Neal Stephenson's novel Termination Shock is partly set in the Himalayas, on the border between India and China.
While an agreed border exists, global warming is melting previously impassable snow, creating new unclaimed land between the countries. The on-paper border is increasingly meaningless; instead, the two countries fight over this new emergent territory, the division updated daily: The Line of Actual Control.
With a formal ceasefire in place, there are no guns, no bullets; people literally fight with sticks and stones, hand-to-hand combat.
In the novel, Stephenson exaggerates it all for his near-future setting: enthusiastic state-backed volunteers from each country slug it out in the mountains, every fight streamed live for the world to watch, a bastard child of UFC and Twitch. The Line matters, but the propaganda fight is equally important. Performative war, he calls it.
But those exaggerations aside, all the details of the border, the melting snow, the emerging territory, the hand-to-hand skirmishes - those are all true. The Line of Actual Control is real.
The certainty of directions and divisions - the easy way you can follow a route effortlessly through Google Maps - betrays how fictional borders can be.
"The map is not the territory", it's said. Well, maps lie. Sometimes the map isn't even the map.
Cartographers who'd done the hard yards illustrating the world wanted to protect their IP, and riddled their maps with trap streets - fake places you would only include if you were copying their work directly. Sometimes the fake streets are simply victims of hubris, paper streets that were planned but never built. (In Fight Club, the layers of reality unravel when you realise the house on so-called Paper Street is exactly that: non-existent).
These feel like details, flourishes, until you look at something like... the way the borders in Europe have endlessly shifted.
Like the curious and overconfident Victorians, we centre ourselves on firm claims of reality, simply to reassure ourselves in a world of incalculably weird shit.
Scroll through Google Earth and you will drift through some fucked up no-man's lands. Each year new oddities emerge; my current favourite the unidentified black mass in the desert, guarded by tanks, affectionately nicknamed Portal Do Infinito.
Maps aren't just flawed because the world changes.
They're flawed because their illusions of control don't exist.
Get my wife's name out your fucken mouth! aka, words will never hurt me
For years they said that Trump crossed the line, coarsened the political discourse. And sure, he did this repeatedly (and immensely quotably, many such cases). To put it another way, he waged war on the borders of acceptable speech. Enlarged the window of conversation.
We imagine that we can speak freely, but the gagging effect of Twitter pile-ons and mob retribution puts invisible boundaries around us. Love them or detest them, the proudest banners belong to the uncancellable - the Rogans, Rowlings, the Trumps - who demonstrate that freedom of speech only exists to the point at which it can be spoken in practice.
When I was younger I found this an insufferably try-hard stance. But it is easy to be over-confident about the power of polite convention. Every time I review a business contract, I'm reminded of its partially-obscured truth: the words on the page only matter to the extent you're willing to fight for them.
Just as a line on a map is a theory, unreal; so too is a contract an idea that must be backed up with force. Unless you're willing and able to sue - to fight hand-to-hand, in the courts, rather than the mountains - it's paper. Nothing more.
On why people believe everything's a scam
The blackpill at the heart of this is that there are good reasons why people are cynics. In part, because authority is empty; as illusory as a line on a map. A representation, not the real thing. A lie that we accept because we are terrified of anarchy.
A few years of pandemic have dented our faith in experts, and so chaos becomes a little more tempting. Expertise feels scammy when it's a gated community; scientists playing politics with 'the science'; newspapers with a vendetta against big tech, briefing their journalists to tell stories of dystopia, not optimism.
It's outsiders who play the part of detonators. Taleb writes about (I think... in Antifragile) how innovation through the Industrial Revolution was driven by part-timers, tinkerers, and engineers, not academics. The Wright Brothers weren't students of aerodynamics, but bicycle makers. I've seen senior executives with nothing serious to say. I've seen enthusiastic amateurs who transform industries.
Stephenson's book is predicated on this realpolitik.
A Texan billionaire fires so much sulphur into the upper atmosphere, it starts to reverse climate change. Seasons alter: arid deserts flourish, breadbaskets suffer drought. There are winners and losers, and governments cannot act because to stop the process might have catastrophic effect, a termination shock.
Meanwhile, in our world, we spit out soggy paper straws, fret over the environmental impact of an egg, or an almond latte, while multi-billion organisations annihilate our history.
We are invisibly pressured to play by the rules, within the lines of control demarcated by others.
Stephenson seems to say that the action an individual takes can change history.
In his novel, great nations flounder, while small nations, building sulphur installations of their own, become pivotal simply because they choose to be.
What's on the map doesn't even matter.
The line itself is not control.
image: Skylar Kang