The Traveler And North Sentinel Island: Preface

As a writer, it is often a great occupational hazard that the things that are of most interest to us are often of the least interest to those who read our works. For example, the great writer and thinker C.S. Lewis himself wrote a series of books in the genre of space fantasy–almost, but not quite, science fiction–and he was most fond of the second novel of the series, Perelandra. Without spoiling that work, it is generally considered to be the least favorite of his space trilogy by most readers, who enjoy the wonder of discovery in Out Of The Silent Planet, the first novel in the series, which deals with a fictional exploration of life on Mars or the tense drama of That Hideous Strength, the third and final novel of the series.

Similarly, there is another example in the novel What Makes Sammy Run of a way that a young Sammy Glick takes advantage of the vanity of an established writer to claim that he loves the unpopular work that this particular writer was most proud of writing as a way of currying favor with him. It is well known that writers, even those who have achieved great success, are often poor judges of what works of theirs will resonate most with other people. We think that just because a given subject or given topic interests and resonates strongly with us as writers that it will also resonate with an audience that has previously shown a willingness to enjoy and appreciate our writings to a great degree. Unfortunately, the world of writing is full of passion projects that were of great interest to the people creating these works and were of considerably less interest to the reading public. It can be hard for us as writers to know those of our writings which will catch on with others and find an appreciate place in the tablets or bookshelves of readers and which works will languish unread and forgotten.

Nevertheless, however obscure my own writings are or may be in the future, I consider it to be a matter of some personal importance to at least lay down my thoughts about the works I create so that if anyone is interested in the future, they may have at least some record of my own thoughts about how these works came to be, their genesis and their context, so that if they are interested in my own thoughts about those works which I have labored to produce, there is at least some solid rock that they can base their own thoughts and conjectures upon rather than the shifting sand of having only their own thinking and not the recorded thoughts of the author to go on. If these thoughts are like the chaff that is scattered about into oblivion by the evening wind, such is the fate of many words from people far more distinguished than I am, and if they serve no other purpose than to help me record and form my own thoughts about my own creations, that is enough to make them worth saying, even if one is speaking into the void.

Several months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine and the conversation came to the topic of science fiction and fantasy, areas where my friend and I have a mutual interest in reading (as well as writing about). I commented that though I usually end up writing books about historical fiction, that there are a great many genres I am interested in as a writer. This conversation, and the way it led me to think of the combination of many different elements in which I was interested in, helped me to think about not only a story to write about–the story to which this is the preface, but also to the world in which that story takes place. I tend to find, speaking personally as a writer, that to the extent I can feel passionate about the world I am writing in, I can find a great many stories within that world I am passionate about.

It might have remained at that point, a worthwhile idea to write about that would have simply remained as a few lines scribbled on a page about the general outline of a story, or more lines on a computer file about some of the key questions and fragmented ideas about the world in which the story takes place, had there not been an opportunity to write at a different time than my usual annual novel writing in November. As I conceived of this story–and several others like it–that together flesh out a mysterious world in which a small group of intensely curious people seek to understand mysteries across space and time while also seeking to preserve their freedom to investigate what is of interest to them, there came an opportunity for me to write as part of an organized event in the month of April as opposed to the November writing that I usually do.

This was definitely for the better, not merely because I already have multiple novels planned for the coming years in November that will already take a great deal of time fleshing out a series that I have already written two novels in, and have many more to go before the stories that are in my head would be exhausted in this massive family saga, but the stories that came to my mind concerning this theme in science fiction are not nearly so big as ideas, but are rather short story-length in size. At least at the moment, I am hoping for them to be in the neighborhood of 30,000 words, not miniscule by any means but certainly not the 50,000 word minimum for a novel that I aim for and generally hit every November during my usual writing. It is enjoyable to have at least some time marked out as well as a lesser target to aim at that is a bit less ambitious than other stories but that allows me the chance to tell smaller stories that may combine together into some bigger piece of writing at some later time.

It is not my intent in this preface to force-feed the reader with my own ideas about the world of this story. As I was thinking about the story and how it progressed in my mind, I had in my own my own questions about the world that I was writing about. Many of these questions had to do with the larger social and political and cultural context about the worldbuilding I was engaged in. In the course of my own life I have been privileged to be an observer and occasional participant in work related to intellectual exploration. I have seen efforts at science education and struggled with the definitions of science put forward by various thinkers and contested in books, presentations, talks, and even courtrooms. I have seen how it is that people can make a living based on the research of scientific problems and thought about how those issues and their practical applications can be of immense importance in individual lives or the lives of groups of researchers, but which can remain largely obscure to the larger institutions and societies in which they are a part.

Yet at the same time as these questions came into my own mind, I also thought that the researcher, especially the young researcher, is not always the best equipped to answer such questions as to the way in which their often obscure and arcane investigations and observations fit into the larger institutions and societies and cultures in which they exist. For a long time, if not always, those who are engaged in a quest to learn more about a given area of research and seek to master a field have a narrow focus on those questions that are within their immediate purview. So long as they have the resources to engage in their labors and as long as their intellectual labor is paying off in having useful data to examine and useful results to interpret and write about, and someone who is interested enough in that research to publish their findings and add it to the general store of knowledge that exists, it is enough to keep researching for years or decades or even an entire lifetime.

Moreover, the idea also came to me that different people would likely be involved in different aspects of the world, and that this would be a fruitful area of study. If we conceive of a society that is itself organized around investigation of subjects where curiosity exists, there must be some sort of infrastructure that supports this. People need education in the means of gathering information, recording it, analyzing it, presenting it to others. None of these things comes naturally or automatically to people, and so to conceive of a nation of curious investigators, one must think of an educational and training system that equips people to engage in profitable investigation and research. To think soundly requires a great deal of training and practice in order to develop one’s mind to the task. Significant resources are required to engage in this–a society needs to exist above a subsistence level in order to have the resources to put towards tasks that may not pay off immediately or even at all. The sort of research that involves traveling throughout space and time would require an immense deal of resources in order to undertake, and that sort of research requires reasons. Those reasons may not always be known by those doing the research but will be of great interest in deciding which efforts are undertaken, even if those reasons may only be known to a few.

In writing these things I am aware that I do not answer all of these questions in this work. Indeed, I may never answer all of the questions I have asked about this or about any writing effort I have engaged in. There are many questions that can be asked that cannot properly be answered. Any small child can ask a million “why” questions to any sort of explanation that an adult may provide to them, and at some point even the most diligent of adults seeking to instruct will not know the reasons why things are as they are or were as they were. The reasons that make sense to us in order to undertake a task may be sufficient for us but be wholly less sufficient for others, and whether we are writers who seek to make a living off of our art or whether we are engaged in research where we seek grants to allow us to continue our investigations, we must not only generate sufficient work to make it worthwhile for us to continue to engage in these tasks of writing and investigation, but we must also generate enough interest for others to be willing to support us in these tasks. This is by no means easy to do.

Like many a child at heart who has lived before me, and no doubt like many who are yet to come, I have stared at maps and wondered to myself while reading history books why it is that people behave the way I do. I have always fancied myself to be different than the way that others around me have behaved, and no matter where I have lived or have traveled, I have always been curious in the alien ways that I have encountered, in how they talked, what they ate, how they behaved, and so on. At times my own odd and strange ways have attracted the notice of others as well, and I have realized that those who watch others may themselves also be watched by others, and if we are uncomfortable with the gaze that others direct at us, so too those we seek to observe and understand may be made uncomfortable by our own intense gaze of curiosity at them, even if our motives are pure and good in our own eyes. What we desire to know about the world around us may not be things that others are willing to tell, just as others may desire to know us in ways that we do not desire to tell. Even so, although there is much about the world I write about here and elsewhere that I am not able or willing to tell, I hope that you will do justice to me in understanding that the things which I choose not to write about are not necessarily ignored, or are not necessarily things that I am not interested in writing about, but have perhaps simply tabled for another time. All art is subject to the need to select some portion of that which may be told to tell at the present time, for there is neither time nor ability for us to say all that can or perhaps needs to be said.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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