M. John Harrison on Worldbuilding
Posted 04 February 2007 - 05:21 PM
As for worldbuiliding itself, I see no harm in it. If Harrison thinks that setting should be in the background, I agree. I find his assumptions about the psychological profiles of the worldbuilder and "the worldbuilder's victim" insulting, though. Deriding anyone who writes or reads fantasy with a detailed setting while using the term "worldbuilding" seems to be trying to create "Us vs. the Other" molds.
Posted 04 February 2007 - 07:16 PM
If he finds it dull to write, I'm hardly surprised I found it so dull to read.
Posted 04 February 2007 - 07:58 PM
Posted 04 February 2007 - 09:23 PM
I said much more at length about this in replies this evening at wotmania, so I'll try to say this briefly here:
What concerns me is just how obsessive many "fans" seem to get, as if there is some "separation" from "reality." I'm not just concerned about how some people (perhaps OC types? I dunno.) seem to nitpick and choose the most peripheral of story elements to highlight and to make most important, but also that some people seem to want to "inhabit" these figments of another's imagination more than to engage themselves with our own "real" world.
As for "entertaining," I think it's the cultural historian training that I've had speaking here. To be specific, that the reasons for why we "entertain" ourselves tend to deal with how causes/reactions relate with societal understandings of what is "good" or "bad." So when I'm speaking of such relationships, that is the source of my opinions on the matter. Because afterall, as did Michel Foucault to an extent, I believe that even "transgressions" end up serving to reinforce societal codes - basically the exception that proves the rule ;)
Posted 04 February 2007 - 10:05 PM
By the way: the backstory is a story too.
I have a graduate degree in cultural history, so when I speak of what I read as being "weak" and "twisted," I am referring to what is neglected, what cannot possibly exist in an imagined "history" - a foundation based on actual lives and the personal stories that make up the Historia. To attempt to do such within the strictures of an imagined world just seems akin to tilting at windmills here. It takes away from energy better served coming up with a compelling story (Harrison's "layering up" approach to creating a sense of "depth" to a story I think is applicable here. Martin basically does the same thing with his "Valyrian" and with much of the story - the "other stuff" is created to serve the story being told in SOIAF or in the Hedge Knight tales, not to be independent of such stories.) and at worst, can distort the purposes of telling the imagined story in the first place, due to the reader concentrating on the more peripheral elements at expense of what the author truly might want to communicate/transmit to the Reader. That is another thing that concerns me about such a focus on such as nebulous as "worldbuilding" (I say nebulous because there doesn't seem to be a commonly-agreed upon definition here. It's just one of those neologisms that seem to become conflated with definitions for things such as setting, local color, and so forth, without there in the end being a need for such a word if it's going to be applied in senses outside of secondary-world fiction. I just wish people would use the word better without bandying it about carelessly. Almost as bad as those who say "irregardless." Truly horrid, that.) - it just seems to distort the Author/Text/Reader relationship as well.
But doubtless others see it in other ways. But it's past 9 PM here and I have to wake up early, so more responses will have to await the evening tomorrow CST.
Posted 04 February 2007 - 10:19 PM
By the way, what cracks me up is the "writing is the key" comment. I mean, it's that simple, if you can write well, just go into plumbing, code-programming, weight-lifting or anything else, but don't deal with literature. Good writing is the prerequisite to being an author, or at least it should be. This being established, we can deal with "what should we find in a good book", because it's already a given that the writing is correct in a book. To make a good book, you need more than good writing, which is the basis of any book.
Of course, I realise that the premise of writing well would basically exclude 90% of current book production...
Posted 04 February 2007 - 10:26 PM
This is a fair concern, but obsessive fans go with just about any activity, from sports (Eagles fans) to music (Bob Dylan fans :P ) to science fiction (Trekkies). People will find their idols. Moreover, while there are people who get involved with stories to the point of separation from reality (like Jordan's fans who want him to teach them to use the One Power or like the woman who named her daughter Catherine and told Martin that killing Linda Hamilton's character was like killing her daughter), Harrison makes a blanket condemnation of worldbuilding, and I think the majority of readers are fairly normal. Don't take people on message boards as a typical sample of the reading public :)
Once the author puts the work out there, it's up to the reader to interpret it. Intention of the author only matters if the reader cares about it. Poor authors.
Edited by AverageGuy, 04 February 2007 - 10:30 PM.
Posted 05 February 2007 - 02:29 AM
I agree with Average Guy. Once the book is out, authorial intent is a non-issue. Author is just another reader and his interpretation is only as good as any other.
Posted 05 February 2007 - 07:13 AM
Posted 05 February 2007 - 12:43 PM
I, too, find good worldbuilding adding to my reading experience, not taking away from it.
Since Mieville was brought up, I just wanted to add: I think Mieville's anthropology background shows clearly through in his writing. Some of the things he's big on is the fascination of discovery, the mysterious, the new. He will go into excruciating detail describing the new, the mysterious, but I don't believe this constitutes good worldbuilding. He creates a vivid setting, not an intricately-weaved world.
Moreover, I find Mieville's characterizations some of the weakest characterizations I've ever read. I think Goodkind writes better characterizations than Mieville. Since I recently read The Scar... We never get inside Uther Doul's head, we never read his perspective; out of necessity I presume, to keep him mysterious, to keep him a wonder. The characters we do get inside - Bellis Coldwine and Tanner Sack - are some of the weakest characters I've ever read. Not really enjoyable. Realistic? Sure, but not necessarily strong, gritty characterizations. It's the setting, the floating city, the avanc, the Armada that overshadows the characters. And overshadows them quite a bit.
However, I find Mieville's story, his prose, the settings he creates, all of that, top-notch.
Edited by Caine, 05 February 2007 - 12:46 PM.
Posted 05 February 2007 - 01:13 PM
1. Literature is supposed to be all about the author communicating something real-world to the reader and so when a ("good") author seems to be talking of an invented place, he's really is not.
2. People who take an invented world "too seriously", i.e. write theories on forums, write fanfic, etc. are terrifying.
So I guess I'm terrifying then. :D Boo!
I happen to like intellectual exercise. Things like crossword puzzles are really fairly limited and repetitive, even though I like to do them once in a while. Speculating on a good book, however - that's such a many-faceted pleasure. If you've been to the Kevin's Watch forums, you may have noticed my speculation. I think I've figured out the Mahdoubt's identity, among other things. I've gotten far more enjoyment of speculating on the nuggets that came out before the LotR movies than actually watching the actual films, even though those are very good in itself. I've written fanfiction too, both serious and parodical. It's a very interesting way of approaching writing. (I also do original fiction.)
What I DON'T like or need is authors preaching me through fiction, Goodkind-style. I'm rather sensitive to noticing it and don't like it one bit. I have two kinds of reactions to that: "Don't you see those are a bunch of implausible fallacies, Mr. Goodkind, and those are not opposing viewpoints but strawmen?" and "Yes, yes, yes, Mr. Miéville. I knew that already. Stop trying to convince me. You're not as brilliant as you think." (I've stopped reading both Goodkind and Miéville.)
So I read the unpretentious kind of authors who do not cheapen their stories and their worlds with stupid messages. (I know, an author's worldview cannot not to filter through some, but that's different.) You know, that kind of authors can be intelligent too, and more intelligent than the prententious kind. I think that not believing that a world that is made to stand for itself and not to be a mirror of the real world can be very much plausible (as seen through the window of a book) is a form of defeatism. Tolkien's Middle-earth is but one example, although many would agree the best. I cannot see how it would be "weak" or "twisted"
Worldbuilding is of critical importance in a fantasy novel that doesn't pretend to take place in the real world because otherwise you either a) get the dreaded white room syndrome, or B) get those dreaded continuity errors and the reader's suspension of disbelief is lost. I happen to think that an unviolated suspension of disbelief is a good thing, although I have a feeling that I'll never get accross in this debate why it is so...
Quoting Harrison on (non)-worldbuilding: (linked again here for ease of reference)
This makes me to dig up my copy of The Lord of the Rings and flip to the prologue...
The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it has inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time found in Mordor the missing links in his own research into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.
Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who enjoy allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.
Tolkien pwns Harrison from beyond the grave.
Posted 05 February 2007 - 03:06 PM
Posted 05 February 2007 - 05:56 PM
Although I do generally prefer consistent worldbuilding I think there is sometimes a place in fantasy for some irrationality or surrealism or elements of a fantasy world that don't conform to a logical system - this irrationality does however have to be limited to stop it hurting the story and allow us to relate to what is going on. For example, in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell I never got the impression that Clarke had a consistent system of magic thought up (rather than making up spells to fit the plot's needs which are then never mentioned again) or had extensively mapped the world of Faerie, but it didn't matter because they were not meant to be realistic and there was the alternate-Regency England to provide a plausible setting for most of the book. To skip genres, in a story like GRRM's The Stone City Martin has probably not mapped out the titular city and doesn't have any in-depth development of the cultures of the various aliens in it, but this again does not matter because the extra world-building would not add anything to this story and the human explorers provide something for the reader to relate to.
Posted 05 February 2007 - 07:15 PM
The authorial care needed for worldbuilding is highly dependent on the length of the work and, if we are talking about a particular element, the prominence of the element within the work. In a short story there's little space for contradicting yourself, and in any case you're likely to remember what you've written earlier without any notes. So basically world-developing on the fly and without notes is not always a bad idea. (Perhaps the fairy world in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has so few pages devoted to it it's comparable to a short story.)
If you want to keep things mysterious in an extended work, it's a good idea to have notes and rules for the world anyway. If you give the readers enough pages with clues, some of them will figure at least parts of it out anyway and then you get comments like, "But she was already wearing the jade pendant when she first went to the bricked-up cellar, so how come the leyline nexus didn't open, and if it wasn't the pendant after all, then how..." It sucks if you have to invent unlikely explanations like "Gremlins (a mischievous race that's not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the book, but they're there, believe me) switched the pendant with a replica and later switched it back without anyone noticing." You're not required to explain things to the reader, but there should be a logic to the world somewhere, even if it's obscure and none but you know it. I love how Erikson trusts his readers and doesn't bother explaining if you can figure it out by yourself over the next several hundred pages.
And if there are no clues or explanations or apparent logic at all, you might as well end the story with "and then she woke up." (Just my opinion.)
Then there's the possibility that the rules of magic may be along the lines of: "Everything is possible as long as you know the spell and are able to cast it." That kind of system gets out of control more easily than some others, but it's a system. The key is then how spells are found or researched. Namely, if you have no theoretical restrictions at all, why not have a spell to make someone (especially your hero!) all-powerful? There are several possible solutions. Humans don't have the brain power to invent such a complex and powerful spell. The casting requirements are ridiculous, for example a need for one trillion human hearts. Magic itself was invented last week. Somebody cast the spell long ago and is using magic to stop any competitors from emerging. Whatever it is, you should know it, because the explanation will affect your story.
Posted 05 February 2007 - 08:00 PM
Prepare to be amazed.
You will learn (unsurprisingly) that Harrison loves those nonsensical movies by David Lynch. (I personally couldn't last through Lost Highway.) You will also find two anecdotes about those terrifying people, although I would guess the person in the latter one was probably perfectly sane, but had a sense of humor, while the people in the first one had worse problems. You are also in a high danger of getting overdosage from the massively concentrated pretentiousness.
WARNING: You need a degree in literature to properly follow the debate. I mean, there are people talking about subtypes of postmodernism and quoting and analyzing random poems to make a point.
Posted 06 February 2007 - 12:56 AM
1) Still haven't read a good definition here of what constitutes "worldbuilding," if it is a separate beast from setting/local color (as I would presume it to be, because why create such a neologism in the first place?)
2) Words like "arrogant" and "pretentious" are being bandied about quite freely here. I call the Bullshit card, now. Either justify why you can claim that, preferably with information to back it up besides personal prejudices, or just own up to the possibility that some people are going to throw those labels about indiscriminately regardless of the relative merits of the discussion being labelled "pretentious" or the authors being "arrogant."
3) Some of us do have degrees in related fields and might just use the specialized language of those fields to discuss points. It is not affected, it isn't meant (at least in my case) to presume upon knowledge/understanding that I did not already have, and it is meant to clarify or to explore possibilities, not to make absolute claims. It makes me wonder if people such as myself speaking at length on an issue that interests us and to which we have some knowledge that is "expert," (in my case, I have a more than passing familiarities with various types of postmodernist - no hyphen there, so a statement in and of itself ;) - thought and I spent my graduate days studying material culture and its applications in modern European life. So when I spoke of "twisted" histories and so forth, it wasn't as an Average Joe, I suppose. But I wasn't proclaiming anything - it was more of a questioning that was going on beneath the surface.
Societies in which individuals appear to be more disassociated from the "mainstream" of society, in which such disassociations is lauded in certain circles, in which some people seem to want to "escape" this "reality" for whatever reason - it's going to baffle the fuck out many who find it more rewarding personally to engage the world about. People here and elsewhere talk about reading for "escapism," but for the most part, they fail to define what the hell they mean by that. Just as most have failed to do with defining "worldbuilding."
I really do want to understand why people do such things. And simple answers such as "Well, it's just fun to me" just won't cut it. My training won't permit it. I'm going to want to ask "Why is that so?" and "What is "fun," in the end? Can you define that further?" That is the furtherest thing from having absolute answers toward anything. Keep in mind that Harrison has stated in many places that he doesn't borrow wholesale from any ideology, not trusting the whole to be "true." I just cannot reconcile those comments of his with statements made here and elsewhere that he is taking an "absolute" position. He might very well be taking a firm position, but nothing I've read would appear to justify stating that it is "absolute" in nature. Kinda hard to be "absolute" and a postmodernist, ya know ;)
But more another day. It's midnight. I wake up in just over 5 hours. Joy.
Posted 06 February 2007 - 05:20 AM
For alternative-world authors, you can't research it, because it doesn't exist, so instead we have worldbuilding, the SFF equivalent. This naturally involves a lot more imagination than just describing somewhere you've actually visited or read about, and can be just as important as the imagined characters or plots - it's like visiting a new country. Because the reader doesn't have any real-world knowledge to fill the gaps, it's important to get the details right; in the same way that your characters have to behave consistently to maintain the reader's belief, the world has to do the same. Jarring worldbuilding errors are like Walder Frey suddenly repenting his ways and setting up an orphanage.
Maps are not absolutely necessary, but can help to fill the gaps that would otherwise have been filled by the reader's pre-existing knowledge - we all know how long it takes to get from London to New York, but not the distance from Heeriuer to Ykehlkhwer, and if it's important then a map is a nice non-didactic way to show it. Obviously authors that just cobble their worldbuilding notes into book form are a Bad Thing, but that's just bad writing, and is also true for real-world authors who do the same thing with their research.
Posted 06 February 2007 - 05:36 AM
Relativist cast iron cobblers, that.
An author may imbue his or her text (this is where the art comes in) with the potential for a variety of interpretations, meanings - of such delicate sleights of authorial hand that at is best, layering, interweaving themes and juggling concepts like a Bach fugue, it attains to genius, but he or she ultimately knows what he or she meant, has a central meaning to his or her self-created text. Now this or that reader may doodle about with it afterwards to their hearts content, good luck to them and what larks, eh, Pip? But to suggest that it is just as valid as the author's hand-penned intention is just relativist couldn't-write-a-line-of-decent-multi-layered-fiction-to-save-his-life Barthean bullshit. It 's not poor authors at all.
Edited by Rakov, 06 February 2007 - 05:38 AM.
Posted 06 February 2007 - 06:22 AM
Here's a less metaphorical one: Worldbuilding is the combination of all explicit and implicit information about the world, its culture, its history, its geography, its climate, its flora and fauna, its laws of physics, etc. etc. that forms a whole that is coherent and consistent in itself.
I think the problem with literature departments everywhere is that they think they get to define good literature while they are self-selected to have a very unusual view of literature. For example, I like reading, but there's no way I would have gone to study literature. Being forced to study stuff like James Joyce would have made me hate literature, so I went for engineering instead, which has also the benefit of giving a more useful degree while I can keep reading fiction for fun. Meanwhile only the curious people able to at least tolerate James Joyce go for literature. It's a vicious circle.
Define "fun"? Define an emotion? Should I define "love" or "happiness" next? No offense, being asked to define fun sounds like the one who asks has never had fun.
So I'm going to hit you with a Webster:
fun (fun) n., v., funned, fun·ning, adj., fun·ner, fun·nest. -n. 1. something that provides mirth or amusement: A picnic would be fun. 2. enjoyment or playfulness: She's full of fun. -v.i., v.t. 3. Informal. to joke, kid. -adj. 4. Informal. providing pleasure or amusement; enjoyable: a fun thing to do; really a fun person. -Idiom. 5 for or in fun, as a joke; not seriously; playfully. 6. like fun, Informal. certainly not; by no means: Pay you double? Like fun! 7. make fun of, to make the object of ridicule; deride.
Contrary to minority opinion, fun is generally something people are after. This applies to escapistic fun, which is a wider concept you may have been thinking. People who do not like science fiction or fantasy, may for example read spy novels or watch soap operas for fun.
Posted 06 February 2007 - 06:44 AM
You have to be TORC-Nerdanel, there is no doubt now ;)
But yeah, the link to the TTA press thread confirm MJ Harrison to be a thoroughly misguided and narrow-minded man. In fact I couldn't finish reading his posts.
Edited by Calibandar, 06 February 2007 - 06:45 AM.