The Rotating Prison in the Mountain
December 11, 2007 6:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the title and/or author of a story I read years ago. It was about, or had in it, a description of a terrible kind of prison, a vast multilayered cylinder carved inside a mountain, that would rotate slowly around its course from the efforts of the prisoners inside. The only way to free those inside was, according to the story, to keep adding new prisoners to the vacated cells to keep pulling the thing along.

Obviously, it was an allegory for self-perpetuating undesirable institutions in society; while everyone might want it to be abolished, without a steady flow of new arrivals those inside would be trapped. I don't remember much in the way of other details, except that there was some mechanism for getting food and water to the prisoners and removing waste (maybe it involved passing food and water along, for everyone's survival was required to keep the cylinder moving). The ruler who built it may have ended up in it himself.
posted by aeschenkarnos to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
There is a prison like that in the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Bourroughs. It appears in the book The Gods of Mars. Not the same situation, but the prison is the same style.
posted by slavlin at 6:44 PM on December 11, 2007

Was this a Dungeons and Dragons adventure? I remember reading a module in Dungeon called "Granite Mountain Prison" that had this exact same premise. The author may have borrowed it from whatever story you read, though.
posted by cadge at 6:59 PM on December 11, 2007

Wow. It has the flavor of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. But I've read a lot of his work, and I'm not familiar with a story with those details.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 7:24 PM on December 11, 2007

Not the same thing, but maybe it'll help jog your memory: the Panopticon
posted by electric_counterpoint at 7:31 PM on December 11, 2007

Damn I hope someone answers this question.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:55 PM on December 11, 2007

Response by poster: I believe Phalene is right in the details he/she supplies. It's not Gods of Mars, the story is much more allegorical and "oppressive" in narrative style. I'll look up Dungeon #36 if I can find it and see if there's an "acknowledgements" section in the module.

It's very much like Borges' style, but I don't think it's by him, and the story I recall goes into a lot of detail about the prison. It could also be by Phillip Jose Farmer or Tanith Lee, but no luck there so far. For some reason I'm thinking it's translated from a language other than English, possibly Russian or Polish or other Eastern European, and may have been in the same book or by the same author as a story about a village of people who strap themselves together into a huge wicker structure in the form of a giant, to go fight another village of people who have done the same.

The author may have been aware of Bentham's Panopticon concept; it may have been written partly as a political response to that idea, ie a prison where no-one can see what is going on, for which jailers are almost unnecessary. I think it dates from the late 1800's (or is written in a style that could easily be mistaken for such).
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:04 PM on December 11, 2007

Sorry to be all "that story reminds me of a similar story!" this evening - the story you mentioned about a village strapping themselves together to fight another village sounds like Clive Barker's "In the Hills, In the Cities" from one of his *Books of Blood* collections. Don't know if he wrote any stories like the prison one, though.
posted by cadge at 8:42 PM on December 11, 2007

Response by poster: Hmm ... maybe I first read it in a collection of horror/fantasy along with "In the Hills, the Cities", which is why I'm associating the two.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:00 PM on December 11, 2007

Best answer: The book you're after is "Heliconia:Winter" by Brian Aldiss (or possibly, one of the other Heliconia titles - it's a trilogy) - alas I can't check for you because someone has made off with my three-in-one copy. WHichever title it is, it is the last one in the series that has this part in it.

As I recall, that part of the plot goes as follows; the protagonist is trying to struggle against the prevailing opinion that Winter is coming (Heliconia is a planet where each season is about 50,000 years long). He is sentenced to the prison and it describes his reaction to his strange incarceration. By turns he is despondant and does nothing except wait for the wheel to turn (thus progressing his cell) or he is manic and pulls at the cord in his cell like a maniac - shouting to the other inmates (who cannot hear him) to pull harder. Food is dropped to him via a small chute and light is provided via a small gas flame. At the end of a year, his cell progresses to the mouth and he is freed and another inmate placed inside.

It's an excellent book - I thoroughly recommend it. The plot moves at a glacial pace (pun not intended) but it is an interesting look at evolution and alternative civillisation.
posted by ninazer0 at 10:20 PM on December 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

Additional info via Wikipedia...
posted by ninazer0 at 10:25 PM on December 11, 2007

Response by poster: The Wheel of Kharnabar ... could be! I distinctly recall it as a short story, although it could have been an excerpt from the novel; I don't recall ever having read the entire Helliconia series. Thank you, I'll go look that up. :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:49 PM on December 11, 2007

It's a great concept, but I've always wondered how they got the damn thing started...
posted by ninazer0 at 1:13 AM on December 12, 2007

There's a similar concept in Iain Bank's The Bridge... a prison that is made from a number of buried cylindrical (inverted skyscrapers) that interconnect with each other like a set of gears. They can rotate to change the configuration and thus layout of the prison making planning for an escape almost impossible. It's make explicit that this is a metaphor for a mechanical/combination lock.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:04 AM on December 12, 2007

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