All entries for Saturday 16 February 2008
February 16, 2008
Writing about web page /ttooulig/entry/world-building_revisited_a/
Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view
George Ttoouli writes that "the approach to world-building in fiction generally needs to avoid an abundance of detail, unless the characters demand it." What this shows is a character-centric approach to narrative. That assumes that character (or more generously, story) is the point - and frankly it doesn't have to be.
Which isn't to say that the extremes of world building are forgiven. Why build technical specs for the Death Star? As an objet d'art they're potentially diverting. As the final rebuttal in a first-death-star second-death-star argument they may be essential. But for the purposes of the second trilogy they're extraneous.
But why should character be the point of a story? Asimov writes about worlds and governent almost exclusively, and it's interesting, it's insightful. It can't give us insight into the human condition. But who cares? I've had enough of the human condition. I'm living the human condition. I want to learn about the political condition, the socio-political condition, the ecological condition.
Asimov is a revearsal of the rule that a world should be just detailed enough to run the narrative through to the end, borne mostly on the shoulders of the characters. Rather, his worlds are the heavyweights of the story, and the characters are mere backdrop. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Foundation Trilogy, a story which changes characters by chapter, takes very little trouble to individuate them, and yet is compelling, interesting, and genuinely capable of making you gasp, entirely at the wonders of one system of philosophical economics. (Having studied rational choice theory lately a whole extra layer was added for me).
George treats characters as if they exist on an ontological plane above worlds; as if characters are real, and worlds are linguistic trappings they must wade through to bear the story to the end. Obviously he doesn't believe this. But if they're on the same ontological plane, then why distinguish? It's a question of asking which is important for the story.
For Tolkein, the world was every bit as important as his Catholic sermonising. And it can genuinely interest, in and of itself; not just as the forebear of modern genre fantasy, but also for the beautiful complexity of the world. If you can finish all 1,000 pages of LOTR it's not because you're seriously interested in Frodo or Gandalf. And the paucity of battles is not going to seriously entertain the modern hack-and-slash fantasy afficionado. The world itself is a worthwhile subject.
I could actually extend the ontological distinction to include narrative itself. If the characters and worlds of a story don't exist, then how much less must narrative? I think this is somewhere on the road that leads to anti-narrative - divorcing the actual story of a piece of prose from the apparant story in the text - although I'm not sure if it reaches it or overshoots. Humour me.
Narrative is the ultimate fiction; the idea that a series of events constitute a story. There is a human tendency to collate certain events into a sequence, thus forming a story, but no such thing exists in the world. It is a psychological artefact.
The interesting thing, once one divorces narrative from a piece of prose, is that it then becomes far closer to (some types of) poetry, and even fine art. Without narrative, we have metaphor, image, sensation, emotional response, character, world, philosophy, politic and so on - and all of these can be found in fine art. The difference is medium.
What I'm angling at is that a narrative-free piece of fiction could be enjoyed as fine art. And this frees us of a lot of constraints. One is allowed to sit in front of a Bacon and enjoy the colours, the brush-strokes, the juxtaposition of images, the suggestions of emotions, the metaphoric content; but you're not scolded for also enjoying the many fine details of the world in a Constable landscape.
Of course narrative free fiction would be peculiar. Something like Borge's hypothetical Encyclopedia of Tlön (although perhaps "The Red Tower" comes close). And I don't believe this constitutes a reprise for the vast tracts of dross which attempt to save themselves by virtue of having an immaculately detailed world (or more regularly, an immaculately detailed series of wars). But the discovery of a world in fiction can be an interesting, engaging and worthwhile experience.
Pending the last of China Mieville's Weird Fiction workshops for the year, I sat down (probably on a bus) and read "The Red Tower" by Thomas Ligotti in one sitting. It's good. Definitely the best of the samples we were given. If you want to find a copy of it, you're going to have a tough job - the "Nightmare Factory" collection it comes from is out of print and costs about £50 on Amazon or Alibris. Photocopies might still be circulating in the Capital Centre writing room - and otherwise I'm afraid you're out of luck.
Don't read on if you ever intend to read The Red Tower - major, major spoilers up ahead. Which is to say that I'm going to summarise the story right now.
The story - if such it can be called - centres on the titular Red Tower, a decaying former factory situated in the centre of an infinite expanse of wasteland. The Tower was created out of the wasteland, and the wilderness, realising it's mistake, has been attempting to correct it since. As a result all of the machinery which produced the factories peculiar "novelty items" - rocks with organic eyes, disturbingly accurate models of diseased internal organs - have evaporated and the structure above ground now lies in ruin.
In response the factory has burrowed deeper into the surface of the wilderness, forming a second basement below the first - the first being used to transport the novelty goods of the Tower to all points on the earth. This second basement - in turn shut down by the pressure of the wilderness - contains a graveyard of birthing graves, producing monstrous and malfunctional organic creatures. Finally, there may or may not exist a third basement, but what that might produce is a mystery.
SPOILER END, PONCY MEANDERINGS BEGIN!
So, its a peculiar tale. It's got a lot of typical Ligotti features (Hah! I sound as if I know stuff about him. I've read four of his shorts. Does that qualify? I'll level with you - most of this is borrowed from China, but it's interesting, and I don't want to withhold interesting things from you) - his overpowering nihilism and death-drive, his morbid fascination with change and decay, the interplay between decay and vitality, and commercial fabrication.
The wilderness is an overpowering force of nihil - it tends absolutely towards entropy. What is odd is that it chooses to throw up the Red Tower at all - even if it chooses to rescind on that decision, nevertheless it has the latent capacity, if not at least the general inclination, to create. It reminds me of one particular theory about the fundamental nature of the universe - God knows what the name was, but it said that quantum randomness meant that eventually, anything could pop into being. It seems somehow to fit - the universe tends always towards entropy, but occasionally, we have a moment of random creation.
And then there's the fact that the Red Tower fights back. It keeps on producing. It keeps on being. Compare with "The Tsalal" - in that, the arrival of nihil is stalled, not stopped. In "The Prodigy of Dreams" the arrival is welcomed, indeed summoned. In "I Have a Special Plan for this World" the main character is the force of annihilation (although arguably not nihil). But existence doesn't fail. I like to think that the final (perhaps mythical) sub-basement of the Tower does indeed exist; something about the tone of the piece tells me that it would be wrong for it not to.
And what does that sub-basement produce? As the Red Tower's operations are pushed underground, it's output changes from "novelty items" to, for want of a better term, "novelty organics". There's an increase in complexity, even if the new products are every bit as malformed, ugly, malfunctional, disturbing and (yet) horifically compelling as their forebears.
The answer is in the text - or rather, the answer is the text. It has all of the relevant characteristics. It doesn't follow the normal form of even a weird fiction short story. There's nothing beautiful about it. It doesn't seem to work like a normal story - you don't hear a little tale, or learn about a character, or gain a deep and meaningful insight into modern life. It is definitely disturbing. And yet I read it one sitting. Something about the ungainliness, the imaginitive oddness of it, as well as the pleasure of its grotesquery, force you to read.
So. Buy that lot if you will.
What does that mean? That the Red Tower is now writing Weird Fiction. Or, that "The Red Tower" was produced by the Red Tower. That Thomas Ligotti (and perhaps Lovecraft, Hodgson, Machen et al, for Ligotti likes to include them all in the same fraternity) are manufacturing devices within an alien manufacturing plant.
That's about all I have to say. If anyone knows more about Ligotti's take on manufacture (mechanical reproduction) in relation to absolutely anything, please say, I'd be eagre to see what spin they think that puts on my reading.