Archipelago

Tagged: Theme

An archipelago is a cluster of Islands or Cities or Polders sufficiently intersective to make up a whole larger than the parts, but free from the banyan incessancy that can overwhelm mises-en-scènes set in a land or continent [for Polders see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below.] The individual elements of an earthly archipelago usually nestle in a circumambient sea (see below for Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea), or beneath it (see below for Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea(s)), though not always: these venues can as well bead together along the banks of some great river (see below for Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn). In the sf of the past half century or so, much of which has taken place off-planet, an individual component (or tessera) in the great reach of an interplanetary or interstellar archipelago may be as small as a Space Habitat or asteroid (see Solar System), or as large as a planet (see also Planetary Romance). As should already be evident, the term archipelago is not understood here as taken from or developing in any significant way John Kerrigan's arguments in Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707 (2008), which focuses on the intricate spatiotemporal braids that make up a coastal region: history, Ecology, Imperialism, geography, Linguistics.

In sf, a single solitary Island may be conceived of and lived in and written about as sufficient unto itself, and may serve as a venue for Utopias and/or Dystopias, as well as for Lost Race tales, Robinsonades, arcadias, and as redoubts for Last Man narratives. Sargasso Sea tales usually feature islands, which are usually thought of as significantly incommunicado or in fact actually lost: enduring an isolation which markedly distinguishes them from archipelagos. Mutual interactions of place, if at times if only implicit, govern the narrative of any archipelago tale; a tale whose protagonist visits a succession of islands whose only connection is that they have been visited is not an archipelago tale of any sort. In sum, the iterations and interweavings of a genuine archipelago tale can reach such a degree of complexity that individual stopping-points can be understand not only as linked venues but also as "terms" in a lexicon whose whole is the archipelago entire (see SF Megatext). The Sense of Wonder that can be generated by an archipelago tale may as it were be aroused lexically: through the reader's imaginative apprehension that each individual tale manifests a living megatext extending beyond any individual story's horizon: that the "road" goes on forever.

Over and above this ambient sense of wonder – an effect conveyed with intoxicated amplitude in (for instance) the first half of Herman Melville's Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (1849 3vols); see also his "The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles" (March-May 1854 Putnam's Monthly Magazine) as by Salvator R Tammoor – an archipelago tale will tend to incline to two contrasting but interlinked categories or procedures: it may be narrated so its encompassing expanse can be unfolded and displayed as a template, where lives and stories interweave, in which case the archipelago as a whole is likely to be seen as bathed in plenitude; or it may be unpacked as a Labyrinth through which a protagonist or group may undertake a Fantastic Voyage in a quest for Transcendence, in which case the archipelago as a whole will tend to represent some inherent and/or spiritual deficiency (a perceived ontological lassitude that Mainstream Writers of SF are prone to seek out). But clearly – as in the case of Mardi, whose protagonist becomes increasingly frantic to transcend the circumambience of the sensual world in order to reach a final island – archipelago tales may incorporate both emphases, may hover between the two poles.

There is not much plenitude in Proto SF. Most Fantastic Voyages, which were exceedingly common before the nineteenth century, are either undertaken in order to discover exemplary societies, which tend to be inhabited by more or less incorporeal beings; or come upon them by accident, in which case they are often inhabited by savages (see Imperialism; Race in SF). Tours of the Solar System, often conducted by angels, typically confront their passenger protagonists with varyingly embodied principles of social order, normally laid out in describable arrays (deficiency is hugely easier to describe than plenitude). The most interesting of these tales may be Denis Vairasse D'Alais's ambitious and vastly extended The History of the Sevarambians (several iterations 1675-1679), whose protagonist traverses much of the planet discovering a range of ideal societies, both Utopian and Dystopian, some of them comically grotesque, as he progresses deeper and deeper south into the archipelagos the vast Pacific. Many similar though usually less ambitious texts exist, many of them not translated. The finest example may mark the effective climax of this story-type: though its narrative genius intermittently overwhelms its didactic intent, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726 2vols) does face its dubious protagonist with a traditionally conceived series of Satirical lessons as he progresses through an archipelago of Islands whose names have become individually famous, and easily detachable in the imagination from their accumulatively lesson-bearing context. The numerous Sequels by Other Hands devoted to Gulliver are normally designed to impart lessons, not to give any simple joy, which they generally succeed in failing to provide. The only later Proto SF Fantastic Voyage to vie with Swift's, Restif de la Bretonne's The Discovery of the Austral Continent by a Flying Man (1781 4vols), returns to the Pacific, where it climaxes, after a tour of some exceedingly varied island societies, in Australia.

By the 1830s, when Charles Nodier wrote his spoofish Hurlubleu sequence, and the not dissimilar "Voyage to Paraguay-Roux" [for exceedingly complex bibliographical and authorship issues see his entry], there was little impulse remaining to treat fantastic voyages to islands as very useful for the imparting of didactic lessons, usually Political. The three most important archipelago tales of the nineteenth century – all of which are tinted with Fantastika, though only one of them is in fact sf – immensely deepen and expand the reach of the form. Much of Herman Melville's Mardi [see above] represents a taming homage to the fourth and fifth books of François Rabelais's The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564), the flamboyant exaggerations of the original being graciously absorbed into a slow fantasticated crescendo of stranger venues, deeper plenitudes. As he gradually becomes overwhelmed with these sense-enchanted novelties, the protagonist slowly proves incapable of absorbing the qualia of the joys he aspires to "outgrow", and the qualia of his rapture are vacuumed into a search for Transcendence. The dual principals of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea(s) (1879; rev 1871) neatly represent the two poles of the archipelago tale as the Nautilus conveys them Under the Sea from one venue to another, always approaching from below, so that even the Bahamas seem vertiginous and crepuscular. Professor Aronnax's elated immersion in the flora and fauna of this intricately interconnected network of biological flashpoints allows him to think of his Fantastic Voyage in terms of pure plenitude, though he tends to describe his findings in Travel-Guide language; while Captain Nemo increasingly seeks through his bipolar quest through the planetary archipelago for an opportunity to translate (and therefore to reduce) its wonderments into an act of Transcendent revenge. The third great archipelago tale of that century, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), is literally nonfantastic [but see his entry for its importance as a text whose example subtends much subsequent Fantastika]; it might be sufficient here to note that the inherent tragedy of this novel arguably resides in Huck's dawning sense that the plenitude in which he had once bathed leads in the end to deficiency; and that there is no true plenitude to light out for.

Relatively few full-blown Lost Race novels can be described as archipelago tales, as it is very unusual for such a tale to feature more than one primary venue, though several races (see also Slavery) may occupy it; modest exceptions include H S Lockhart-Ross's Hamtura (1892), Rev T McGrady's Beyond the Black Ocean (1901) and O J S Lindelof's A Trip to the North Pole (1903). Similar circumstances tend to preclude Hollow Earth tales from the roster; though some may be defined as claustral archipelagos, like World Ships. As the nineteenth century slid into the twentieth, Utopias and Dystopias continued occasionally to be described as links in an archipelago chain, examples including John Francis Bray's A Voyage from Utopia (written 1841-1842; 1957), Robert Ellis Dudgeon's Colymbia (1873), Godfrey Sweven's Riallaro: The Archipelago of Exiles (1901) and Alexandr Moszkowski's The Isles of Wisdom (1922). But tales of this sort, most of which depended on exposures of deficiency, were infrequent.

Increasingly, archipelago tales or series weighted toward template begin to fill the picture. Examples include the John Kendrick Bangs's Styx sequence beginning with A House-boat on the Styx (1896), set on an endless river possibly fantasticated in part from the example of Twain [see above]; William Morris's The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897), touring (more than once) the titular lake and its variously enchanted islands; Roger T Finlay's The Wonder Island Boys: The Castaways (1914),an obscure example but representative of many stories for younger readers; S Fowler Wright's Deluge (1927), in which the Cotswolds west of Oxford become an archipelago; C S Lewis's Perelandra (1943), set on the water world of Venus; Jack Vance's very well-known Gaean Reach novels, which includes a wide range of tales sometimes only loosely connected; Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea sequence beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), whose stories are set in a jewelled archipelago; T J Bass's Hive sequence beginning with Half Past Human (1971), culminating in a vision of Earth's oceans speckled with archipelagos of evolved humans, both on the surface and below; Richard Cowper's Corlay sequence beginning with The Road to Corlay (1978), set in a drowned England; Esther Rochon's Vrenalik tales, a "great river" sequence – like Bangs's above, and Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld stories – in this case set along a fantastic version of the St Lawrence; Christopher Priest's Dream Archipelago sequence beginning with An Infinite Summer (coll 1979) and culminating with The Islanders (2011) and The Gradual (2016); Paul McAuley's Confluence sequence, where quest and template immiscibly intermarry; Brad Leithauser's The Friends of Freeland (1997), set in an Iceland become islands; Adam Roberts's Jack Glass (2012) and Alastair Reynolds's Revenger (2016), both set in Solar Systems that have exfoliated into vast arrays of interlinked Space Habitats and planetoids, these tales being strong examples of a growing number of tales set in similar venues; Kirsty Logan's The Gracekeepers (2015), where the English-Scottish border has become a chain of islands; Tom Toner's Amaranthine Sequence beginning with The Promise of the Child (2015), which is set in a Space Opera universe.

There is no easy distinguishing between sf quest novels in general, which are exceedingly numerous (especially when set in space), and quests specifically designed to transact archipelago mises-en-scènes. A few moderately clear examples can be suggested, however: David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), where the metaphysical animus underlying any accusations of deficiency in the places visited are seen at its most ruthless; Lance Sieveking's The Ultimate Island (1925), whose protagonists within an Island a spiral archipelago they must traverse upwards; Angela Carter's The Infernal Desires Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), where the traversal of venues is perhaps more abstract than easily understand as archipelago-like; Robert F Jones's Blood Sport (1974), tracing a quest up the mysterious Hassayampa River, a deceptive plenitude as its ruler upstream has corrupted the whole; R A Lafferty's Archipelago: The First Book of The Devil Is Dead Trilogy (1979), the five protagonists of which being Reincarnations both of five World War Two soldiers and five of the Jason's Argonauts, whose quest for the Fleece they reconfigure; the palimpsest of interacting Islands unpacked through the course of the tales assembled in Gene Wolfe's The Wolfe Archipelago (coll of linked stories 1983); Philip Gross's Song of Gael and Fludd (1991), whose protagonists quest through venue after venue, searching for answers; Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon (1995), whose protagonist passes through a series of fantasticated Cities in California questing for a wizard with answers; Joshua Mowll's Guild of Specialists beginning with Operation Red Jericho (2005), whose protagonists trek eastwards through populous Asia; Karl Schroeder's Ventus sequence, the second volume of which, Lady of Mazes (2005), is set in an archipelago of intercommunicating Stars.

There are many more. [JC]

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