To Build A Fire

I’m sure we’ve all heard of the “Seven Basic Conflicts” in literature:

  • man vs. self
  • man vs. man
  • man vs. society
  • man vs. God
  • man vs. machine
  • man vs. environment
  • man vs. supernatural

And . . . Man vs. Nature.  By the way, the above online compendium invites readers to contribute a story conflict that doesn’t fit into the above 7 categories.  Taking the terms literally, I can think of one right off the top of my head:  man vs. woman.

OK OK . . . that was a “joke” – this is about the classic plot conflict of man and woman and child vs. nature.

ToBuildAFire-1 Implicit in these stories is the approach and assumptions of the author.  Is “nature” an adversary with a motive and goals?  The classic story that is taught as an example of this plot is Jack London’s story “To Build A Fire.”  This story contains numerous accurate details of extreme sub-zero weather.  The unnamed protagonist, “man,” (some feel that the dog, who survives the ordeal, is a better hero – I tend to agree) experiences many events that would strike terror and set off survival alarms in the heads of more experienced or less hubris-filled artic circle travelers.

I’ve advised people who are creating hostile (or maybe just different) science-fictional worlds to read “To Build A Fire” and pay careful attention to the use of language that indicates not just “mood,” but sets mood as it also communicates environmental facts that menace the protagonist from the beginning of his journey to its fateful end.

For example, right in the first paragraph:  “There was no sun or hint
of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet
there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that
made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun.”

A “literary” explication would refer to darkness, gloom, lack of the life-giving sun, and use of words like “pall” as in “pall-bearer,” a bringer of death.  The use of the word “clear” could indicate that the true situation is there for the protagonist to recognize, if he can just put his preconceived hubris and/or foolhardy plans aside and perceive the situation for what it is:  deadly danger.

However, readers lacking environmental knowledge don’t need to use literary allusion to figure out what Jack London is getting at, because as the protagonist sets out on his foolish journey, London describes the exact temperature:  50 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, with a wind chill of 80 degrees below.  I know from my own experience that small frozen pools of water look like plastic and are immutable, instantly refreezing at 10 to 11 degrees F above zero if anything briefly melts them.  It’s obvious that weather that’s even that cold requires special precautions and respect.  The protagonist of “To Build A Fire” shouldn’t have been traveling anywhere by himself, with or without a dog, on this day.  He sealed his fate the moment he set out in this story and the rest of the story is actually an explication of a series of encounters with the extreme, hostile, ultra-cold environment that to this day, the great majority of readers don’t always fully apprehend, despite the story’s careful, highly-accurate descriptions of the effects of extreme sub-zero Arctic weather.

Which is to say that I am starting to think along the lines that in construction of alien worlds, or in setting stories in space, the research into as many cause-and-effect relationships as we can possibly determine is essential.  This goes far beyond the usual “explosions in space are silent” and will also differ from earthbound combustion because space offers zero oxygen.  Many SF stories take a path through their imagined words of a similar nature to “the man’s” in “To Build A Fire.”

They fail to heed the basic lesson that Jack London taught in this classic story, that human beings, no matter what they believe in safe circumstances, live in a world that is beyond their control.  Because it’s true, and it’s a part of what it is to be human, it’s hard to think that this lesson wouldn’t apply even more strongly regarding characters in stories set outside of the familiar Earthbound environment.

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To Build A Fire — 3 Comments

  1. Other good sources to read are Everest/other mountaineering chronicles, especially the tales of serious attempts to create new routes on extremely high, difficult peaks. Or even the chronicles of mistakes that happen on relatively accessible, lower peaks such as Oregon’s Mt. Hood.

    (Hood is a killer. I love my mountain dearly and ski it with a great passion but I know she kills, and that even a non-adventurous, within-piste skier like myself needs to treat her with respect. Mmm, perhaps I should change the gender. Natives considered Wyeast to be male. So okay, he kills).

    Climbing expedition accounts are good to read for projecting space expedition concerns, though, simply because when a problem arises, help is not necessarily easily obtained. The challenges of altitude even at a relatively low peak like Hood (altitude impacts the ability of rescue helicopters to function at the upper levels, hurricane-force winds with any storm, hard winds on otherwise clear days when the barometric pressure is just right) and the need for planning plus the ability to rescue yourself all feeds into concerns a writer needs to have for worldbuilding.

    Polar expedition accounts are also good sims as well.

  2. “To Build a Fire” made a deep impression on me, for the reasons you describe. The ineluctability of it, and watching that doom play out. It’s also good for showing you how a silent doom, an uncaring killer, can be every bit as terrifying and engaging as an antagonist with motive, investment, and lots of words at his or her disposal.

  3. Great comments, Joyce and Asakiyume. Joyce, this is very true, and agreed that Mt. Hood is very dangerous. I am pretty sure it is Hood where I read the account of 4 climbers climbing roped to each other, and who were unable to arrest after the lead climber lost his footing – I think 1 of those 4 lost his life, and another pair of climbers that were in their path also were severely injured or died. People also lose their lives on Mt. Whitney although it is also portrayed as an “easy climb.” Denali, it should go without saying, has life-threatening conditions frequently.

    I’m a hiking and junior climbing enthusiast . . . how could you tell?

    In a way, Asakiyume, I wonder if the “antagonist” isn’t the decision-making process or misjudgments of the “protagonist” in stories where the environment, real or imagined, plays a role.