year or ever, as he takes a beloved local treasure like the Knoxville Sunsphere and gets an entire project out of it, flexing his science-talk muscles while also winking so hard, it’s amazing he still has eyelids (which I guess I can’t confirm). This is a fun book, a smart book, and an important addition to annals of experimental form. Good for Andy—I’m so glad this books exists in our universe.