Show and Tell: Embassytown

By Evan Dahm.

Read the rest of the Show and Tell series here. Read the introduction to the series here.

Just finished Embassytown, China Miéville’s newest novel. It’s pretty significantly different from Perdido Street Station (about which I’ve written another Show and Tell article here) and The Scar, the only others of Miéville’s books I’ve read, and is another great example of solid worldbuilding. I promise this is the last I’ll be raving about how great this guy’s work is for a while; I’ve been on a kick…

As usual I’ll try to avoid spoilers! But the way in which the details of the setting are conveyed is a very important part of the book, so it will be impossible to avoid spoilers!

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Show and Tell: Perdido Street Station

Above: painting from the UK edition cover by Edward Miller.

By Evan Dahm.

This one has been a very long time coming. Perdido Street Station is the first of China Miéville’s books set in Bas-Lag, and I really loved it and can’t recommend it enough. I’ve avoided plot-related spoilers in this article, BUT I have revealed many significant details of the setting which might lessen the impact of their revelation in a reading of the book. Keep that in mind.

I recently finished The Scar, which is the sort-of sequel to this book, and which forms an interesting point of comparison in terms of worldbuilding. So hopefully I can get an article on that out soon! ALSO did you see this bit of fanart I did for Perdido Street Station a few months ago?

Rest of the huge article behind the cut.

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Prompt: 2 approaches to invented settings

By Evan Dahm.

Here is something of what I’ve taken away from Harrison’s previously-linked article. I might be wrong.

I think the core complaint Harrison outlines in the article is not nearly as extreme as the initial paragraphs suggest, and at its core I think I might agree with it. In that article, and in this earlier one about his novel series set in the fictional city of Viriconium (which I have not read but sounds interesting), he’s basically outlining two different approaches to “worldbuilding.” I would give both approaches that name, though he obviously would not. The two approaches are things I have definitely mentioned before on this blog!

The FIRST approach, the one he names “worldbuilding” and critiques is the one involving huge, preliminary efforts of mapping out the setting, its history, and its rules… before the writer’s focus is necessarily even turned to the story at hand. This approach, he says, “literalise[s] the urge to invent,” and it breaks the fundamental abstraction of writing (or any art, any narrative medium…): something is always lost in translation, the writer and the reader are collaborative participants in the story, and it is impossible to literally convey a world. Any effort to do so “is at best idealistic & at worst contains an appeal to telepathy.” He also calls it “the ultimate paradoxical utopia of the representational,” which is a phrase I just love. Bearing this in mind, his argument in the first part of the article makes more sense, I think.

The SECOND approach, which is outlined a bit in the article about Viriconium, is one that uses a fictional setting in an abstract, “poetic” way, bearing in mind that a story is being told above all: by no means is an actual place being presented. To think about “What it might be like to live in Viriconium,” is a fallacy, on the part of reader or writer. To present a map of the place would suggest that the place “exists” in some way beyond the story, which he fundamentally disagrees with. This approach is

…an attempt to animate the bill of goods on offer. Those goods, as in Tolkien or Moorcock, Disney or Kafka, Le Guin or Wolfe, are ideological.

I have a little trouble understanding and articulating this second approach, but there you go. There is obviously a middle ground here, which Harrison seems to ignore. The correlation to something Miéville mentioned about his approach to setting is interesting… Roughly, that his approach in the Bas-Lag books was to treat the world as literal, elaborately developed, and external; while his (he might say more mature) approach to the setting of Embassytown is more abstract and focused on that particular story and its needs.

PROMPT. I’d love to hear some other people’s thoughts on this. What do you think of Harrison’s argument, and what do you think of the values of the two approaches? If you are a creator of some relevant invented-setting story (it doesn’t matter how finished, ambitious, or well-known it is), how has your approach been similar or different from those presented here? You can submit your thoughts here! Thank you very much!

Miéville Q&A Notes

By Evan Dahm

More China Miéville, more more more. This following is from notes I took while at a talk/Q&A session with Miéville. Very little here is verbatim, and there’s every possibility I’ve misconstrued what he’s trying to say.

For those not familiar with his work: there’s some mentions here of Embassytown, his new novel, which is more straight-science-fiction than his other work, and which I have not read. Also there’s the Bas-Lag “trilogy:” Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The Iron Council, which were published from 2000 to 2005. These take place in a bizarre, jumbled fantasy world, deal at length with ideas of science and philosophy and language and politics, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. No spoilers here.

Setting and Story

He’s aware of different narrative approaches to his different settings: Bas-Lag is fairly explicitly explained within the books set there; it’s Mieville working in “Dungeons and Dragons mode.” The setting of Embassytown, however, is dealt with more abstractly, partly because it’s a memoir from a world-internal character. To approach it with the specificity used in the Bas-Lag setting would almost “break” the nature of the place as it relates to its story.

Relatedly, he answered a question on how his relationship to setting has developed throughout his career. Bas-Lag, he says, is what he thinks of as his D&D campaign (not literally, he stresses), in that it’s a setting that seems preexisting. It’s a “secondary world” in which stories are set, not a world that is itself made for one story. He appreciates this approach but sees it as being a bit flawed, as well, and limiting: there’s a difference between enjoying fiction and wanting to live there… wanting to live in a fictional place is, in his words, “fucked up.” Miéville’s approach now, with Embassytown in particular, is more interested in the “specificities of narrative,” and he wants the setting to feel tightly specific to this book… The setting should feel “vivid and embedded,” even if only one story is set there. Though to say that a story is “set” there suggests that the setting is an external place for which stories are tailored, which is the opposite of this approach. His article on Tolkien I linked to recently has more discussion of this idea.

I’m interested in this divide between approaches: essentially between making a world in which stories can be set, and making a world as a tool to tell a particular story. I’d like to write some more on this in the future, and welcome your thoughts!

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Speaking a bit about his perception of the difference between “science fiction” and “fantasy:” The presence of magic, and indeed any fundamental aspect that fans point to as crucial and specific to one genre or the other, is hardly a signifier: “Faster than light travel is magic, let’s be clear about this.” In science fiction, the “magic” has a tendency to be dealt with “with emphasis heavily on the handwaving.” This is a pretty interesting subject to me, but it gets pretty pointless to debate where the dividing line is after a while.

On the state of modern fantasy literature, which is widely seen to be in a pretty unprecedented state of creativity and flux (a blurb on one of his books names Miéville and Martin as the main vanguards of this “movement”): what appears to be innovation is often just the “eruption” of trends or ideas that have already been there. Different models of fantasy, or anything, have always existed, but we’re seeing them more now because they’re more commercially viable— that viability might be, fundamentally, the only aspect of this that is truly new.

Writing

Lastly, some thoughts on writing in general. He expresses a problem with the idea that “writers are the repositories of knowledge about their own books,” and specifically refers to a novel as a collaboration between writer and reader… In talking about his experience teaching writing, he says he tries to inspire some criticism in a few commonly-accepted ideas young writers are given: he says you should not understand your characters, you should not start a story with the “theme,” and you should not wait for inspiration. Yes, yes, yes.

Miéville on Tolkien

By Evan Dahm.

I went to a reading and talk with China Miéville today, and I took a bunch of notes that should coagulate into a summary of it soon. But in particular I was interested in an article he mentioned he’d written on Tolkien, who Miéville has criticized at length in the past, to some backlash among our friendly nerd community.

This is that article: There and Back Again: Five Reasons Tolkien Rocks.

Of particular relevance to the topic at hand:

In his abjuring of allegory, Tolkien refuses the notion that a work of fiction is, in some reductive way, primarily, solely, or really ‘about’ something else, narrowly and precisely. That the work of the reader is one of code-breaking, that if we find the right key we can perform a hermeneutic algorithm and ‘solve’ the book. Tolkien knows that that makes for both clumsy fiction and clunky code.

… and the entire rest of the text of 4) is pretty brilliant.

Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison's, Leiber's, Ashton Smith's and many others', the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that's a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen—stories occur—within it.

There’s also mention of a criticism of worldbuilding by M. John Harrison— the sort of worldbuilding found in Tolkien’s works, and to some extent, I think, in Miéville’s Bas-Lag books: that is, the sort in which the world comes first, and the stories are made inside it.

And it is so mocked and denigrated—often brilliantly, as in the ferocious attack by M. John Harrison, that outstanding anti-fantasist, wherein he describes worldbuilding as the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism’

Interesting!! I want to know more about Harrison’s criticism!

Some quotes relevant to my interests & perhaps yours

"One’s view of the world and one’s technique are indivisible" - Hayao Miyazaki

"Part of the appeal of the fantastic is taking ridiculous ideas very seriously and pretending they’re not absurd" - China Míeville

"Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction. The fantastic [maravilloso] is the contradiction that appears in the real." - Luis Aragon