From High Above

From 40,000 feet the entire breadth of North America is cross-hatched in endless rectangles, precisely delineated. Not one inch of the continent is free of this demarcation, this immense subdivision of what was once a vast wilderness.

Where can adventure live in such a carefully enscribed landscape? Where in all this is there room for the unknown, for mystery, for that thrilling understanding that comes from facing what has never before been faced? And what does it mean that there is no longer any forest left for the knight to go adventuring in? What is a castle when all the world is fortified?

No wonder fantasy novels are so popular nowadays. A new world can be fashioned, a world that still offers dark corners unexplored, that still holds mysteries for brave hearts to test themselves against.

No wonder, too, that investigative dramas have always done so well. Observe the clues, make the diagnosis, and the problem is solved, 42 minutes later. Such stories repeat in our daily life the truth that emerges when one soars above this thoroughly-settled land. That all ferocity can eventually be tamed, that all terrors can ultimately be faced and fought down, and that all mysteries will inevitably give up their secrets and settle into the mundane.

Both stories -- the story of mystery's ongoing existence, and the story of rationality's ongoing campaign against mystery -- succor us and our deepest fears. If there is no more mystery, we fear, then there are no secrets within ourselves. There is no uniqueness to our soul, nothing that makes us different from the myriad others. But if mystery cannot be defeated by rationality, then there is no chance of us ever knowing ourselves truly.

And of course, if we cannot delve into our own wildernesses and tame them, subdivide them and put up tract housing on what's left, we are left never knowing that the secret uniqueness to our hearts is in fact unique. Maybe we aren't. Maybe our so-precious soul does not exist, and all that we are is a conglomeration of cells, seeking to reproduce themselves, and that our own sense of consciousness is simply a side-effect of that process, with no meaning in itself.

Reading Steven Erikson's newest novel, Reaper's Gale, brings forth such thoughts. This fantasy epic has become a political and philosophical journey, and Erikson is proving to be a frustrating and rewarding guide through some very difficult terrain. There are no easy answers in all this. There aren't even any difficult answers. Just one difficult question after another. Silchas Ruin asks, "What gives your life meaning, Udinaas?" and Udinaas can only laugh bitterly, and retort, "Ask me something interesting."

What fascinates me the most about that exchange is that, by all ordinary standards of judgement, Ruin should be the character we are most interested in, the one who inspires our identification (versus sympathy, we've talked about this before). We SHOULD want to be more like Ruin, with his tragic past, his super-powers, his certainty. And yet it is Udinaas, the slave, the cynical and weary one who refuses all grand purposes, who draws us to him. His disinterest in the meaninglessness of humanity's self-flagellation mirrors the disinterest of those roads in the meaninglessness of North America's vast surface.

At 40,000 feet, the only evidence that humanity exists is the regularity of our roads and the indifferent lines they cut across the indifferent landscape. Two vast disinterests set against one another. Is it a tragedy that the wilderness now exists only in our hearts (if it exists at all)? Or is it a blessing? Now that we can no longer be distracted by our desire to tame the land, are we more easily engaged in the project of taming ourselves? And is that project something to give our lives meaning? Or is it just building more roads across more landscapes, neither engaging with the other, while we fly on, far overhead?

Or do I need to find an interesting question?