North Dark by Lane Kareska
Set in a lonesome and barbarous failed state, North Dark is the story of a lone man traveling by dogsled across a frozen wasteland in pursuit of the fugitive who destroyed his family.
Haunted by predators both physical and spectral, the musher’s journey takes him across a deadened tundra, tortured cities and the remains of civilizations long-lapsed into madness. All the while, his enemy slides in and out of striking distance, always one step ahead, always one act of violence away.
Building Broken Worlds
If you’re reading this blog right now, there’s a good chance you’re a creative individual who at some point in his or life (or maybe even now) engaged in paracosmic play or “world-building.” As a kid, you might have drawn out huge, colorful maps of archipelagos called (in my younger brother’s case) “Puddle Jump Islands,” or maybe you drew up portraits of invented animal species that inhabited your imaginary zoo, or maybe (as seen in the terrific documentary Marwencol) you’re now creating a Nazi-occupied European town in your backyard populated with GI Joes as your own form of therapy. No matter the style of creation, I think most of us have at some point imagined or sought to develop a fantasy landscape. In fiction, world-building is a mandatory device in any writer’s toolbox.
As a writer, the most complete world-building activity I’ve ever had to engage in was for my novella North Dark, a dark adventure set in an arctic country where dogsledding is the main mode of transportation, the ruins of a civilization similar to ours litter the tundra, and slavery is a modern practice.
I wrote this novella during a long, Midwestern winter while dealing with the impending death of my dog (a rugged, intelligent animal who would have been very much at home in a Jack London novel). As I began the first draft, I absolutely did not have a deep or detailed view of the world in which it would occur, but I did have the broad strokes down: like the winter in which I felt trapped, the world would be arctic and endlessly gray, like the animal I was about to lose, dogs would play a critical role in daily life both as companions and working animals, and like the fantasy novels I’d been plunging through for the past couple of months, there would be heroes, villains, mystics and monsters. As I wrote, and rewrote, the world fell into sharper relief. I learned quickly about the customs of this post-apocalyptic society: bullets are used as money (though there are no functioning guns anywhere to be found), knives and crossbows are critical tools and weapons for each successful traveler to bear, the level of commonly available technology is about that of the Iron Age, characters use names that are descriptive or visual (Ramscoat, Two Crows, Treesplitter), and the system of law is tribal at best.
Gradually, the draft took shape and I became willing to share it with close friends whose opinion I trusted. Before I’d hand it over, the first couple of questions put to me were typically “How long is it?” (“It’s a novella, fairly brief.”) “What kind of book is it?” (“Dark adventure.”), and “Where is it set?” This question was the hardest to answer, and, I thought, the most interesting. The answer I usually give is that it takes place “Somewhere else.” And what I mean by that is this: I don’t know. Does North Dark occur in our future? Another planet? An alternative history? Is this Alaska? Canada? I’m not sure, and maybe arriving at your own answer is part of the fun. The name Jesus is religiously invoked (so there is at least some form of Christianity in this place), there are frozen and destroyed highway overpasses (so there was some level of technology similar to our own before disaster befell this place), but the night sky is vastly different than our own—most stars burn green, they move too swiftly and irregularly to be used in celestial navigation—so maybe it doesn’t occur in our future, but in some other universe.
It’s not up to me to say if this was a successful venture in world-building, but I can say this: I had a lot of fun figuring out the society, the customs, the races and geography of this place. I believe fiction writing is a complex, worthy and difficult pursuit, and the drive to follow the same paracosmic urges we feel in childhood tells us that it’s an important part of who we are. With this novella, exploring and detailing this imagined world was as satisfying as writing the book itself. My hope is that readers of North Dark will feel that same satisfaction. My hope is also that readers will feel as if the world is fully realized: mysterious but knowable, savage but developed, finished but half-destroyed.
Lane Kareska was born in Houston, Texas. He studied writing at Columbia College Chicago and his MFA is from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he was also awarded a Fellowship to live and write in Ireland. Lane traveled Europe and South America to research his graduate thesis. He teaches creative writing and works in technology and new media. His fiction has appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, Sheepshead Review, Flashquake and elsewhere. Lane currently lives in Chicago and can be followed on Twitter @LaneKareska as well as reached at Lane.Kareska@Gmail.com.