Two contrasting views on worldbuilding in fiction

M. John Harrison thought worldbuilding was unnecessary and dull:

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 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.

Charlie Stross (who points to Harrison in this piece) thinks it’s the defining part of science fiction:

[Humans] exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we’re going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists’ social context…

For instance, stories about modern life (non-science fiction) fall flat if they don’t connect with the increasingly-bizarre context we live in today:

We’re living in a world where invisible flying killer robots murder wedding parties in Kandahar, a billionaire is about to send a sports car out past Mars, and loneliness is a contagious epidemic…These things are the worms in the heart of the mainstream novel of the 21st century. You don’t have to extract them and put them on public display, but if they aren’t lurking in the implied spaces of your story your protagonists will strike a false note.

By the way, here’s that sports car, which launched today and is currently orbiting Earth:

The big opportunity, to Stross, is building worlds different enough from our own context to illuminate other ways of being; where you can tell other types of stories:

SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our seas and settles for draining the local aquarium, or even just the bathtub, instead.

William Carlos Williams and Imagism

I’m enjoying the poetry of William Carlos Williams, credited as one of the leaders of the Imagist movement, which sought to rescue poetry from the vague and flowery language of Georgian Romanticism.

My favorite is the funny and surprising “This Is Just To Say“, which is also great for parodies.

(This is just to say)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Ezra Pound described the core tenets of Imagism as:

  • Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
  • To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation
  • As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

To the extent product design can reflect poetry, those would be pretty good design principles too.

On surfboards and yachts

And being close to the water:

Baldwin: How many sitcoms could you have launched with the imprimatur of your name on it? You could have your own channel. The Jerry channel.

Seinfeld: Yeah. But I didn’t take that bait…because most of it is not creative work. And it’s not reaching an audience. You want to be on the water? How do you want to be on the water? You want to be on a yacht? You want to be on a surfboard? I want to be on a surfboard.

Let me tell you why my TV show in the ’90s was so good…In most TV series, 50% of the time is spent working on the show, 50% of the time is spent on dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99% of our time writing, me and Larry.

Lying about the future

“Lying about the future produces history” – Umberto Eco, describing his book Baudolino

Utopia and its discontents

I’m a huge fan of Neal Stephenson, and also of his newest project Hieroglyph, which aims to inspire future scientific breakthroughs with optimistic near-future science fiction. But I found two critiques of the approach quite compelling this week.

First, Virginia Postrel (whose writing on design I’ve enjoyed in the past), writes that “Peter Thiel Is Wrong About the Future” (I’m reading his book as well), and mentions Hieroglyph as similarly misled:

The dystopian science fiction Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph aims to counter isn’t the cause of our cultural malaise. It’s a symptom. The obstacle to more technological ambitions isn’t our idea of the future. It’s how we think about the present and the past…

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel…People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.

It’s the same ambivalence toward today’s progress that Louis CK rails about, and that many science fiction writers and futurists recognize. We do live in amazing times, yet the dominant cultural reaction is frustration and dissatisfaction. We don’t often celebrate the incredible progress we’ve achieved. As David Brooks once wrote, “Americans have always been united less by a shared past than by the shared dream of a better future.”

The Guardian also confronts the Hieroglyph collection, calling the stories “built on willful ignorance”:

But there is also a deliberate naivety to Project Hieroglyph. Stories such as Cory Doctorow’s The Man Who Sold the Moon are a veritable hymn to the culture of Silicon Valley and tech start-ups, but deftly wave away the part these cultures play in today’s corporate capitalism and all the inequalities that come with it.

I agree with their assessment of the best stories:

The best contributions to Hieroglyph are the least optimistic, and the best attuned to the human reality that technology so often obscures. Entanglement by Vandana Singh and Madeline Ashby’s By the Time We Get to Arizona both look at the impact of new technologies in developing nations and among the world’s poorest people. They also tackle the obvious problem of technological innovation, the looming menace of climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion that go hand in hand with new technologies.

I still believe there is a role for optimistic science fiction in changing the world. However it’s always good to be mindful of the present and past when thinking about the future, and to include messy and uncomfortable situations in even the most polished vision. The real future will be both based in today’s world and include a lot of today’s problems, and people are wise enough to recognize when those aspects are missing from stories about the future.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all.

With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.

The boring future

One of the defining challenges of writing science fiction is explaining to the audience the amazing new things in this world while respecting the fact that the characters already live in that world… For you, this future is cool, but for them it’s just another day with the same old problems.

See also Jamais Cascio, “Your Posthumanism Is Boring Me” and “Fifteen Minutes Into the Future“, and Stuart Candy, “Amazing=Mundane“.

Science Fiction and Social Fiction

We have science fiction, and science follows it. We imagine it, and it comes true. Yet we don’t have social fiction, so nothing changes. – Muhammad Yunus

A nice quote, and a good motivator, though I do think we have a couple types of social fiction.

Types of stories

All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. – Leo Tolstoy

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. – Joseph Campbell

Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth – Christopher Booker

Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and the Man-Who-Learns-Better – Robert Heinlein

And many, MANY more

Futurism vs fiction

In science fiction, the imagined world supports the story; in futurism, the story supports the imagined world.

It’s a simple but crucial difference, and one that too many casual followers of foresight work miss. If a futurist scenario reads like bad science fiction, it’s because it is bad science fiction, in the sense that it’s not offering the narrative arc that most good pieces of literature rely upon. And if the future presented in a science fiction story is weak futurism, that’s not a surprise either — as long as the future history helps to make the story compelling, it’s done its job.

Futurists and science fiction writers often “talk shop” when they get together — but fundamentally, their jobs are very, very different. – Jamais Cascio