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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

I like maps. Particularly, I love historical atlases. Spend a few minutes browsing through something like The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, watching the borders play leapfrog, and it quickly becomes obvious that this whole idea of absolute ethnic identities and immutable national boundaries is nonsense.

Not quite utter nonsense, mind you. Some boundaries remain unchanged for centuries, and for good reason. For example, even Napoleon, at the height of his power, was unable to bring sufficient men and materiel across the Pyrenees to maintain control of the Iberian Peninsula, and so the border between France and Spain today remains much the same as it was a thousand years ago, when it was the border between the kingdoms of France and Navarre.

But most of the time, political boundaries are merely either the figment of someone's imagination or else an artifact of someone else's army. To look at a map of, say, Europe, before Garibaldi and Bismarck and their respective wars of national unification, is to see a colorful crazy quilt of tiny monarchies, duchies, principalities, and whatnot. The Kingdom of The Two Sicilies? The Grand Duchy of Parma? (Famed for its cheese and at one point ruled by an "Arch-Treasurer"? Wow. Now there is an imagination-inspiring title for you!) The Kingdom of Hanover, and all the other tiny "nations" that once staked out their turf in the ruins of the Holy Roman Empire? Where are they now? Or to look at a map of, say, North America, before Abraham Lincoln's War of National Unification—

(Oh, wait, I got in trouble the last time I called it that. Better move on to the next point.)

Ergo, as we consider the current Friday Challenge, "Write the Winner," and Watkinson's winning entry, it might help, for a moment, to consider the map of Europe as it looked circa 1890. Note especially the Ottoman Empire, in the lower central to right-hand corner of the map.

At its high-water mark in the 17th century, the westward expansion of the Ottoman Empire was stopped at the gates of Vienna, and the Black Sea was an Ottoman lake. After two centuries of defeats and reversals the Ottomans were still a formidable power, whose reach extended all the way to the Adriatic, but the European powers were nibbling away at the edges. France had taken Algeria and most of Morocco (Spain got the rest). Italy took Tunisia and what is now Libya. England got Egypt and the Suez. By the eve of World War I, twenty years later, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece had carved up most of the Ottoman territory west of Constantinople, leaving Albania as a pocket of Turkish-influenced culture on the coast, and the people of the Balkans had spent centuries chafing under Ottoman rule and viciously fighting each other.

And this was the world that Archduke Ferdinand stepped into when his driver made that fateful wrong turn in Sarajevo in 1914.

The First World War was the foundry in which the modern world was formed. In it, all the old empires of Eurasia were finally smashed to bits, melted down, and remade into nations new. Czarist Imperial Russia, which in many respects considered itself the rightful heir to Byzantium ("Czar" being merely the Slavicized form of "Caesar"), was already festering with revolts and mutinies, but the strain of the war pushed it over the edge and into the abyss of the 1917 communist revolution, the echoes of which still reverberate today. The Kaiser's Imperial Germany, which in many respects considered itself to be the rightful heir to the Holy Roman Empire (again, "Kaiser" being merely the Germanicized form of "Caesar," and in fact being much closer in pronunciation to the original ancient Latin than our modern, sloppy, Anglicized 'see-zer'), ended up stripped of its foreign possessions, dismembered and disarmed, and ripe territory for someone who could convince the Germanic peoples that they needed to rouse themselves from their torpor and create a new thousand-year reich, to replace the old Holy Roman Empire (in German, Heiliges Römisches Reich), which after all was only finally and formally dissolved in 1806.

The British Imperialists were perhaps somewhat smarter. They realized early on that the war would bankrupt them, and that the only way their empire would survive was by transferring their more onerous obligations to spinoff corporations—er, nations—mainly the United States and Australia.

But the empire I'm most interested in at this exact moment is the Ottoman. After centuries of fighting the Holy Roman Empire and its successors, in World War One the Ottomans allied themselves with the Central Powers, and entered the war on the German/Austro-Hungarian side. And the place where all of this history comes to a head is called the Dardenelles.

The Dardenelles—in Greek, the Hellespont—is, like Megiddo Junction, one of those fascinating places that seems to keep reinserting itself into history. The narrow, shallow channel that connects the Aegean Sea on one side to the Sea of Marmara on the other, and thus offers passage from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, has for millennia been the dividing line between Europe and Asia. Troy was built on its shores. Xerxes of Persia and Alexander the Great of Greece both had to bring their armies across it as they conquered their respective empires. Legend tells us that this where Helle, daughter of Athamas, drowned, and Jason and the Argonauts had to brave its passage in their quest for the Golden Fleece.

In 1915, with Russia faltering and Germany in control of the Baltic Sea, the western allies conceived a plan to keep Russia in the war by forcing the passage of the Dardanelles and resupplying Russia through its Black Sea ports. The joint Franco-British fleet sent to accomplish this mission was turned back with heavy losses, though, and so the British went to Plan B: an amphibious landing at Gallipoli, on the western shore, using primarily ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops.

It is said that Gallipoli is where the uniquely Australian national character was formed, and where Australian "diggers" became a breed apart from British "tommies." What seems clear in hindsight is that Gallipoli is the place where the Australians and New Zealanders, after losing thousands of men under inept British leadership in a futile six-month campaign that ended in an ignominious withdrawal, decided collectively they did not want to be the heirs to the British Empire, and so the British went to plans C and D: stepping up the propaganda campaign to ensure that America entered the war on the British side and dispatching T. E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia—to stir up the Arabs and get them to revolt against Ottoman rule.

Both of these plans were brilliantly, and perhaps tragically, successful. The United States fairly leaped at the chance to take over the responsibility for (and expense of) maintaining the security of the British and French colonial empires, thus ensuring that the U.S. would remain embroiled in colonial and imperial entanglements for decades to come, while the fires that Lawrence lit in the Arab world still burn today. The reason why so many borders in the Mideast run in such beautifully straight lines now is because Winston Churchill, with Lawrence at his side, literally drew the map, carving up the formerly Ottoman lands like— pardon the expression—a turkey, thus creating new countries as fiefdoms for Lawrence's Arab allies. And Winston Churchill loved straight lines.

On the other side of the trenches, Gallipoli is also the place where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose to prominence, and where the modern nation of Turkey was born, largely in opposition to post-war interference by the western powers and in defiance of League of Nations mandates. But that is another story...

I love maps. They speak of faraway places, adventures, and mysteries waiting to be discovered. A well-drawn map reveals ages of history in a single image. Borders are never arbitrary. (Well, except for those drawn by Churchill, and even they tell a story.) Names embody legacies. Places are invested with layers of meaning, by the persons who lived, and sometimes died, there.

We Americans are a curiously ahistoric people. We tend to think of maps as just a way to find the route from Point A to Point B, and then only if the batteries in the GPS are dead. We fantasy and science fiction writers are often even more ahistoric. We think of maps as being the childish drawings at the front of the book, in which the Conveniently Placed Mountains on the shore of the Geographically Nonsensical Sea exist only to slow down the hero's progress and keep us from having all of our action happen in one place.

But as you design your fantastic planets, magical kingdoms, and alternate histories, remember: maps have meaning. And if you give some thought to what that meaning might be, your writing will be better for it.
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