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February 16, 2008

The nerds regroupe (presumably at the Meeting Stone) – yet more World–Building

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.

Howzat George? 

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.

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