We don't journey any more. We don't travel. We depart; we arrive. We might spend some of the time between in a can made for people. The cans come in different versions, from personal cans with four tires to shared cans that slide through the air, or along rails. But being in one doesn't make a journey. We see the world through glass, isolated from the assault of our speed. Immediately outside the window is the sterile and casually neglected infrastructure of travel. No one visits a road, a rail yard, an overpass. But we can wake up in our own bed, sit in a succession of cans, and be in a different world by lunchtime, where the only thing familiar is a red and yellow sign, the Golden Arches. We know the white script next to it must say McDonald's, but we arrived here so quickly, in such isolation, we're not even sure what language the words are written in.
Go back a century, or in some places, two. A time before cans of people. If we piled into anything, it might be a barrel, sometimes pulled by animals or pushed by wind, but not for everyday travel. Everyone walked. Over long distances, riding in a barrel might be easier than walking—especially if one was delivering goods—but it wasn't faster. When you travel only forty miles a day, there's no jetlag. There are no timezones because there are no trains that need to run on time.
When we travel at a human pace, we become part of the world we move through. We become accustomed the the little changes. In the evening, the crow's beaks might be a little more blunt than they were in the morning, the ants a richer brown. One day we see our first aspen, not noticing there are no more cedar. The rocks underfoot used to be limestone but are now shale. Language and culture change too, in fits and starts. Borders are for mapmakers and politicians, not everyday folk. The world changes and so do we.
So when, one day, we look up and see a big red sign with a yellow M, it's the white pictographic script that looks familiar. The Golden Arches is the thing out of place, a strange artifact from a distant land.
Such is Kij Johnson's novel The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
. It starts small, with a quiet scandal at a women's college, in a time and place where women's colleges were fragile and rare. When the regent's daughter elopes, Professor of Mathematics Vellitt Boe takes it upon herself to retrieve the young woman before her father finds out and closes down the fledgling college. I hate to say any more, because (despite the book's title) it is a real, and powerful journey that starts most plainly, ends most remarkably, and pulls you along on a trip of unexpected depth and breadth.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
was released last year and has been a finalist for Hugo, Nebula, and Locust awards, just to name a few. It's only novella-length, but it's a hell of a trip.