A Response to Responses

By Evan Dahm.

Some excellent stuff was submitted in response to the prompt, thanks very much everybody! I am surprised and pleased. I didn’t publish everything to the blog, mostly out of concerns of staying on-topic, and redundancy on top of what’s already been said. Feel free to continue submitting things you have to say in response to the article indefinitely; it’s obviously pretty fertile ground, and I think cuts to the heart of a lot of concerns involving place-making.

My response to what’s been said:

Basically every submission that I’ve published makes mention of the INFODUMP: that inelegant block of text explaining this or that element of the setting, which has plagued genre fiction for decades. I’m inclined to agree with Angela that this kind of thing is at the core of what’s frustrating Harrison: super-developed background information presented encyclopedically, with little or no regard for its utility in the story. Yes, that is certainly the ”clomping foot of nerdism.”

It is worth noting that the infodump is a problem in PROSE in particular, and that prose is basically what Harrison’s talking about. Something that also came up repeatedly was a mention of visual narrative media, and how it works with the problem of conveying massive amounts of background information. This has come up in the Worldbuilding panels I’ve run (I’ve brought it up, usually, because it’s fascinating to me and one of the things I love most about comics). You guys have summed this up pretty clearly. Angela:

You can leave details in fashion and architecture that say a lot about a culture without getting bogged down by descriptive paragraphs.

And Ryan:

…any story told in a visual medium requires that its creator convey information easily withheld in prose, whether that information is a landscape, or a character’s body language – a necessity counterbalanced by the fact that it is much easier to convey that information without causing the narrative to drag (through showing, rather than telling, naturally).

But visual narrative media aren’t immune to the problem, and prose is not stuck with it, obviously. There are several points on which I think I would absolutely agree with Harrison, and you might too:

The narrative is the most important thing. It is more important than the setting, and the setting must work for it. I fully understand the satisfaction and joy in inventing every aspect of a place and making it real, but that is a PERSONAL facet to all of this. Whether the setting is developed thoroughly or not, the story is the narrow lens through which all of this is seen, and perhaps the only lens through which it should be seen.

Response to Harrison

By Ryan McDiarmid in response to 2 Approaches to Invented Settings

Welp, hm. Okay. This 1700-some word juggernaut is my attempt to organize my various thoughts on Harrison’s essay. It’s probably a little TL;DR for ye olde internet, in which case there are some handy bullet points at the end. I am by no means a professional, and the points below are all derived from my own opinions and perceptions. Also, Harrison’s essay gets a little high-concept in the end, in a way that causes me, as someone who has spent too long doing a Literature degree, to kind of turn off (partially because I don’t understand it in its entirety, partially because I’m not positive that there’s anything solid at its core). So take all that as you will and don’t knot your knickers, okay folks? Okay. Read all about it after the break.

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Response to Harrison

By Andrey Pissantchev, in response to 2 Approaches to Invented Settings.

I’ve been thinking something similar about invented settings, though it perhaps deals more with the act of presenting, rather than inventing, a world, so I’m not really sure how relevant it is.

I think a big part of the charm in fantasy and sci-fi is the sheer mysteriousness of the worlds they depict, and the sense of wonder they inspire. The reader can detect some sort of an internal logic, but what it is, and how it makes that world different from our own, is something that he/she has to take care of on their own. Perhaps this plays on some curious part of us that’s active while we’re kids and then becomes dormant as we figure out the rules of our own real-life world.

When writers overexplain the world they’ve created, they fail to address this point and lose this edge they’ve got over plain old fiction - and given how they’ve spent so long building their world, what’s the chance they’ve given as much attention to their plot and characters as a regular fiction writer?

A problem I’ve got with long-standing fantasy worlds is that they go from one side to the other - they start off mysterious and intriguing and, as more of the mechanics of the world are revealed, eventually it becomes as mundane as our own.

A good example of what mean is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. At the beginning, everything that happens is new and exciting, and made me eat through the first few books in a month. By the time I got to the 8th or 9th book, there was no sense of wonder, I found the magic and the sorcery had become too formulaic, and the one other thing the series had going for it was lacklustre political fiction - so I stopped reading.

So, then, I think what a writer can do to avoid this is:

  • create an incredibly rich world that would be very hard for the reader to decode completely, or be intentionally vague about it,
  • create a world that has the ability to reinvent itself and defy its own internal logic (a very straightforward example would be a plot where the characters traverse many parallel worlds, each with its own set of specific rules),
  • know when to give up on a world, and start with a new one.

Response to Harrison

By Angela Melick, in response to 2 Approaches to Invented Settings.

For comics, especially, I think that this kind of worldbuilding [that is, the one named the first approach in this article - Evan] is important and interesting. You can convey so much more about setting and world through drawings than you might not be able to through text. Perhaps everyone in a worldbuilt culture has a particular type of tattoo. In prose you’d need to describe the tattoo in detail— why they have the tattoo, the history of it perhaps… but in comics you can just show these elaborate tattoos and let the reader discover or absorb their meaning more slowly through context.

You can leave details in fashion and architecture that say a lot about a culture without getting bogged down by descriptive paragraphs. In fact, I bet it’s the explanatory paragraphs that Harrison loathes so much. Obviously some writers handle this better than others, but it’s something that I, personally, have found a bit exhausting about fantasy prose.

Of course it isn’t the only way, and the more poetic type of worldbuilding that Harrison describes is very interesting. I just finished reading A Wrinkle In Time and so that’s the example that jumps to mind for this type of worldbuilding… The house that the children live in seems very solid and real, and there is a history there. The planets that they visit seem more loose… vivid, but in the way that a dream is vivid. As though if you scratched too hard at the logic and history of the world you’d wake up.

Response to Harrison

By Angelina Fernandez, in response to 2 Approaches to Invented Settings.

The two approaches are obviously at opposite ends of the spectrum, and I could see how if you are really in love with one type you might hate the other (like Harrison). Personally I think a mix of both is the best choice for most mediums. You don’t want a story that is so chock full of details that it bores the reader and makes them skip parts (I had this problem with LOTR, where I found the various poems annoying and cumbersome, and the long descriptions of landscape tedious), but at the same time having small details and specific rules can really enrich your setting. You’re no longer writing about any place, you’re writing about a specific place with rules that very well might affect the characters and the narrative.

It’s easier to do in comics because you can include a panel with a lot of details that aren’t essential to the story, but add character to the setting (like in Spike’s Templar, Arizona where television and computers are kind of combined).

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!

M. John Harrison on Worldbuilding

By Evan Dahm.

Thanks very much to Palu, a commenter on a recent post, for linking me to this article! It’s the full text (archived) of M. John Harrison's critique of worldbuilding, which was mentioned in Miéville's article on Tolkien. The core of it is the first bit:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary 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 neccessary. 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, & makes us very afraid.

After that, there’s some clarification of what he means (I have not read the whole thing yet):

When I use the term “worldbuilding fiction” I refer to immersive fiction, in any medium, in which an attempt is made to rationalise the fiction by exhaustive grounding, or by making it “logical in its own terms”, so that it becomes less an act of imagination than the literalisation of one. Representational techniques are used to validate the invention, with the idea of providing a secondary creation for the reader to “inhabit”; but also, in a sense, as an excuse or alibi for the act of making things up, as if to legitimise an otherwise questionable activity. This kind of worldbuilding actually undercuts the best and most exciting aspects of fantastic fiction, subordinating the uncontrolled, the intuitive & the authentically imaginative to the explicable; and replacing psychological, poetic & emotional logic with the rationality of the fake.

Going to read the rest of this at soonest opportunity. What do you think of it?