The Rope Roads

By Karl Schroeder

I’ve just introduced my daughter to The Odyssey; she loves it.  When it came time to describe the wonderfully illustrated edition we’d just bought for her, there was no way I could capture her imagination better than by telling her the simple truth:  The Odyssey is the story of a man trying to get home to his wife.

There’s no magic ring here; no Mount Doom.  The fate of the world does not hang in the balance.  No nation will fall if Odysseus fails in his particular quest.  And yet, my daughter understood instantly that, for Odysseus, this was the most important journey he could possibly undertake, and she wanted to take that journey with him.  It’s the simple humanity of Odysseus’s quest that makes all the other trappings of motivation and dire consequence unnecessary—and this also explains how the story could remain popular for nearly three thousand years.

I had the power of this fundamental story in mind when I sat down to write Book Three of Virga, Pirate Sun. It, too, is merely the story of a man trying to get home to his wife.  Yet there, all similarity ends, not because Admiral Chaison Fanning does not encounter Polyphemus in the form of a circus strongman, or the great whirlpool of Charybdis in the form of a storm; but because the world of Virga is utterly unlike ours.  Virga is weightless, and therein has laid the challenge and opportunity of each novel I’ve set there.  My Odysseus must cross an ocean not of water, but of air.

I once joked that I am on a quest to find dramatic settings so gobsmackingly cool that even describing someone doing their laundry there would be riveting.  I certainly found such a setting in Virga, where people ride wingless jet-bikes, wear toeless boots, and the food vendors sell such delicacies as “soup on a stick” and rice clouds.  The fun lies in reinventing absolutely everything, but for a storyteller, that’s also a gigantic challenge.  So, in Pirate Sun, Antaea Argyre has knives mounted on her boots and fights with her feet, because her long  legs give her reach and strength equal to any man—and because in freefall, a woman’s center of gravity is in her hips.  A man’s is in his chest.  She can twist, turn, and rotate her legs better than her arms; with a man the effect is the opposite.

A swordfight is different in freefall.  The more you chase the idea, the more different it becomes—and the story flourishes in such detail.  Take another example:  the rope roads.

At one point in the books, some pompous character declares that in Virga, nation building is the art of formation flying.  This is not a metaphor.  In a weightless world, everything that’s not tied down tends to float away, including boots, buildings, crops, towns and provinces.  Everything’s moving, all the time, and when Chaison faces the daunting task of crossing a thousand miles of air to return to his country, Slipstream, he faces an almost impossible job of navigation.  Yet, many things that might float apart can simply be tied together, and this is as true of cities as it is of boots.  All he needs to do is find the right piece of rope, extending (slightly slack) from seeming infinity in one corner of the sky to seeming infinity in another.  Follow that rope; it’s a road, and maybe, if you avoid monsters and bandits, military patrols, and offers of rest and comfort along the way… maybe you’ll make it home.

There’s the secret to writing in a world like Virga: choosing the right plot.  However strange the world of Pirate Sun may be; however odd the all-enveloping sky and the contraptions and mechanisms of life there; in the end there’s just a man, an ocean, and a thin thread of hope.  A rope road, in a new kind of Odyssey.

Pirate Sun (978-0-7653-2642-3, $15.99) is available from Tor this November. Karl Schroeder can be found online at kschroeder.com.

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