January 29, 2008

World–builders – from the nerd end of the spectrum

Writing about web page /ttooulig/entry/m_john_harrinson/

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

The articles from Harrison about world building are interesting - especially from a philosophical perspective. In what sense can a writer direct people to a world which doesn't exist? Why the desire to "create" a place which simply isn't, to deliver in excruciating detail every aspect of a world?

The philosophical issues run deep. I think there's a valid point to be made that any representation in language, let alone in literature, falls unfailingly short of whatever it strives to capture - or possibly the completely different claim, that anything exists only insofar as it can be understood in language (and perhaps sense-perception). On the one horn, world-building becomes an effort in utter futility, and an author attempting an "accurate" description is chasing the end of Xeno's race track; there are better things for them to be doing. Or on the other, the author is simply being an ogre, removing all possibility of interpretation from the toolset of the reader and giving them a piece on which the imagination can have little scope.

Tasty as they are, I'm not chewing on the philosophical issues now. I'm more interested in the nerdish motivation for world-building.

I was brought up on Tolkein and the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I have been involved in debates about whether or not Luke turns to the dark side when he finally defeats Vader (answer - totally yes, no way a light-side Jedi could fight that well), have contemplated the gestation period of Giger's alien, have attempted to ratify the different cosmologies of the Mage and Changeling RPGs into one continuum. I'm a fat old nerd.

Why the desire for ratified, internally consistent universes? It's peculiar. In a certain sense (and this applies especially for interactive nerdery, like RPGs), it's highly restrictive - if the Lupines and the Kindred are in a state of perpetual war, you can't have a mixed Vampire-Werewolf playing group. The more the world is specified, the more it becomes locked and interpretation is withdrawn from the reader (indeed, this was the ultimate death of the Old World of Darkness game lines - their excellent meta-plots ultimately lead the game world into the apocalypse. They released actual source-books for the end of the world! Not much room for interpretation after that.)

World building might be an artifact of commercial fiction. Take the Star-Wars extended universe. Those books are basically a thousand answers to nerds "what-if?"s. They exist because it is profitable for George Lucas (or whoever) to sell their rights to run-of-the-mill authors. Maybe the most literal example of this is the "What If?" comic series that are periodically released for the Marvel and DC universes, which really are just that. You could say the same for cross-over comics - "The Avengers" is what you get if a board of marketing executives at Marvel listen in on a playground argument about who would win out of The Hulk, Iron Man, Ant Man, Thor and The Wasp.

Is there anything good and liberating to be said for world building? For stories above a certain size it becomes a sort of practical necessity. I can't imagine the Wheel of Time series functioning without the world being very, very detailed, just as a measure against internal contradiction (but then I can't imagine ever wanting to read the Wheel of Time series...) 

Likewise, the Doctor Who universe is one I feel would actually benefit from a certain measure of world building. I hold in evidence Torchwood, which uses Doctor Who's light touch in terms of internal consistency but attempts to be adult, and is unredeemably shit (James Marsters and John Barrowman kissing aside). And as a general note on long-running series, the longer the run, the greater forethought needs to be put into the consistency of events within the world. Not enough forethought means more time spent retconning, and retcons are ugly as hell - big black sticking plasters over wounds that shouldn't be there to begin with. I hold in evidence the "It was all a dream" series in Dallas. Not that worldbuilding guarantees quality - but a well-constructed fictional world need not be thrust upon the reader. It is merely necessary that the author has sufficient competence with the world to avoid unsatisfying cop-put explanations to major plot issues (lets here it for "The Deathly Hallows").

There is something gratifying about the sense of false realism given by a built world. I don't much enjoy it as far as reading it goes, but I think that's because most world-building authors are hacks (fucking Charles Dickens...). Gaming in a built world on the other hand is great fun. There's a sense of inclusion in something larger. And when nerds engage in arguments like "I bet Wolverine could beat the Hulk", they're taking part in an exercise of world-building - what they want is a definite answer to that question (which the owners of the intellectual rights will duly sell to them), and the inductive evidence of that world, together with it's (hopefully demonstrably) consistent logic are what they use to press their conclusion. It's a fun thing to wonder about.

Perhaps then the answer is a built world of infinite scope. Eternally fresh frontiers, and although the explored world is defined, what has yet to be createdis still a tantalising mystery. The freedom to imagine, and the surety of a base from which to make excursions into the unknown.

There is another artefact of truly enormous built worlds like the Marvel or DC universes - collapse. They reach such a size and complexity that they become unsustainable without (for example) retconning, the introduction of new and once again inexplicable elements, or a slash and burn rebuild (think "The Ultimate" universe reboot of the main line of Marvel). Which means that anyone engaged in discussions about (for example) Peter Parker, will almost definitely not be talking about the same experienced entity. Reader interpretation creeps in over the ruins of the built world.

There's more I could say - instead I'll leave you with a comic about World-building and the musings of Jerry Holkins, from the truly marvellous Penny Arcade.



- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Very simply, I think there’s just the appeal to the imagination for both the world-builder and the person who interacts with the world. Although with an embedded narcissism for the builder- ‘my imagination is great, look what it did, love it, believe it’. But if it’s convincing then it starts belonging to the reader’s imagination too- for the roleplayer even more so.

    Maybe being exposed to a fantastic world doesn’t hinder interpretation after all. The liberation of it just lets us look afresh at humanity (or any relevant ideas/themes built into the world)- something like what China Miéville says about realism being inadequete for coping with unreal realities.

    Or maybe I’m just a defensive nerd.

    31 Jan 2008, 18:12

  2. I agree, Dickens is a cunt.

    I think part of the thing about world-building, having done it recently for Quest (my musical) is that:
    a) as you say, it’s enough if the author knows it. It doesn’t need to be shoved in the audience/reader’s face, and
    b) it benefits a certain kind of reader. I am that certain kind of reader. Those considering themselves highbrow (I don’t) will no doubt denounce it as laziness, but when I’m reading a novel, I don’t want to waste time trying to imagine in all the gaps, crude as that sounds. Words are always ‘limited’ like that anyway in the sense that they can never convey an exact picture to you, they just evoke an approximation which is exact in itself, but undoubtedly not the exact same one the writer had in their head while writing. But I read hedonistically, to be entertained. I love Tolkien because his descriptive passages conjure up images pretty easily. They’re my images, or they used to be. Now we have the films, and I don’t resent that at all, because if I were to go back and reread the books (haven’t since the films came out), I would have definite faces and vistas and landscapes in my head. Which would only help. Perhaps the difference between good and bad world building is whether your brain autmatically fills in the gaps (as with Tolkien and others) or you find yourself consciously trying to do so. I tend to feel that if someone ignores the world, and doesn’t reference it, it’s not important, or perhaps it’s just so normal that we easily fill in those gaps without thinking about it (which is basically saying it’s not important anyway, because it’s no different).

    “Perhaps then the answer is a built world of infinite scope. Eternally fresh frontiers, and although the explored world is defined, what has yet to be createdis still a tantalising mystery. The freedom to imagine, and the surety of a base from which to make excursions into the unknown.”

    Star Wars was, and arguably is, a great example of this, though the New Jedi Order is a slash and burn (as you put it) of immense proportions.

    I think world-building is important for most enterprises, even the non-sci-fi/fantasy ones. You ought to know New York city pretty well if you’re going to set a novel there, and not just the geography, but the nightlife, the culture, the relations between characters, what being from a particular area says about them and their upbringing or at least what people assumed it means etc. Because unless you’re pretty much transcribing real life, you’re going to have do build at least part of the world for your characters, even if it is based on your own…

    20 Feb 2008, 04:39

Add a comment

You are not allowed to comment on this entry as it has restricted commenting permissions.

January 2008

Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
Dec |  Today  | Feb
   1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31         

Search this blog


Most recent comments

  • Your link in the 'writing about web page' section points at http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/timothyfrankl… by Mike Willis on this entry
  • That's not what you've told me in the past, Gavin. Let me know when it's safe to come back on your p… by Sue on this entry
  • Should be good. But personally I wouldn't equate being RickRolled with Goatse… :S by on this entry
  • where and when is (are) dogs hoping to get published? It made me cry tears of evil joy. by on this entry
  • My first thought when reading this was that the man who was by himself would be dying alone which se… by Sue on this entry

Blog archive

Not signed in
Sign in

Powered by BlogBuilder