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M. John Harrison on Worldbuilding


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Okay, I think we're getting somewhere...

I happen to like reading stories about love, hate, fear, etc. Human universals explored through fantastic settings. I don't care that much about lavishly described characters or "realistic dialogue", the latter of which I'm probably not at all good at spotting. Perhaps it's just me being very much an introvert. I'm interested in things rather than people, and therefore even when reading about people I'm perfectly happy with people who are a little more than architypes with a few points of distinction to make them unique.

I loathe reading fiction about how George W. Bush sucks, the effects of judicial corruption in Romania, or why African women should get a chance at education. And if I'm reading a fantasy novel that turns out to really be a pamphlet of some pressing topic or for some particular philosophy or religion, the only reason I won't throw it to a wall is because I never throw books at a wall. I'll feel the urge, though.

As for where worldbuilding goes, I have said earlier that I see the world as one of the characters. I also believe it would be a violation of that character's integrity to force it to address some issue. (In addition to my general hatred of preaching through fiction.) It's like you are writing a story set on a farm in Ireland and you try to cram it full of covert message about the treatment of textile workers in China, to the point of distorting Ireland in order to be more accurate about China. Of course fantasy worlds have no independent existence, but they are supposed to have arisen naturally from the local circumstances, and by definition the local circumstances include magic, which is bound to have had some historical importance. (Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner is not fantasy in my opinion, by the way. I felt betrayed by that book.) Also, since the set of variations for possible worlds is nigh-infinite, a supposedly-independent fantasy world that still gets too close to the real world, especially in ways that are surface rather than basic assumptions of the universe, evokes in me the "how convenient" response, which no book ever wants to have. It's the same "how convenient" as when a hero on the run finds a valid plane ticket just lying around. Distorting probabilities is a lazy way for an author to take, and if more than one probability per book (and that one probabily must be in the very beginning) is way out of whack, the suspension of disbelief is well and truly killed.

More importantly, I have no desire to read a book set in realistic modern Ireland or realistic modern China. You'd have hard time telling stories I'm interested in if you use these two locations, because any such story is bound to be about that "Man is a futile passion" thing. (Not coincidentally, true dystopia is a science fiction subgenre I don't like at all.)

One of my favorite scenes ever is a discussion between an evil vampire lord and an evil demonologist about whether to do a dangerous summon. It's a very tense discussion where both parties have partially conflicting goals and their lives on the stake. I love it. I also can't imagine a decent real-world connection. A discussion on whether to deploy a nuclear bomb at the point of imminent defeat is the closest I can imagine and that's not very close at all. A discussion in which a snake-bitten person has antidote for spider venom and a spider-bitten person has antidote for snake venom is not it either, in addition to not really being that realistic. Maybe a combination of a nuclear bomb and a snakebite... Anyway, the situation is extremely hypothetical, but I don't think that's a bad thing. It makes sense within the world, the characters, and the plot and the disconnection from the real world prevents it from feeling rehashed ad nauseaum like an Eddings book.

Possible avenues of exploring: a given person's propensity for depression, a given person's level of thinking outside the box, systemizing vs. emphatizing people.

- Nerdanel (tendencies for depression, creative, extremely systemizing)

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Sorry that I'm extremely late in replying (very hectic weekend, to say the least), but I'll just note that I see things quite differently about our own world. There's always so much to learn about ourselves and others and I think one of the main reasons people write (or read) fiction of any stripe is to discover new things about themselves and others around us. To transform what can be transformed and to understand those things which cannot be transformed. But it's all a matter of playing with this very 'real' world of our own. Anything else would be but a pale and incomplete simulacrum, I believe.

But before I forget, I'm going to start another post shortly that will include links to two other takes on fantasy, even if it doesn't mention that "W" word. One is a current article by Jay Lake, the other is an introduction that Ursula Le Guin wrote for the English translation of Borges' The Book of Fantasy.

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Just a point that does not seem to have been made yet.

Worldbuilding, in the sense of creating a plausible fictional society/civilisation, does not have to be sheer escapism. In showing us a possible alternative, it can hold up a mirror to our own civilisation and perhaps make us look at it in a new light. Basically this is a variant on the concept of dreaming of things that never were and asking why not. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness is an example that springs to mind.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I read the entire extremely long post by Hal Duncan. I agree with him about that the ideal book combines a readable surface with a depth, which is in fact what I've been saying for a long time. (I think Tolkien's LotR is the supreme example of this kind of book. I'm not sure if Duncan would agree.) However, if given choice between entertaining fluff and an unreadable piece of High Literature, I'll choose the fluff every time. Even if it's the literary equivalent of cotton candy, at least it's not a masochistic endeavour. (Boring fluff is however the absolute nadir.)

However, I can't recall seeing in this debate much Elitist vs. Populist. It's seemed to me more like Elitist vs. everyone else with little if any Populist. If I for example have given a Populist impression (using Duncan's term), it surely wasn't intended by me.

(What's it with SF as "strange fiction", by the way? I'd probably have to read several thousand words worth of earlier posts to find out... The acronym SF is already overloaded. It doesn't need redefining again. Going on the basis of name along, "strange fiction" seems awfully broad. I wonder if stories about exotic modern-day cultures or eccentric contemporary people qualify.)

In the comments, Bakker once again hits the nail on the head, which is an unsurprising opinion, as I think I've written about the very phenomenon earlier in this thread. I think Bakker omits though the important factor of self-selection in those who get Literature degrees in the first place and those who might have the talent but choose another career path instead.

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Interesting series of discussion here, though I have neither the expertise nor the stamina, to follow the 5 or 6 different blogs that are involved in this. I will just respond to one bit in this thread that particularly piqued my interest.

And it might come as a shock, but truly consummate authors with substance to their work write not for the reader, nor publisher, but for themselves.

Writing for oneself is not such a great deal. Many of us do so, in the form of diaries. The matter is about people who want to earn a living from publishing their writings, no? Is it not disingenuous to take that important criterion out of the discussion? Anyone can write purely for the thrill of writing, and nobody else needs to understand the product. But surely, to earn a living, some attention must be paid to capturing the attention (loving or loathing, either one can sell books) of the reader/buyer? It is forever the conundrum of "artists" who at once eschew commercialism for fear of its taint on their ability to produce art and who at the same time relies on the commercial success of their art to earn a living. It is no small coincidence that people value works of dead artists a lot more.

I am wrong on many, many things. I objected to the given about the reader sharing equal rights of insight into the text as the author who penned it. It palpably is not so. On an abstract level one can argue for it to underline the writer/reader interaction (for there is no 'relationship'), which I myself did - brain of reader as energy to help drive the engine the writer created. That is there. But the reader can't build that fearsum engin in the first place. let's acknowledge the achievement of that. That's all I ask as a given for the authors out there, even if they are often too self-deprecating or arch to ask for it themselves!

I'm not sure at all that Ran et al. were arguing that the readers helped build the text. That's obviously untrue. Yet, reading is not a passive task. The world that exists in a reader's mind is indeed a piece of work where the reader contributes significantly, maybe even predominantly. Is it not a matter of truism in horror novels and movies that the thing that is unseen is more frightening? Why is that, if not a result of the reader's contribution? I evaluate the talent of an author in part by how well s/he provides the skeletal framework so my own interpretation can fill in the blanks. It's giving ownership of the reading experience, not of the text, to the reader, and that's as it should be for any work that is meant to be consumed by someone in addition to the author. Good authors should be credited for producing good work, no doubt, but good authors are not the only determinant in a good reading experience.

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However, I can't recall seeing in this debate much Elitist vs. Populist. It's seemed to me more like Elitist vs. everyone else with little if any Populist. If I for example have given a Populist impression (using Duncan's term), it surely wasn't intended by me.
"O, beware, my lord of relativism;

It is the colourless monster which doth mock

The reader it feeds on."

However, if given choice between entertaining fluff and an unreadable piece of High Literature, I'll choose the fluff every time. Even if it's the literary equivalent of cotton candy, at least it's not a masochistic endeavour. (Boring fluff is however the absolute nadir.)

That you make such disitinctions and in such universal terms saves you from that monster! There's a difference between knowing something is crap but enjoying it, partly for that reason and liking crap and saying that as far as you are concerned (not you personally, Nerdanel, the general 'you') it is great literature because you like it. A consensus of value can be derived in a cultural context. Should be. It stops all literature from becoming crap.

ideology has taught us to shy from culture as from a tyranny. A culture, nihilistic relativism tells us, is a mechanism for passing off arbitrary values and beliefs as absolute goods, so we are better with no values or beliefs at all.
- Howard Jacobson.

The whole article can be found here:


I think, back totally on topic, what it probably boils down to basically is that Harrison is too long in the tooth to have the energy to gird his loins and build a world with true length, depth and breadth, and is peeved that younger fresher writers have. It also shows what happens when writers will insist on infusing their fiction with their own political views. It makes of them no longer an all-seeing-eye, but a myopic one - including Orwell. Although he is redeemed by his greater ability as a writer and his greater humanity, which always took precidence over his politics. Which, frankly, are a f*****g bore when a writer wears them on their sleeve. Use it to wipe your nose, H.

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