On Barriers — “The Wall of Darkness” by Arthur C. Clarke

barriers - Great wall of China


A Weekly Column with J. Torrey McClain

I love when a story starts me guessing like “The Wall of Darkness” by Arthur C. Clarke.  I have so many notions of walls and barriers that once Clarke reveals there’s a mysterious black wall in the dark lands where the planet’s sun doesn’t reach, my mind immediately guesses likely conclusions.

Due to the surge in popularity of all things Game of Thrones, the Wall of Westeros first came to mind.  A structure built of ice and stone to separate the civil from the uncouth and things unimagined.  The dangers were so serious that an elevator is needed to get you to the top of the wall for it is so high. Would the wall of darkness be the same?  What monsters must inhabit the lands devoid of starlight where the wall only becomes accessible at the highest days of summer?  Would they be blind?  Would they be legion, held back by the material of the wall, waiting for a foreign object to infest so as to spread throughout the light?

Wall of Westeros

Then again, the other side of the wall could be something more akin to George R.R. Martin’s inspiration for the Wall – Hadrian’s Wall.  On the other side might be a separate version of the planet’s inhabitants, people that have learned to live without the warmth and light of a star.  They may have fashioned great cities lit by artificial light and have evolved in different ways while exploring cuisines that flourish in the night.  (Think lots and lots of catfish sautéed in mushrooms.)  Maybe this time it’s the Morlocks that are kind and just and they built the wall to keep out the Eloi.  It’s much more romantic than thinking of the Romans and Scotsmen of the very earliest part of the AD centuries separating with a wall due to differences in distance over now adjacent time zones on the same continent.  It’s more romantic to think of Starks and white walkers.  As an earthbound human, our walls are just another case of separating ourselves from those that are “different.”

However, being the “same” doesn’t necessarily save us from walls.  The Berlin Wall separated Germans from Germans, families from families because of a war that ended 16 years before and the “victors” decided to divide the vanquished.  The Allies separated the country as part of the Potsdam Agreement as a way to negotiate reparations and responsibilities to the conquering parties.  Did two other warring interplanetary societies divide this planet, using the land in their own ways so they could come back and harvest the spoils in the years ahead?

berlin wall kuftinec

As a country made up almost entirely of immigrants, I might argue that a southern U.S. border wall provides the same kind of human and familial separations as the former Berlin Wall.  The U.S. government distributes visas to select humans seen as different because of being born on the other side of a property line created in imaginations.  The visa recipients along with the men and women with a will to strive for a better life, even if it means a surreptitious sneak across an invisible wall sketched in the southwestern desert dirt, can then use the post to send their gains back to their families not lucky enough to be chosen or rich or hardy enough to cross.  If politics and negotiations can create walls, might there be a wall between California and Arizona eventually?  Chicago and Illinois?  Maybe the wall on Clarke’s distant planet has everything to do with democrats versus republicans, poor versus rich.

If I’m going to talk of historic walls, I have to mention the Great Wall of China, the king of all walls that still stand.  I can build The Great Wall with 150 production credits in the game Civilization Revolution in order to create peace or as part of my card playing in 7 Wonders as the structure continues to amaze so far into the future.  Again, though it is much more famous, it serves the same purpose as Hadrian’s Wall, it’s just that the 400 additional years, its status as a wonder of the ancient world and its situation on the opposite side of the planet make the human separations more distant and nebulous in my euro-centric mind, and therefore not as ethnocentrically silly, pardon my ignorance.  Its purpose remains the same, to separate humans from humans.  What if Clarke’s planet once had large armies of nomads that waited in the dark to steal away husbands, brides, weapons and food?

US Mexico border

A police line can exist that is similar to the ones in the news recently in Ferguson to protect who knows what and for unknown purposes, seemingly only erected to scare people.  I hate to think about those kinds of walls as it just depresses me.  Then again, science fiction allows us to tackle the vulgar with stories of the fantastic.  When Clarke wrote this story in 1949, he hadn’t lived to see the civil rights marches of the 60s, but he had seen plenty of racism and plenty of hate.  Maybe along the wall sit snipers with their weapons trained on anyone that approaches and getting near the wall means death for no reason other than a curiosity to know what is happening and why.

There are the walls inside of us.  The barriers created to block memories.  The mechanisms used to ward off unwanted emotions. The metaphorical walls that we try to forget and hide unless we need them in a moment of weakness when it all seems too much and the portcullis crashes to the base of our feelings and lets us rise up for another day.  Maybe the wall is all in the mind of the family that lives so close to it, an artificially installed hallucination hiding their own history of plunder and destruction.

Picasso inner barriers

Those are all the walls of fear though, the walls made because of bedbugs, bears, barbarians, bickering and bile.  The fun walls are the ones we seek out as impossible.  The ones that show human beings at their best from performing an ollie on flat ground to exceeding the sound barrier to landing men on the moon.  We can break free of the earth.  We can exceed the limits of our past.  We can push farther and farther into the knowledge and wonders of our universe because of curiosity and dogged determination.  Maybe the other side of the wall will lead to an adventure toward knowledge and untold wealth that just needed someone to say, “I want to know what’s on the other side.”

What kind of wall did Arthur C. Clarke create?  You may have more ideas of possibilities, but it’s not my style to reveal the secrets of an ending.  I just recommend the short story and enjoying the trip while your mind wanders among the walls you know in your memories and in yourself.  Then, no matter the last sentences of the story, your trip to the endless, unknown black barrier has been worth every step.  The other side becomes an anticlimax, a pittance of a possibility in the worlds created in your imagination, much like this essay ending without telling you the first bit of what to expect in Clarke’s tale.

“The Wall of Darkness” can be found in collected editions of Clarke’s stories including The Nine Billion Names of God and The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, both available from Amazon.com.

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