(Author Tracy Townsend’s novel, The Fall, was released by Pyr on June 11, 2019, and can be found at all major booksellers.)
Every summer of my childhood, my brother and I traveled to northern Michigan to visit our grandparents, often staying there for weeks before finally coming home. It was part vacation, part childcare arrangement for a family with two working parents and a long, hot Chicago summer to plan around. The lakes and woods and tiny towns dotted around the Alpena area became as familiar to me as a second home. I loved them with a complicated ferocity: close, and familiar, and also, deep down, a little regretful.
Other kids’ families went different places during the summer, whether on long weekends or weeks-long treks. The Grand Canyon. Disney World. California. Even overseas. But my summers were mapped along the same, roughly 500 mile route, always bound for the same familiar spaces.
I loved my extended family. I loved knowing a place well enough to never get lost there. And I still longed, with the bitter, self-righteous passion of the young, to go anywhere, just for once. I would lie in bed during my summers up north, listening to the lap of water on the dock a few yards away, and read National Geographic, dreaming of Other Places. In the glossy pictures of magazines, I saw an enormous world loom before me, wondrous and new.
Someday, I vowed, I would find my way there.
When the characters in my novel The Fall had to travel away from their home city overseas, my writer’s mind returned to what I dreamed of doing during those summer trips. Whole new settings to explore! New textures, tastes, and spaces! Ten-year-old me would have seen it all as so very exciting: adventures in different lands with a different languages, different food, different clothes and customs.
Fortunately, ten-year-old me wasn’t in charge of writing this book.
The phrase “sense of wonder” has a certain baggage in SF/F. What we can “wonder” at without treating as alien, though, is both broad and deep. I want my readers to feel a sense of wonder in what the protagonist of my series, Rowena Downshire, experiences not because the world surrounding her is some oddity for their titillation, something that proves “other people” and “other places” are strange. I want the sense of wonder to come from her realizing how much bigger the world is: how full of things that make their own kind of sense and have their own just place.
At the start of The Fall, Rowena is fourteen; she’s never left her home city of Corma. It’s a rough, crowded, industrial metropolis that smacks more of Cardiff or London than Kyoto, with some of the Dickensian flourishes you might expect of a Gaslamp fantasy. Her experience of leaving Corma for Kyo-Tokai, the mega-city setting of much of The Fall, probably resembles what mine would have looked like, had I boarded an airship bound for the east at her age, instead of a Chevy Trailblazer pointed toward the Canadian border.
The key to keeping Rowena’s journey honest – true to her character and to my desire not to render the unknown into the exotic – was to focus her gaze on more than the high-gloss newness of her surroundings. She had to ask questions, yes. Why are there clockwork animals working the airship docking yards? How shall I tie this robe? Where do the canals that make up the city’s transportation system drain off to? (And where, you might wonder, will this figure into the plot?) But she also had to see the people in this new place as individuals, not tour guides. Rowena had to meet a girl like herself and appreciate what her life in Nippon looked like, to learn what her counterpart valued, feared, and desired. The people she would meet would be distinct, yes, but not strange. If anything, Rowena herself would be the source of strangeness: the one who dressed or spoke or ate differently from a cultural norm that wasn’t defined by her. And she would learn to navigate those differences thoughtfully, just as I’d always wanted to.
The world beyond what we know deserves more than our tourism. It deserves our lived-in attention. Our admiration. It deserves to be welcomed into our stories as we would hope to be welcomed into it.
One of these days, I’ll take a trip to some of the places I dreamed of visiting as a child. When I do, I hope to be the kind of traveler Rowena becomes.
Tracy Townsend is the author of The Nine and The Fall (books 1 and 2 in the Thieves of Fate series), a monthly columnist for the feminist sf magazine Luna Station Quarterly, and an essayist for Uncanny Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in writing and rhetoric from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from DePauw University, a source of regular consternation when proofreading her credentials. She is the former chair of the English department at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, an elite public boarding school, where she teaches creative writing and science fiction and fantasy literature. She has been a martial arts instructor, a stage combat and accent coach, and a short-order cook for houses full of tired gamers. Now she lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois with two bumptious hounds, two remarkable children, and one very patient husband. You can find her at Twitter @TracyATownsend, and online at www.tracytownsend.net.