SAN BALTHAZAR is a contribution to the Planet JUNK research project within the World Building Institute at the University of Southern California. Guided by topographic maps that predict patterns of rising sea levels by cartographer Jeffrey Linn, the semester-long project involved the development of a society on an archipelago 300 years after a total collapse of infrastructure.
The original map provided by cartographer Jeffrey Linn
The completed map
San Balthazar is situated nearby two other inhabited islands, Salacia and Dredgehaven, whose societies are built above the ruins of pre-collapse sunken cities somewhere near current-day Argentina. Uniquely, San Balthazar’s settlement arrived at the uninhabited mountainous island with plans to start anew. Cities developed over time in planned aquaponic areas, where local food and water is sourced. Up in the mountains, small villages and wanderers reside shepherding goats and sheep vital for the island’s consumption of meat, dairy, and wool, which are also its main export.
I worked with AI to generated an ethnography of the island. The photos on this page are fabricated with DALLE-3.
Balthazarians today are a guarded sort, their ancestors having fled the chaos of the Collapse to start anew, swearing off cursed Old World technology and economic systems. Guild members, which stand as what closest resembles the island’s government, do what they can to prevent progressive ideologies and wares from crossing into the island’s waters, but real law enforcement has yet to be developed. The prosperous black markets, Sombréstrade and Nocturnamars, flourish off the clandestine import of Old World technologies, clever entrepreneurial “Surgeons” figuring out how to bring old machines to life.
Black market "Surgeons" repair and sell Old World machinery
Some free spirits in recent years promise a turning point for the island, however. A potentially calamitous event transpired when a young ambitious leader of the Builder’s Guild took over, and organized the construction of wooden ski lifts extending from the lowland into the mountain. Previously, trade from the highlands was dependent on travelling merchants and fit young villagers, who would slowly bring their goods — primarily wools — down the mountain. The wooden lifts have now produced an economic surge, with a class of merchants now emerging from the villages, able to quickly transport greater volumes of goods (in colder seasons, even perishables) down to the city markets. San Balthazar is quickly modernizing.
Balthazarian elders protested the construction of the wooden lifts.
The Magic Box
Magic boxes, known as Radios in the Old World, are rare and shunned. If San Balthazar had the means to enforce it, such Old World technology would be made illegal.
They first became a hot item in the Nocturnamars and Sombréstrade around Year 100 when a hot-headed young entrepreneur ventured to Dredgehaven and returned with a crate full of these mysterious boxes that play music, voices, but mostly static. Some log cabin nut with excellent foresight way back had been hoarding them in anticipation of doomsday. They were all different types — about a dozen tube radios had survived time, though it was mainly transistor radios that could get powered up again.
The ensuing craze inspired copy-cats who scoured Dredgehaven black markets in search of radios, some even scavenging city ruins themselves. Prices surged until they all were bought out. Retrofitting and repairing became a craft some ambitious merchants began learning, buying them up and selling them working at a high price. Without knowledge of electronics, most only fixed the radios to be presentable enough for sale, a few hundred lemons sold at high price around the island. Angry customers soon came around demanding refunds. Fights erupted. The Magic Box allure began dwindling.
It’s not just troublemakers who have them. Elderly folk stash them under their beds, used to reach old friends and family members in other neighborhoods — with limited medical systems and transportation, it is difficult for them to get around. Otherwise, they’re useful for plenty of industries, popular among fisherman. Youngsters would take their kayaks in evenings out to the outskirts of the bay to pick up the fuzzy music coming out of Atlas Bay. Many began to pass those signals along to the island — not for money, there’s really no way they could monetize this — but for the love of a shared wanderlust.
Radios still trickle in slowly, but once the hype died down and disappointed buyers in southern regions discovered how difficult it was to catch a signal from Atlas Bay’s small radio towers, their value dwindled. How were they to know? Technology like this seemed like magic. Over time, they began breaking down, naturally. Retrofitting Old World technology can only go so far against burst tubes and fried circuit boards. Surgeons still repair and retrofit magic boxes, but their high surcharges are rarely justified for mere hobbyists. Decades passed, and like our Walkman, celluloid, and floppy disks, radios slipped into obscurity. Pirate radio quickly died, stripped for parts.
Travelling merchants found use for the radios once they became affordable. The northern mountain regions make up the slower parts of their routes, times in the year when they go days at a time without human contact. In the northern regions of the island, your chances of a signal from Atlas Bay are slim, but possible. Travelling merchants know the hot spots, which for many guides the pace of their daily journeys, hoping to fall asleep to faint murmurs of music or to share stories, gossip, and philosophy with their Brothers over loud static.
Commercial Old World batteries have long corroded, and so crafty Surgeons retrofit the radios with hand-cranked dynamos connected to hand-made batteries crafted from scrap metals. The dynamos are then connected through scrap wires into the radio’s power circuit. Naturally, other parts of the electronics will need maintenance, repairs, and replacements, which surgeons and crafty users can usually source in the black markets. The travelling merchants are scrappy and manage most maintenance themselves with occasional trips to these surgeons, the way a classic car enthusiast nurtures her Corvette. Most of the electronics inside have been replaced over generations.
This project does not present a “typical” Magic Box, but rather one belonging to a travelling merchant. Given the preciousness of this Magic Box, it has been lovingly customized over the generations with hand-knitted shelling to protect it from further corrosion, as well as beadwork made from the hands of villagers. By nature of the trade, these beads are eclectic, sourced from villages specializing in different materials and patterns. Colorful wooden beads come from villages of the Planaltos where wood is plenty, while bone beads come from the higher Serradouces and are rare and valuable. Metal beads, made by women along the harbor with Old World scrap metal, are symbols of rebirth that some reject. Incorporated is also Old World junk that scatters lands and oceans, symbols that now mean nothing to those on San Balthazar, such as Harry Potter and Disney. These carry an aura of mystery, given their numbers seen as traces of Old World mysticism.
The magic box I created began with a working General Electric radio from the 1980s, rapid aged with dyed acetone, and then integrated beadwork and fabric and retrofitted with a crank from a meat grinder.
A WALK THROUGH SAN BALTHAZAR
The third portion of this project is a videoscape stepping through the island.
Sounds curated from freesound.org