|Wm. Timlin - The Seven Sisters|
In my ongoing exploration of worldbuilding, I've gotten a great deal of inspiration from the observations of writers like Harrison, Le Guin, and Moorcock. Harrison's essays in particular helped me to put voice to my concerns about the worldbuilding obsession, my attempt to understand how it operates, and what purpose it serves. Yet, I've found relatively few writers able to write eloquently on worldbuilding's behalf, which is unfortunate, because it makes the issue feel one-sided. Of course, if it is as Harrison says, and the worldbuilding urge comes out of a desire for control, simplification, rote memorization, and authority, then it would make sense that individuals who are on the side of worldbuilding would not tend to be theorists, questioners, and underminers, searching for reasons.
I had heard that author R. Scott Bakker's response to Harrison (in this interview) was precisely the well-constructed, pro-worldbuilding manifesto I had been looking for--but unfortunately, far from presenting his own theory of the utility and purpose of worldbuilding, the response quickly devolves into a disappointing 'us vs. them' distraction, the tired old narrative of the Average Joe tilting at Ivory Towers, attacking Harrison's person and motives without ever presenting a clear refutation of his views.
Now, it can certainly be effective to try to get into an author's head and look for motive--an explanation of what drives them to write in a certain way--whether you're trying to determine why they fall to a certain error, or why they produce something effective or novel. It's something I do occasionally in my reviews, for example, when I suggest that a male sci fi or fantasy author will spend more time physically describing women because they are personally more interested in how a woman looks than how a man looks--thy neck is like an ivory tower. However, it's vital that a critic first establish that the author does, in fact, have this habit before searching out an insight into why that might be the case--otherwise, it's just casting aspersions.
|Wm. Timsin - The Temple|
"What troubles me most though are the unconditional, declarative tone ... and the insinuations regarding the psychological type of the worldbuilder."Which makes it doubly ironic that Bakker's knee-jerk response is to make the same type of insinuations about type right back at Harrison--and in an even more declarative tone. The form of this attack is: the writer's motivations are suspect, therefore his conclusions are faulty. This argument is flawed, because even if we accept Bakker's assertion, and take it for granted that Harrison's motivation for rejecting worldbuilding is some sort of literary elitism, it does not necessarily follow that therefore, his critiques of worldbuilding are somehow less valid.
For comparison, imagine a successful sports star, say a boxer. An analyst writes an article about how this pug is a man of low character, that the thing that motivates him to beat others is pride and insecurity, that he doesn't really respect the game or his opponents, that he is acting out of resentment, obsessed with proving himself, all stemming back to a difficult childhood. Even if this is all true, it doesn't make the guy an unskilled boxer, it doesn't deny his wins, or prevent him from being very effective at what he does. After all, this is hardly an ideal world, and as such--as much as it might irk us--it's entirely possible for a stuck-up asshole to be totally right, and for a sweet nice guy to be utterly wrong.
|Punch - The Money-Boxing Kangaroo|
Bakker doesn't extend to suggest why it's outside the realm of possibility that someone might try to do this (don't humans try to do impossible things all the time?)--or what else these writers might be doing, instead, what else they might be trying to achieve with their worldbuilding. He doesn't provide us with a competing theory, he just states, unequivocally, that Harrison is wrong, for reasons unspecified. The closest Bakker comes to defending worldbuilding is the statement 'there’s meaning-effects aplenty to be explored here, believe you me. Profound ones.', to which I must respond that no, I can't simply believe him, no matter how matter-of-factly he puts it, because he's not actually demonstrating, in any systematic, theoretical way, that what he claims is true.
He does go on to compare Tolkien's worldbuilding to Harrison's postmodern wordplay, that they are 'probing the selfsame power of words to spin realities'--so apparently Harrison and Tolkien are really doing the same thing, except than when Harrison does it, it's bad, because he's being 'literary' about it, while Tolkien (Oxford don of literature), somehow isn't? Or perhaps, because Bakker puts 'literary' in scare quotes, he means that in some fundamental way, Harrison fails at actually being literary in the proper fashion, as Bakker sees it? It's unfortunate that he does not define what this difference is supposed to be, except in vague insinuations of Harrison's supposed pretension.
" ...questions are so much more powerful than answers ... they can muddy things that otherwise seem "pure and simple" in the span of a few short seconds. Questions force us to take a step sideways, to reconsider our perspective ... they reference contexts—perspectives—that didn’t seem to exist simply because we couldn’t see them."To me, worldbuilding (and didactic literature in general) whether it comes in the form of Tolkien and Lewis or Rand, is a literature of answers, a literature which delineates, which presents the reader with clear right and wrong, which narrows and simplifies the world into certain fundamental and opposed views. This also seems to be the core of Harrison's problem with it: that it presumes to literalize, to 'exhaustively survey a place that isn't there'. In that sense, I feel the 'great clomping foot of nerdism' is just as alive in Rand, that she is trying to literalize and exhaustively survey the world of her philosophy, and that it forms the 'secondary world' against which all her action is set--and that again, like any other system of worldbuilding, it is meant to be internalized by the reader--worldbuilding is a form of worldview.
|Which brings us back to Negative Capability again|
This conflict between literature of answers and that of questions also seems to bleed into Bakker's issue with VanderMeer, specifically, that the latter, while he accepts that art is inherently political, still maintains that 'character and situation are paramount ... some truths transcend politics'. Bakker reads this as a contradiction, but I see it as VanderMeer's commitment to questions over answers. The point I think Bakker is missing is that Vandermeer is taking for granted the artificiality of fiction, the fact that it is personal and deliberate, it is not merely a recounting of facts and details, it is carefully constructed, from a certain perspective, or in a more skilled author, a set of perspectives. As such, it is not supposed to be simply representative, allegorical, or didactic--it is not a literalization of facts in the world, but an interpretation, an intensely personalized view. As VanderMeer points out, great works are more than just their place in time--a book written about war by someone who lived through Vietnam is undoubtedly influenced by the particulars of that conflict, but the fictionalized vision of war in that book is much larger than that single event, more universal, more personal and purposeful.
|Mural by Zoo Project in Tunis|
Now, I understand that with Harrison, Bakker was responding to an interview question, and as such, can be forgiven for not having an in-depth set of theories and arguments at his fingertips, but this is certainly not the 'opposing view' to Harrison that I was promised. I found his conclusion particularly nonsensical:
"What if the canned experimentalism of post-modernism, by leaving so many readers behind, reinforces the general anti-intellectualism that seems to characterize our culture, and so makes anti-intellectual politicians like Bush more appealing? This only needs to be an open question to throw a rather severe light on the political undertones of Harrison's position."
|Yugoslavian Kadinjaca Monument|
Mr. Bakker was kind enough to make an appearance in the comments below, and while I did not find his arguments there to be convincing, I daresay they may still be of interest to you, my readers. I also want to respond more specifically to the presentation of 'art vs. popularity' implied by some of Bakker's statements, but I'll save that for its own piece.