Below I’m going to talk about geography of the Neath, less about its details than its idea and why it bothers me - or bothered before I sat down to sort this out. I also play Fallen London, and for a while I was unsure about this setting, imagining it to be many things that it’s not. But now my eyes are adjusting to the dark, and I feel relieved as I’m beginning to see.
The designers have certainly put as many strange islands on the map of the Neath as they could, sometimes repeating themselves on a quest for maximum strangeness. How many concepts can revolve around "mystery," really? Whither is a place of questions, Codex of silence, Irem of incomprehension as such. Then there is an island of spiders, of postmen… some of these are more interesting than others. But there seems to be nothing connecting these places except an occasional traveler, no common element. We know what that common element is up here; the sun and the sky make the Surface a world. They are the same for Moscow and China, New Zealand and Newfoundland; and each one of these places has and had some kind of universal conception of itself and others. But in the Neath I feel thrown across gulfs of nothingness to pieces of original fiction. Theoretically, there is some exchange between them, commerce, espionage; in fact each glows with its own phosphorescent story light, bright but illuminating nothing.
There are many precedents to this world. If you read Marco Polo’s "Travels", John Mandeville or similar accounts, which have obviously inspired Failbetters, you will be struck with an impression that space is broken up into neighbouring but almost isolated regions, each fairly "exotic" in some sense. Here they make tea, there horses are unusually good, in the next place people sacrifice hens to jade idols and so on. These travelogues are structured in chapters, which helps maintain realities discrete. A tenuous sense of unity comes from shared religions - there are Mahometan countries, Nestorian countries and so on - and from vassalage to a power, but otherwise these might as well be islands in the ocean. Then there is an equally strong tradition of adventure novels featuring rogues, wanderers and captains - from Ovid’s "Metamorphoses" through the third part of "Gulliver’s Travels" or "Candide" to modern tales like Jack Vance’s Cugel novels or "Captain Blood" or Umberto Eco’s "Baudolino," just to name what comes to mind. With this last example, built again from Marco Polo, I’ve come full circle. Yes, one can move both through space and through time piecemeal. Many have.
It becomes something of a problem when you try to put it on a map… On maps, unlike in books, places exist simultaneously, and they connect, jostle, vie for influence, strike up unions quite independently of the traveler - and faster than him. The real world Marco Polo was describing most obviously but also unreal but unified conceptions of the world stand on a commonality. I could point to a number of famous alternative universes, most of them actually, but take the mother of all fantasy - Greek mythology. It is replete with complex relationships between ports, shrines, coasts, cities, entries to the underworld, forests. None are nameless or shapeless or unknowable. They’ve all been written down, though perhaps not explored as such - that’s a wrong word for it, smacking of consumption. No, they aren’t there to be enjoyed by impressionable tourists but acted with and in so that new myths can be made. According to myth, the temple to Apollo that now exists in Delphi is the fourth to occupy that spot. It is the Fourth Temple, if you like. But the previous three came about and went away through the action of mortals or deities of mortals, not some radically opaque Bazaar. Existence for the Greeks has no gaps or holes. All places, gods, heroes exist within myth at once and in what I can only describe as a kind of luminosity, an informed friendship.
Open "The Odyssey" and you’ll see what I mean. Superficially it’s an early example of a traveler’s tale - many vicissitudes, the sea, and the hero is, of course, a rogue. But then, he’s not really; and the episodes are not strung along for entertainment’s sake; and action shifts between Odysseus, Telemachus and the suitors in Ithaca; and the world most definitely keeps turning (well, changing) while the hero is stuck on the magic island. Twenty years pass, if I’m not mistaken. Children grow up, Agamemnons are slain, fortunes are squandered under the sun. And Odysseus is waving to all the gods, he is desperate to get out of that nymph’s paradise, to immerse himself in the real world! For all its wonders, "The Odyssey" is an anti-escapist story.
Coming back, or rather forward, to the Neath, Sunless Sea, Fallen London, we see they are very much a product of our time. It’s a burrowing into the earth, a clawing away from all things universal, unquestionable, known, to-be-known, scientific, self-reflecting, self-determining, developing, reaching. The real world has expanded since the Greeks, it is open now - but towards existence rather than absence. If anything, it is becoming ever more real, shining brighter. Odysseus would love it up here, I think. But many are singed, so down, down into blessed dark… Let there be a map, but let islands move, let distances be meaningless, because no invasion or conversion or transformation is coming. As a work of fiction the Neath is an interesting attempt to capitalize on discreteness without turning the whole thing into a "post-modern" joke, and I’m going to enjoy these stories for what they are worth. But the question they raise is really this: can a person live in perpetual mystery? Is it possible to do without a sun - of truth? There is a kind of life to be lived here, for sure. Never facing, always turning, sidestepping, whispering, dealing in sealed envelopes, plots without beginning or resolution, messages to someone else, intrigues that lead to no war, humor without slapstick, nightmares that are just about being nightmares, mirrors that insist on being doors to somewhere instead of giving a clear picture so you can shave…
edited by Von Prabik on 6/27/2015