Worldbuilding

Someone quoted the following quite widely-cited passage from M John Harrison in something I read recently:

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, and makes us very afraid.

M John Harrison: More context here

Do I agree? Well, it depends what kind of worldbuilding he means. Some worldbuilding is necessary to any sort of story-telling – all stories need a context of some kind, and sometimes the context is at least as important as any of the characters – but some worldbuilding isn’t necessary in that way, and too much of it can be counterproductive, even if it doesn’t make us ‘very afraid’.

Of course Harrison is right that for a writer to construct a whole world is in any case impossible. Even to precisely describe a wooden chair would take more words than the word count of the average novel. The reader must be allowed to do much of the work (work to which we are well accustomed, since in life also, we must assemble a sense of a complete world from a collection of fragments and guesses.)

Harrison’s own novel The Sunken Land… is, I’d say, a rather good piece of worldbuilding. The story ostensibly takes place in contemporary England, partly in London and partly in the Midlands, but the setting is an imaginary place nevertheless, and one of the main pleasures of reading the book, and the thing that most lingered in my mind afterwards, is this place’s peculiar, queasy, dreamlike flavour. (The one moment that jars for me is when the narrator mentions ‘the debacle of Brexit’, thus ceasing to be the narrator of a fictional world and becoming just the author talking about this one.)

The Sunken Land is saturated with watery imagery: flooded fields, flooded houses, flooded gardens, dampness, houseboats, phials of muddy water, things that live in water, the River Thames, the River Severn, taps, kettles, toilets, a map of the oceans, the pools that form in sodden fields where you can still see grass and flowers beneath the glassy surface… This squelchy stuff, which all of us can easily assemble in some form or other from our own watery memories, comes together in the book to form an extended metaphor for the main protagonist’s depressed, sunken state (and, in a less clearly defined way, a metaphor also for the country we live in), so it’s absolutely essential to the whole enterprise that we enter into it. But he coaxes us to do this, not by precisely describing and explaining everything, which would be impossible, but by convincing us that he has immersed himself in it.

Lots of novels fail to do this. I have given up reading many books because I can’t experience their settings as anything more than clumsy cardboard cutouts, which no one has ever really inhabited. And if even the author hasn’t been there, why should I as a reader even try?

The kind of worldbuilding that Harrison dislikes is the kind where the author gets overinvolved in making stuff up, fussily providing piles of detail which just gets in the way of our own imaginations. The classic case of this is Tolkein’s imagined languages, alphabets and the whole vast historical/mythological backstory he created for the Lord of the Rings (though, to be fair, he summarised much of this material in appendices to avoid overloading the books themselves). Tolkein clearly had fun making this stuff up and, since I used to make up languages, alphabets and mythologies myself as a kid, I understand the pleasure of it. It’s the sort of activity that feels comfortable and safe because it’s intellectually engaging but also emotionally neutral, a bit like doing crosswords, or sorting out a stamp collection, or playing solitaire on your phone. (These days I look things up on Wikipedia that have no bearing on anything important to me at all. I find it restful.)

I don’t myself see anything sinister in this sort of activity, but it certainly doesn’t have much to do with story-telling, or the literary arts, and most of us probably wouldn’t want to feel that we’d spent too much time on it, at the cost of other more lively and more outward-looking pursuits. It can be an escape from stress, though, and readers as well as writers find it so, which is where the ‘nerdism’ comes in. Some people enjoy absorbing themselves in the minutiae of imaginary worlds such as Tolkein’s, or J K Rowling’s. Some people learn to speak Klingon, or enact scenes from their favourite fictional universes, taking a holiday from the real world in those non-existent places. The kind of worldbuilding that Harrison disapproves of is (I think) the construction of these sorts of intricate non-places to hide in, something that is often referred to as escapism, by those who dislike science fiction and fantasy.

I’m sort of with him. Yet at the same time I think it can be a hard line to draw, this line between necessary worldbuilding, which Harrison’s novel is a good example of, and the escapist kind which he despises and which, as he puts it, is not ‘technically necessary‘. After all, any novel or story, however literary, however serious, however engaged with painful and important topics, is necessarily in part an escape from the quotidian world, for writer and reader alike. Even a discussion such as this is in part a nerdy escape of that kind. Even the learned arguments that take place amongst eminent critics and distinguished scholars.

Tolkein’s worldbuilding was obsessively, nerdishly thorough in areas (such as language and mythology) which he liked to think about and yes, this is unnecessary from a story-telling point of view. But there are also areas in which I’d argue that Tolkein’s worldbuilding was actually insufficient. It isn’t satisfying, for instance, to have talking birds appear to resolve the final crisis, when for the rest of the novel animals have just been animals. And, more generally, his anthropological imagination is weak. He gives no clue, for example, as to how an Orc society could possibly function. (How could Orcs raise children, or live in groups, or fashion weapons and armour, if they were really as lacking in empathy or loyalty as he depicts?) I’m pretty sure he gave this very little thought.

The question about worldbuilding is not whether its a good thing or not, but whether any given instance of it is sufficient for, and proportional to, the story-telling task of which it forms a part.

It’s not my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes

I am a slow learner. It was something of a revelation when I found out that the stories about the knights of the Round Table I enjoyed as a child were actually written for real knights, and that these real knights were not necessarily very nice people at all. (One of the sources of the Grail story, for instance, The High Book of the Grail, is dedicated to a knight who was a leading figure in two notorious bloodbaths: the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in the south of France.) It struck me then that most fiction is actually written to flatter its readers by making them, or people like them, the heroes of the story.

When it comes to Brexit it would have been an easy matter for me, as a ‘remain’ voter who writes science fiction, to do something of that kind. I could, for instance, have written a future dystopia, in which a ghastly caricature of the ‘leave’ camp is in charge, and noble, liberal, internationalist types are fighting a brave war of resistance. I’m pretty sure a lot of people would have welcomed it.

But I don’t think it’s my job to exaggerate the ugliness of rival tribes, or big up the heroism of my own. If you want a simple ‘goodies versus baddies’ view of events, you can find it on social media, where whole armies of people are busy, night and day, proving how utterly and irredeemably bad those others are, and how very good they are. I’m sure this serves some useful psychological purpose, but it really isn’t my thing.

I don’t deny that there are bad people out there. And some of the nastiest and most mean-spirited aspects of British culture were certainly evident on the ‘leave’ side. But an exclusive focus on the shortcomings of others does tend to blind us to our own, and what I noticed in aftermath of the 2016 referendum was that, on the ‘remain’ side too, some pretty ugly things were crawling out of the shadows. Specifically I noticed the spread of a phenomenon which I’ve been observing for some time: middle class folk who, while describing themselves as on ‘the left’, somehow still feel free to express a sneering contempt for people less clever or less educated than themselves.

I say ‘ugly’, I say ‘nasty’, but the truth is that human beings are human, whatever tribe they belong to, and my objective, as in my other books –America City is probably the closest- was to write a story that looked at this particular time, not through the lens of ‘them and us’ but simply as human beings responding in different ways to their particular circumstances, as humans beings do.

Two Tribes cover image

Belief

If you subscribe to a belief, certain thoughts become unthinkable. So, for instance, if you subscribe to a belief in socialism, and you are presented with the various historical examples of socialism failing to deliver, you have to conclude that it just wasn’t done right, or was done in the wrong circumstances, and needs to be tried again, because the conclusion that socialism doesn’t work isn’t available to you. (Feel free to substitute laissez faire capitalism in that example: it is equally applicable). In the same way, if you believe that a loving and omnipotent god created the world, you have somehow to find ways of explaining the existence of (for example) agonising and degrading diseases that are consistent with such a god, because the much simpler explanations available to an atheist aren’t on your list of options.

Belief results in a certain inflexibility, in other words.

But belief is nevertheless essential to life. For one thing, we have to make decisions all the time in situations where there isn’t enough exact information to be certain of what the outcomes will be (this is true of almost all political decisions and all but trivial personal ones), or where the judgement to be made involves values (again true of most political and personal decisions). Without beliefs we’d have nothing to guide us.

The inflexibility of belief, while sometimes a problem, is also the key to its usefulness. It allows us to set or harden things that would otherwise be fluid. In order to be able to think about ourselves as coherent human individuals, and not just a bundle of impulses, we have to ‘keep faith’ with decisions already made. Marriage, for instance, involves keeping faith with the idea that you love someone and belong with them, even through times when you don’t actually feel love and aren’t enjoying being together. In other words you have to believe that what you felt in the past was real, even when it doesn’t seem so now, and you have to believe that you will feel it again. And the same applies to other kinds of commitments: an example in my case would be the writing of a book, which would never get done if I didn’t force myself to keep plugging on through long periods when I felt almost certain that the whole project was worthless, and that I nothing left to say.

Faith, in this sense, is a kind of belief that allows us to tie together the past, the present and the future, even though all we can ever actually directly know is the present. I think of it as a kind of human chain, such as might be used to rescue people from a shipwreck, except that this chain is made up, not of different individuals, but of different iterations of the same individual. For someone prone to self-doubt and mood swings, such as myself, holding hands with your past and future selves can be pretty challenging. (My wife would vouch that I can easily move in a single day between cheerful optimism to existential despair, and sometimes find it hard to give any credence to my former self of only a few hours ago.)

I hate to admit it, but I suppose what I’m talking about now is the kind of belief that’s referred to in a thousand cringy Hollywood movies when one character tells another ‘you’ve got to believe in yourself’ or ‘if only you believe in yourself anything is possible’. Clearly the latter is a lazy cliche: no amount of self-belief will make me (say) a premier league footballer. But it is true that you do need to believe in your ‘self’ in order to be able to achieve anything substantial, because unless you believe in a coherent self that is continuous over time, it is impossible to commit yourself to the work involved.

Your ‘self’ is, in fact, just a particular example of a whole class of entities that are necessary in order to function in society, but which owe their existence to belief. A nation is such an entity. Benedict Anderson famously described a nation as an ‘imagined community’. This is not the same thing as an imaginary community, because an imagined community really does exist. It’s just that it only functions because it is imagined. And imagination in this sense is closely related to belief. Believing in oneself and believing in a nation both entail being able to imagine a connection with a bunch of people you can’t actually see and can’t directly know: in one case these people are your future selves, in the other, compatriots you’ve never met.

Recent divisions in the UK are characterised by some as a rift between the blind belief of the ignorant and the rational evidence-based thinking of the educated (I’ve seen this thought expressed earlier today on social media). But actually both sides are sustained by beliefs in imagined communities. It’s just unfortunate that they aren’t the same ones. ‘I am a European first and foremost’ is resonant for some, ‘I am English [or British, or Scottish, etc] first and foremost’ is resonant for others. Some, I know, even combine both. For many only one of these statements is real and the other is simply a fabrication. But these are all statements of belief, elements of the stories that we choose to live by, not facts that can be objectively verified.

Good guys and bad guys

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in a conference at University College Dublin earlier this month called Alternative Realities: New Challenges for American Literature in the Era of Trump, and then to take part in a panel discussion at the Museum of Literature in Dublin with the other keynote speakers, Aleksandar Hemon and Karen Bender, and the conference organiser Dolores Resano. I had a great time.

The following is (more or less) the text of my keynote speech.

Continue reading “Good guys and bad guys”

Telling the story of us and nature

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in the ‘writer’s rebel’ event last night as part of the Extinction Rebellion protest going on in London. The request was that I do a short reading of my own choice, as one of a number of writers doing the same. Having agonised all week about what to read, I ended up sitting down and writing the following a few hours before the event:

Continue reading “Telling the story of us and nature”

Haunted by the Future

I’ve just returned from Novacon 48 in Nottingham.  I’m very grateful to the organisers and members for making me so welcome.  The following is the text of my guest of honour speech.  (I am not a literary historian obviously, so this should be read as the impressionistic ramblings of a writer rather than as the authoritative statement of a specialist.) Continue reading “Haunted by the Future”

Tintoretto

My wife Maggie and I recently spent a few days in Venice. Extraordinary place. It’s has been going round in my head ever since, even in my dreams, like some kind of mystery my brain is trying to solve.

But leaving all the rest of it to the side, here is just one thing we saw there which in itself keeps going round in my head. It’s in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the island of the same name (which you can see across the water if you stand outside the front of the Doge’s Palace) and is a painting by the Venetian Renaissance painter, Tintoretto: The Last Supper.

The original is getting on for six metres wide, so you need to make this picture as big as as your screen can make it if you are to get any sense of it.  The thing that struck me at once, not even knowing yet who the artist was (I am no art buff), was the drama and almost eerie immediacy achieved by the arrangement of the figures and by the sharp contrasts between light and shadow.  I suppose by far the most well-known picture of the Last Supper is the famous mural by Da Vinci, which is at least as dramatic as this one in terms of what is going on between the characters, but nevertheless seems to me (on the basis of reproductions) to be much further removed from the viewer, much cooler and more static.

What I get from this painting was a powerful sense of what a mysterious, explosive, dynamic thing a moment actually is.  Everyone in this picture is present at the same point in time, but no two of them have the same sense of what is going on.  A couple of disciples towards the left of the picture, for instance, seem to be involved in a conversation of their own that may not even be connected with the famous event unfolding in the middle of the table (an event to be re-enacted over and over again for the next two millenia, including on the altar immediately below where this picture is hung!)  The disciple immediately to Jesus’ left seems withdrawn into his own throughts as he watches, perhaps to avoid having to engage with Judas sitting opposite him. Judas, as jealous people passive-aggressively do when trying to undermine someone else’s big occasion, seems to be trying to draw into conversation the disciple being given bread by Jesus.  The waiters are getting on with their various jobs: at the near end of the table one of them is asking one of the disciples whether he wants anything else and the disciple is very clearly indicating with both hands: ‘Not now.  Something important is happening.’  The semi-transparent angels meanwhile swirl above the scene, drawn in by what  (within the terms of this story, obviously) they already know is an event of cosmic significance.  Everyone is experiencing this moment in a different way, so that it will explode outwards into the future in many different directions, but, in this instant, they are all in one room, and the same light falls on all of them.

Venice is full of huge Tintorettos.  There are lots of them in the Doge’s palace (including some incredibly detailed and energetic battle scenes, which I admired but was not particularly moved by).  And the Scuola Grande di San Rocco has three whole floors of them.  Most of these didn’t do much for me, I have to say, but they build up to a gigantic, twelve metre-wide Crucifixion in a side room on the top floor which rivals, and perhaps surpasses, the Last Supper for sheer energy.  (Again: you need to make this image as big as you can to get any sense of it: it’s packed with detail.)  As with the Supper, everyone is seeing different things and many are completely missing the famous drama going on immediately above their heads, but it is a single moment nevertheless, and the whole thing blasts out at you like an exploding bomb.

Dreams, stories, science

In its efforts to be truly scientific, the academic discipline of psychology (which I once studied) relies very heavily on the controlled experiment.  There are good reasons for this.  As with randomised drug trials, it’s a way (among other things) of elimating the biases, preconceptions and prejudices which inevitably creep in with a more subjective approach.  But I wish that psychologists (and indeed scientists more generally) would acknowledge that the methodological self-discipline they impose on themselves does mean that many important and even fundamental questions are simply left outside of their purview.   Often, I’ve found, that, rather than admit that their approach has limitations, scientists will simply deny the validity of questions they can’t answer.

For instance, when the idea of the Big Bang was first popularised, the obvious layman’s questions (So what made the Big Bang happen?  What was there before the Big Bang?’) were often dismissed as meaningless on the basis that, since there was no time at all until the Big Bang, there was no such thing as ‘before’ it.   This drew a sort of figleaf over the fact that the ‘Big Bang Theory’, supposedly a theory about the origin of the universe, in fact completely sidestepped the real questions about the origin of the universe that occur even to very small children: ‘Why is there anything here at all?  Where does it come from?  How can something emerge from nothing?’

You might say that these questions are simply unanswerable: any explanation would involve postulating some previously existing thing, whose existence would then in itself require explanation.  But that doesn’t alter the fact that they are valid questions.  Their very unanswerability is, I would say, a profoundly important aspect of the human condition which ought to occasion some humility about the limitations of scientific understanding.  Frontiers may be pushed back, but at the core of everything there is always mystery.   To deny that, is to deny our own experience.

*  *  *

Incidentally cosmologists are talking these days about the time before the Big Bang.  It seems that, now that there are interesting ideas to explore about the multiverse and bubble universes, the question is no longer meaningless!

*  *  *

One phenomenon which is extremely resistant to the experimental method is dreaming, since our dreams are invisible to anyone but ourselves and our dreaming selves are never in a position to make notes or measurements (or at any rate, not notes or measurements that will still exist when we wake.) And I’ve come across experimental psychologists being very dismissive about the importance of dreams.

Again, it seems to me, this is an instance of being reluctant to own up to limitations: ‘We are the experts, we don’t know how to answer these questions, so therefore they can’t be important questions.’  Not really ‘scientific’ behaviour, so much the behaviour of a jealous priesthood.  After all, if we only took seriously the things and processes whose existence could be demontrated by rigorous experiment, we’d have to jettison most of the contents of our lives, and surrender judgements that we’re perfectly capable of making  to professionals to make for us on the basis of a much narrower range of data than we ourselves would naturally deploy.

*  *  *

I once went to a doctor asking for help managing some symptoms which I knew were the result of anxiety.  (The cause of it was no mystery: there was a very big thing I was worrying about).  He had me fill in a multiple choice questionnaire, totted up the scores and informed me that I was suffering from anxiety.

*  *  *

But back to dreams.  You only have to consider you own dreams to see the subtlety and complexity of what is going on in them.  To give one example: recently both we and our neighbours had building work going on at the same time in our adjoining terraced houses.  In the case of the neighbours, this work was so extensive that they had to move out completely for the duration.  During this period I had a dream that our builders had accidentally knocked a whole through our shared wall, so that I could see right through into their living room.  In my dream, my neighbour Simon came to have a look at the building work, and I greeted him through the hole in the wall, expecting him to be as amused as I was by this tempororary problem.  In fact, though, he was angry.  It was unacceptable, he said, that our builders should broach their boundary in this way.

Leaving the content of this dream aside (and I haven’t yet extracted any deep meaning from it, although it reminds me of a thing that sometimes happens in conversations when you assume a level of intimacy that the other person is relucant to cede), what strikes me here is what such dreams reveal about the process.  In my dream, I expected a certain response from Simon and was surprised when I didn’t get it.  Instead I got another response that I didn’t anticipate, but which was also psychologically plausible, and which had been generated for me by another part of me, separate to the part of me that, in my dream, I identified as ‘me.’

One part of my mind, in other words, was generating, not just random thoughts and images, not just random firings of neurons, but a world and characters, as in a story, with which another part of my mind, the story’s protagonist, could interact as if they were real places and people.  That’s a fairly complex thing going on there.

And, what’s more, that same ‘other’ part  of me -the part that, in my dreams, presents itself not as me but as the world- doesn’t just generate a setting and characters, but also symbols and metaphors.  For instance, I once dreamed I saw a blind man begging in the street, completely unaware that right behind him was a broken cash machine pouring out bank notes.  Whatever part of me it is that generates the dream world and invents plausible motives for its characters, had here (as on many other occasions) constructed a fairly decent metaphor, in this case for someone who is very unhappy but failing to recognise the opportunites available: my own situation at the time, as I realised when I woke up.

This is not random firings of neurons!  This is intelligent story-telling.  It shows how dreams include the same basic elements as stories told in waking life, even though we are supposedly ‘unconscious’ when we construct them.

But then, at its core, all story telling is unconscious: you reach into yourself for something and, if you’re lucky, eventually something pops up from…well… somewhere.  Another of those unanswerable questions about how something emerges from nothing.

*  *  *

It seems to me likely that one of the functions served by dreams, as by other kinds of story, is to provide a kind of virtual reality studio in which we can explore or extend or consolidate our experience.  (I doubt, incidentally, whether this theory could be demonstrated or refuted by controlled experiments, but supposing it couldn’t be, that actually has no bearing on whether it’s true, only on whether it’s amenable to the scientific method.)

And dreams aren’t even confined to humans.  Anyone familiar with dogs knows that that they can be seen running, or barking, or whining in distress in their sleep.  Story-telling seems to be hardwired into us, running so deep that it predates the evolution of human beings.

What is the content of animals’ dreams?   What does a squirrel dream of?  How about a lizard, or a fish?  Impossible to answer, but still  perfectly reasonable questions.

America City: some background

America City began as a short story called ‘Destiny’.   The story itself was never published, its basic flaw being, I realised, that it wasn’t really a short story at all, but an idea for a novel.  I’ve just checked and, to my suprise, I find that I wrote it as long ago as summer 2012.   Holly Peacock wasn’t in the story, but the basic set-up of America City was there and so was President Slaymaker.

***

Originally, I was going to write this book after completing Mother of Eden.  I started work on the novel in 2015, under the working title of Slaymaker, but in the end I decided I wanted to complete my Eden trilogy first, so I set Slaymaker aside to write Daughter of Eden.  

The fact that the novel that became America City was originally going to be my next project after Mother of Eden is I think visible in the book.   For instance, the relationship between Holly and Slaymaker is a little like the relationship in Mother of Eden between Starlight and  Greenstone’s father, Firehand: an ambitious, restless, rootless young woman from a community which values gentleness and fairness, is fascinated by, and feels an unexpected affinity with, a powerful, charismatic and ruthless man a generation older than her, who doesn’t value those things very much at all.  (Firehand dies quite early in Mother, so I didn’t get a chance to develop the relationship very much there.)

In both books, too, the ambitious young woman sets out to sell a political idea, and the idea has unintended consequences, as political ideas always do.   Both books also make some use of interspersed scenes from the viewpoint of peripheral characters to show the impact of what the major players are doing.

But then again, Mother is set in a sort of bronze age society on a planet with luminous trees and no sun, while America City is set in 22nd century America.  And Holly helps Slaymaker, while Starlight sets herself against what Firehand believed in.

***

When I settled down again to write America City in 2016, and through into the beginning of 2017, it was against a new backdrop of real political events: first the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, and then the rise of Donald Trump.  Obviously the book is deeply influenced by my thoughts about why and how these things happened and what I felt I was learning about how politics work.

I felt very challenged by the fact that the 2016 Presidential election was going on as I wrote the book.  Here I was, writing about an American politician winning an election by appealing to the tribal instincts of voters, and meanwhile in real life…

In fact, in some respects what was happening in reality was stranger than what was happening in my book.   I’m biased of course, but if I compare Slaymaker and Trump, it’s Trump who seems more like a made-up character.  So there was a while there when I felt like the real world was overtaking me on the inside lane.

***

I got the name Slaymaker from an administrator at the school of social work at the University of East Anglia, where I was working when I first came up with the idea.  Her name is Eve Slaymaker.  Names are important.  I built the whole character around this amazing surname.

There was another administrator there at the time called Hollie Peacock, and I borrowed her name as well.

***

I don’t often sit down and draw things for a book, but I did design this flag.  Holly comes up with it, some way into the book, while passing the time on a flight to Washington, DC.

Words I don’t like #2

There are some words that I think of as typical creative writing words and have never liked. Words that, to me, say, ‘Hey look at me, I’m writing!’ I’ve never liked the word ‘heft’, for instance, as in ‘he felt the heft of it in his hand.’  It means ‘weight’ doesn’t it?  Why not just say ‘weight’?  No one says ‘heft’ in ordinary speech.

Another one, very unfairly, is ‘grin’, used as a more interesting alternative to ‘smile’.  A perfectly ordinary word, I know, and I do choose it occasionally if I find I’ve used ‘smile’ too often, but I really don’t like it and put ‘smile’ wherever possible.  ‘Grin’ feels to me, for some reason, like one of those words you fall back on in desperation when you’re trying to bring alive a character on the page who doesn’t even feel alive in your head.