Sunday, August 17, 2008

Thinking about Travel

Well, my family and I are heading back to California after two fantastic weeks in Chicago, and since we'll be taking an airplane tomorrow, I'm thinking about travel.  In particular, how people think about distances - because distance is astonishingly subjective.

People who don't travel much tend to find the idea of travel intimidating, while people who travel a lot often believe it's no big deal.  For many of my friends who live in the San Francisco Bay area, driving half an hour to get somewhere feels like almost nothing - but I know plenty of people elsewhere who would think that was too great an expenditure of time and resources.  

Since my husband is Australian, we travel to Australia every two years or so to see family, and of course we take our children with us.  Many people have asked me if it's horrible and difficult to take a plane for fifteen hours with two children under the age of four, and the answer is, yes but no.  Sure there are bad times, but we do it because we need to do it, and we find ways of making it work.  I have two friends who travel on multiple-leg journeys to India or Pakistan and back with children in tow, and that seems a much harder journey to me (but then again, I've never tried it).

Between different countries, the conception of distance can vary a lot.  In SF Bay area, an hour's drive will take you at least fifty miles.  In Tokyo, an hour's drive won't take you anywhere near that far, because driving conditions are so utterly different.  When I lived in Tokyo for the first time, I was routinely half an hour late for everything, because I just had no way of calculating how long it would take me to get from point A to point B by subway.  And when later my husband and I took a walk along the Tokyo surface roads, we discovered that the distance between subway stations is amazingly short.  I would never have imagined we could walk from Roppongi nightclub district all the way to Gotanda station, but when we tried it we made the distance in under two hours!  Conversely, my Japanese friends have been rather shocked to learn the travel time required between cities in California or Australia, because they believed unconsciously that these places were closer together, something on the same scale as Japan's main island of Honshu.

The same thing happens in science fiction and fantasy.  You get everything from Strider and the hobbits walking on foot through Middle Earth to faster-than-light travel or even instantaneous matter transmission (beam me up!).  Middle Earth always feels very big to me, and I feel I know the geography well.  I'll compare it to my concept of the city of Kyoto Japan (where I lived for a year):  I always walked or rode my bicycle there, so I had a full concept of the entire area I traveled, and quite detailed knowledge of places in between.  In space travel stories, local geography can sometimes seem an afterthought - or maybe not so much an afterthought as a highly local-point phenomenon.  Kind of like my concept of Tokyo, which was based primarily on the subway system's twists and turns, and involved circular footprints of familiarity above particular subway stations.  I always described it as a mushroom farm:  lots of disconnected fungus-tops with all their links underneath the ground.

And how does this relate to worldbuilding?

Well, it's one of those logistics things that can cause trouble.  If you don't know how long it's going to take someone to travel a given distance, the world can feel ungrounded, so you definitely want to know how travel works and how long it takes.  But additional world details can change travel dramatically.  Here I think of Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and how Genly Ai and Estraven calculated the time needed for their travel across the Gobrin Ice, but then local conditions of ice, volcanoes, crevasses, blizzards etc. totally changed the calculations as they went.  

In my own worldbuilding experience I had a travel-related surprise when I designed the city of Pelismara, in Varin.  Pelismara is a largish city with a population of about 800,000 people.  In order not to have an unreasonable population density, it needed quite a bit of area, but conditions of travel were unusual because Pelismara is an underground city with five levels.  The levels gave me the necessary area for the population, but their vertical relation and multiple interconnections made travel far easier than expected.  The level with the largest area is in fact only five miles in diameter - and this means that major portions of the city can be walked relatively easily (if you're willing to climb a lot of steps!).  

I'll end this post because I need to get some sleep before my trip.  It will be great to get back to my regular routines - I don't know if I'll have time or energy to write tomorrow evening, but certainly by Tuesday I'll be back to the blog.  

I'm looking forward to it!