Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Special Directions

Asking for directions is the subject of one of the oldest jokes in the book - that one about men and asking for directions. This joke was, to my considerable surprise, employed successfully by Dory in Finding Nemo.

The other night, the topic of asking for directions came up at the dinner table here in Chicago, and my dad told me a couple of funny stories about directions. I thought I'd share them and muse a bit on the topic, because it could be useful for anyone working with fantasy or science-fictional environments (especially cities).

1. My dad was in Australia, trying to orient himself in Melbourne while holding a map, but having a very difficult time. After a few minutes he realized he was having trouble because the sun was in the wrong place.

This one is interesting to me because I have never learned to use the position of the sun to orient myself. I was never explicitly taught this, but I think sometimes people just just pick it up as part of assessing their surroundings. I think it would be a very good thing for people to use when in an unfamiliar environment (especially if they have no compass). But sun or compass could cause some confusion if the parameters of either the star and planet, or the magnetic pole, aren't the same as where the person came from. In my dad's case, he had to readjust for the fact that he was operating in the southern hemisphere, and needed to expect the sun in precisely the opposite position from the one he expected.

2. My dad and my mom were being given a tour of Montreal, and the guide kept telling them they were going north, but my dad was checking the sun again and couldn't believe that was possible. When he finally asked about his confusion, he was told about "le nord Montréalais," or the "Montreal north." It turns out that there's a river flowing through Montreal, and any time you're moving away from it on the northern side, that's called "going north," even if a bend in the river makes it so that you're really going east or west in absolute direction.

I did a post earlier on relative and absolute directions, and I think this story is a lovely example of a very idiosyncratic form of relative direction (which just happens to use the terminology of absolute direction!).

Not everybody thinks of direction in the same terms. When you give directions to a place based on street names and left and right turns, that's a system based on relative direction. Some people don't feel comfortable enough with that, though, and want to see landmarks added to the description (e.g. turn left after the W hotel). That's still relative. Contrast it with societies (I know of at least one in aboriginal Australia) that talk about one's north or south foot, east or west side of the body, depending on the body's absolute position.

Then take the Montreal example, where a landmark (the river) is so salient to the population that it becomes the basis for defining relative direction!

A couple more thoughts on direction...

Navigating in Kyoto, Japan is great because the center of the city is on a north-south, east-west grid. Once you get the hang of where North etc. are, it's virtually impossible to get lost, so exploring is lots of fun. This type of city design comes from ancient China, where the imperial city was designed to have the palace in the north with a road leading directly to it, and then the cross-roads all running east to west. At a certain point I felt like I understood this pretty well, so I was a bit confused when I learned that in China and Japan they talk about "the five directions," not the four.

Five directions?

Well, the first four are North, South, East, and West. The fifth one is Center. Once it was pointed out to me, it seemed so obvious - but this view also depends on defining your center. You may have heard Japan called "the land of the rising sun" - this is because it lies to the east of China, where the expression originated in a letter from the Chinese emperor to the Japanese emperor.

All very eloquent. But when in the reply, the Japanese emperor called China "the land of the setting sun," let's just say the Chinese didn't take it as a compliment.

I hope this gives you some more thoughts about different ways to treat directions in your world, and to give it a unique flavor on another level.


  1. I grew confused when I lived in Boulder Colorado. The numbered streets there run from west to east. But in Easton, Philadelphia, Milwaukee - other places I've lived - the streets are numbered east to west. So I often found myself going the wrong direction.

    Once I got used to it -- the Mountains Are In the West -- I got confused when I visited California and found the mountains to my east.

    Now, thankfully, I live in a place where the two mountains are on the north and on the south, and run from horizon to horizon, like God intended.

  2. Yes, that sounds very confusing, Mike. Good to have you comment - I'm really looking forward to sharing an Analog ToC with you next month!