I never get it. When young, and my parents bought the plane tickets, they planted me on the aisle–a fact which I resented right up until I needed to use a restroom and had to clamber over zero people to do so. Nowadays, when I’m the one buying, it costs money to choose where you sit, so I don’t–which means I’m usually mashed between two strangers somewhere near the wings.
This time, however, fate plopped me by a window, late at night, surrounded by passengers dozing under blankets and cocooned in neck-wrap pillows. On high alert from my previous flight, during which most passengers and flight attendants had become pretty rightfully convinced they were about to die, I was doing no sleeping. I remained vigilant as great heaps of clouds whipped themselves into the likenesses of Mufasa and then shot themselves through with lightning. In contrast to the flight out, which had–perhaps because it occurred at dawn, over country flooded with sunlight and thus devoid of the pinpricks of light signifying human life–seemed like a four-hour sojourn over a desolate moonscape, the return flight seemed to hug closer to the ground, and always provided some faint streak of human settlement to set the mind at ease. I didn’t know why, exactly, it was so comforting to see the lights below–I could plummet to a fiery death in someone’s backyard just as easily as I could atop a remote crag–but it was.
Then, hours later, when idly watching the sparkling lights beneath me and realizing with a jolt that I knew the curve of that highway, the grid of those streets, and watching what had been a charmingly vague landscape click into scintillating familiarity, I figured it out. This was the top-down view of next to every game I’d ever loved. Civ, Pirates, Age of Empires, Powermonger, The Settlers, every Sim-thing known to man. All of them let you step back to his level of knowing.
Because that is what makes it magical. It isn’t a godly sense of parental affection–I’ve boxed as many sims into doorless sheds, and sent as many stalwart armies to their certain doom, as the next person. It’s not the power of that view that is affecting–or at least, not the active power exercised from that level.
It’s that the boundaries of the world are known. You see them, up there, in a way that forever escapes you down below. The borderlines of mountains, the fullness or dryness of rivers, the color urban sprawl takes on as it tints the green out of the landscape as it spreads…the smallness of things. It’s a terribly trite sentiment but it doesn’t feel so much to me, since I rarely fly and am next to never on a floor high enough on a building to appreciate the spread of the surrounding territory. But there is a passive power in seeing next to every place you’ve lived, loved, striven and struggled for the past ten years laid out below you, and to see how incredibly small that space you’ve taken up is. That is it. All you’ve felt in your life over this past decade has been felt, by and large, in and among those tiny lights. And the same goes for everyone else down there. All of your lives fit between those two rivers it takes you 45 minutes to drive between on the ground–and both of which you can see, from up here, glimmering faintly in the light of the surrounding cities. “You can see it from up here, guys!” I wanted to yell as I winged over and away from my town. “You think your life is so full but you can see everywhere you go from this one spot! All of your experience is a tiny puddle on this map! There are whole deserts, whole mountain ranges your life doesn’t even touch!”
I am easily moved by maps and landscapes, but you can get the same sort of boundary-knowledge chronologically, in books and movies like Cloud Atlas and Inception. Here, we receive knowledge in the inverse, having become acquainted and comfortable with, even fond of the limits of one world or experience, before being pulled into another, broader one, that still seeks to contain the former. This is where I think people who pooh-pooh fiction, in any form, are doing themselves an injustice: because except for tiny happenstance moments where you recognize the smallness of your daily paths from the bird’s-eye view of an airplane’s window, or (I am told) in the hour or so after you hold your first child, you are by and large not granted much of a vantage point from which to survey your own life. You’re down among the lights. So fiction, be it a game about lost empires reborn, or a book about empires yet to come, or a movie about the tangled empires warring for domination in our own brains, gives you more of a chance than ever your life will to realize your own smallness. And, perhaps, to act on it.
“Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides… I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life’s voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”