I made a mistake the first time I read this book. I read it over the course of several months, in between other things I was reading, and at some point my wife borrowed it, and never gave it back, and it turned out she hated it so she never finished it and by the time I figured that out I had forgotten most of what I had already read and by the time I was done I had no idea what I had just read.
So I re-read it. And I’m glad I did, because it went much faster the second time around. It’s a great book, but it is very… Troubling. Yeah I think that’s the word. First of all in its format: it is designed as a gazetteer of a series of islands. What is a gazetteer, you ask? Basically it’s a dictionary of places, an index of locales, a collection of topographic information. Each “chapter” in the book corresponds to an island in the Dream Archipelago, and each chapter is written by a different person, in a different voice, describing each island differently. I guess you get over that pretty quickly; from the first few islands, you learn about the weather and the winds and the currents and the languages that people speak there and why they were named that way, with a note at the end regarding currency. But something in the foreword clues you in that there’s something wrong: its author doesn’t care. He hasn’t ever left the island where he was born, and he probably won’t ever. He takes no responsibility for the gazetteer, someone just asked him to write the foreword, so he did.
Actually, few narrators in the book (there’s at least one per bottle chapter) are really invested in describing their island. Every now and then you stumble on an internal narrator, a character that has a vested interest in something – but not describing their island. At least not the cartographic island they live in. There’s artists, scientists, philosophers all more or less self-absorbed and therefore describing their microcosm. That’s the closest you get to anyone with a sense of empathy; but the focalized point of view really disqualifies them from being really likeable. When the narrator is omniscient, you get a scientific, dispassionate description that you kind of have to wade through.
That’s not all: you learn that some islands have magnetic anomalies so you can never pinpointg them on a map. Some islands have several names because there are several language spoken on the islands and some islands even have more or less the same name, give or take one letter. You don’t have to figure these out, the authors tell you; but you do have to pay attention (and there is an index at the beginning in case you need to refer back and forth). There’s one chain of islands described pretty early on as really nice, but unexplored; then it turns out to be inhabited by some parasite asshole species that kills everyone who goes there. So it goes. Good thing it’s an island, eh?
If you’re interested in such things as plots, there are a couple, and and they’re not too complicated: just follow the characters, those from the title. Pretty early on you hear about “tunneling” and you kind iof have to wait until the understand what the hell that is. Other than that, everybody has funny names so – unlike the islands – you can’t really confuse them with one another: Chaster Kammeston, Dryd Bathurst, Caurer pop up every now and then in the story and you can piece their histories pretty easily as long as you take each testimony as just that: a particular point of view. Forget about linearity and representation because they won’t help you here – if you engage with the book, you’re hooked. The Islanders and their Dream Archipelago, are a brilliant thought experiment that will get you mind wandering further and longer than other books typically allow you to. Quite a treat.- Gnou