The shore… or the sea?

Ah. You’re late. Sit down.

No, no, I’m sure you have a fine excuse. This is not the Midway. You are not a customer in a worldstore. This is a lecture hall and your late arrival has disrupted a lecture on the patterns of world formation when looked at through the lens of storytelling. In other words, seeing patterns in literature.

As I was saying, class, as we look at the worlds that authors create, we discover many curious consistencies. For instance, the boat.

The sailing vessel has long been the object of storytelling, from Homer to Hornblower, from Sinbad to Sisko, from Aubrey to Archer.

For generations, the sailing vessel has been the symbol of exploration and adventure. Odysseus journeys. Jason explores. Sinbad voyages. These ancient tales have grabbed the attention of so many. And while, yes, some pioneering individuals certainly do stay in our narrative consciousness, for the most part it seems it is the sea that calls us.

And as we explore worlds set far in the future, we still find ourselves aboard ships. Those who command them are captains. We have spaceports. Some worlds are more obvious about this than others; Mal Reynolds captains a boat. Honor Harrington commands in the navy. Captain Kirk has a ship’s wheel depending which of the bad Star Trek movies you feel like watching.

Class, for your consideration, I ask: Why?

Why are we fixated on this single picture of exploration? Why not covered wagons? Star Trek was famously described as “Wagon train to the stars,” and while there are certainly western elements in the series, the Enterprise is still a spaceship in Starfleet. Firefly is a space western, no doubts about it. Serenity is still Mal’s boat.

Yes, you can think of exceptions. Stargate mostly uses the army, and Star Wars calls its vessels “ships” but that’s basically where it ends. (Class, I would argue that Star Wars doesn’t count here as it’s less about exploration, but I digress.)

So, you’re late. What do you think?

No, you cannot go back to the Midway. I know the showman with his tall, tall hat is much more entertaining. Finish this blog post and then click, “Back,” all right?

Here’s my answer.

The sea has always been dangerous. Even today it swallows boats whole, even with all our vaunted technology. And that mystery has called to us as a race. It is a great enigma. What lies on the other side?

A pioneer certainly wrestles with the land, but as long as he has water, he might stop anywhere and settle down. A sailor does not have that luxury. He must find land. He must find fresh water.

And we take that hunger for mystery, for exploration, across the void of space. And so the sea becomes the Black, and we wander across the void to see what we might discover. Stories about what lies out there will always beckon, whether they are set on earth, on Earthsea, or outer space.

Class, for your assignment, comment below on exploration stories that most captured your imagination. What worlds did you discover? What worlds continue to beckon to you?

And if you’re in the business of creating worlds… what can you take away from this? Or maybe that’s a lecture for another day. Class dismissed.

Published by Jon

Jon lives in Kentucky with his wife and an insanity of children. (A group of children is called an insanity. Trust me.)

One thought on “The shore… or the sea?

  1. Fascinating lecture, sir. One series I’ve been exploring is S.J. Higbee’s “Running Out of Space” (and the books that follow.) The thing that captured my imagination in the series is the world-building. She’s British, and her world has many things that feel like her people of the future have gone back to their roots as sailors in space.


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