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February 16, 2008
Writing about web page /ttooulig/entry/world-building_revisited_a/
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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.