in the Shadow of Greatness


January 9, 2006

RF on the nature of shadow walking

This classic bit by RF regarding why so many 'familiar' items of "earth culture" seem to crop up in Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber.

reprinted with permission from the AML:

I think that people who are annoyed by the "familiar" items scattered through Amber are thinking about them from too narrow a perspective.

Recall in the first shadow-walk we witness with Random and Corwin that they pass a "Kentucky Fried Lizard Partes" joint. Now, if you are from our Shadow earth, you immediately think that this is a "distorted shadow of Kentucky Fried Chicken" and laugh it off. But from the point of view of an Amberite, there is just a pattern of a guy in a white suit running fast food chains that appear similar in lots of variations. Just one of those things that pops up a lot, maybe because something in Amber tends to reflect that way in this particular area of Shadow. Maybe because the Shadow walker had a dream about someone who looked vaguely like that and it gets relfected over and over in what they "expect" to find while walking. Who knows. The point is that if Brand smokes Salems it does *not* suggest that he ran out to our exact Shadow Earth to find them. The more likely conclusion is that our Shadow Earth is one of many, many Shadows that all happen to have cigarettes with a similar logo and packaging (and perhaps taste).

This explanation makes much more sense when we think about how shadowalking works. It is based on subjective sensory impressions, specifically ones that the walker looks for because they are a perceptual proxy for what they seek. Remember Corwin talking to Ganelon about why he and his relative don't just all seek Ambers in Shadow where they rule? They can only find things based on sensory cues (usually visual). Imagine that you do this all the time. The human brain is an amazing pattern (small-p) recognition device, so when you know that you want to find something in Shadow (fried chicken, jewelers rouge, etc.), you look for a couple of observable characteristics that you associate with that.

Say you always got your cigarettes at a 7-11 when you first started smoking; you will probably expect cigs to be found in convenience stores and you will tend to move in shadows that have convenience stores looking vaguely like 7-11's just because you will always expect to see things in Shadow that tend to be associated with the existence of such stores.

To think about it in a more abstract way, remember Corwin's comment before the meeting in the library about the faces of his siblings. The author is obviously trying to come up with some plauusbile way to have his narrator relay information about the family that would be too familiar or trivial for him to mention otherwise, but Corwin himself says that he uses a "mental shorthand" (I believe that's the expression... I only have the Chronicles in German nearby) to think about his relatives because he's lazy. If this gives us any insight into how Corwin thinks, it suggests that shadow walking is done largely through "mental shorthand" where the walker has learned that looking for visible thing X will usually get you lots of things that seem to be associated with X. Looking for an orange and green plastic sign on a pole near a parking lot tends to get you cigarettes, and let the nature of Shadow, your own subconscious, or whatever else fill in the blanks - who cares about the details? You can even think of it as a safety measure. When riding through wild, deadly shadows, you subconsciously try to hold things like breathable air and gravity constant. Your mind grasps on superficially familiar things that stand as proxies for the stuff you don't want to lose as you shift to the world next door, and the things that your mind uses for this purpose might include a whole range of impressions, associations, and unrecognized memes that have no objective meaning but still get projected onto world after world. This would even help explain why Amberites could plausibly believe that they 'create' the worlds thatthey find - after all, if you weren't very introspective you might find it completely implausible that every world you find has certain things that you expect... easier to believe that it's all there for your benefit and has no independent existence. That guy in the white suit didn't actually build up a chain of fast food places and receive an honorary commission in the Kentucky state guard based on the quality of his, um, lizard partes. It's all just me! Me!

So a lot of what may seem Shadow earthy to us might look very different to someone who finds it mildly amusing that our earth has a "fender" guitar company when the name actually comes from some guy in the Black Zone who made a Discord Harp for a coronation gift several centuries ago. No connection, of course, but somehow the name became associated with music and might have been somewhere in Eric's subconscious while hellriding to a place to dispose of Corwin. Or maybe it's just one of those things that appears over and over in Shadow in various forms.

The point is that the basis of shadow-walking in perception can result in weird kinds of isomorphism. This doesn't mean that everyone has been to our earth or that all of Shadow looks like our earth, but instead that Eric/Corwin/Flora came to this place in part because it features a number of characteristics that are familiar - even if at only a subconscious level - to them. This also explains why Texorami probably has something like 7-11's and our earth has legends of a knight named Lancelot (assuming Corwin wasn't a direct, conscious creator of that one).

Long has the list talked about the nature of 'safe shadows' versus the larger set of infinite shadows that are possible to find. Sometimes, something that a PC wants very badly is out there, but in a shadow so foreign and unsafe that they cannot find it unless they push aside the natural associations of their own mind and go into the Bad Place.

stage direction: GM rubs hands gleefully

I treat mortal Earth as an 'inkblot' of Real Earth with disjointed smashed jagged pieces of history, decisions, and things that never co-existed next to each other in the Real Universe. The strife of mortal earth can be seen also as a compression of all those conflicts never meant to be.

The above is the fantasy answer to the question, "Why can't we all just get along?"

This is also another reason why IMC, while the power of Pattern gives the family a base line skill set, it also gives each family member a lot of quirky powers that individuals don't duplicate. Because each person creates their own perceptions and associations that become empowered mental shorthand over time.

So you can go to Gerard to learn the laying down of shadowpaths, but not easily take that information and build upon it with Florimel's mastery of the 'Royal Way' because the two skills are perception driven by different minds. Gerard may talk about the light upon the waters of the sea being some shorthand association, while Florimel insists that facial expressions of the people you meet are the key to her technique.

This notion is where "partial powers" both thrive and are inadequate to capture infinity. It is possible to build a ladder list of skills, but better to build a 'ranking' list of skills where players can add their own or spin another take on an established one.

Every PC added to the game may bring a new Pattern ability to light.

Filed under : Aha!, Amber at 09.01.2006