The world building of Us (deep spoilers)

Jordan Peele’s frankly terrifying film Us really unnerved me. I wanted to see it again before writing more about it but I don’t think I’m going to get an opportunity anytime soon. I really want to talk about how the intentional absurdity of some of the premises in the film work really well i.e. the underlying explanation of events doesn’t stand up to pedantic scrutiny and that not only doesn’t detract from the film but is played as an advantage.

This means spoilers, so I have waited a week. I will be talking about most of the big reveals in the film, so don’t go further if you haven’t see it and don’t want spoilers.

Don’t go into this fun house of mirrors

Todays Infographic: Marvel/DC versus Australian Soaps

There are many great rivalries: love versus death, left versus right, the Guelphs & the Ghibellines but few can match the rivalries between DC and Marvel companies or Sydney versus Melbourne or the ongoing battle of Australian soap operas.

But what if we put them altogether?

The chart shows actors who have appeared at least once in one of three Aussie soaps. I’ve added the now defunct Blue Heelers — less famous outside of Australia but once one of the most popular dramas on Australian TV. Technically it was a police drama but fairly soapy.

The most surprising name is Dave Bautista who made a guest appearance as himself on Neighbours in 2009.

A Tube Map of Earthsea

[Version 2]

The first three books anyway. Tehanu would be better shown with a hiking map of Gont.

[ETA: I’d left off brief stops at Hosk and Astowell from the Wizard line and a semi stop at Obehol (they are driven away by spear throwing islanders) from the Farthest line. Typo “Nintey” corrected (thanks to Vicki Rosenzweig).

Castle, Fortress, Refuge

If castles have a single theme then it is false security. A castle implies a seige, an unscalable wall implies a way up, an impenetrable keep implies a way to sneak in. A castle is a challenge and a castle of any significance in a book is like Chekhov’s gun — if it isn’t besieged or infiltrated then it may seem superfluous.

Isengard, Helms Deep, Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings are all besieged. Minas Morgul is not infiltrated as such but the heroes sneak past its defences. Mordor itself, essentially a whole territory that is a fortress walled on three sides with a mighty gate and an inner keep, is infiltrated by Frodo and Sam.

The castle of the enemy is a place to escape from, burgle or rescue a character from. The might and invulnerability of the enemy can be subverted — a weakness found, an entry point, someway in.

But castles are also where people live and specifically aristocrats live, lords, ladies and kings and queens. So a castle overlaps with a palace. I’ll discuss palaces another time but they carry with them the notion of false security. A castle (or a palace) has guards and walls but it is also a place of assassins, secret passages, intrigue and betrayal and as such the theme of false security is common to both.

Castles (and canonically palaces) overlap with labyrinths in that they are places of confusing passages. They can also harbour monsters. Dracula’s castle or Frankenstein’s (in films) evoke labyrinths more than castles in that house monsters but like castles proper, they necessarily fail in providing safety — as a castle in a story can no more constrain a monster it encloses than it can prevent a siege. A castle is not just a false promise to keep things out but a false promise to keep things in (see also Michael Mann’s odd and pretentious film The Keep for another castle with a monster in the middle).

Like the eponymous ‘Castle Doctrine‘ in US law, a castle marks a fear of invasion and the use of violence to prevent it. That fear may be justified but castles can represent consuming fears that mark paranoia or literary madness. Saruman and Denethor sit in the strongest keeps of the fortresses slowly eaten inside by fear (fueled by Sauron via a palantir). Likewise, in The Silmarillion, when Feanor is consumed by paranoia because of the lies of Melkor, he first retreats to his fortress of Formenos.

For places that in reality would be busy mini-towns crammed full of people, castles and fortresses can carry with them connotations of inward-looking retreats. Superman’s Fortress of Solitude doesn’t fit the other aspects of castles I’ve listed above but overtly expresses this idea of a fortress as a personal retreat. In a similar way, Howl’s Moving Castle reflects the wizard Howl’s self-absorption and emotional defences in both the film and book*.

The castles of Britain also marked historical fear of the population — Norman edifices to assert dominance over the population and later English/Norman edifices in Wales and Scotland to assert control of territory. The castle can both embody fear of the outside and project fear and dominance outward. The Death Star in Star Wars maybe technolically and militarily absurd but it captures this dual nature of the castle as a political expression well. It embodies the Emperor’s inate fears and also serves to intimidate the subjugated population of the former Republic. Of course, because the Death Star is a conventional castle in all aspects aside from size, shape and location, it ends up both infiltrated and besieged and its defences overcome.


A castle might be a refuge but I mean something conceptually different. A refuge is a place that offers temporary safety for characters. A refuge and a castle both offer protection but a refuge does not offer false safety. The safety a refuge offers is limited (because otherwise, the story can’t continue) but it is not false. The limitation may be straight-forward i.e. it is a place that can only offer limited defence against the forces or it may simply be limited by the protagonist’s objectives. Tom Bombadil’s house in Lord of the Rings, like Bombadil himself, maybe supernaturally safe but the hobbits can’t remain there because of their own objectives. Likewise, Rivendell and Lothlorien, while not invulnerable can only offer temporary protection because true safety can only be achieved by Frodo completing his quest.

Tolkien made both Rivendell and Lothlorien effectively fortresses in the sense of heavily defended and defensible places but also made them places that don’t physically resemble castles. I presume that he did this to characterise their elvish aspect (in the Silmarillion there are more overtly castle-like elvish cities, Nargothrond and Gondolin, both of which are destroyed despite their impressive fortifications).

Hidden Fortress

A refuge can offer limited safety by being hidden. Akira Kurosawa’s film of the same name refers to the temporary hiding place of a general and princess of the defeated Akizuki clan. As with any refuge, the hideaway can only be temporary. Star Wars, that liberally borrowed from Kurosawa, repeatedly makes use of hidden rebel bases that offer short-term safety to the protagonists.

An awareness of the vulnerability of your hiding place is treated as a virtue of character. To know that your fortress can only hold back your enemies for so long is treated as wisdom. A story about a wise king who had carefully ensured that his impregnable fortress really was impregnable and who had taken great care to ensure that it had more than enough food and water to outlast any feasible siege is not inherently appealing. Instead, the quest has to keep going or the military hero has to take the fight to the enemy. Notably, Aragorn does this twice. In the siege of Helms Deep, he resolves to make a last-ditch sortie out of the keep. Later, having raised the siege of Minas Tirith he takes his forces out of the city to attack the Black Gate of Mordor to misdirect Sauron. Castles are cool but keeping your hero (or your murderous monster) stuck inside is unwise for a story.

[ In another case of synchronicity post-writing this: “Elon Musk is building a medieval watchtower” ]

*[I did read the book once but I know the film better, which is quite different]

Plot Geography: Plaza, Palace, Castle, Fortress, Refuge, Labyrinth and Library

Writing about libraries set my muse off on an essay about libraries in fiction but thinking about libraries set my head in the direction of the Name of the Rose and its geographical puzzle of a library which set me thinking about castles and before you know it I’d written more about castles than libraries.

So it looks like I’m writing two posts now which led to a couple more. Which is fine but I needed an introduction because it has been awhile since my previous plot geography posts and that introduction got longer…

Plot geography! Not a thing, just me rambling. The posts last year started after Alex Ack’s thought-provoking posts on the geography/geomorphology of Middle Earth. That set me thinking about how Tolkien used different terrain to mark thematic changes in the plot. I’m not a scholar of fantasy fiction so the sources I drew on are just those that came to hand in my head: Middle Earth, Earthsea, Gene Wolfe’s Ruth in the Book of the New Sun, as bits and bobs from other sources such as Star Wars.

I’m not trying to be either authoritative or normative. If somebody wants to write about a swamp that isn’t much of an obstacle and in which nothing lurks quasi-supernaturally then I have zero problems with that. Likewise I’m not railing against cliches here, if a story has a swamp with a tentacled thing waiting to pull you under then I’m all for that as well (sorry, I mean ‘you’ generically – I don’t want any readers to actually be drowned by a tentacled monster in a swamp.)

The emphasis in that last set of posts was on places that characters travel through. That is not a feature confined to fantasy but stories that set people off on journeys will place characters in a dynamic with the landscape.

These next posts are more about locations. Dots on the map of a fantasy land rather than features. Places you travel to rather than zones you travel through.

A rocky fortress shaped like a man.
A castle can take many shapes

It’s not an exhaustive list. I’ve intentionally left off inns, villages, towns and cities. I’ll be mentioning those but I don’t have enough things to say about them currently. I don’t have monasteries, schools or tall towers lost in a dark forest as specific topics but I’ll touch on them. Not everything in the list above will get its own post as some are pairing were I want to contrast their roles. I don’t want to be overly literal about locations either for example in Lord of the Rings the elven kingdom of Lothlorien has some of the features of a fortress: its is a defensible position where the characters are not in immediate danger of direct attack by the forces pursuing them. Yet Lothlorien has no stony walls or battlements. I believe plot wise it is something other than an unusual castle but I’ll get to that later and I wouldn’t look askance if somebody included it in a list of castle-like places in Lord of the Rings.

As always feel free to add your own examples, argue against my examples or suggest aspects I’ve forgotten.

Plot territory: Future Junkyards

I was going to say that they seem to be everywhere these days but actually I can only think of three recent ones. But three is a lot right?

The junkyard in Becky Chamber’s A Closed and Common Orbit (reviewed here). The book has two interwoven stories one about an AI trying to live as an embodied being with help from her friends and the second story told in flashback about Jane – a cloned child who (along with other cloned children) works in a giant junkyard on an isolated planet.

The San Jose junkyard zone in Blade Runner 2049.


Without spoiling the plot Ryan Gosling visits this hi-tech scrap heap to interview the owner of an orphanage which turns out to be…a child slave labour workshop where kids recycle hi-tech junk. Given the timing of the film and Chamber’s book it is unlikely either cribbed from the other but the visuals in Blade Runner 2049 almost work as visuals for Chamber’s book.

Less focused on the horrors of child exploitation we’ve also had recently the giant intergalactic junkyard from Thor Ragnarok (review here):


Is it just me or do junkyards only exist on cloudy days?

The city in Borne isn’t technically a junkyard but it has similar tropes of gangs of scavangers making use of the remains of technology but with the twist that it is discarded bio-tech. I guess The Phantom Menace has the child-labour-junkyard trope but without the giant space junkyard.

As a piece of plot territory, the giant junkyard is one that is implictly science-fictional rather than fantasy or at least requires a society in which mass manufacture is a thing and hence the disposal of used goods is a thing. A junkyard can then become a place in which the fringes of society live but also a place where technology can be found.

A junkyard is also a place that hides in plain sight. They are by their nature visible but exist where people with wealth can ignore them. There is an in-built critique of capitalism (whether an author intends that or not) with an implication of the ugliness of waste. The inhabitants of the junkyard are also people being discarded by their society – the sfnal junkyard is rarely a day job but instead home to gangs or slaves or slave owning gangs.

There’s an implication of secrets, forgotten knowledge, death and also rebirth in the fictional junkyard – dead things coming back to life for good or ill. An alchemical theme to the junkyard.




Even More Plot Elements of Fantasy Maps

Following on from this and this and the other.

Big Islands

In Earthsea islands are large and numerous, in Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, islands barely appear and are small. In both cases they are locations and destinations and themselves contain terrain.

In Tolkien’s wider work, Númenor is the most notable island – a version of Atlantis, which itself gives us a classic inspiration for islands in Western literature. Oceanic islands can be countries with their own terrain but cut off from surroundings. Le Guin depicts the islands of Earthsea more like medieval era city-states with a wider common culture but no central authority.

It is interesting to me that Tolkien, who draws on many aspects of Britain and Britishness in building Middle Earth, avoids the island quality of Britain. This despite a tendency to mythologize the insular quality of Britain in English propaganda-history both in high-culture (Shakespeare’s ‘sceptered isle’) and low-culture (‘fog in the channel, continent cut off’). George R.R. Martin’s Westeros does this by having it be an eratz England circa the War of the Roses (with Scotland being another place full of ice zombies). Westeros’s scale seems flexible but it’s primary plot role as an island is to be a container. Events are within Westeros (up to the Wall) or beyond (either over the wall or on another continent).

The point being – oceanic islands are treated as political units rather than as terrain.


Really big lakes are no different than seas, so I’ll assume we aren’t talking about really big lakes. Tolkien puts islands and towns in lakes, Wolfe puts floating reed islands in a lake and lakes in general distinguish themselves from rivers plot wise by what they might contain.

Small lakes (and pools) maybe places of magic or sacredness. In Stephen Donaldson’s Covenant books, Glimmermere is a magical lake that even gets a magic sword thrown in it and later retrieved.

Small Islands (and other things, in lakes and rivers)

Laketown in The Hobbit is not quiet an island as such but effectively it is and rather like big islands, we have an island as a kind of political entity. People live on and next to lakes, so it makes sense to have islands in lakes as communities. Which in turn makes islands on which people don’t live somewhat mysterious. Deserted islands are spooky in the way a deserted structure is spooky.

Flipping back to island’s in oceans, A Wizard of Earthsea includes a section on an island so small that it is little more than a sandbar. There Ged encounters two castaways with a mysterious past which goes unresolved in that book but which provides a bridge to the sequel.


Swamps have a dual nature. Death and decay on the one hand and overly fecund on the other. The Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings, literally contains dead bodies whereas other swamps and marshes and mangrove-like environments can contain an excess of insect life or harbor unusual creatures (e.g. the rodents of unusual size in the Fire Swamps of the Princess Bride).

Like forests, swamps are places where navigation is difficult and in which becoming lost is an active danger.

Wastes, wilderness, deserts and ’empty’ lands

The notion of wilderness is a politically charged one. The notion of land that cannot be settled and hence is empty is, to but it bluntly, a colonial lie. If it isn’t Antarctica, then people live there, if less densely than other places. However, the idea as a part of a fictional territory continues. Wilderness is empty AND the people who live there are dangerous AND it is a frontier.

To see the contradictions consider Tatooine. It is a desert, it is empty and yet it is where the Sand People (and Jawas I assume) live. Luke lives on what is a frontier farm that echoes Western settlement of empty-not-actually-empty lands in North America and Australia.

Like swamps and forests, wastelands are places in which becoming lost is an ever present danger. Exotic creatures may live in the desert but unlike swamps and forests the desert (or snowy wastes) are characterized by a lack of life. What joins old growth forest, swamps, deserts, and snowy wastes together as threatening places in which survival is at risk is they are not managed land (again in reality even this may not be true).

Swamps, sandy deserts and snowy wastes share a common feature that other wastelands do not necessarily share: the ground itself is treacherous and you may become pulled below it. Quicksand, mud, a crevasse covered by snow or sand all are dangers that subvert the idea of solid ground.

Journeys through the wastes are wearisome and psychologically and physically tiring for characters. Again, assuming the default for classic fantasy of European like people from towns or from farmed land. As such, the wastes are like the ocean and characters may survive by encountering people who know how to live in this different environment.

In The Farthest Shore, Le Guin uses an encounter like this using the open ocean outside of the archipelago as a kind of virtual desert for Ged – who, despite being from a sea-faring culture is beyond the terrain in which he can live.

I’m intentionally trying to avoid talking too much about ethnic stereotypes in fantasy literature with regard to terrain in these posts. Too big an issue to address properly at this point and better served with its own discussion. Much harder to avoid with sandy deserts as Western Orientalism brings its own baggage along to deserts and desert societies.


Speaking of which…jungles. Forests but with swamp elements. Wet and fecund and dangerous and exotic. Again loaded with colonial baggage and assumptions about both emptiness, ‘untamed’ nature and ‘savagery’.