“Winter Solstice, Camelot Station,” by John M. Ford.
When I was a kid, I knew that I would not live past the age of thirty. I knew, like many kids my age, that the world would end in nuclear holocaust and that there was nothing I could do about it. In 1985 the musician Sting released a song called “Russians,” one line of which was “I hope the Russians love their children too.” The idea being that the entire world was hostage to people whose decisions were incomprehensibly out of the control of the rest of us. That the course of action we had available to us was hope. Hope that those with the ability to act had feelings and motivations and relationships similar to our own, and which they valued.
Yet, I’m forty years old now. The Berlin Wall was ripped down by ordinary citizens. The Soviet Union collapsed. The future is never what we think it will be.
Ten years ago at the holiday season my mother and my sister came to visit. There are photos of us all, with two infants. K was ten months old, M was three months. There is a photo of M in a green onsie with candy canes on it. We have a photo of K throwing wrapping paper into the air. Ten years ago it seemed likely that the fall of governments worldwide would be brought about by motivated individuals and small groups using biological, chemical, or small-scale nuclear devices. We were instructed to fear the other, to suspect the stranger, to watch and guard and be vigilant in our insularity and aggression.
Those dangers have not passed, but we have learned to live with and around them.
My kids are ten years old now. The best information currently available indicates that we have turned the corner on the destruction of our environment. That we cannot fix what we have wrought. We can merely mitigate the speed of the disaster. In forty, fifty, eighty years, the forecast says, my children and grandchildren will be living in a world no longer accommodating of human need.
Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource, argues that this pessimistic view misses a huge point. That we humans are not passive bystanders in the path of history. That we make it. We create and innovate and alter.
The train may stop, but the line goes on.
When I was a kid, I loved the Camelot mythology. And, I’ll be honest with you, part of what I love was the tragic-fated pessimism of the whole thing. The idea that you can be the best and the greatest and you will still fail, still falter, and everything you have wrought will still come to ruin. This matched my understanding of world geopolitics. It matched my understanding of the story of Noah and the flood. It fit in well with my experience of being picked on at school for being too verbal, too smart. It fit my understanding of my parents’ divorce. Do your best, be your best, give life everything you have — die alone and friendless and defeated, betrayed by Mordred and obliterated in nuclear fire.
I loved Alan Moore’s Camelot 3000, for what it’s worth. Also the Marvel Comics’ Dark Phoenix Saga.
The train may stop, but the line goes on.
I wasn’t yet thirty years old when I first read “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station.” But it was clear already that the end of the world I had relied on was not going to come to pass. I was going to live. The planet was going to live. I was going to have friends and family and a future. I was going to need a plan.
Oh, dear sweet crickets, I was going to need a plan.
I didn’t have one. All I knew of the future was that I should burn bright and hard and fast, throw everything I had into whatever I was doing at the moment, give it all and give it up because there was no need to bank against tomorrow. Gawaine, oh Gawaine, I did love him so. Heedless and thoughtless and full of honor and anger and strength. Defending the ones he loved, haring off onto whatever quest caught his fancy. Always trying to be the best even though the Round Table clearly told him he wasn’t. I used to think Gawaine was sort of dumb, for that. Now I think it’s more complicated.
So here is this poem. This poem about Camelot. It’s nearly a steampunk AU of Camelot, thought we didn’t call it that at the time. And in this poem, well, all the knights are a bit older. They are, some of them, wiser. But it’s pretty clear that none of them have a plan. They spent their youth getting to this, whatever this is, and now that they have it, what will they do with it?
There’s no map for this road. Hamlet tells us that the undiscovered country is death, but he’s only got half the point, there. It’s the future that remains undiscovered. Death is one of the options available in that future, sure. But so is being unexpectedly alive.
I remember reading “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station” for the first time and crying. I cried because this was a map of hope I hadn’t considered before. Here were these people, these characters I knew to be doomed. But for the first time they didn’t know it. It occurred to me, for the first time in all my love of Camelot, that maybe they could go on.
The ugly men start walking, the new arrival behind,
Singing “Wenceslas” off-key till the other says stop.
There are two horses waiting for them. Rather plain horses,
Considering. The men mount up.
By the roundhouse they pause,
And look at the locos, the water, the sand, and the coal,
The look for a long time at the turntable,
Until the one who is King says “It all seemed so simple, once,”
And the best knight in the world says “It is. We make it hard.”
They ride on, toward Camelot by the service road.
The sun is winter-low. Kay’s caravan is rolling.
He may not run a railroad, but he runs a tight ship;
By the time they unload in the Camelot courtyard,
The wassail will be hot and the goose will be crackling,
Banners snapping from their towers, fir logs on the fire, drawbridge down,
And all that sackbut and psaltery stuff.
Blanchefleur is taking the children caroling tonight,
Percivale will lose to Merlin at chess,
The young knights will dally and the damsels dally back,
The old knights will play poker at a smaller Table Round.
And at the great glass station, motion goes on,
The extras, the milk trains, the varnish, the limiteds,
The Pindar of Wakefield, the Lady of the Lake,
The Broceliande Local, the Fast Flying Briton,
The nerves of the kingdom, the lines of exchange,
Running to a schedule as the world ought,
Ticking like a hot-fired hand-stoked heart,
The metal expression of the breaking of boundaries,
The boilers that turn raw fire into power,
The driving rods that put the power to use,
The turning wheels that make all places equal,
The knowledge that the train may stop but the line goes on;
The train may stop
But the line goes on.
It’s possible that we’re all doomed. Yep. That’s one option. But it’s entirely likely that we are not. We’ll find out what the future is when we get there. It will not be simple. It will be hard. It will be unexpected. It will be, in the end, what we make.
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