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January 29, 2008

World–builders – from the nerd end of the spectrum

Writing about web page /ttooulig/entry/m_john_harrinson/

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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 The more the world is specified, the more it becomes locked and interpretation is withdrawn from the reader (indeed, this was the ultimate death of the Old World of Darkness game lines - their excellent meta-plots ultimately lead the game world into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.

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