Nov 30, 2021
Linear reading and the Silfen Paths

I spent the pandemic year reading a lot of Peter Hamilton. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it; they all blur together after a while, and I start to wonder if they aren't perhaps all the same story…

Regardless, the first Peter Hamilton I read, Pandora's Star, still sticks with me for a motif that didn't come together until right at the end: the Silfen Paths. In this universe humanity has portals that can span light years, often conveying train service between star systems, but there are occasional legends of an older interstellar network by an ancient alien civilization. Needless to say, our intrepid protagonist manages to get on this network. And suffers years of privation and amazing adventures (while everyone else in the novel is moving the story forward) before coming out the other end. Unlike the portals created by humans, the Silfen paths don't contain abrupt transitions between two points in space. Things blend together more gradually. Also unlike portals, the Silfen Paths aren't in the traveller's control. Instead, to go forth on the paths is to open oneself to the new, the unexpected. Extreme heat and cold. Danger. The occasional prancing Silfen who'll happen upon you and help you out, but who doesn't quite seem to get the idea of “home,” or that you're trying to get there, before outpacing you again, inevitably leaving you behind to find your own path through the maze.

If I could go back in time and give my younger self a message, it would be to spend more time reading linearly through guided documentation. After growing up falling asleep on textbooks, the interactive and random-access nature of computers was a great learning aid. And yet, somewhere along the way, I started to rely far too much on the crutch of just Googling for my immediate problem. Many times I prematurely dismissed painstakingly written documentation while bemoaning how poorly documented everything was. Everything wasn't set up just right for me — because it can't ever be. And by taking too often the easy portal out, I was being inefficient with the opportunities for learning that were coming my way. Just because they seemed inefficient for my task at the time, something seemingly all-important that I forgot about the next day as I went dancing on my way.

I consider rereading Pandora's star every once in a while. I'm sure it'll happen eventually. But I'm equally sure I'll skip all the interminable interludes about the Silfen Paths, now that I know where they end. Just reading about someone so out of control is more than my pampered, twentieth-century, low-attention-span, summer-child self can handle. It almost got me to give up on the book the first time around. And yet, I cherish my one time walking the Silfen Paths in my imagination. I did learn something.

For an eternal-seeming few years fifteen years ago, there was a frequent debate about the value of comments in a blog. On one side: blogs are meant to be interactive! On the other: why do I need teenagers tramping through my homestead? If you have something to say, get your own damn blog! With the perspective of hindsight, it's apparent who inherited the earth. Blogs largely are the preserve of the few, and even the few committed bloggers that remain have to go out to find readers on the street, the curbside, the microblog, where everything is a comment. You can't get others to read you without giving them the opportunity to appropriate you with a pin, a bookmark or a retweet.

Have we noticed yet that our blogs are now just as disintermediated from our readers as the mainstream newspapers whose disintermediation we celebrated? “Comments are dead,” blogs proclaimed. But comments didn't die, they became the whole platform.

It's a grave decision, where you draw boundaries between pages on a website. Every link is a portal, a beginning, an opportunity for a search engine or microblogger to start a cowpath. With that in mind, I'm trying something new, the guided tour for Mu. Ironically, it atomizes my previous docs by linking repeatedly into anchors in the middle of pages. Proceed if you dare.

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