Pop Culture
May 17, 2024, 06:27AM

Secrets of the World-Builders

Far-off places, mysterious forces, and the importance of the unseen.

Megalopolis.jpeg.webp?ixlib=rails 2.1

Amazon irritated me recently. I’d pre-ordered The Game of Thrones Cookbook, and when it arrived months later, found I was charged for shipping, which was supposed to be waived. I couldn’t find a straightforward way to complain to Amazon, so I contested the difference on my credit card, which generated a series of confusing emails from Amazon, with the upshot of not getting my $8 back. I’ve never been an Amazon-hater—rather, grateful the company enables me to sell my book—but it and other tech giants have enabled a decline in the quality of many digital services, aka “enshittification.”

However, I was pleased by recent reports that Amazon’s negotiated rights to use the Blue Wizards—characters mentioned by J.R.R. Tolkien but relegated to off-stage obscurity—in The Rings of Power TV series. These characters, with their untapped potential to use their preternatural powers to influence the course of events in the Second Age and beyond, evoke a principle that’s important in making fictional worlds convincing, called “distant mountains” or “far-off places”; it’s the sense that there’s more going on than what’s shown.

Julian Sanchez, whom I follow on Threads, called my attention to the distant-mountains idea regarding the Kessel Run, which, though I’ve not been keeping-up with recent Star Wars developments, I understand went from passing reference in the original film to detailed depiction more recently, perhaps disappointing those who’d rather maintain the mystique of the unseen place, or the possibility that Han Solo was making things up when he claimed the Millennium Falcon had made the run in “less than 12 parsecs,” curiously referencing units of distance, not time. In any case, once a “far-off” thing’s been shown, persuasive world-building requires that new ones get mentioned.

The Tannhäuser Gate, mentioned in the “Tears in Rain” soliloquy in Blade Runner, holds an appeal for me, though I haven’t seen the film in over 40 years nor watched the sequel. Roy Batty, the renegade replicant played by Rutger Hauer, as he’s about to expire tells pursuing detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford): “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe... Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion... I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain... Time to die.” One can imagine what the gate looks like, as some have, but it’s speculative, along with how events there might evoke a German folkloric knight-poet or Richard Wagner’s opera.

My 14-year-old son, an enthusiast of both Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, raised the question of what if the sprawling narratives of Middle-Earth and Westeros turned out to take place in one world. I was initially dismissive, but soon could see the potential. One sails west from Westeros to parts unknown and approaches the east coast of the Land of Rhûn. The Old Gods and the New, the Lord of Light, and the Drowned God, all still mysterious after one’s seen the Game of Thrones TV series (I haven’t read the books) might turn out to be other manifestations of Tolkien’s Valar such as Manwë, Aulë and Vairë.

World-building can go wrong. I was a fervent fan of the Battlestar Galactica reboot (2004–2009) and found fascination in the inscrutable supernatural forces worshipped by the polytheistic humans and the monotheistic Cylons (the robots having taken humanoid form, unlike their tinny 1970s precursors). But a decline set in, which my friend Mitch astutely marked to the episode where the characters start boxing each other, and the finale made me regret I’d ever watched the series. Still, if or when a planned new reboot makes it to the screen, I’m unlikely to not give it a try.

Megalopolis, Francis Ford Coppola’s self-funded $120-million film premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of an architect seeking to rebuild Manhattan after a disaster; influences include Metropolis and Things to Come, with aesthetics reminiscent of the Roman Empire. A preview screening included an actor in the audience asking questions of Adam Driver onscreen. Early reports have stated the film is “weird,” “batshit” and “commercially unviable.” There’s no chance I’m not going to see it.

—Follow Kenneth Silber on Threads: @kennethsilber


Register or Login to leave a comment