“And would some Power the gift give us,
To see the world as others see us.”
– Robert Burns
We have all enjoyed a spellbinding journey into another world. We have been transported to a place of dreams by a magical wardrobe or a dark rabbit hole or an enchanted looking glass or most recently, an incision of the Subtle Knife. Writers have taken us on that quest beyond the boundaries of our world ever since J M Barrie first took us to Neverland, and there have been regular literary forays through fantastical portals ever since. The experience is different every time, thrilling every time, but we still know it. It is a leap of faith that is so much part of our cultural consciousness that it has become familiar.
But what would it be like to reverse this journey, to invert the leap of faith? What would it be to pass through that portal between the worlds and find our own world laid before us?
That is exactly the journey I wished to make in The Mirror Chronicles, my fantasy trilogy for children and adults. In the first book, The Bell Between Worlds, a young boy called Sylas Tate is summoned from this world by a mysterious bell to a world of staggering possibility, one known simply as the Other. But amid the wonders he discovers something disturbing, something that seems to go to the heart of who he is and perhaps, who we all are. He finds that each and every one of us has a counterpart in that world, a second half, known as a Glimmer. What makes Sylas truly special is that he and his Glimmer – a girl called Naeo – are destined to meet, with astonishing consequences. Even as Sylas’s world is turned upside down, ours is turned inside out. In the second book, Circles of Stone, Naeo, who has only ever known her wondrous world of magic, must make a journey into our world of mundane lives and rigid rules, of science and industry and pollution and pace.
This, I thought, would be quite a challenge: to reimagine our world as seen with innocent eyes, in just the way that Sylas had seen the Other. Would it be possible to create the same dramatic tension, and even more importantly, that sense of wonder?
Readers will of course be the ultimate judge of whether or not the book rises to that challenge, but I am hopeful. I am hopeful because despite all my doubts, our world showed itself to be a worthy of any fantastical journey. It is charged with drama and chock-full of wonders. It just needed to be seen afresh. With just a little willful amnesia, the things that make our world amazing and shocking and peculiar are all too apparent. Let me try to give some examples (without spoiling any of the story!).
Naeo first arrives to our open countryside. Not the ideal place, you might think, to show off the oddities of our world. But when we see as Naeo would see, we find that our civilization has made its very distinctive mark even here. In our world the sky itself is crisscrossed with vapor trails, which Naeo sees as clouds “oddly long and straight, like the sweep of a celestial pen.” Farmland is equally baffling: “fields planted in straight rows by some impossibly careful hand,” with wire fences “like a giant spider’s web[s]…with long silvery strands woven together with incredible precision.” And what would she make of those weird interlopers of our landscape, electricity pylons? To Naeo they seem part of some other, colossal fence: “defence perhaps against some unimaginable foe.”
So, already our world is proving itself to be mysterious, populated by sky-writers, giant spiders and monstrous enemies. But as you might expect, it is when Naeo is thrown among our inventions that the true enchantment begins. When Naeo sees cars, her first thought is that they are somehow alive:
“They were things of contradictions: massive and still, like a boulder worn smooth over countless years, and yet, somehow swift-seeming, with purposeful lines suggestive of speed. They looked designed, with all the marks of manmade symmetry and precision, but they also seemed to have been born – seeing with two silvery eyes, huddling over four circular feet, poised for a sprint.”
There was of course plenty of fun with cars, particularly during a chase, but I won’t get into that for fear of revealing too much. What I will say is that the more I thought about the nature of the car, the more I realized that the most striking things about it is that it covers distances in a matter of minutes or hours that would have taken days by foot or horse. And so it is not long before Naeo decides that a car is “a machine that gobbles time.”
Of course cars are far from the only technology that Naeo comes across, and what technology is more prevalent in our world than electrical light. Naeo finds the humble strip light utterly miraculous. And, isn’t it?
“[They] did not flicker or dance or burn with an orange flame: they were just there. They were perfect strips of luminescence – white light, like the light of day. Naeo stared at them until her eyes hurt, until all she saw was their radiance. This was magical. This was science.”
It may be the first time that I point to the proximity of science and magic, but that is the running theme. Seen with innocent eyes, science and magic are hard to tell apart. They both achieve what is impossible in Nature, and in so doing, they inspire wonder.
Perhaps Naeo’s highest-tech discovery is mobile phones – and how could she not come across them in any portrayal of our modern world? They may jar with our traditional notions of fantasy, but her journey would not be complete without them. But how would they appear to someone like Naeo?
“Some [people] held those little black oblongs in front of them and they stared at a rectangular glow at its centre: a muddle of colours, shapes and scripts. To [Naeo’s] amazement, they occasionally touched or swiped the radiance with a finger and it would shift and change: a new set of shapes and texts taking its place. What was even more peculiar was that some people would then raise the oblong to their ear then suddenly burst into conversation, as though talking to the strange black box.”
This is the first of many encounters with bizarre black oblongs with which our civilization has a fixation. Soon she comes across walkie-talkies and televisions and remote controls. In these she sees only their form – the outlandishly regular straight lines and weird uniformity – and their magical, astonishing behavior. She sees how these inanimate objects speak and listen, and in the case of televisions how they erupt with vivid fragments of real life, captured by some act of scientific sorcery. And she sees how we behave towards them, captivated by them, almost appearing to revere them. Perhaps that is why the largest buildings are oblong, Naeo muses as she enters a town, in devotion to these other, mystical oblongs.
And so the journey into the weird and wonderful continues, taking in buildings of glass and steel, helicopters, aeroplanes, sound systems, weapons: technologies both creative and destructive. But one thing unties them all throughout the story, and that is how fantastic they seem to Naeo. In that sense if in no other, the traditional fantasy tale finds its mirror: Naeo’s quest feels like fantasy, even if we know it to be true.
All Naeo has found is science and technology, but the journey is a magical one. I hope I have managed to convey that sense of magic, because it allows us to see what we sometimes forget to see: the wonders of the world we have created for ourselves.
“And would some Power the gift give us, To see the world as others see us.”
Burns had other things in mind when he wrote “To a Louse”, his poem about pretensions and vanity. But his words are strangely reminiscent of Naeo’s journey.
What a gift it would be.
IAN JOHNSTONE was brought up in Oxfordshire and now lives in Oxford, which might suggest a man who likes to stick to what he knows. In fact, Ian makes an awkward habit of shifting between worlds. He grew up in a quiet English town but has spent much of his life travelling and working in Africa. He has a love of science but studied English Literature. He grew up in Oxford but received his degree from Cambridge.
His novel Circles of Stone, the latest installment in The Mirror Chronicles series , is out now.