In the Absence of Light

It does funny things to the head to spend too long in the dark.

While Robert Service is perhaps best known internationally for his poems “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee“, he also wrote a number of very dark, very grim pieces of poetry about life in both the Yukon and Paris. Even in his better known, more humourous pieces, there is an underlying tone that most people who live far enough North are always walking the knife’s edge of keeping themselves together.

Being without people can be dealt with.

Being cold can be dealt with.

Being without light for months on end…

It changes how you see things.

It was strange to me when I moved south as a student just how many people didn’t understand those undertones in Service’s poetry.

The effect of light and darkness is such a given where I grew up, such a fundamental undertone to how you think and plan, that it was strange to meet people who had no idea what it was like to leave school at 3:00 p.m. and be met by total darkness.

I think of this sometimes when I read.

I think that it is hard, even at the best of times, to write and understand someone who is living in a perpetually hostile world.

As much as I love the North, I suffer under no illusions that the landscape around me isn’t perpetually dangerous to the unprepared and the unobservant. This sinks into how I think, how I act, the fact that I always have survival gear in my car – something that seems ridiculous to someone used to fast access to emergency help.

It’s hard sometimes to survive in the dark.

There’s nothing wrong with writing this kind of mindset – many thrillers, fantasies and science fiction stories exist in worlds that are equally hostile.

The problem is that it is really hard to get inside the kind of mind that is necessary to survive in these kinds of environments if you haven’t experienced the situation yourself.

I come back to this time and time again, but it is hard to know what you don’t know.

Research helps.

Unfortunately, often I am thrown out of these stories because I can’t feel that ever-present tension lurking beneath the surface, the threat of imminent night forming the characters’ actions.

I would love more stories in science fiction and fantasy about hostile environments written from the perspective of people who have experienced them.

I would love more stories from people who look at these lines from “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”-

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear
-and nod.
IMG_9987The moment between dark and light is hard to describe and impossible to capture
The odd pieces that make up Northern survival are some of my major interests. Please write more about them!

My own story is survival of a different kind, but light and dark still play their roles. If you would like to see for yourself, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

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2 thoughts on “In the Absence of Light

  1. A hostile environment in a story can give a gripping landscape. like Dune, but I can only enjoy the book if the environment has some relief. It’s that light and shade argument coming into play.

    • I agree that there tonal balance is very important in stories. What I find interesting though, is that for the type of story that focuses on an underlying ever-present danger, it is possible to make a tonal shift without removing that danger. Humourous or light moments often can serve to contrast the constant danger lurking in the background.

      I think it’s a matter of what someone is looking to read at the time. I enjoy stories where the environment occasionally “takes a break”, but I would love to read more stories where it *doesn’t* and the shifts in tone have to come from the characters finding ways to accept and deal with that underlying tension.

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