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Sunday, May 12, 2024

The Best Made-Up Worlds Are Made Up of Real Parts

In the back half of Helene Wecker’s new book, The Hidden Palace—a sequel to her popular 2013 novel, The Golem and the Jinni—the golem gets a new job.

Her name’s Chava, and she looks human, even though as a creature of earth animated by Jewish mysticism, she’s nearly invulnerable, immortal, and telepathic. Evading a bunch of problems in the turn-of-the-20th-century Lower East Side of Manhattan (not least of which being that her friends have started to notice she doesn’t age), Chava bails out of a good gig in a bakery for college and then a teaching spot at an orphanage.


Now, as befits a sequel, this book doubles the number of golems and jinnis (fiery trickster spirits from Arab myth) compared to the first one. It has golem-on-jinni fistfights, jinni-on-jinni lovemaking, swashbuckling, mystical ailments, and a magic skyscraper inside a building. As in her first book, Wecker floats Hidden Palace into the spaces between genres, shelved in the center of the stacks-labyrinth where the romance, sci-fi, and historical fiction aisles intersect. The book is very good, and I’m glad the Martinian wait for this sequel is finally at an end. And just as in the first book, the true, real places and events build a grounded world where mythology and mysticism can take flight. Wecker did her research, and spun lovely fiction from mundane reality.

I’m struck by this because Wecker’s book comes out the same week that a new section opens at California’s Disneyland theme park, and the rules there seem different. The costs and benefits of pulling some things from “reality” and some things from an available canon of stories change when the narrative happens in a physical space instead of the pages of a book.

Take the orphanage where Chava becomes a teacher in Hidden Palace. There really was one, for Jewish kids, on that spot—136th between Broadway and Amsterdam. “I made a slightly fictionalized version,” Wecker tells me. “I had their bell schedule. In Google Books somewhere, someone had digitized the orphanage’s handbooks, alumni directories, the annual report, and it had photos of the inside of the synagogue. I got to know what time the kids were going up the hill to school and what time they were coming back.”

That kind of reality isn’t just an overlay in the golemandjinniverse. It’s dug in like tree roots. A (fictional) traveling heiress runs into a young T. E. Lawrence (as in, of Arabia). Ahmad the jinni, who uses his fire powers to become a brilliant metalworker, watches the excavation of the tunnels and the construction of the original Penn Station, the beloved Beaux-Arts train hub demolished in 1963. The Titanic and the Lusitania sail by, giving the reader a sinking feeling. A world war starts. All that stuff happened. It’s not fiction.

I know—no big whoop. Historical fiction is a thing. If you have bookshelves full of sci-fi and fantasy, it’ll be hard to run your fingers across the spines and not track dust through at least a few set in our present or our past. The juxtaposition of that reality with the unreal strengthens both. “It’s the weird little historical details that make it feel like a real world. My concern is always, is this going to have that quality of feeling like it did actually happen?” Wecker says. “And to make it feel like this is the mechanics of how someone lived back then. So it can be even weirder when it’s a couple of impossible, imaginary creatures who are going through the mechanics.”

At Disneyland, though, most of the weird historical details are also made up. In Disney parlance, topic-delimited sections of theme parks are called “lands” (like Tomorrowland), and the new one is Avengers Campus, based not on a fairy tale but on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the movies and television shows derived from Marvel Comics that began in 2008 with Iron Man and continue, this week, with the Disney+ show Loki. Like the movies, this physical version of the decades-long comics story universe has all kinds of in-built pretend history. One of the attractions is built, in-story, inside an old flying-car factory owned by Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark, the man inside the Iron Man armor. It’s a not-implausible historical gesture for that part of Southern California, even though it’s not true—an imagineering gloss on the Philip K. Dick concept of “historicity,” of ginned-up history-like details that add a patina of authenticity. Fun!

Meanwhile, you can walk just about 20 minutes across the theme park to another land centered on a different Disney-owned shared story universe—Galaxy’s Edge, based on the Star Wars franchise of movies, TV shows, books, etc. Both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars Universe have prescribed timelines and geographies, even given the occasional timey-wimey shenanigans you’d expect in any science-fictional universe. They both have their own proprietary histories.

Except Avengers Campus is like other things to do and see at Disneyland in that it has a certain timelessness. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride isn’t situated on a timeline in the mrtoadiverse. But Galaxy’s Edge takes place not just on a specific planet in the Star Wars universe (“Batuu”) but at a specific time. On a specific day, even—repeating, resetting. It has what I described when it opened as chronotopic properties—a temporal narrative like books and movies, and also a spatial narrative like other immersive theme park environments. It’s ambitious, but it also means that, for example, any performers walking around dressed as stormtroopers have to be in the new, more angular white armor from the most recent movie trilogy—the old style seen in Star Wars or the clone armor from the prequel trilogy would be anachronistic.


Now, OK, I get it: A book is not a theme park. But let me just go over the three possibilities here: You’ve got historical fiction, science-fictional stuff set in the real world of the past, with the familiar physics of our universe and actual historical events as guide rails. For my purposes here, that’s The Hidden Palace. You’ve got spatial, immersive narrative set in a made-up time and place, but one with rigid (albeit fictional) events and guide rails. That’s Galaxy’s Edge, or any other fictional or future-set universe—the Expanse, maybe, or Middle-earth. And you’ve got Avengers Campus, set in a fictional universe with spatial guide rails but not temporal ones. The timey-wimey is wibbley-wobbley.

This is the digital ectoplasm of which Twitter fights are made. Do the details of the lands adhere to canon and timeline? And you can sort of see the point. Well, actually, let me revise that—no, you can’t, it’s preposterous. But it might be true that Galaxy’s Edge’s ruthless enforcement of chronotopic status builds loyalty—critically important to the transnational corporation that owns the intellectual property—while limiting narrative flexibility. Over at Avengers Campus, someone dressed as Iron Man can “coexist” with an actor in the Sam Wilson version of Captain America’s costume, even though in the story Sam didn’t become Captain America until after Iron Man’s death. You just go with it. But at Galaxy’s Edge, Darth Vader can’t just show up; he died a couple movies ago, and would disappear with a pop upon entry. (Even though Vader can participate in Jedi training in Tomorrowland, because it’s outside the timeline.)

When some aspect of a game’s mechanic, its rules and mode of play, contradicts the game’s story, that’s called “ludonarrative dissonance.” It’s when the pieces, cards, whatever can do something within the rules that violates the narrative superstructure. (If chess is a battle between two opposing armies, are the players the generals? And if so, why can they command the king? Maybe that’s ludonarrative dissonance; these are the kinds of things gamers have exciting fights about.) So Darth Vader in Galaxy’s Edge would be the theme-park equivalent—chronotopic dissonance, maybe. But Iron Man in a pretend-retrofitted Stark factory would not.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the two, even though some aggrieved fans are rushing to do so. As the game designer and writer Nick Tierce has argued, Avengers Campus is built to be more character-oriented and take place in a version of our world. (That tracks with the comics—Spider-Man lives in New York City, an actual place in the same country as Disneyland. Nobody expects the Millennium Falcon to fly to Denver; Chewbacca has never even heard of Earth.) Like the rest of Star Wars, Galaxy’s Edge is greenfield worldbuilding, aimed at individual experiences had by people who visit it.


But what about something like The Hidden Palace? In historical fiction and sci-fi, when the worldbuilding is in a real world that actually exists, the rules are somehow less strict than in theme-park lands. People seem to care less about adherence to literal, actual history than to fictional canons. (“I took as few liberties as possible,” Wecker says, “but it becomes harder as the world of the book gets more complex.”) Obviously the New York City of the first decade of the 20th century didn’t have golems and jinni wandering around (as far as we know). The science fiction writer Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear are pretty much just London-in-the-Blitz novels, with time travel holding everything together. Cool! Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle is full of actual historical figures from the late 1600s, as well as composite historical figures, and real physics and science invented by made-up people. It also has magical gold and one teaspoon of magic potion. No problem! Avid fans of Enlightenment history didn’t grouse at Stephenson about it on Twitter. (I mean, they probably did.) I once asked the author of one of my favorite historical novels—not sci-fi or fantasy, just set back in the day—what the rules were. How much did he feel like he was allowed to change? He told me the rule was “do whatever the fuck you want.”

The narrative cuffs are already loosening in the Star Wars universe. New television shows are sprouting from the storylines in The Mandalorian, itself the love-child of the cartoons Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. They don’t contradict the canon laid down by the most recent trilogy of movies, but they don’t exactly embrace it, either. That’s the future of that franchise, I think, just as the Marvel and DC-comics movies will expand outward to multiple timelines that don’t all follow the “rules” of their shared reality. Less like continuity, more like literature. Stories change and evolve. You can handle it. Consider the advice of a whole other iconic science fiction franchise. Repeat to yourself: “it’s just a show; I should really just relax.”

The Hidden Palace is a story of assimilation and of the parallels in the Jewish and Arab experiences of America, and Wecker forces Chava and Ahmad to reckon with the ways coming to America changed them and their cultures by exposing them to more primal and old-world-authentic versions of themselves. “One thing that fiction really has the power to do is take historical moments and other cultures and make them real and put faces on them, light that flame of empathy,” Wecker says. “I don’t have solutions. I don’t have any sort of hidden political message in these books any more than just, people need to look at each other as people.” That’s as true in theme park spaces and shared story universes as it is in literature. Making some history real and changing the rest is what makes that story work—what makes genre work. It’s not dissonant. It’s harmony.

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