The Islanders Week 7: Meequa/Tremm

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SUMMARY

  • This entry consists of another short story called 'The Drone'.
  • Our main character is LORNA MENNERLIN, a cartographer who works in the observatory at the MCI (Meequa Cartographic Institute). Her contract is over, but she stayed on - partly because of unresolved issues around her lover.
  • The MCI is civilian, but Meequa and both civilian and military sections.
  • The neighboring island, Tremm, is entirely occupied by one of the military nations and is off-limits without specific permission - though this goes against the neutrality agreement.
  • Lorna's love interest is TOMAK. He left for Tremm nearly two years ago under cover to darkness and has not been heard from since. His work and even presence on Tremm is classified. He specified no return date.
  • Drones fly out at on algorithmic flight paths to photograph islands, and return several days later. Lorna likes to watch them fly in over the water at night.
  • The drones are owned by the military, but the MCI has access to their data.
  • Maps are made by piecing these snapshots together like a puzzle. This information is compared to old sailor's charts and other bits of data to make maps. Lorna's particular interest is in an island group known as The Swirl.
  • Satellite images are unreliable due to temporal distortions at altitude.
  • Lorna had a brief affair with BRADD ISKILIP, another person working at the MCI. One night, Bradd meets Lorna at the shore where she watches Tremm at night. He says he can take her over on his sailboat. He secretly sends her restricted a map of Tremm. She considers the offer despite a mistrust of Bradd's motives.
  • We learn that there are tunnels on Tremm created by JORDENN YO during what she called her 'apprenticeship' phase. She had leased the island before the military.
  • One night, TOMAK visits her in her room. He tells her he knows of her plan to approach the island, and warns her not to. He knows a lot about her. He tells her their relationship is over and she should move on. He has been injured on his head.
  • Despite the warning - maybe because of it - Bradd and Lorna set out one night in the boat. They spot a silent motor launch in the water and decided only to approach Tremm waters, but do not cross. From this border, they watch drones fly over the water and over the island in the dark. There are explosions, seemingly around the Yo tunnels, which are also marked on the map Bradd obtained.
  • After a time, the motor launch approaches as speed; Lorna and Bradd flee in their sailboat.
  • The launch side-swipes the sailboat twice, swamping it, before finally veering off. This despite the fact Lorna and Bradd are within their rights to be in international waters.
  • They manage to right their boat and return to Meequa Town.
  • Later, we see that Bradd's & Lorna's relationship is stronger after the shared incident.
  • A drone now circles the island, seeming one of those 'captured' drones that gets stuck doing figure 8-patterns in certain places.

QUESTIONS / DISCUSSION

  • Priest seems to be offering some new facts about certain aspects of the world, such as mapping, tunneling, the military. Did we learn anything meaningful about The Dream Archipelago?
  • A more loving portrait of tunneling is presented here than in the previous set of chapters. Comments?
  • Did you find the end of the story to be satisfactory? Why did it end where it did? Let's assume that Priest is a deft enough writer to accomplish a short story and is telling us exactly what he wants to tell us with this one. What do you think he's telling us?
  • Are the drones a metaphor? For what? What's the significance of the explosions? What's the significance of the circling drone at the end?
  • Is there any significance to the injury on Tomak's head?

Comments

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    We learn that tunneling is a landscape-modifying art which produces soundscapes. It ties in to the constant mentions of winds and currents, as they're what produce the sounds. Do the tunnels capture the wind? Channel it? Emphasise it? I don't think we know how the islanders talk about them. And where did Yo get the money to rent an island for years, and all the machinery and personnel to make the tunnels?

    The foreign military control of Tremm answers some of our points about the supposed "neutrality" of the Archipelago. It's neutral in the "don't be too obvious" sense.

    As for the message: I think Priest is giving us a deliberately enigmatic situation and showing how people can continue their lives in the face it, making as much sense of things as they can, while knowing it's an ultimately fruitless exercise. I don't know if the motif of the constantly circling drones reinforces that message.

    I don't know if it's deliberate or an oversight, but Priest says the drones are programmed to avoid certain areas, while also saying the overall geography is unknown. I'm not sure how we should reconcile those two assertions: if the geography is unknown, how do the drones know where to avoid?

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    First, I thought that this short story did hold up as a thing in itself - obviously broader knowledge about other events adds to the comprehension, but the same is true of any short story which is part of a wider world, eg Chesterton's Father Brown stories.

    The drones (I felt) represented us as readers, with our own bizarre mixture of great detail about specific events and near-total ignorance of the Archipelago as a whole. Likewise getting stuck and circling round particular places :)

    @NeilNjae said:
    I don't know if it's deliberate or an oversight, but Priest says the drones are programmed to avoid certain areas, while also saying the overall geography is unknown. I'm not sure how we should reconcile those two assertions: if the geography is unknown, how do the drones know where to avoid?

    It's a good point, though I suppose one can imagine some kind of signal which tells drones "don't come here and map things". I'm imagining it as kind of analogous to a robots.txt file on a web page... you don't need to map the whole internet to obey it, you just have to not go there.

    @Apocryphal said:

    • Satellite images are unreliable due to temporal distortions at altitude.

    Now we have temporal distortions - a previous chapter had vortical ones, and I'm not sure if these are the same or different? Temporal distortions is an odd concept to bring in here, as I have not had any sense before that there is any oddity about the flow of time. Maybe the immortality thing is wrapped up with it?

    • The launch side-swipes the sailboat twice, swamping it, before finally veering off. This despite the fact Lorna and Bradd are within their rights to be in international waters.

    A neat way to attempt to sink the boat without leaving physical evidence behind.

    • A more loving portrait of tunneling is presented here than in the previous set of chapters. Comments?

    Loving? I don't see that. The explosions might suggest attempts to destroy the tunnels (though surely a few guys with shovels would do a better, quicker and less obtrusive job than crashing drones into them?)

    • Did you find the end of the story to be satisfactory? Why did it end where it did? Let's assume that Priest is a deft enough writer to accomplish a short story and is telling us exactly what he wants to tell us with this one. What do you think he's telling us?

    I took away the idea that CP apparently doesn't really believe in closure! The story ends with multiple loose ends (clearly by design) and

    • Is there any significance to the injury on Tomak's head?

    I didn't take the head to be the significant part, but the fact that it was by burning. "He was burned" in UK slang (and maybe elsewhere) suggests that he was in some measure tricked, duped, or taken in by a situation which he didn't understand. His dialogue with Lorna indicated to me that he didn't especially like his new "assignment" but could see no way out of it, and wanted her to cut loose from him. Assuming that he still felt affection for her, this is a pretty stark warning. Of course, she was also burned, in this case by two relationships that have both gone wrong. Has the one with Bradd now been repaired? We don't know - no closure - but the narration to date doesn't make things look good. Maybe she's the drone stuck in its figure eight pattern between two centres?

    Overall, for me this was a good chapter which added considerably to my view of the world, while still leaving reams of stuff unanswered.

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    Some great points and questions, most of which I’ll need to respond to later. For now:

    The money Yo got to lease the island came from a Lotterie Collago grant. It was mentioned much earlier, in another chapter, that some of these installations captured wind and made sound. Some also capture and spit out water.

    Re: showing people making their lives in the face of larger things - I think I read in a review that this is a typical theme of his. I’ll find and post the reference.

    The drones as readers is a really interesting interpretation. My own impression is that somehow the drones and the people employed on the island are somehow integrated - like people kidnapped and altered so their minds are permanently linked to fly drones remotely. A captured drone represents insanity. The particular drone at the end of the story is Tomak. But that’s a highly speculative interpretation and I think Richard’s drones as readers or Drone as Lorna might fit better.

    Im pretty sure temporal distortions were in the introduction, where maybe the term ‘temporal vortices’ was used? Anyway I think ‘temporal distortions’ and ‘vortical whatever’s’ are The same thing.

    The writing in the short story is so very different than in the entries, and this is what we have to look forward to in the next books.

    Now that weve embarked down this road, I’m second guessing the order of books. Maybe it would have been easier to start with a novel and save this one for last. Oh well.
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    @RichardAbbott said:

    • A more loving portrait of tunneling is presented here than in the previous set of chapters. Comments?

    Loving? I don't see that. The explosions might suggest attempts to destroy the tunnels (though surely a few guys with shovels would do a better, quicker and less obtrusive job than crashing drones into them?)

    Lorna expressed admiration for the tunnels as an art form.

    @Apocryphal said:
    The drones as readers is a really interesting interpretation. My own impression is that somehow the drones and the people employed on the island are somehow integrated - like people kidnapped and altered so their minds are permanently linked to fly drones remotely. A captured drone represents insanity. The particular drone at the end of the story is Tomak. But that’s a highly speculative interpretation and I think Richard’s drones as readers or Drone as Lorna might fit better.

    I could read the final, circling drone as Lorna. She's finally given up dreams of leaving the island, and her personal horizon has shrunk to the one island, constantly circling the mystery that is Tomak but making no progress.

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    edited March 19

    @Apocryphal said:

    QUESTIONS / DISCUSSION

    • Priest seems to be offering some new facts about certain aspects of the world, such as mapping, tunneling, the military. Did we learn anything meaningful about The Dream Archipelago?

    That the neutrality thing is a specious farce?

    • A more loving portrait of tunneling is presented here than in the previous set of chapters. Comments?

    Tunneling sets off my bullshit meter big time. This is obviously so important to Priest, and so stupid a concept that it gnaws at me...

    • Did you find the end of the story to be satisfactory? Why did it end where it did? Let's assume that Priest is a deft enough writer to accomplish a short story and is telling us exactly what he wants to tell us with this one. What do you think he's telling us?

    It was an interesting story in places - I vastly prefer the stories to the fake travelogue - but all I get out of this is frustration. The characters in the story accomplish nothing, find out nothing, and are apparently OK with that.

    • Are the drones a metaphor? For what? What's the significance of the explosions? What's the significance of the circling drone at the end?

    I'll let the English majors and philosophy types answer this. I'm just a technical writer and metaphors and such are out of my field.

    • Is there any significance to the injury on Tomak's head?

    Yes. He is burned and disfigured. That would be significant, at least to him and to Lorna. He probably tried to find out something factual and was punished by the author... ;)

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    @Apocryphal said:

    • This entry consists of another short story called 'The Drone'.

    QUESTIONS / DISCUSSION

    • Did you find the end of the story to be satisfactory? Why did it end where it did? Let's assume that Priest is a deft enough writer to accomplish a short story and is telling us exactly what he wants to tell us with this one. What do you think he's telling us?

    I’m not sure this is a short story, any more than other chapters are travelogue entries. We’ve talked here about fiction posing as science, and what I think we have here, and in “The Seacaptain,” is a novel chapter posing as a short story. Now certainly “The Drone” contains a narrative and in that sense is a story. It is not of novelette or novella length, so it is short. But it does not function as a short story.

    I’m not calling into question whether Priest can write a short story; I know he can. I’m saying he’s intentionally leading us astray. So far our discussion treats Priest as the author of “The Drone,” and, of course, he literally wrote the words. But, in the context of the novel, Christopher Priest doesn’t exist (so far as we know at this point). Within the conceit of the novel, “The Seacaptain” is written in the first person, making it easy see that a character within the novel has written it, much as characters have written the travelogue entries. “The Drone” is written in the third person, though, masking its authorship. I think that, within, the reality of the novel, a character has written this, not as a fictional short story but as a narrative to describe factual events (within the reality of the novel), or as a narrative to obscure the facts; either way, “The Drone” is not a work of fiction, even though this chapter of the novel is.

    So who wrote it? Why? Are they presenting the “facts” of the matter or are they lying about / spinning / obscuring what happened? Why are they writing it? To whom are they writing? How do they know what Lorna is thinking? Is Lorna the author?

    I admit my eye for metafiction here is primed by my reading of The Affirmation, the novel in the real world, not the novel by the same name mentioned in The Islanders. So I’m going to up my he ante here by claiming that The Islanders is not a novel but a book-length work of fiction within Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago oeuvre and is best read as such. Much in the same way that it makes no sense to me to ask questions about whether “The Drone” works as a standalone story, I don’t think we can interpret this book simply as a self-contained unit.

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    @WildCard said:
    So who wrote it? Why? Are they presenting the “facts” of the matter or are they lying about / spinning / obscuring what happened? Why are they writing it? To whom are they writing? How do they know what Lorna is thinking? Is Lorna the author?

    The in-world description of The Islanders is one of a gazetteer of the islands, with individual descriptions penned by many people. So why did the compiler of the gazetteer include this piece of narrative? Did they think it would make a good summary of the islands of Meequa and Tremm? Or is the gazeteer as a whole an attempt to surreptitiously publish some information about violations of the Covenant?

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    @WildCard That's an interesting take. We have two 'authors' to choose from in the Archipelago - Chaster Kammeston and Moylita Kaine. Kaine, we have been told, has reasons to be anti-military. Kammeston seems to be for himself, but has ties to Bathurst and Caurer. I'm not sure that either story can easily be tied to an agenda of either character, but it makes sense to me that we should keep looking for such things.

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    @NeilNjae said:
    Or is the gazeteer as a whole an attempt to surreptitiously publish some information about violations of the Covenant?

    This is the much more interesting option.

    This makes me wonder what’s on the other side of the world from Meequa and Tremm.

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    I experience an installation of this [tunneling/soundscape] sort at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I was using the stairwell to get to the second level and I noticed some funny humming noises/whining. Then I saw a rack holding a flyer on the rail. It showed a tubular sound map of frequencies in the stair well. you could go to different steps and lean this way or that to catch different frequencies. Kind of interesting but ultimately not very meaningful. I expect a natural one would be way cooler though.

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    There's also the theory that various ancient megastructures (Stonehenge, some pyramids in Chichen Itza) are designed to give an acoustic element to events there. But in the Dream Archipelago, it seems to be something that art students do, and I think the engineering is too expensive for that.

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    I had issues with this 'chapter' in regards to the whole drone-mapping thing. I feel like Priest is trying to make something metaphorical/interesting out of the whole struggle to map the unmappable. So it's really weird when one character seems to have a complete and accurate map of an island to slip to another. I would have been more at ease if we had found out that the map he slipped her was faked.

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    You mean that if he had such an easy time obtaining the map, why wouldn’t these things be floating all over the internet by now? Maybe it was a fake. We don’t know.
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    @Ray_Otus said:
    I had issues with this 'chapter' in regards to the whole drone-mapping thing. I feel like Priest is trying to make something metaphorical/interesting out of the whole struggle to map the unmappable. So it's really weird when one character seems to have a complete and accurate map of an island to slip to another. I would have been more at ease if we had found out that the map he slipped her was faked.

    That bothered me too! Thank you for bringing it up, Ray!

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    edited March 23

    A propos of music from stones, there have been recurring attempts up here in Cumbria to create musical instruments from suitably shaped pieces of rock. Technically called lithophones, most people call then stone xylophones, showing a reckless attitude to etymology. John Ruskin built one while living at Brantwood on the shore of Lake Coniston - for him it was a tangible manifestation of his philosophy of nature.

    The earliest recorded one to be made as a systematic attempt to create a tuned and wide-ranging instrument was made near Keswick in the north Lakes in the late 1700s - Peter Crosthwaite (an "eccentric inventor") felt that the usual construction from slate was inferior to a different local rock called hornfells which can be extracted from nearby Skiddaw. A mid-19th-century version can still be seen at Keswick museum, at such time as it's open again.

    None of these involve tunneling, except possibly to get suitable chunks of stone, but they do show a keen artistic interest in acoustics and rocks.

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    @Ray_Otus said:
    I had issues with this 'chapter' in regards to the whole drone-mapping thing. I feel like Priest is trying to make something metaphorical/interesting out of the whole struggle to map the unmappable. So it's really weird when one character seems to have a complete and accurate map of an island to slip to another. I would have been more at ease if we had found out that the map he slipped her was faked.

    I can explain it as one of those effects that only shows up over large distances. At the scale of an island or so, navigation is accurate and mapping is possible. The weird effects show up at distances of hundreds or thousands of km, making mapping and location-defining unreliable. It's similar to when you have to account for the curvature of the Earth. Over 10km or so, the Earth is effectively flat. Beyond that, you start seeing things fall over the horizon.

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    @NeilNjae -- that is a pretty good rationalization, thanks! :)

    @Apocryphal -- it might be. But unless it is uncovered as such somewhere in the rest of the novel I am inclined to take it at face value, given the way it was presented (by the author) in the story.

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