Max Gladstonehas taught in southern Anhui, wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat, and been thrown from a horse in Mongolia. Max graduated from Yale University, where he studied Chinese. You can find out more about him, and his books on his website.
Life’s not as objective as we imagine.
An airplane transfer is a pleasant brisk walk—or an infuriating ordeal if you have a bad knee or a degenerated disc. An easy climb may be impossible for someone without legs, or not, if they have the right prosthetic. A ten pound book bag is a trivial burden for some and back-wrenching for others. A dyslexic person and a speed reader occupy different spaces of possibility. Depending on one’s position in the world, a hundred dollars may be a nice dinner for two, a life-changing amount of money, or an insignificant fraction of a dividend payment. Some people respond to deadlines with grim determination and gritted teeth. Others lie sleepless for a month before an important meeting, and comparison-shop earplugs and blackout curtains.
It’s easy to think of an anxiety disorder, say, or an injury, as a simple adjustment to a character sheet. “Oh, I get -2 in social situations.” But life is rarely as specific as a roleplaying game. The gravitational field of an anxiety disorder or a handicap or an injury can extend to fill the world, often in subtle ways.
We live in different worlds tangent along a physical plane. Whatever occurs at a quantum level, the atoms with which we interact, and the rules of that interaction, are more or less the same for everyone. We’ve spent a few thousand years creating and refining a philosophical apparatus called ‘science’ that lets us describe and interact with that tangent surface, but we don’t really live there. The worlds we inhabit—and I mean worlds in the sense the genre embraces with the term “worldbuilding,” spaces defined by possibility, potential, and limit, worlds framed by interlocking networks of narrative and meaningful action—grow fractally from the shared physical surface.
Me, I’m phenomenally lucky. I live on the lowest possible difficulty setting, maybe short of being me and also rich. The small issues I’ve encountered in my life, while real, don’t have a patch on the obstacles many face. I find the world smooth and navigable, which a lot of people don’t. I’m happy with my life, and grateful. But I want to offer my specific subjective experience of the kind of shift I’m describing, and hopefully show how even the smallest divergence can build a world. So, let me tell you about a place I used to live, and still visit occasionally.
I grew up in an edgeless land. Trees when I stood beside them were crenellated bark and sharp-cornered leaves, but across a yard they transmuted to wonderful soft spackled things dappled with light and shade and shifting as cloud-castles shifted. Renoir painted my life.
That’s the pretty part. Playing outfield during the Hilariously Short-Lived T-Ball Experiment, I couldn’t see the ball when thrown or hit, had no idea why everyone screamed at me to catch the thing or where I should stand to do so; even when the ball struck dirt I could barely see where it had fallen, or to whom I should throw it next. (Why are people shouting? What’s even going on by the plate? I wish they let me bring a book…) Catch was not fun. Live shows had good music but I didn’t get all the fuss: I saw flesh-colored blobs on concert stages. Don’t get me started on baseball games. Movies were neat soundtracks with large blotches of personesque color. (How does anyone tell one actor from another? Why does it matter?) My folks may have wondered why I’d insist on bringing a monocular even to small and smoky venues, but if they ever remarked on it I don’t remember.
I didn’t mention this to anyone, because nothing changed or deteriorated. This was how objects always fit, and my vision was just fair enough (not that I understood it to be faulty) that I could do most things kids do, and pass every test they’re typically set. Like I said: phenomenal luck, lowest possible difficulty.
Also, I cheated on eye exams until I was nine.
They made us take one every year at George Washington Elementary in Eastlake, OH. Each Spring the nurse would collect handfuls of us at a time from our classroom and lead the march down front stairs to The Office, where we stood in a line in darkness waiting for the nice doctor to ask us questions about a projected chart.
I didn’t think of it as cheating, understand. I was in school. When adults in school ask you questions, you give them the right answers. If you don’t know the answers, you study until you do. I memorized the chart as I waited in line, squinting to edge the blur. Seventh line, FELOPZD. Most years the doctor asked the same questions to each kid. I listened. It was an exam. The point was to pass.
They caught me in fourth grade. No master scheme: the doctor noticed my eyes’ flick up and to the left when he asked me to read a line backward. “You’re a bit nearsighted.” He prescribed glasses. I was crushed.
After all, I failed the exam.
(I was nine, and smart enough to be a special kind of dumb.)
Then I got my glasses. The rainy-afternoon world I’d known, with its color blooms and oil paint blends from shape to shape, vanished, replaced by lens-land. Life grew sharp lines. I fell in love with them at first. I started to recognize actors and singers, and friends across a playground. Superpowers!
But this was a different place than the one I used to know. Sharper and harder. Sure, I could watch TV from across the room, and drive and fence and sometimes even catch a thrown ball, but faces looked different than I remembered. I could go back, and did, and still do from time to time. It’s a low-key Amberite’s luxury—shifting from one shadow to another.
And luxury is the keyword. This whole story, as I mentioned above, is only possible because I’m not so nearsighted I can’t function without corrective lenses. If my vision issues were more pronounced, I would have been given glasses earlier, because I would have needed them, and I wouldn’t have the option of functioning without them. If my eyes grew worse over time, I couldn’t go without lenses now. The ability to choose the world I want to inhabit, enjoying soft trees, then shifting sharper for a fencing tournament, is a huge privilege. I see it as such. Anyway.
This notion of divergent worlds was on my mind as I worked through my most recent book, Full Fathom Five. One of my central characters, Kai, is severely wounded at the beginning of the book, and relies on a cane for most of the story. The sheer physical strain of moving about the world takes a great deal out of her. At the same time, she occupies a prominent social position in her society, the island of Kavekana. These facts, along with her gender and her sexuality and her history, form the ribs and spine of her world.
By contrast, Izza, another central character, is physically fit and agile; however, she carries around a lot of psychological baggage and post-traumatic stress, and occupies a social strata on Kai’s island so low that the first few times their paths cross she barely registers to the other woman. In one sense the two occupy the same physical space. In another, their worlds couldn’t be more different.
Writing about someone unlike me is like writing about a foreign world that happens to be real, and occupied by real people. It’s the grander and subtler counterpart of reading a book set in my home town: a decent chunk of Infinite Jest is set just down the street from where I used to live in Inman Square (a key conversation occurs at “Ryles Inman Square Club of Jazz,” as Marathe names it). Wallace’s alternate future Inman Square differs from the place I lived in 2009, but I recognized its outlines and spirit; if I hadn’t been able to, those sections would not have landed well. There’s more to making this work than simply knowing what streets connect. Writers from outside always run the risk of building a world unrecognizable to those who live there—and, what’s worse, of readers then mistaking that world for the real.
When it goes well, though— the thrill of encountering someone from your world in a book is more than the thrill of projection or wish-fulfillment. When it works, it’s like meeting someone from home during a trip abroad—one of those long trips where you start to feel home itself is a dream, like you’ve always been here and you’ve always been alone.
I get that coming-home sensation all over the place, blaring at me from billboards, plastered across magazines and movie screens. It’s so common that it’s far more difficult to realize different worlds exist. I have to listen. I have to learn. I have to imagine. I have to journey inside myself for touchstones and empathy, as much as outside for knowledge.
That’s hard. I might, and do, fail. (Failure’s always a risk.) But if I’m not here to move beyond my own limited world—then what the hell kind of game am I playing anyway?