Candlemark & Gleam will be publishing the anthology Retellings of the Inland Seas this summer, and I’m proud to say that my story “The Sea of Stars” will be in it. Check out this gorgeous cover!
Back when I started working for the university, a fellow faculty member mentioned that he’d become a professor because it was the closest he imagined he could get to becoming a Jedi. He was about my age–old enough to have seen the original trilogy in theaters, young enough to have drawn profound personal significance from it–and what struck me about his statement was how much those films, that mythos, had influenced the course of his life.
I can’t really say any different. Star Wars didn’t really influence my decision to go into academia–that was a much more convoluted and pragmatic route, one that still surprises me when I think about it–but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t have a certain impact on my personal spirituality, particularly in my early 20s when such explorations are commonplace. It also, if I’m honest, influenced my interest in martial arts, which I began studying in college and have continued practicing to the present day. My own much-beloved teacher passed away in 2012, and if he could show up as a Force ghost so that we could talk as we did when he was alive, I’d welcome it.
Over time my relationship to Star Wars has changed. Twenty-plus years ago it led me to seek out an online community of like-minded fans on Usenet, an Internet precursor to the World Wide Web that was a form of social media before the term was coined. I read all the books–what’s now called Star Wars Legends, and while some of them were very good, those mourning the loss of that canon have evidently forgotten about The Courtship of Princess Leia–and spent hours debating the finer points of Jedi philosophy, despite there not being much in the way of finer points. When I saw Rise of Skywalker last night at the Seattle Cinerama I couldn’t help remembering waiting in line at the very same theater to see The Phantom Menace.
But the fact that I was seeing it last night, weeks after the movie opened, highlights that change in relationship–I wasn’t up for the opening night scramble, particularly with holidays and family visits to prepare for. I’m not here to debate the quality of the films, or whether Rise hews more closely to Lucas’s original vision than The Last Jedi. This isn’t even really a review of the film: I observed right after watching it that it’s mostly fanservice and plot contrivance. What’s interesting to me is my own lack of strong feeling about that. Twenty years ago, Star Wars was enough of a personal touchstone to still loom large in my personal mythology. Now, I mostly think of it as something that I used to be really into, profoundly personally influential though it once was. (Mythology itself proved another deep interest, and though I can no longer read Campbell without wincing, The Hero with a Thousand Faces had a profound impact on me when I read it as an undergraduate.)
And yet, there were moments in Rise when my heart leaped and soared the way it once did–even as I noted bad space physics (honestly, would it be Star Wars without them?) and plot holes big enough to drive a Super Star Destroyer through. The Cinerama does serve beer, these days. Perhaps that had something to do with it, or with the tear-inducing gut punch of Leia’s ultimate fate, one that hit me far harder than Han or Luke’s deaths. (On the other hand, another way that my relationship to Star Wars has changed as an adult is my deep respect for Carrie Fisher as a person, particularly as a survivor. I’m generally not into hero-worship of real people, but seeing Leia die onscreen brought home all over again that Fisher is gone.) Maybe it was the evident heart of the younger actors’ performances; Star Wars has never quite known what to do with its best actors, and famously gets poor performances out of good ones. (Poor Hayden Christiansen.) But Ridley, Boyega, Isaac, and especially Driver were great to watch, enough that I was far less irritated by Kylo Ren’s arc than, in sober analysis, I ought to be. Bringing Lando back onto the scene was a great choice–fanservice it might be, but I don’t mind being served now and again–and Billy Dee Williams’s older-and-wiser-but-still-rogueish persona had an anchoring effect that I appreciated. Not bad for a character who was originally going to get killed off at the end of Return of the Jedi.
I recently started reading C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance Rising, set in her well-established Alliance-Union universe, which I discovered sometime around high school and which she’s been writing in since the 70s. I’ve also been listening to audiobooks of The Expanse, which to my ear has Cherryh in its DNA–and probably some Star Wars as well, if only because Star Wars looms over space opera the way Lord of the Rings looms over epic fantasy. There’s no Jedi in these works, no Force, but that sense of expansiveness, of life lived in space and on strange worlds, of the working out of how humans (and other beings) are going to live with one another on a grand scale, are present in all three.
Yet if I have a substantive criticism of Star Wars as a whole, it’s in its decision–made all the way back in the original trilogy–to be overly concerned with fate. In my previous entry on Lord of the Rings I observed that that story both sets up the notion of power rightfully transferred via bloodlines, and skewers it by resting the fate of the world on people who are literally as well as figuratively small. Rise of Skywalker does raise the question of whether the hero and the villain are who we’ve been told to believe they are, but Star Wars has never been a vehicle for fully developing such questions. That’s fine. But the juxtaposition of my watching this movie while reading the books that I mentioned highlights a quote that occurred way back in the novelization of the very first (chronologically) Star Wars movie, an observation made by General Organa herself:
“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally they became heroes.”
I think that my own drift from Star Wars has been due in part to the saga’s drift from this theme. There is, instead, the question of whether humans (and other sentient beings, presumably) must follow the paths laid out for them or whether it’s possible to alter the course of events–whether free will exists, in essence. (HBO’s Watchmen explored this in much more depth.) That’s also an interesting question, but it gets short shrift in Rise, where I mostly felt like the filmmakers were trying to complete a checklist–a feeling I often get from Abrams’s films. One of the things that I really liked about The Last Jedi was seeing more characters who weren’t inherently bound up in the Skywalker saga, and whose choices about which side to be on and what to do were informed by concerns that had less to do with fate and more to do with moral reasoning that was clear to the audience and understood by them.
But I don’t know that I’d feel that way about it if I were twenty years younger, and watching this movie. I’m a different person than I was then, simultaneously less convinced that any one person can substantively affect the course of events, and more convinced than ever that it’s up to each of us to do what we can.
Then again, that’s on the screen too, the saga’s Skywalker obsession notwithstanding. Maybe we can’t be Jedi–the prequel trilogy, and to some extent the sequels as well, more than suggest that that’s maybe not such a great goal anyway–but we can be guardians of peace and justice. A big takeaway from Star Wars for me as an older adult is that evil and its adherents are never vanquished for good. That’s a grim lesson, but in our present moment, maybe a necessary one.
Be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Become a hero. May the force be with you.
My family was visiting for the holidays, so we decided to have a low key New Year’s Eve and watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy, something none of us had done for several years. It can be a pretty grueling experience just in terms of the length of the films, especially if you opt for the extended versions (which we did; I’m always torn between getting to see more of the story and its world, and impatience at how some of those additions slow down the pacing), and we wrapped up the final film after one in the morning.
There’s plenty that could be said, and has been, about Tolkien’s books and these films, but what really struck me this time around is how time and my own advancing age has affected my experience of the story. Thematically, one of the things that Lord of the Rings is about is the passing of generational and cultural torches; the elder peoples of Middle Earth are leaving it, and the elder fathers and mothers and uncles of many of the chief characters are passing on, leaving the younger generation to take over. (In the movies, the dynamic between Bernard Hill’s Théoden and Miranda Otto’s Éowyn is particularly well delineated in this respect.) I first experienced the story as someone closer in age to the Fellowship (or apparent age, anyway, since all of them have lived a longer span of years than their looks suggest; a commentary perhaps on how long life feels when you’re young). Now, I’m closer in age and outlook to those characters’ elders. I found certain poignant moments emphasized, such as Théoden’s grief at losing his son and his concern both for those who would come after him and his own reception in the afterlife. Being on the north side of forty, the thematic mortality of Lord of the Rings took on additional importance. Arwen’s choice had more weight. The Rohirrim charging into the field screaming DEATH held a note of defiance as well as of promise, of Dylan Thomas’s exhortation not to go gentle into the night. And so on.
It’s often said that Sam is the hero of Lord of the Rings. I don’t think that’s strictly true. For all its emphasis on bloodlines and kings, part of the point of Lord of the Rings is that greatness is not confined to privilege (though Frodo is very much the country aristocrat) and everyone has some part to play in saving the world. So trying to pick one character to be the central hero misses the point. That said, my appreciation for Sam has only deepened with time. Not only do I increasingly appreciate the comfort of company, of good food, and of stubborn optimism in the face of despair, but the story’s emphasis on the importance and strength of friendship is something I also appreciate more the older I get. Everyone should have a Sam–and everyone should be a Sam, to someone, insofar as we’re able. Lord of the Rings‘s enduring magic rests on this: for all the battles, all the pageantry, all the movements of great kings and noble queens, in the end everything rests on the strength and determination woven into interpersonal bonds. This strikes me as especially valuable in an era where such connection is discouraged, and mistrust encouraged.
Of course there’s plenty in Lord of the Rings to read as dated or problematic–I often find myself speculating on the largely unrevealed interior lives of its few women characters, and on their entire unrevealed world (what is Rosie Cotton doing, I wonder, other than working at the Green Dragon, and what do she and her friends do in their off time?)–and racist elements in the work have been subject to a great deal of discussion (and have left their mark on fantasy fiction generally). If anything I notice those things more now than I did twenty years ago, not least because the same elements seem to be resurging in my own society. That I continue to read Tolkien in spite of them is testament to his works’ strengths, the massive feat of imagination they represent and the thematic elements detailed above. It also makes me wish for more thorough and equitable representation on the pages of fantasy, and glad of more recent works that accomplish this.
It was Lloyd Alexander, whose Chronicles of Prydain both echoes and is a response to Tolkien, who points out that conquering the enchantments of evil is not the same as conquering evil itself. As I embarked on last night’s viewing, I remarked that if I could defeat evil by chucking a ring into a volcano, let me know where to sign up. (Although, what makes the One Ring so insidious is that once you have it, giving it up is impossible…) Perhaps that’s why Lord of the Rings always leaves me feeling a bit melancholy. It’s an elegiac work in a lot of ways, with magic and the means of making it passing away, and the world passing into the hands of mortal beings much like us. It elicits a strong desire to somehow go back to that world, a desire that has generated multiple printings and editions of the book in millions of copies, two separate film adaptations, untold numbers of literary descendants, and a large and enthusiastic fandom that expresses its appreciation in everything from fanfiction to costuming.
And yet, another point of Lord of the Rings is that we do live in Middle-Earth. Tolkien described his creation as the world “at a different stage of imagination,” which one can interpret in a number of ways, but one of those is certainly that Lord of the Rings is a constructed legendary past to our own present and future. That resonance, I think, is key to its enduring popularity. But it also means that to find Middle-Earth, all we need to do is what Bilbo did: step out of the door.
Perhaps that sounds overly simplistic. But it’s something else that I’ve increasingly come to believe as I’ve gotten older, and experienced more of the world.
Happy new year.
When I was in library school, we read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for a course in cataloging and classification. Which is probably not the reason most people read that book, but it made certain amount of sense. Organizational schemes arises out of contexts, and then become abstracted from those contexts. You’re left with an assortment of objects and how they’re organized. Both can tell you something about who they came from, and what they valued.
Later on I read the book for my own personal enjoyment. I liked it, but by the time I read it (a good 20 years after its initial publication), it had the feel of history rather than something of personal relevance. It felt a bit like how I imagine it feels to be a teenager today reading The Catcher in the Rye. You might like it (personally I hated that book, but that’s just me) but the experience lacks immediacy.
Earlier this week I checked out Phil Klay’s Redeployment, a collection of stories taking place in and around the war in Iraq, which has been described as analogous to The Things They Carried. My experience with it so far has included a greater sense of immediacy; not only because I have clear memories of reading about the war and watching it on TV, but because I know people my age who fought in it.
The stories are very good, and full of eyewitness detail. That latter doesn’t automatically make a story good, but it does make for some surprising moments for a reader like me who has never actually been in a war and whose visual references for it mostly come from movies (I’ve been so pleased to recently come across Bret Devereaux’s blog, which among other things explains some of the problems writers trying to write battles can run into when we’ve never experienced one ourselves). This happens a lot in fantasy, probably because Lord of the Rings and its heirs are, in a lot of ways, war novels. The big setpiece battle is such a hallmark of fantasy that I wrote several of them before realizing that a) I had no idea what I was talking about, and b) there were people out there, many of them writers, who did.
That’s actually what led me to Redeployment in the first place. I’ve read a fair bit of military history, and some of it’s written by people who would probably make excellent novelists, but it’s not the same kind of reading experience, and it’s probably not the same kind of writing experience either. And I realized that all of the war stories I had read were from Vietnam or earlier. All Quiet on the Western Front is an amazing book, but for me reading it lacks the immediacy of something set during my own living memory. I suppose everyone goes through that as they age.
Last week my husband and I attended a performance of An Iliad. This is an adaptation, sort of, of Homer’s Iliad, interspersing extracts from the ancient epic with modern text in an extended monologue that demands a great deal of an actor. We had seen it previously, when Hans Altwies performed it in Seattle, but this production was performed by a close friend of ours who we wanted to support. And it’s a fairly astounding play, in that it captures key elements of that long-ago conflict and makes them immediate to an audience in the present day. (The playwrights were, in fact, trying to create a theatrical response to the Iraq War; the same conflict Klay wrote about. They described the Iliad as being about rage–and that’s something most people can relate to, whether they’ve been in a war or not.)
Some of the stories that I’m working on involve armed conflict. What the stories I’ve read show me is that it’s not just about getting historical details right (though Devereaux has some very good examples of why that’s a worthwhile endeavor). A writer creating fiction about something that they themselves have not personally experienced has a certain responsibility, I think, to try to understand it as well as they can–and if they have personally experienced it, they still have the task of communicating the details of that experience in a way that builds their readers’ understanding. If they do it well, they can guide the direction of subsequent stories for decades or even centuries to come.
There’s something so satisfying about a well-constructed puzzle box of a mystery; even though I don’t read or watch them all that often, I pretty much always enjoy them when I do. Part of it’s the fun of trying to figure out what’s going on before the characters do, even while knowing that the creators of the mystery are doing their best to trick and mislead you as well as the characters. When you have that and a good story too, the results are even better.
I didn’t know much about Knives Out going in except that it starred Chris Evans (and Chris Evans’s sweater) and all my writer friends seemed to be digging it. And it was garnering comparisons to Clue, the box office bomb turned cult favorite that I still love watching for the sheer claustrophobic zaniness of it all. It all sounded like a good time.
And Knives Out is a good time. It’s not really that much like Clue; more like the kind of mystery story that Clue is a wacky screwball version of. (Of course, there’s a reason for that; Clue, the board game, didn’t appear out of nowhere.) The main points of similarity are the murder mystery that may not be a murder; a house wherein most of the action takes place; and a lot of rich people with embarrassing personal details. The social commentary is far more biting and explicit than in Clue (or perhaps I think that because I knew people exactly like the Thrombeys when I was growing up) and hits that sweet spot between funny and wince-worthy that meant I was doing both for a lot of the film.
The whole cast does an excellent job, and some, notably Daniel Craig and Chris Evans, are clearly enjoying themselves, which makes it even more fun. I have no idea what to make of Craig’s accent–he has to be sounding that fake on purpose–but it’s hilarious. Whenever Evans plays a morally dubious character he reminds me why I enjoy him so much as Captain America: the same mannerisms turned to playing a character who’s an unremitting asshole make the good Captain seem more like someone who’s choosing to be good. Jamie Lee Curtis reminds me why I consider her one of the funniest people alive from her very first scene; her subtle nuances of facial expression and line delivery make her later veer into caricature feel earned. I wasn’t previously familiar with Ana de Armas–yes, it’s true, I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049–but I really enjoyed her performance, which so easily could have fallen flat. It’s got to be difficult to play a character whose most evident attributes are earnestness and professional capability when you’re surrounded by people going over the top at every opportunity. You never miss her when she’s onscreen; given how often she’s sharing the screen with Christopher Plummer, that’s saying something. (And she’s got more going on than earnestness and capability, too–but it’s hard to say much more about this without serious spoilers.)
If I have a chief criticism of Knives Out, it’s that Marta’s character and important dimensions of her life are shorted by the complexity of the story’s plot and all its twists, turns, misdirections, and red herrings. Perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of structuring the story as a classic murder mystery. But I can’t help but notice, for instance, that for all the running jokes about where Marta is from, we never actually find out. (Even Clueless managed that much.) The racist and nationalist tropes that the movie puts into the mouths of its white characters so they can be (justifiably) mocked are also real threats to Marta and her family, but there’s only one scene where I really felt like the movie was taking those threats seriously (and I have to give Michael Shannon a lot of credit for his performance in that hallway scene; it was appropriately terrifying, and one of the reasons it’s so scary is that you can see the character’s awareness of exactly what he’s doing, and how hypocritical his claim to be one of the good guys is). Her story would end very differently if people representative of the power structure the movie itself takes pains to skewer didn’t choose to take the sides that they do. It’s a pretty cynical perspective on justice; then again, in our current political moment, an understandable one.
Comedy, as people far more astute than I have observed, is closely aligned to horror. In the end, the movie that Knives Out reminded me of the most was Get Out–which is also a very funny film, also involves some very rich white people whose superficial niceness hides a bottomless well of ugliness, and ends in a way that suggests that the application of justice is way more contingent than we’d maybe like to think. That Knives Out can elicit this kind of thinking while also delivering a sparkly puzzle-box of a mystery, impeccably rendered details of New England Old Money (or New Money pretending it’s old), and a lot of laughs is no mean feat, and I wonder if we’re supposed to notice its lacunae as well. Part of the point of Knives Out, after all, is the lack of self-examination on the part of characters who’ve never had to question anything about their lives, or about the systems and structures that make those lives possible. Not only misdirection, but an unwillingness or even inability to see obfuscate the truth of Harlan Thrombey’s death until the very end. There’s a message there, beyond the mystery’s resolution.
I think I picked an interesting time to see this movie. Actually, the timing was due to the alignment of my schedule and that of a friend I saw it with. Judging by the previews, The Lighthouse looked like one of those movies that my husband would appreciate for its quality while not at all enjoying the experience of watching it (which was his reaction to The Witch, David Eggers’s previous film). I prefer to see movies with company, and this particular friend had expressed interest in seeing it. So we went.
But I had just come off of an intensive weekend of ritual work that had been expressly designed to hack the participants’ subconscious. It was even partly informed by ancient Greek myth and religious belief, which is also present in The Lighthouse in both implicit and explicit form (maybe you think Willem Dafoe’s character is just being poetic when he calls on Triton to levy a curse upon Robert Pattinson, but for all the character’s questionable accounting of himself he looks sincere as hell in that scene). So while there’s a leap toward the end that doesn’t quite land for me (an issue that I also had with The Witch), I also didn’t spend as much time as some viewers did (if Twitter is any indication) wondering what the hell was going on.
Not that you need to be an expert classicist to appreciate The Lighthouse. I think you just have to be prepared to go along with a claustrophobically subjective viewpoint, and accept that whatever the objective reality of the situation might be, it’s really not the point here. (Part of me wanted the long-delayed ferry to show up in the final scene, like Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet. Probably wouldn’t have added anything to the story, ultimately.)
But while I’m not the only one to observe some ancient Greek threads running through the movie (ancient Greece having been, after all, a maritime culture, with much of its religious and superstitious thought bending toward the sea and its dangers), while I’ve seen mention of Proteus and Prometheus in various places, I found myself thinking not only of Poseidon, as one might expect, but also of Hekate. Or perhaps Artemis. And maybe a bit of Charon as well.
One of the things I’ve dug into over the years is the way ancient Greeks thought about borders. It seems odd in our current reality of a world divided up into nations with firm boundaries, sometimes with walls or fences built along them, but in earlier eras a country or kingdom was something more like an area of geographic influence. This indicates a vaguer and more porous boundary than we probably think of today, and the ancient Greek sense of liminality, of in-between and uncanny places, seems to be manifest in this idea. Artemis or Hekate, who were sometimes conflated, had their sacred places located at edges: at the furthest reach of a king’s influence, at an entrance or doorway, at the intersection of two roads. And, notably, at harbors. Both were also frequently portrayed carrying torches; in the case of Hekate, this rendition is so iconic that modern-day depictions rarely show her without them. To me, watching this movie after I’d had a headful of Hekate for two straight days, a lighthouse standing in a place often beset by fog and storm, from which no other land or people were visible, was the very quintessence of that uncanny liminality that the Greeks found so concerning. (The uncanniness of crossroads in mythology and folklore persists to this day: consider the legend of Robert Johnson, for instance.) There’s also the importance of locks and keys in this movie, something else reminiscent of Hekate.
It’s also possible, though it feels like a cheat, that this is one of those stories where the characters have been dead the whole time and are playing through some sort of afterlife drama. There’s the arrival on the boat, to a rather grim and featureless place, and the characters’ conflicting accounts of their personal histories could be read as the loss of memory that is a feature of the ancient Greek afterlife. In this reading the moonshine they drink in ever-escalating quantities become the waters of Lethe, of which the dead drank to forget their lives. The movie’s final shot rather supports this interpretation as well.
Do I think Eggers had all this in mind when making The Lighthouse? Maybe, maybe not. It kind of doesn’t matter. This is the kind of movie you can bring your own stuff to, and view what’s happening through multiple lenses–something that does seem to be the filmmaker’s intention, given the nature of the film’s climactic moment where the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens finally, perhaps, yields its secrets. Another friend who’s seen it said that they were going to call what’s commonly referred to as gaslighting lighthousing from now on, given that one of the grounds being contested between the two characters in the film is whose reality is going to win. You can interpret the mermaids, the weather, the behavior of the seagulls (downright Hitchcockian at times), the characters’ accounting of their personal histories, and the occasional cephalic tentacle in multiple ways from the concretely literal to the subjectively figurative, and the ability to shift along this axis while you’re watching the movie strikes me as one of its notable accomplishments.
And even if none of that works for you–and I’ve seen plenty of reactions indicating that it doesn’t–there’s Dafoe’s magnificent scenery-chewing, and Pattinson’s managing to hold his own against it most of the time. Most reviews that I’ve seen say this is Dafoe’s movie, and I think they’re right, but if your impression of Pattinson’s acting ability is primarily informed by the Twilight series, then you’ve really missed what he’s capable of.
All that said, when I got home after the movie I told my husband that he’d been right not to come, and that he wouldn’t have liked The Lighthouse at all. Come to that, I personally can’t say whether I’d describe my experience of watching it as enjoyment, either. But it’s an intriguing, uncanny, and beautifully constructed piece of work, and if you’re into ancient Greece personally or professionally, that’s an additional reason to give it a look.
Some years back I attended a lecture by one of my favorite authors. The lecture’s topic was on giving your setting a sense of history, of having a story of its own that began before it became your story’s stage, a place which your characters inhabit. A canonical example in the genre, and one that he mentioned, was of course Lord of the Rings (paid link). You can’t go two pages in that book without someone expostulating on the history of this edifice or that landmark. It works, and works very well; Middle-Earth has a strong sense of history, beyond its mythical underpinnings from our own world. A book recommended at the lecture was Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (paid link); it’s a dense read, but worthwhile for its unpacking of how the history of a place shows in our encounters with it.
I think about that lecture and that book a lot, especially when I’m formulating settings for my own stories, but this past week I thought about them for another reason: after 45 years, my parents are preparing to move out of the house that I grew up in. The house is currently in an intermediate stage between lived in and packed up, with antiques moved into a single room for appraisal, books going into boxes, dishware migrating to the curb for neighbors to take if they want. For me, who hasn’t lived there in decades and has visited only intermittently, this is profoundly disorienting. The place is changing, while still showing signs of its history.
I found myself thinking of real estate listings, especially when I looked in the closet of my childhood bedroom. As a teen I’d written on the walls in there, the sorts of profound insights that one comes up with at age fourteen or so. The whole house might not get repainted when it goes on the market–my parents have taken very good care of it–but that closet definitely will be.
Real estate is listed and sold as though it’s bereft of history. It’s understandable; people want to imagine their own lives in a potential new home, not someone else’s. But on this trip, of course, I found myself thinking of the house’s history, and my own history in it, and the history of the place it was built before the neighborhood came into existence in the 1940s. Snapshots of eighteen years of growing up, and decreasingly frequent visits afterward. Even before my parents begin preparations for their move, the place had shifted from what I remember: a dogwood tree that wasn’t even there when I was growing up is now tall enough to need trimming back from the power lines. The forsythia that lined one edge of the front yard is gone, replaced by a fence. My former bedroom, now my dad’s study, is painted green instead of white (though an old marionette of mine is still hanging from the lighting fixture). My parents extended their bedroom closet into the attic, so the shelves and cedar closet I remember aren’t there anymore.
Places have history, and over time the signs of that history fade, but leave their impressions nonetheless. My husband and I bought some forest land a few years ago, land that has been cultivated for logging operations for over a century, but where replantings have a history of failure. Hiking around the northwest, we can still see signs of former logging operations before those lands were converted to recreational use. Those places had a history before they were logged, even a human one–but that’s something we’re conditioned to think about intermittently, if we think about it at all. Imprinting our own history on these places of necessity entails interacting with the history of what came before, whether we’re aware of it or not.
My history in my childhood home has come to an end. It’s a strange feeling, the idea of going back to that town, that neighborhood, and not have it be home anymore–even though I haven’t lived there for decades. Nowhere else have I experienced this feeling of a place being familiar and strange at the same time. (There’s probably a word for it in German.) People talk about going back to where you come from and having it look just the same, only smaller, but I think what I’m experiencing now is what happens after that. It’s an attenuation of my connections to the place that I came from, and to its history.
I wonder about the people who will live there next. Will they wonder about the people who lived there before them, and look for signs of them in their new home? Probably not. The way we think about house and home doesn’t really make space for this.
Signs of that history will be there, though, albeit isolated from their meaning. And I’m thinking, now, as I work out the details of a setting for a new story, a setting that is, among other things, a home: who was there before its present inhabitants, and how did they live?
There’s a classic metaphor in library science meant to remind librarians, archivists, and other information professionals in training that the map is not the territory. To wit, the example goes that an antelope in its natural environment, doing antelope things, is an antelope–but an antelope stuffed and mounted in a natural history museum is not. It is now an object, a document: something that can tell observers something about what an antelope is, but divorced from its context that would reveal the whole of the thing.
This seems obvious, and yet in an increasingly information- and data-rich world, where our own interactions with documents become documentation in turn, it’s something that it can be hard to maintain conscious awareness of.
Two books that I’ve read recently highlight this point in different ways. The first is Meredith Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence, which makes the point that AI not only doesn’t work the way most of us think it does–or could–but it’s only as good as the data we feed it. And it turns out that there are some pretty important limitations on what we can feed it, with implications for how the systems we design impact us. The second book is Barry Lopez’s Horizon, a wide-ranging meditation on how we understand our world, which includes among other things a cautionary note on putting too much trust in documents despite the seductive allure of big data sets. Studying maps is a lot of fun, but at some point you have to go and take a look for yourself, if you can. (Since the passage in Lopez’s book that I’m referring to takes place in the context of a scientific field expedition to Antarctica, that “if you can” is especially pertinent. I’ve spent much of my time reading Horizon consumed by jealousy of the places Lopez goes and the people he meets.)
Back in the dawn of time when I was studying computer science, an algorithm was described as a kind of outline, a plain-language formulation created to describe how a computer program was going to solve a problem. What I like about this way of thinking about it is that the limitations of the algorithm are implicit within it: you know that it’s only going to solve this problem (hopefully) and the scope of its task is clearly defined. At that time most of the people who were using computers were people who had been taught to think about them and about their capabilities in this way. These days, most of us probably know less about what’s going on inside those computers in our pockets (themselves constantly sending and receiving data in exchange with computers elsewhere) than what’s going on under the hoods of our cars. (I’m always running into people my age who are astonished that people younger than ourselves aren’t better at using search engines. Why should they be? It’s not like Google teaches you anything about information discernment.)
When I was in library school the chief danger of an information rich environment was seen to be the difficulty of picking good information out of the overwhelming flood of what was available. That’s still a challenge and I think it’s even harder now. But the other problem is that having so much information at our fingertips can fool us into believing that that’s all there is. This isn’t even a case of missing the forest for the trees–it’s a case of not realizing that you’re in a forest, because your attention has been drawn to something on your phone, which has a pretty good plant identification app on it that still doesn’t know whether that’s a Western hemlock or a Sitka spruce.
My intention here isn’t to claim that we should all toss away our phones and get offline. Especially since I’m, uh, posting this on the Internet. But I’m reminded of a concept that I teach to beginning nursing students when I’m introducing them to library research and literature searching. The foundation of evidence based practice is to use evidence–in the form of documented research–to inform what you do in a clinical setting. But it’s not the only thing you bring to that encounter. There’s also your own knowledge, developed through training and experience–and the knowledge, values, and expectations of your patient, who’s no more an algorithm than you are.
A few years ago I took a wildlife tracking class, an exercise if ever there was one in returning documentation to its context of origin. I had a wonderful tracking book written by a regional expert on the subject (who also happened to be one of my teachers) with beautiful images in it of animal tracks ranging from shrews to grizzly bears. Seeing a track in its context of having been left by an animal was an exercise in using documentation to aid in the expansion of knowledge while recognizing that it didn’t contain the whole story. Tracks are affected by weather, substrate, animal size and speed of movement, and a whole host of other variables. The track in the book can’t tell me what the animal was doing (though the diagrams of gait patterns can help), while the track on the ground, with some detective work and additional contextual clues, can.
Likewise, while a search engine can tell me a lot, it’s only as good as the information on which it feeds. It’s never going to fully reflect reality, and it’s a good idea to occasionally remind ourselves of that fact.
I’m currently listening to Antonia Malchik’s A Walking Life, ironically while driving in my car. Between a daily commute that’s 35 miles each way, plus weekend trips to a rural property that’s twice that distance along with getaways to many of the Pacific Northwest’s beautiful places, like a lot of people I spend more time in a vehicle than on my feet.
There’s a lot of reasons why this is a problem, which are detailed in Malchik’s book (along with the explicit understanding that not everyone can get around on their feet, or can only get around for short periods). But the one that’s struck me this week especially is the effect on creativity, especially writing.
I’m thinking of this especially because, like a lot of people who write and read fantasy, I cut my teeth on Lord of the Rings. One notable feature of that work is the emphasis on walking; there’s even a bit in Fellowship of the Ring where they discuss walking or riding on horseback, and decide that walking is the better option. (Which turns out to be true, as they even have to send the packhorse Bill back home when they’re forced to enter the Mines of Moria.) This gets more interesting, at least to me, when you learn that Tolkien was fond of going for walks. If you visit Oxford, you can retrace some of the routes he followed. For all the differences in lore, history, perspective, and technology between the peoples of Middle Earth, they are all similarly constrained in speed of travel: namely, a walking (or running) pace, unless they are fortunate enough to have access to horses or boats. Much has been made of the heavy level of detail to Middle Earth, and much of that is discovered by the characters walking through the landscape and telling one another about what they’re seeing.
This isn’t the only way to convey the richness of your fantasy setting, of course. But it’s one way, and it’s a good way, because you can unroll that richness at a pace that makes intuitive sense to the reader: a walking pace. In two other books I read recently, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, there are several passages where the viewpoint character is moving through space at a walk, the setting unfolding around them and suffusing the reader with detail. This works even when the viewpoint character is blind (Broken Kingdoms’ Oree) or the setting is deeply, deeply weird (Annihilation‘s Area X). Even the climax of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie is predicated, in part, on walking.
My thinking is–and Malchik’s book seems to back me up here–something about walking encourages imagination. For all of the ways we have of getting around, it’s the one that has specifically played a role in our evolution, from standing upright to using our hands for things besides locomotion to being able to see further distances to our methods of acquiring and using food. Going for a walk, or a run, or–last summer, when I was healing a broken ankle–a roll at a pace akin to walking is one of my chief methods for addressing a creative block.
I don’t want this to be just about “Feeling stuck? Go for a walk!” although it probably would help, because it doesn’t address what folks who can’t do that are supposed to do, and it also doesn’t address how our environment is increasingly designed and built to limit this kind of mobility. I live in a city, and while it’s a city with a lot of parks and quite a few open spaces of no designated purpose, it’s still a challenge to get around on foot for reasons physical and psychological (I’ve been told more than once not to go out alone if I don’t want to be harassed, for instance). It’s more that our lives are increasingly designed to discourage the kind of aimless wandering that can lead to insight. It’s one reason that I’m glad of the increased interest in hiking where I live, even if I do sometimes get irritated in the moment because, well, I go hiking to get away from people. I do think there’s something to the increasing recognition that starving ourselves of nature, and of undirected, non-goal-oriented movement through it, is robbing us in ways we’re perpetually distracted from appreciating.
And I think we could do a lot worse than design our living environments for walking–and other forms of human-powered, human-paced locomotion. I can’t help thinking it would be better for all of us.