Our Changing Planet

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  • Monday, March 18, 2013
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  • Sean Ellis
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  • Last week I touched a little on the process I go through to get in the right mindset to write historical “pulp” thrillers. (I add the “pulp” here so you won’t confuse what I do with Mr. William Dietrich’s exceptionally well-written and researched, not to mention thoroughly entertaining historical adventures). 

    I do love me a bit of the fanciful in my stories, and the discovery of things previously undiscovered plays a huge part in that.  It’s a lot easier to sell the concept of a big discovery—something earthshakingly big like the existence of Skull Island, or the Lost City of Ubar (well, lost no longer)—in a historical context, even if it ultimately conflicts with what we now know to be true.

    Google Earth is partly to blame.  I love Google Earth and use it a lot for location scouting.  Oh sure, it’s not the same as visiting a foreign country and experiencing its unique sights, sounds, smells and culture, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and you don’t need to worry about getting dysentery.

    When I wrote my first Nick Kismet adventure, The Shroud of Heaven, there was no Google Earth, so I had to make do with the best available maps of the setting—which in this case was Baghdad  in the early days of the recently concluded war.  Now, for obvious reasons, visiting Iraq wasn’t exactly an option (well, actually it was within the realm of possibility since I was in the National Guard at the time…but not before the novel was finished) and there was a dearth of vacation planning guides to help me get the sense of the city.  I did find several maps online, and some particularly helpful satellite photos of the unfinished mosque that appears in the story, but for a lot of it, I just had to make a best guess knowing full well that about 250,000 potential readers would be able to call my bluff.

    What a difference a few years makes.  Now, it’s possible to hover 200 feet above the most remote places on earth.  The entire surface of the globe has been laid bare for all to see.  And there’s no end to the possible applications for this technology.  A skilled reader of satellite imagery might be able to detect the kinds of clues that led to discoveries like the aforementioned Ubar, or the White City in the jungles of Honduras.   In 2007, computer users from all over the world (myself included) participated in a virtual search of the area where adventurer Steve Fossett was thought to have crashed in the Nevada desert (while the Google Earth search was unsuccessful, it was a hell of an interesting idea).

    Google Earth is a godsend for the contemporary thriller author in me, but not so good when it comes to the part of me that loves stories of the fanciful—lost cities in the desert, undiscovered islands in the vast Pacific expanse.  Nowadays, the notion of an uncharted island where dinosaurs still roam free is about as easy to disprove as the existence of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude or Santa’s workshop at the North Pole (though obviously, there are some specific extra-dimensional mechanics at work in the latter instance).

    At least, that’s what I thought until last week when I read this article:


    Yes, it turns out that Google Earth is not the final word on what the remote places of the world really look like.  Unfortunately, this seems rather like proof of a negative—removing things that we thought we HAD discovered, rather than adding something new—but for the adventure novelist, this is a little like discrediting an expert witness.  At least for the foreseeable future, as long as I include a little expositional scene where the character point out how fallible Google Earth really is…anything goes!

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