Back in the late 1970s, I got a call from a scientist friend I had last seen at a meeting on energy storage in what then was still Yugoslavia. (I don’t know if he would like me to mention his name in this connection.) We’d had a good time exploring the place between sessions — Yugoslavia was a beautiful and welcoming country, before they decided to begin killing each other off — and now he was offering me an all-expenses-paid trip to South Korea to attend what he promised would be an interesting conference. That was a country I’d never visited before, and I knew just what to say to that offer.
I said it: “What’s the catch?”
“I thought you would ask that,” he said. “Well, it’s the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s, what he calls a Conference on the Unity of the Sciences.”
That was a pretty big catch. I’m not fond of weird made-up religions in the first place (I’m personally an infrequent Unitarian) and of Moon’s in particular, because I think he is an evil man, with his relentlessly right-wing Washington Times and unpleasant doctrines, not to mention that I had been buttonholed in airports by too many of his zombie saved souls to be impartial.
But my friend assured me that I wouldn’t have to fight off zealots intent on converting me — “There will be sessions about the Unification Church but you won’t have to attend. I don’t.” And there were guaranteed to be some good papers and interesting entertainments.
Well, those things pretty much convinced me anyhow, and when you added in that it was a chance to visit a previously unexperienced foreign country, the pressure to say yes was irresistible. I did say yes, though not without some apprehension..
Which increased after I got a call from the Moonie organization in New York inviting me to visit them in New York City to pick up tickets and program and advance copies of some papers.
Like most New Yorkers (all right, I was living in Red Bank, New Jersey, at the time but New York was where my heart was), I was wary of the Moonie outposts. They had bought outright one of the city’s better hotels, the 43-story New Yorker, and made it their dormitory and nerve center. (Just across the street was the new Madison Square Garden, which Moon chartered to hold his mass marriages, several hundred Moonie couples at a time.)
What had been the lobby was now divided into lanes and divisions like a Motor Vehicle Bureau office. I found the right one; they gave me my documents with a minimum of conversation and no proselytizing at all, and I escaped to Penn Station, which sits right under the Garden.
While I was waiting for my train I looked through the documents. The air tickets seemed all right: New York to Tokyo, Tokyo to Seoul on Japan Air Lines, which I had flown before and liked. The program seemed to have some of the promised interesting sessions — Asian space programs, urban systems, etc, though I didn’t know many of the speakers. There was one welcoming speech by Moon himself, talking about something he called his International Peace Highway, whatever that was, and a note welcoming me and inviting me to add a guest of my own.
That was an unexpected opportunity. After some thought — and after the first two or three people I asked couldn’t make it or wouldn’t — I settled on my friend Sakyo Komatsu, sometimes called the Arthur C. Clarke of Japan for his stature as an sf writer and his grasp of non-fiction sciences, and he said yes.
On the appointed day I got on the appointed four-engine JAL jet, and quite a few hours later got off at Seoul’s new and handsome airport, with a tiny worry on my mind. The worry was caused by the fact that, when giving me my tickets, the woman who handed them to me said, “By the way, when you get to the airport, it’s better that you don’t say you’re going to the Conference.” I should have asked why, but I didn’t. When I got to the Immigration clerk I obediently said I was there as a tourist, whereupon he looked me in the eye and said, “You’re going to the Unity of the Sciences Conference, aren’t you?”
At that point my tiny worry got suddenly larger, because I knew that Moon had had some differences with the South Korean government, but didn’t know how serious they were. But my worry was uncalled-for. When I confessed that that was indeed the case, he simply stamped my passport and waved me through. I was met by a car to take me to the extremely nice and modern hotel the conference was being held in. Apart from a minor complaint when I was asked if I minded sharing a room with another guest and I replied I certainly did (and the matter was then dropped), there were no other problems.
By and large, the papers read at Moon’s Seoul conference have mostly escaped my mind. This was quite a few years ago and what the speakers had to say about space programs and computer science and cloning and pretty much everything else is now history or irrelevant. There were several of the promised Nobel laureates (but mostly in disciplines like economics, which does not grab my attention.)
The only talk that really interested me was Moon’s own, on his proposal for an international Peace Highway. The Highway was meant to start somewhere in South America, cruise up along the Pacific Rim through Central American , through California, Oregon and Washington states, up through Western Canada and Alaska and across the Bering Straits into what was then the Soviet Union. Then south to pass through China, Japan and South Korea. Maybe North as well; maybe a few more countries around Indochina; I don’t remember. Nor do I remember how it was meant to get across the various bodies of water in the area. A lot of bridges, I imagine. And what I remember least of all was how this highway was going to thaw the Cold War and bring peace to the world. If Moon had given the talk himself, perhaps he would have made that clear (I said “perhaps.”) He didn’t though, citing language difficulties, just welcomed us and turned the main discourse over to someone else.
Still, that sort of thing wasn’t why I had accepted the invitation. What I wanted was to see something of a new country, and that I did. Parts of South Korea were as shiny-modern-new as the hotel, parts looked like they hadn’t changed in a hundred. Traffic was as heavy as Chicago or L.A., but in the stream of vehicles you were likely to see an eighteen-wheeler, followed by an elderly peasant on a bicycle with a bundle of sticks the size of a pony strapped to the seat, followed by a chauffeur-driven Cadillac limo. Of course that was decades ago. By now the peasants on bicycles may be gone. Maybe also the Cadillacs.
The most interesting part of the conference came at the very end when Moon invited everybody to a farewell dinner and show at his own private theater — located in a wood outside the city and, to me, looking more like one of those private little opera houses European royalty use to build for themselves than anything else I’d seen. We all packed in, were served an excellent dinner, then treated to an enjoyable show of Korean dancers and acrobats, after which Reverend Moon himself got up to thank us for our participation in what was said to be English. Fortunately there was a printed English translation in the program book, so that those of us who cared could find out just what he was saying. (The aforesaid thanks and good wishes.) However he then extemporized what sounded like a hope he would see us next year in Fladdleflah, and that totally baffled everyone at our table — me, Komatsu-san and three or four well dressed and excellently English-speaking Koreans who had been seated with us.
I took one last look through the program as everyone was getting up to leave, and indeed there was something scheduled for the next year. It was scheduled to take place in an American city, and it turned out that “Fladdleflah” was spelled P-H-I-L-A-D-E-L-P-H-I-A.
That one I didn’t go to, having decided I had seen about enough of Moonies (and of Philadelphia) to last me for a while. But I kept getting invitations to the annual event and a few years later, when it was scheduled to be in Chicago, I accepted the offer. It wasn’t that I had felt the need for more of Moon’s teachings, simply that I was then courting a Chicago-area college professor named Betty Anne Hull and a free airline ticket to see her over a weekend was welcome. But I did take in part of the proceedings. I’m glad I did, too, because it gave me a chance to meet Paolo Soleri, the arcologist.
What is an arcologist ? It is a person whose studies concern ways to house human beings with the least possible cost in land and carbon footprint (a term Soleri didn’t use because it hadn’t been invented yet), and thus a kind of studies that we desperately need since we keep on so avidly making more and more babies every year. As an arcologist, Soleri designs arcologies — houses to do what I just said — and has even been building one, located in Arizona about 70 miles north of Phoenix for some time. By “some time” I mean he started building it in 1970 and it still is not complete.
Well, when you’re building a high-tech home for 5,000 people, it does take a while, especially when your financing is limited to what a few not-very-rich individuals donate and the profits from your line of bronze and ceramic bells. (More traditional sources of financing may have wondered who needs a building to house 5,000 people on a lot 70 miles north of Phoenix, and, come right down to it, so do I.)
Soleri’s a brilliant man with good ideas, but somebody should have whispered in his ear, “Location, location, location!”
The Worlds of L. Ron Hubbard