More than 20 years ago I was listening to a John Otway album and suddenly got a ridiculous idea for a science fantasy world.
I dabbled a bit with the idea, but never got anywhere with it, so I moved on to other things. However, every so often I would hear a piece of music that brought the idea back. Finally, this year, I decided to to make a mix CD for my friends based on this idea. Then I sat down and wrote this:
A pilgrimage up the side of the trembling mountain is long and dangerous. But that is the only way you will meet the Communicants of the Truth.
They are called Communicants, but at first that seems a lie, for they do all in their power to keep you away from the Truth. They laugh. Sometimes they laugh loud and heartily. But most of the time it is little more than a mordant chuckle.
If you can make the Communicants laugh loud and heartily, then perhaps one will take you deep into a mountain cave that offers a glimpse of Truth.
Your journey into the cave will last three days. The first night will be the darkest you’ve ever known. No fires are allowed. Flames cause the walls to shake and convulsively constrict, crushing unfortunate pilgrims. For long hours you will see only what your mind imagines. Your guide will whisper something you’d heard as a child: that all light in the world comes from an enormous ball of fire that is not part of the world.
Wherever the light comes from, you will be thankful when the walls begin to glow in filigreed patterns of rose and amber and it is day again.
On the second night you will realize that you can see your guide and the walls and your own arms and legs as faint shadows that are sometimes outlined in strange sparking flashes. Your guide will remind you that life is as short as these sparks and real time is longer than anyone can know.
On the third day you will see a light as bright as the shining ocean in the heat of midday. This light shines at the far end of a huge, humid cavern.
“Welcome,” says your guide, “to The Palace of Snails,” and indeed there are countless snails, endless clusters of spiraling shells crawling over the abundant plant life that feeds them. It will take most of the day to traverse the cavern, towards the light. Most of your journey will be silent, but occasionally your guide will speak, and, in drips and drabs, you’ll learn the Joke of the World.
“All twins are close. Some are so close that they are born physically attached. So it was with the snail twins, conjoined at the rear. Left alone, they would have died, but The Makers took the twins to a faraway place and gave them three gifts:
“First was the gift of no weight. Floating free, each snail had equal footing on the shell of its twin.
“Second was the ability to eat light. The snail twins would never starve.
“Third was the ability to grow forever.
“The Makers set the snail twins spinning and circling the fireball from which almost all light comes — a perpetual source of food. And each snail twin stretched out and grew, reaching out to catch up to its twin, yearning to meet and touch and love the other, never understanding that its very own physical structure made this impossible. As they chased each other, the snail twins grew large enough to become all that you and I have ever known or seen or tasted.
“For that was the true purpose of The Makers. They were growing a home for us. We were placed inside the shell of one. Others like us were placed in the shell of the twin. Like the twins, we will never meet the others.”
The Communicants have a keen sense of timing. Maybe it’s a flair for the dramatic. Or maybe it’s just that timing is essential in the telling of a good joke. Now the day is almost over and you are on the other side of the Palace of Snails and the light from the passage beyond is so bright that you cannot bear to look at it.
Hanging from a protuberance on the cavern wall are several pairs of dark, empty snail shells bound in twine. The Communicant places one pair over your head and adjusts it so that the shells cover your eyes. You realize that the shells are darkly transparent. You can now stare at the passage ahead, all narrow and slick and fleshy, without being blinded.
You look at the Communicant, who now also has shell-covered eyes. The two of you laugh like children playing a silly beach game.
You become aware of a chaos of sounds: rustlings, the shrieks of distant creatures, and a low throbbing rumble that is more felt than heard. You feel as if you’ve heard these sounds your entire life but never noticed them until now.
You follow the Communicant into the passage and the light grows brighter and the sounds increase until finally the passage widens and there, on the right, is an incredible circle of light surrounded by blackness. Even with the snails on your eyes, you can barely look at it.
“Some have gone blind here,” says the Communicant. “Look this way instead.”
So you look to the left and see a cavern large enough to be another world. This world is filled with bustling life. Plants and mushrooms seem to grow before your eyes and animals and insects scurry to harvest the bounty, running and crawling and scuttling and flying and hooting cries of ecstasy. The frenzy reminds you of the life that can be glimpsed in a drop of ocean water magnified by powerful lenses.
The far wall of the cavern, the focus of the bright bright light, is a burbling roiling green, like a forest made from clouds. The green throbs. The cavern throbs. The frenzied life inside growls and moans and shrieks with the throb, in counter-rhythm, in dance time.
The blood in your veins also dances in time with the low, steady throb.
Vertigo washes over you. You feel like you’re standing on a narrow and treacherous bridge with an abyss of life on your left and fire-pierced blackness on your right. You lose your balance and fall with a scream towards the circle of light. A solid surface breaks your fall. You realize that your view of the light is a view through a great window.
And suddenly, the light disappears past the edge of the window and plunges you into darkness. The screams of the day creatures fade away, replaced by the furtive murmurs of night animals.
You hear a whispered laugh from your guide. Fingers gently remove the snail goggles from your head. “There is one more thing you must see.”
Through the window you see black void, but it is not empty. It is dusted with tiny white light points. First you see dozens. Then hundreds. Then thousands.
“Each of those is another fireball, like the one that feeds our world. More than you can see, farther away than you can imagine.”
You’re perched on the edge of the world. The universe expands as you shrink. Only the steady warmth of your guide’s hand upon your back keeps you from shrinking into nothingness.
The Communicant laughs again. “Our entire existence is bound by the flesh of a lonely twin snail that yearns but does not think. Its desperate spin gives us weight. The fireball that feeds it gives us light and heat.
“The Makers are gone. We do not know where.
“And it is said that one of the snail twins is dying. It has been dying for as long as we can remember. Which twin is dying, ours or the other? We do not know. What will happen when it is dead? Perhaps its death will also be the death of time…”
* * *
Night creatures scuttle and sing in the great cavern. Your guide leads you out of the trembling mountain. You pass other large caverns of throbbing life facing other snail shell windows. You come to understand that each of these caverns is a snail organ that converts light into living flesh.
The journey back does not seem to take as long as the journey in. Or maybe it’s just that your mind, so newly full of the universe, doesn’t register the passage of time in the same way.
Now you are outside, an outside that you now know to be a much larger inside. You stand at dawn on the edge of a cliff on the trembling mountain. With your new ears, you can still hear the throb and cries of life from the light caverns.
What will you do now? You could stay with the Communicants and learn the arcane science of humor with which they explore their world. You could go back to your village and live the life of an outside insider, like those others who have journeyed away and then returned. You could cross the great ocean and visit those on the opposite shore, and then travel further, to where the sky can be touched and whisperings from another world can be studied. Or you could climb further up the trembling mountain.
Light erupts from the great ocean and shines up to touch a filigreed snail shell sky. What will you do next in your beautiful, ridiculous world?
The John Otway song that somehow triggered the idea for Snailworld is called “Beware Of The Flowers (‘Cos I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You Yeh!)”.
Why? I don’t know. Maybe it had something to do with the triumphant title.
Inspiration is usually not a linear thing.
I was also inspired by the second movement of Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, which features a passionate solo by what is, for all practical purposes, a musical saw. Other inspirations include Tuxedomoon’s The Ghost Sonata, the Finnish group Värttinä, and a collection of pirate songs and sea chanteys called Rogue’s Gallery, assembled by Hal Wilner.
There’s a huge potential for stories set in Snailworld, if you get past the impossibility of its very existence. It has two civilizations that have had almost no contact with each other. I imagine them having two different approaches to technology, and one of those two approaches has been fatal to their world, but I won’t say which.
Snailworld also has an enclosed setting that, by definition, gets smaller the more it is explored — at least until the impossibly large outside universe is discovered.
And the fact that Snailworld is alive means that the “humans” that live there are roughly equivalent to the bacteria in our guts. They can be essential to the health of their world. They can also be lethal to it.
You know, just like on Earth.
Whether I can get my shit together enough to write any of these stories, or con other people into writing some, is an open ended question. For now though, let me leave you with the playlist of the mix CD:
1. Klaus Nomi: Finale
2. John Otway: Beware of The Flowers (‘Cos I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You Yeh!)
3. Värttinä: Vihma
4. Isobel Campbell: Are You Gong To Leave Me?
5. Unwoman: Siren Ship
6. Aram Khachaturian: Piano Concerto, 2nd movement, (excerpt)
7. Absak Maboul: Son of L’idiot
8. Björk: One Day (live)
9. Tuxedomoon: An Affair at the Soiree
10. Eliza Carthy: Rolling Sea (traditional)
11. Under Byen: Protokol
12. Tuxedomoon: Basso Pomade
13. Juana Molina: Dar (qué difícil)
14. After Dinner: RE
15. The Fairfax High School Marimba Band: Popcorn
16. Diane Cluck: Casting About
17. Bel Canto: White-Out Conditions
18. Aram Khachaturian: Piano Concerto, 2nd Movement, (excerpt)
19. Tuxedomoon: Les Odalisques
20. Värttinä: Päivän nousu nostajani
21. Tuxedomoon: Licorice Stick Ostinato