Saturday, June 13, 2015

Worldbuilding: Bakker vs. Harrison

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
It's all too easy for it to become an attack on a writer's character rather than a refutation of the ideas, themselves. It becomes more akin to a response to tone, or even ad hominem, which indeed, Bakker seems to recognize:
"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
Harrison, for his part, provides not only a reason why certain authors and readers might be drawn to worldbuilding, but also a theory about how worldbuilding operates. Bakker contradicts this theory several times, but never actually refutes it, because he does not quite provide his own theory to explain worldbuilding. He begins by denying Harrison's observation that worldbuilding is an attempt to do the impossible: to actually catalogue a false world and by doing so, make it real. Bakker tells us "But no one outside of characters in Borges stories have ever tried to do this. No one. Ever." Which, for someone who professes being troubled by an 'unconditional, declarative tone' is pretty damn guilty of both.

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.

Then we get to this gem: 'imagine The Lord of the Rings without a separately crafted Middle-earth!', which Bakker intends as a defense of worldbuilding, but which I hear as 'imagine Ayn Rand without the walls of philosophical lecturing'--certainly it would be a very different book, but I don't see that it would be a worse one. Of course, I do think there are fundamental differences between Harrison's and Tolkien's approaches, but not necessarily differences that flatter Tolkien (I'd certainly agree that Tolkien is definitely not post-modern). To use Bakker's own words, from his response to Jeff VanderMeer's Politics in Fantasy:
" ...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
Conversely, the reason Harrison's work seems to me to be more powerful because it is built upon a literature of questions, of contradictions and many-sided views which invite the reader to come to their own conclusions, to explore and indulge and to come away with their own interpretation. Certainly, such works can become overly vague and fractured, settling into contradiction for its own sake, relying on oxymoron and paradox to produce what Bakker calls 'a multifarious, promiscuous, meaning event ... generated by the most mechanical of po-mo tactics, elision'--such are the pitfalls of a 'literature of questions', but even with these caveats, I find that it is much more effective, much more varied, and much better at exploring human existence than any set of simplistic answers.

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
That is the sense I get when I hear VanderMeer say that 'art trumps politics', that it trumps specific politics, that the art is deliberately larger than a single allegorical reading of time and place, that it is applicable in some grander way to the whole human experience of war--that the symbols and conflicts it presents to the reader can be interpreted in many various and subtle ways. The fiction should not simply be an instruction, a manifesto, a set of explanations and opinions. Tolkien's fantasy war was written in and around World War I--so does that mean that it is that war, that this is the limit of our interpretation? Not at all: good art is much larger than any individual historical moment.

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
In order for this to be true, people would have to actually be reading Harrison's books in droves in order for them to reject them and act against them. It's like saying that the reason people go to Michael Bay films to the tune of billions of dollars is as some sort of deliberate rejection of all the French New Wave films that they obsessively watch and get upset with, that the average Dan Brown reader is just really angry with Proust, and that people watch the Kardashians only because they find Zizek overly frustrating. This needs to be way more than just an 'open question' in order to say anything about Harrison's position, it needs to actually have some kind of structure and specificity that directly connects it to the ideas at hand--which, indeed, is what Bakker's entire response would have required in order to be worthwhile.
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.

45 comments:

  1. Great article. I think you accidentally linked to an interview with Peter F Hamilton when you meant to link to this interview with Bakker: http://www.sffworld.com/2007/08/interview-peter-f-hamilton/

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  2. I'm a stuck up asshole,and I'm always right so...

    Anyway, I'm not very experienced with fantasy but I have my share of experience with sci-fi and other genres of fiction. Inspired by that and some of your reviews, here's my theory.

    Worldbuilding is a part of any story. Even stories in the 'real world' need worldbuilding. Steinbeck's, Palahniuk's and Auster's stories all occure in the 'real world', but the worlds they portray are different. Auster is convulted and claustrophobic. Palahniuk is extreme and exaggerated and so on. They use the 'real world' as a starting point, but the worlds in these stories are very different.

    Worldbuilding is not literal 'creating a world', like you're God in the Genesis story. Worldbuilding is an interpartation of reality. Every detail you add should inform us how the author/characters view the world.

    The world, like the story, should be gouverned by themes. A good world is one that is about something, just like great stories tend to be about some specific theme or subject. Details should point to these themes.

    I'd sort details into 3 catagories:

    1. Meaningless details - to keep them is no benefit, to remove them is no loss
    2. Details which are not related enough to the main ideas, but are amusing enough
    3. Meaningful details which develop and explore what the world is about.

    I'll take an example from Fallout 3.

    Fallout is an ongoing story of humanity re-building itself from the ruins. So when we see Megaton, a city built out of wrecked planes it's an important details. It's an example of how people took ruins and made something out of them.

    The character who pretend to be superheroes are an example of catagory 2. There is the theme of 'apocalypse sure make people go crazy, no?', but it's not present enough and so these characters can't really point to it. However, these characters are entertaining enough in and of themselves, and the humor from their situation fits. It's also possible to see how they use these new personas as a means of creating meaning in a ruined world.

    Martin is an example of catagory 1. He's an expert at meaningless details.

    I hear his and Tolkien's worlds praised for being full of details, but piling on details isn't hard. It just takes a lot of writing to do, but it's a technical feat. It's not meaningful and not realistic. When we enter a room, we don't make a mental note of what color every little object is. Martin may tell you exactly how every room looks, but if you didn't know, you wouldn't miss much.

    I read Bakker's response and it was funny. He used a lot of big words, but there really was no coherent theory of what worldbuilding is. He just talked about elitists and how terrible they are, demanding their art to be of high quality. Apperantly, the 'common man' deserves crap.

    I'm SkinneeJay from GoodReads, by the way. I commented on some of your reviews, you may have seen.

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    1. Worldbuilding is a part of any story. Even stories in the 'real world' need worldbuilding.

      I agree that all stories have a setting, as well as tone and mood and scenery, but when I’m talking about worldbuilding, I mean something different than this. I mean a world which is separate from the story, which is given its own existence and importance--an author who presents us with aspects of his world that do not serve his story, that are not necessary for his characters or his scenes, or the ideas he explores.

      In order for it to be worldbuilding, to me, it must be more than the mere necessary parts required to tell the story. In every play, after all, there must be a set--and some of them are quite elaborate, but they are still made up only of necessary parts. Imagine instead that someone took a play and hired an actor for every character mentioned (even those who never appear onstage), and built sets for every location referenced or implied in the text, filling the backstage area, then they bought costumes for all the characters, as well as for implied characters--the king must have guards, so hire a few dozen actors and get them wardrobe and props--of course, you must have props and furniture to fill all these sets, and then have a hundred backdrops painted, depicting every scene the kingdom might hold, ensure that every book used as a prop is full of real details about the play and the characters, &c.

      So, when I talk about worldbuilding, I don’t just mean that as a synonym for setting, but for the particular urge of some authors to create a setting that is far beyond what the story requires.

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    2. Can you imagine a good reason for such worldbuilding?

      I can see it working only if you don't have a central story but a bunch of them, who constantly overlap and then move away. Then you turn the world itself into a 'character'.

      That's what Martin tried to do, but even a very skilled author will probably fail at this. This worldbuilding probably works best in video games - Fallout, BioShock, Planescape, where you have the ability to go where you want and check out the details you want.

      A novel forces you to tackle it in the order the author made. So, if an author put a certain detail in the first page, there has to be a reason it's there and not in the second or 187th page.

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    3. I can think of a few authors who do something like this--mostly short story authors like R.E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. However, they achieve this effect by doing the opposite of what worldbuilding writers do: instead of exhaustively cataloguing and detailing their setting, they instead leave huge areas of blank space in their world. They show you a closeup of one particular place in one story, then move to a completely different place in the next story, which implies the vast area between.

      It's like how the most effective way to show a long journey in a story isn't to detail every single step along the way, but rather to hit the high points and to let the characters' reactions demonstrate to the reader how arduous and difficult the journey has been, how far they are from home, how alienated they feel from the strange lands they're traveling through. I mean, if you want to express boredom in a book, you don't do it by making the book itself tedious and boring the reader, but by demonstrating the effects of that boredom through the characters.

      "worldbuilding probably works best in video games - Fallout, BioShock, Planescape, where you have the ability to go where you want and check out the details you want."

      Yeah, I do think that some things, like mathematical combat, work better in videogames because they are invisible, operating automatically beneath the surface--though of course, that doesn't mean such things aren't very difficult to build in the first place. But in your example, to me, that's still good use of setting, because the details only show up when they are relevant, when the character actually runs across them.

      Of course, it's still possible for a game to be chock-full of pointless details and elements--I think of a game like Oblivion, where you have all of these different towns and dungeons and hellscapes that are just indistinguishable from one another, full of indistinguishable characters and monsters and items, so that instead of discovering new things, it ends up feeling like you're replaying the same level, over and over.

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    4. They did drop the ball a bit in Oblivion, but they failed in the same way most fantasies you dislike fail. It's another Tolkien-inspired world, full of elves, dwarves, mythic creatures we've already seen with no unique spin.

      It was a pretty big shock after playing Morrowind, which was very different. Elder Scrolls are at their best when they take influence from lesser-known or non-European myths.

      The mathematical combat is actually the least interesting part of video games for me. It's important for the game to be playable and fun, but from then on you need storytelling and worldbuilding to carry the video game. Borderlands would've been nothing without its cartoonish works full of black humor that somehow makes it joyous.

      Thanks for the advice about showing how big the world is. I hope to write my little epic someday, and I want to keep the good parts - the feeling the journey was huge, weird details, fun characters and throw away all these useless paragraphs that plagued Martin. I'll have to remember that.

      I think you should write a post about how storytelling works in video games. It's a format that can do a lot that writing can't. I wrote about it generally here:
      https://allcoloursdotorg.wordpress.com/2015/02/18/all-games-are-storytelling/
      And used Five Nights at Freddy's as a specific example:
      https://allcoloursdotorg.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/five-nights-at-freddys/

      Recently I found that all forms of narratives are connected - plays, comic books, novels, movies, video games, TV series, and the occasional concept album like Downward Spiral. It's interesting to see how different things work in different formats.

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    5. Denoting one thing, connoting another.
      "The sword was named Ardisil."
      okay, thats odd, a sword with a name, but it fits better in that there is something odd, probably not in todays world, but taken from the past...in that name I cannot identify.
      A strange word wrongly connotes the past, so we swallow, or capacitate a doubt (trying reading Hegel...needs a lot of capacitence) but after a while someone who has strong curiosity is going to be overwhelmed.
      Those who are so full of confidence, not really thoughtful but just going with the flow...they can move on through a swamp of terminology.
      I can barely learn another language. Its a particular stupidity. I almost stopped reading Dune for its terminology, and I did stop reading A Clockwork Orange...or read it frustrated.
      This kind of sci if world is established by PKDICK in ways that are mentions.
      The humor is that the mentions, which are usually understated, turn out to be whole revision of reality.
      What kind of World is PKD creating!

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  3. Check out, https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/essay-archive/the-future-of-literature-in-the-age-of-information/ , or, https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/alas-poor-wallace-a-review-of-infinite-jest/ if you're interested in my views. As it stands, most of this strikes me as strawman critique. My position, if anything, has only been bolstered by the explosion of research in human 'groupishness.' So long as people self-identify via cultural consumption (which they do), then people will perceive those critical of their patterns of cultural consumption (like intellectuals) as outgroup competitors (which they do). The fact is they don't have to read Harrison to identify him as one of *them*: we are amazingly adept at identifying competitors given only the most superficial data.

    Otherwise, I was under the (perhaps mistaken) assumption that Harrison had repudiated his old views...

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    1. "As it stands, most of this strikes me as strawman critique."

      I’d be curious to hear which false views you feel I am ascribing to you--and it’s certainly unfortunate that you don’t find my attempts to address some of the central issues surrounding the worldbuilding question to be of import. If I did misrepresent you, which of course is hardly unlikely, as human communication goes, I must admit I did find the general discourse to be frustratingly thin on the ground--and alas, I can only respond to what is in front of me. Perhaps an interview response to some ‘notes’ that ‘do not form an integrated piece’ is not the most complete basis for a theoretical framework, but one has to begin somewhere.

      In your response to VanderMeer, I found what seemed on the surface to be contradictions to what I read in your response to Very Afraid. I thought that perhaps these pointed to some greater insight, some stronger position on your part which I was only catching glimpses of, but unfortunately, I was not able to discover it--certainly, this does not mean it is not there. I toyed with the idea of trying to contact you directly to ask for clarification, but thought it best not to waste your time. Now I see that it has come to that anyway, for which I apologize.

      I hope you understand that the point of my post was not to condemn you, but to state that I find this specific critique of Harrison’s position to be insufficient--it does not amount to a refutation of his theory, nor a presentation of an alternative one. I look forward to reading the articles you linked, and to a fuller understanding of your position. I would like some day to see a defense of worldbuilding focused on a theory of what it can achieve, and by what means--how it can produce literature which questions and challenges instead of merely building expectations and then confirming (or betraying) them in a closed system.

      ”My position, if anything, has only been bolstered by the explosion of research in human 'groupishness.'”

      As I state in my post, even if we take for granted your critiques as to Harrison’s motives, they are only a response to why he might have written what he did, not a response to what he actually wrote.

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    2. ”they don't have to read Harrison to identify him as one of *them*”

      So, we should condemn Harrison based on the fact that people who are wholly ignorant of his actual position see ‘markers of intellectualism’ in him and vilify him for it? Certainly human groupishness, and in particular ‘us vs. them’ partisanship is common, and problematic. However, even if a crowd does choose a certain individual to represent ‘the enemy’, that is not necessarily an indictment of that individual or their actions. Indeed, it is much easier for a group to create an enemy in all ignorance, without ever taking the time to look at or deal with the positions that individual actually puts forth.

      As has been said many times, to be great is to be misunderstood, and so it behooves the critic to look at what a person has actually said, in their own words, and not to roughly condemn them for the role they may have been given by their public. If certain avowed intellectuals want to hold him up, or certain avowed anti-intellectuals to tear him down, that may all be secondary to his actual position.

      For his part, Harrison starts with the text itself, in his theory that obsessively worldbuilding writers present a certain point-of-view, one steeped in a need for authority and control. He is attacking what these authors promote through their style and approach, the actual views they express about us and reality. He’s saying that these authors are at fault for what they say and how they say it--and while we might disagree with his conclusions, is the best way to refute them really to suggest that the true fault lies with Harrison for having the temerity to be misrepresented by people who don’t read his work?

      ”I was under the (perhaps mistaken) assumption that Harrison had repudiated his old views…”

      I’d certainly be interested in learning if that were true--and hope it amounts to more than the average deathbed conversion.

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    3. "He’s saying that these authors are at fault for what they say and how they say it--and while we might disagree with his conclusions, is the best way to refute them really to suggest that the true fault lies with Harrison for having the temerity to be misrepresented by people who don’t read his work?"

      Some charity, please. For me the problem is always literary hypocrisy, in this instance, the declaration that socially responsible art resembles x, where x is largely, if not entirely, an ingroup artifact. Once you understand that humans are hardwired both to feel morally superior and to ceaselessly rationalize that sense of moral superiority, these kinds of good fiction = x claims become quite recognizable as expressions of moral parochialism, and therefore entirely incompatible with the explicit claim to social responsibility. Harrison is just doing what all humans do--promoting ingroup interests--assuming, as all humans do, that he's promoting moral truth. But of course, he thinks his post-modernist credentials mean he's beyond all that. So he caters to the moral and aesthetic interests of the likeminded, entertains, claiming to be 'challenging readers' in this or that exemplary respect, even though, as you point out, precious few of these 'potentially challenged' readers would pick up his books.

      Sounds like pretend literature to me.

      But I'm not the first person to point out the enthusiasm with which po-mo culture embraced the very authority gradients they claimed to overthrow. Confounding the believability of a narrative via post-modern tropes simply removes that narrative from the sphere of popular consumption, and therefore renders it culturally inert. A self-described site of social resistance functions to merely conserve the status quo.

      To challenge readers, you first have to *reach* readers who can be challenged. Defecting from representational norms in the way Harrison advocated (back then, at least) too easily devolves into moral entertainment.

      Add to this the fact that he's quite simply wrong about world-building.

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    4. ”Add to this the fact that he's quite simply wrong about world-building.”

      Really, that’s the level of discourse here? You’re just going to tack that on at the end as if it should be taken for granted, without the least attempt to support or defend it as a claim? You just quoted me saying that a good critic goes to the text, to the words, and develops arguments from there--which I failed to find in your response in the interview, and in your responses since. If you’re going to keep making these claims, you have to do some work and support them.

      You said that what troubled you most about Harrison was his ‘unconditional, declarative tone - as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world’--and yet that’s precisely what you seem to be giving back: ‘add to this the fact that he’s quite simply wrong. I’m sorry to have to point this out, but saying it is not the same as demonstrating that it’s true, no matter how many times it’s repeated.

      I do want to be charitable here, because we’re all human beings, trying our best, but you’ve got to work with me. I’m not a mind-reader--if you do have some great defense of worldbuilding, then I’d love to hear it. I read both the articles you linked from your blog and did not find such a defense there. Short of that, simply insisting that Harrison is wrong is pointless.

      ”as you point out, precious few of these 'potentially challenged' readers would pick up his books.”

      That isn’t something I ‘pointed out’, rather I was trying to take your argument to its logical conclusion, to see (if we take it for granted that its assumptions are true) whether it makes a valid point. In fact, I think Harrison has done well to find an audience for his works, to inspire readers and other writers, particularly New Weird authors like Mieville and VanderMeer. After all, here you and I are, two somewhat known critics, dutifully discussing Harrison’s thoughts and work for an audience of our followers.

      ”I'm not the first person to point out the enthusiasm with which po-mo culture embraced the very authority gradients they claimed to overthrow”

      No, you aren’t, and I agree--though I don’t think it’s a problem specific to ‘po-mo’. Indeed, every medium and period suffers from creators who take on the outward appearance of a movement in order to garner credibility, without actually saying anything of value behind the complex, self-referential jargon they spew. Alan Sokal demonstrated that it’s just as much a problem in the sciences as in the arts.

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    5. ”To challenge readers, you first have to *reach* readers who can be challenged.”

      This is part of what I wanted to reply to in full in terms of art vs. popularity. Many artists and thinkers struggled to find an audience in their lifetimes--this does not necessarily mean that these artists had nothing of worth to say, that their work was somehow invalid or incompetent. There are many reasons that an individual work or artist might fail to find an audience.

      As you say: ’The great communication constraint of today has to do with sorting’--and this is not a problem unique to the internet age. Just because a work is good does not necessarily mean that it will become swiftly-known, and many works which are well known are not very good at all.

      I mean, if Blake or Van Gogh toiled away in obscurity, does that mean their works had no artistic value when they were made, because they had not yet found their audience? In your mind, is it the audience which confers this value? Would a literary critic or art critic who came upon these works be unable to see the quality in them, despite their being unknown? How do they become known and recognized in the first place?

      If an artist wants to write a challenging work, and the general audience does not want to be challenged, then it stands to reason that the general audience will not be very interested in this work. However, such once-obscure works often find an audience later, once the things which had been too challenging for the mainstream become gradually obvious and attain cultural acceptance.

      You suggest that an author should make themselves approachable--specifically, using genre to reach readers who aren’t necessarily looking to be challenged, and then to sneak in the challenge behind the genre tropes. However, I don’t think it is necessary for every author to take this advice, to come in as wolf in sheep’s clothing. Some artists want to be openly provocative, and just because that approach might not quickly reach a large, in-built audience, that does not mean their art is without value.

      You then continue in that article to say that Harrison is one of a number of writers doing the same thing you are: ‘writers who are genuinely shaking things up, as opposed to hawking intellectual and aesthetic buzzes inside the literary echo chamber’--in direct contradiction to all of the claims you make about him in Pat’s interview. So which is it, is Harrison genuinely shaking things up or is he just another entertainer hawking buzzes in the literary echo chamber?

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    6. One experimental technique leads to another, until its exhausted. Yet, literatures experiments are not yet exhausted, and people who write such stuff, was Pynchon the wipping boy? they probably do not do so for an audience other than whom they belong to.
      Do we assume narcissism for seeking fame beyond one's gateway group?
      So, the idea of World Building must connect to the idea of what is the audience.

      Well, it no more a audience of the past. Really, that is gone, Wallace's cohorts will continue...its fine, the literate experimentors need a place too.
      But, the literary is going to decline as the Oral increases in usage.
      It kinda like TV in every home hitting the novel writers...they lost an audience too.
      And the reaction?
      Its not a reflection on their humanity, no.
      Their humanity is systemized, contained, within the academic study of humanity, which does hold more authority than rock and roll lyricists.

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    7. "It kinda like TV in every home hitting the novel writers...they lost an audience too."

      A common misconception. Indeed, the rise of television (and the internet) have coincided with a great boom in books. More are being written, published, and bought today than at any earlier time in history.

      It's a mistake to assume that the folks who sit all day watching TV now would instead have been reading books a century ago. The time they now spend on TV would have been spent gossiping at the pub, or playing cards at the dinner table, or attending church, or more likely working 18 hours a day for minimal pay at the shirtwaist factory. TV consumption has increased largely as the underclass has found they have more time for leisure, not as a replacement for other forms of leisure.

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  4. "You then continue in that article to say that Harrison is one of a number of writers doing the same thing you are: ‘writers who are genuinely shaking things up, as opposed to hawking intellectual and aesthetic buzzes inside the literary echo chamber’--in direct contradiction to all of the claims you make about him in Pat’s interview. So which is it, is Harrison genuinely shaking things up or is he just another entertainer hawking buzzes in the literary echo chamber?"

    Again, charity please. The point isn't to play "Gotchya," the point is to understand the argument. I think Harrison is successful to the degree he embraces genre, and eschews academic notions of the literary. What's the difficulty in that?

    "Really, that’s the level of discourse here? You’re just going to tack that on at the end as if it should be taken for granted, without the least attempt to support or defend it as a claim?"

    Again, some charity please. The point is to understand the argument, then critique. I left that last statement hanging so we could pick it up in a subsequent comment. I figured the literary side of the argument was enough to begin with, given that you have yet to understand my view.

    "I mean, if Blake or Van Gogh toiled away in obscurity, does that mean their works had no artistic value when they were made, because they had not yet found their audience? In your mind, is it the audience which confers this value?"

    I don't think 'value' has any magical existence independent human beings. Do you? What's it made of? How does it function? Is it like a ghost in that it's 'there,' but somehow beyond the possibility of direct observation? You tell me.

    If value is something perspectival (what else would it be?), then literary works that no one reads have no artistic value, period. Meanwhile, claiming to be socially progressive while only alienating those you claim to be 'challenging' pretty obviously becomes a problem, don't you think?

    Now it used to be the case that artists could rely on *posterity* to redeem the value of their work, but then they could depend on centuries of relative social continuity. We have no such luxury. It's all triage, now, my friend. Technologically mediated change is about sweep the old world--the old human--away. How many years and how much continuity is required for "once-obscure works" to "become gradually obvious and attain cultural acceptance"? A good deal more than we can reasonably expect to possess, I fear. All writing is post-posterity writing now.


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    1. ”I think Harrison is successful to the degree he embraces genre, and eschews academic notions of the literary. What's the difficulty in that?”

      Okay, let me try to explain my difficulty. In both the post you linked and the interview response, you seem to be presenting the same argument: there is a problem in modern literary fiction in that certain writers are writing work that ‘looks literary’, that uses known literary tropes to signal to an insular, literary crowd that ‘this is your kind of book’--but these books are not really engaging or challenging, they are just delivering the expected to their niche audience.

      You contrast this with another type, who you identify with, who goes out to meet the masses, using genre to get them to read, to trust you, and only then springing upon them provocation, engagement, and challenge. My difficulty lies in the fact that in the interview, you identify Harrison as one of the former writers, writing for his own little in-crowd, playing post-modern literary games, and not really engaging people--while in the blog post, you identify him as the latter, a writer who is ‘genuinely shaking things up’, and not merely playing inside the ‘literary echo chamber’.

      I’m sorry if this feels like a ‘gotcha’, but it seems like a stark contradiction, and I’m not sure how else to acknowledge that without just stating it outright. You linked that article in order to help me better understand your position, yet I felt only more confused.

      ”I left that last statement hanging so we could pick it up in a subsequent comment.”

      How is ‘you’re wrong, and that’s all I have to say’ synonymous with ‘I’d like to discuss this more at a later point’? If you want some charity, you might begin by being a bit more charitable with yourself by openly saying what you mean. I talk in my post about how pointless such unsupported declarations are, so why would you assume that I’d react positively to another one?


      ”I don't think 'value' has any magical existence independent human beings. Do you?”

      I didn’t suggest a value outside of human beings--firstly, there’s the human being who made it, the thought and work that they put into it, the techniques they used, the inspirations they drew on (all works of other human beings), and the meanings they sowed into their art. Secondly, I specifically mention a later critic coming upon these heretofore unknown works, asking if that critic would be able to see the quality in them, despite them not yet having found a larger audience.

      So, even if these works are not yet widely-known, or widely-discussed, individuals can still engage with these works and draw value from them. I mean, if Moby Dick had never seen the light of day, had been a lost manuscript, would that somehow mean that all the allusions, metaphors, ideas, jokes, and characters in it somehow weren’t written in the first place? It’s a very different thing to say that an arrow missed its mark than to say that the arrow never existed at all. Or if the manuscript sat for centuries, forgotten, that value lies there, in potential, until it is found again--or ultimately lost.

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    2. ”it used to be the case that artists could rely on *posterity* … We have no such luxury ... how much continuity is required for "once-obscure works" to "become gradually obvious and attain cultural acceptance"? ... All writing is post-posterity writing now.”

      I remain unconvinced by such dour pronouncements of the coming singularity--to me it feels too much like the old thrill of eschatology. As Bruce Sterling observes, it makes for a pretty little self-justifying narrative for the scions of the silicon church. Certainly, the world is spinning faster, changing before our eyes, but I think it is far too early to presume that we can guess just where it is going to end up.

      I mean, here are you and I, trying to hash things out, discussing interpretation and theory and direction, while an audience of people watches us, reads our work, and writes about it, themselves. I get messages and comments all the time discussing these topics from people all over the world, and so, to me, the internet doesn’t look like an end to the discussion, a cessation of the search for and discussion of meaning, but a continuance of the same social urge which leads to new revelations, changes, and the sharing of works which takes them gradually from obscurity to being more commonly known.

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  5. I'm not sure where your difficulty lies. Genre reaches out, Literature in. Harrison writes Genre. Harrison argues that genre should more resemble Literature. The target audience of my interview were genre readers. The target audience of my Future essay were literary readers. For the former, Harrison's argument that fantastic world building should be more post-modern is an argument that fantasy should be less relevant. For the latter, Harrison's argument that Genre matters is a good argument.

    If you still think there's mileage to be had out of this...

    Regarding value, it's good to see that you agree that it's perspectival, and it's also good to see that you agree that everything hinges on a work's *potential* to challenge. This puts you on the doorstoop of my position: my claim is that the IT revolution has dramatically reduced this potential, to the point where writerly claims to challenge x or y are simply a way to disguise ingroup entertainment as something more socially responsible. I'm saying that writers can no longer rely on some 'ideal philistine' to redeem works they self-consciously write for *themselves*--which is to say, people like themselves. There's just not enough 'slop' (to use the engineering term) in the system anymore.

    It's important to understand I'm not talking about just the singularity. I'm talking about the accelerating technological transformation of culture, one where relationships between buyer and seller are becoming less and less noisy, where ingroup discourses become ever more transparent, and most importantly, where the boundaries between consumers and cultural consumption are being ever more effaced.

    In other words, I'm talking about what is--quite obviously, one would think--the most fundamental transformation of human communication in the history of the human race. I appreciate your investment in the status quo, the desire that things tick along as usual. But such is not the case: we have witnessed the most dramatic, abrupt transformation of communicative habitat in human history. Maybe you'll get lucky, maybe the traditional aesthetic norms you cherish will survive with minor tweaks.

    I think they're already dead. I think my own experiment demonstrates that I'm onto to *something* at least. Regular death threats. Debates raging across the web. Blog wars. Self-consciously writing *across* ingroup boundaries puts you in contact with those who can be genuinely challenged and offended by your views. Think of this years Hugos!

    This is where you find the battle of ideas, my friend--at least in the West. The literary world is just an endless dress rehearsal anymore.

    Tell me you don't feel it.

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    1. ”I'm not sure where your difficulty lies. Genre reaches out, Literature in.”

      The difficulty lies in the fact that you paint these two things in such strict separation, and yet associate Harrison with both, despite not allowing much overlap--is he reaching out, or in? You don’t seem to be saying that ‘all literary books are incapable of provocation’--merely that it is a problem some authors have. Likewise, you don’t believe that all genre work reaches out, do you? Isn’t there just as much insularity, self-congratulation, and pandering in genre fiction?

      Beyond that, you’re defining literature as a genre--so, in using literary tropes, is an author not ‘reaching out’ to the audience of that genre? Could they not use that technique in the same way that you intend to with fantasy to first attract and then provoke?

      You say Harrison’s literary approach will alienate the fantasy fans he’s reaching out to, instead ‘self-selecting’ for people who like these techniques. But isn’t is also true that when you write Provocative fantasy fiction, you’re going to alienate fantasy fans who dislike provocation, and self-select for readers who enjoy being provoked?

      ”Harrison's argument that fantastic world building should be more post-modern is an argument that fantasy should be less relevant”

      I don’t think that is Harrison’s argument. He’s saying that it is the worldbuilding act which makes fantasy less relevant, because it makes authoritative, and thus, self-serving. In your words, it’s ‘reaching in’. Stepping back from your pejorative use of ‘post-modern’, what actually defines post-modernism is skepticism of authority. So he is saying that fantasy should be more post-modern, in that it should be more skeptical, and less authoritative in its approach.

      ”There's just not enough 'slop' (to use the engineering term) in the system anymore.”

      I’d suggest that, the internet being what it is, there’s now more slop than ever--more writers, more readers, more redeemers, more access, and more discussion.

      ”I appreciate your investment in the status quo, the desire that things tick along as usual … maybe the traditional aesthetic norms you cherish will survive with minor tweaks.”

      Come now, all this talk about being ‘charitable’ to one another, only to turn around and paint my position as one of mere emotional attachment, a ‘cherished investment’, with all the attendant implications that yours is somehow less subjective--let’s try to leave such disingenuous cheap shots aside.

      I’m not arguing that human nature will continue to play out as it always has because I have some personal attachment to the idea, but because, in looking at history, despite all the grand claims people have made that ‘nothing will ever be the same’, human interaction has continued to play out along remarkably similar lines. First Socrates laments that the written word will destroy discourse, then it’s the printing press, then radio, then television, now the internet. Every fresh age of man brings a new wonder to be attacked for ‘ruining our minds’, yet each great change which washes over us in the end leaves us surprisingly intact.

      Professional thinkers, like yourself, make their careers on these grand proclamations, on doom-saying, on predictions that ‘nothing will ever be the same’ because it’s exciting, it draws people in, it spurs on ever more discussion, the formation of opposing sides, fervent belief--ingroups. I’m not immune to this--the notion that we might be on the brink of some unprecedented, fundamental change in humanity, like the singularity, it’s thrilling to consider. However, just because it has hype behind it doesn’t make it wise to buy into it.

      Continued ...

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    2. Again, it’s reminiscent of eschatology, of all the supposed apocalypses which came and went and were forgotten. We all like to imagine that there will be some huge change in our lifetimes, that we are alive at a special time--that this is humanity’s greatest moment, and we will be the witnesses--but anyone who looks back through history has to admit that these grand promised changes never quite work out the way we think they will.

      You mention death threats and blog wars and the Hugos, but I don’t see these as fundamentally different from how humanity has always comported itself--we discuss, we debate, we gossip, we complain, we cajole and threaten, we band together, we march, we write letters, we form clubs--certainly, it’s taken on a different form, and it’s much more global and accessible, but we are still living out the same patterns, gratifying the same urges.

      You say ‘tell me you don’t feel it’--but that’s exactly the problem, that we get taken over by these grand feelings that flatter our self-importance, or self-justifications. Sure, I feel it--how could I not? It’s everywhere, on everyone’s lips--but that doesn’t mean I don’t still doubt it and feel it needs some rigorous discussion to justify it, because if there’s one lesson to learn from history, it’s that the hype train doesn’t always deliver.

      ”The literary world is just an endless dress rehearsal anymore.”

      Is the literary world not also online, involved in the discussion, going back and forth, developing meaning, continuing their same role in this new medium? I mean, here you and I are, aren’t we, playing the same old literary game?

      You speak as if the in-group behavior at the top of academia were something new and remarkable and not merely the inevitable result of individuals with seniority becoming entrenched, and other individuals seeking their favor supporting them. There has always been stagnation and incestuous self-promotion at the top--but there have also always been fresh insights coming up from the bottom, new individuals with new approaches that eventually succeed in challenging and supplanting the old order, at which point they become entrenched themselves and await the next new rising movement. This is the same pattern that has always played out in human interaction, not just in academia, but all social structures-why act as if it’s some dour new sign of ‘the end of innovation’?

      What is it about the internet that prevents people from finding books, reading them, analyzing them, engaging in discussion about them, suggesting them to others, and gradually spreading the word about them until they have a following? What is standing in the way of the discovery and ‘redemption’ of books?

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    3. The 'strict separation' is yours, I fear. Given the complexities involved, all we have are cartoons at this level of discourse. I'm talking trends.
      That *should* go without saying, but alas.

      As for the dramatic nature of the transformation engulfing us are you going to make me quote the numbers?

      I can remember being five and watching the first Texas Instruments commercial handheld calculator on the NBC nightly news... about forty or so years ago. Now I sit with my five year old on my lap and we watch robot videos together, see them walking tightropes, riding bicycles, throwing and catching better than any human could hope to.

      And the question inevitably occurs to me: What will my grandchild be watching, sitting on my child's lap, forty years hence?

      Buckle up, dude. The naïve are going to be hit the hardest.

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    4. "The 'strict separation' is yours, I fear."

      You're the one who said 'genre reaches out, literature in'--that's a pretty strict separation to make. If you're just talking about wider trends, I understand that--but then you turn around and use those general trends to say rather specific things about other writers and their arguments. I don't find that you do enough to connect the general trend to the specific instance using incisive observations and arguments. It all feels like too much convenient correlation to me.

      "are you going to make me quote the numbers?"

      No, I've seen Kurzweil's charts, but I've also seen the responses to them. In any case, I readily admitted in my comment that things are changing, and quickly--I just don't see that the specific conclusions that you come to are the inevitable outcome of those changes. Again, I don't see a strong connection being made between the general trend (the internet) and the specific argument (people will stop discovering, exploring, and promoting new books, and thus, unknown literary books will no longer be 'redeemed' by critics and readers)--indeed, it seems to me that the trend implies the opposite outcome.

      "Buckle up, dude. The naïve are going to be hit the hardest."

      Really, that's all you've got? You're not going to respond to any of my points or arguments, you're just going to go colloquial then stick in some ad hom about me being naive? Poor form. You talk about the need to be charitable to each other, and yet you can't even bring yourself to engage with my words (as, indeed, you couldn't for Harrison's).

      Then again, who's more naive: the starry-eyed believer who 'feels' the change coming and predicts that everything is about to shift into something completely different (not that it prevents him from making rather specific claims about just what that will look like), or the careful skeptic who looks at trends in drastic technological and social changes throughout history and predicts that despite the grand and sweeping transformation that is coming, humanity will still be humanity, and still act according to the same fundamental urges and habits that have always driven them? Buckle up, indeed.

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  6. I agree for the most part.

    If we say that writing is a contract between the reader and the writer (which I do), where the reader agrees to pretend that what the writer writes is ‘real’, and the writer agrees to make this easy on the writer, as you once said, ‘painstakingly constructing a world to feel real’, then to make this contract easier on the reader the writer can add a few ‘pointless’ details which make sense in a larger context.

    To give an example, if we take worldbuilding for suspension-of-disbelief’s sake, Dumbledore being gay is not pointless. In the real world, some people will be gay, and it helps to have a few main characters being gay. But, to be fair, you were talking about Dumbledore being gay in the sense in that it wasn’t obvious in the first place, and (I think) criticizing that we were never told about that in the first place, so I’m not attacking any points you made here since I’m essentially giving a different example.

    Reading is like staring into an artificial pond with a floor of concrete: the reader knows very well he is looking at a fake, but he is prepared to pretend that this isn’t true. And so a good ‘pond’ is well decorated with earth on its bottom, flowers on the side, and fish swimming in its murky waters. You know that you could feel the concrete if you were to root around the bottom with your hands, but it is obscured to you.

    In my opinion, good worldbuilding is basically the writer telling the reader: “I’m gonna make this easy on you,” and then proceeding to make it easy on him/her by writing a cool story. Does this mean that, on his ‘set’, he only adds details that add to ‘plot and character’, ‘mood’, ‘pace’ and ‘voice’? Well, I could keep my pond a bare lump of concrete with clear water thrown into it, and only paint it with black stripes to convey ‘mood’, but that doesn’t mean much when it so obviously a fake that suspension of disbelief is impossible and it feels weird and failed.

    I think that’s what I missed a little, the fact that you need a foundation to work with before you can add adjectives to get ‘mood’, ‘pace’ and ‘voice’. I need a mountain range before I can tell you many of its rocks are gnarled, I (might, depends on what kind of story you’re telling) need a believable tavern before I can describe to you that an infant was brutally murdered there. I’m annoyed when, in fantasy, everybody speaks the same language, I’m annoyed when people don’t expand upon religion or culture. It means the water has become clear and the earth isn’t covering the concrete anymore. I mean, why are characters sacred, why is it okay to want to know if ‘Han shot first’? Because we want to see characters that are interesting, and therefore believable… but indeed, the characters themselves are fakes. Han is just as artificial as Tatooine.

    Why are the characters sacred? Sure, they are mirrors of ourselves, and act in ways that make us think, but aren’t fantasy worlds mirrors of our own as well? Shouldn’t we be consistent and demand that a world is original, interesting, thoughtful, and dare I say it, well-built?

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    1. But to do this, to make our ‘pond’ interesting, there has to be earth, water, flowers, before we can add upon them and make them worthwhile. As a writer, it’s your job to make reading easy and fun for the reader. I think it’s ridiculous when people say that Martin is better than Abercrombie because ‘When I read Abercrombie for the second time, there’s not much additional meaning to be found’. Doesn’t this make Abercrombie completely superior to Martin? That he writes clearly, that all his points and messages are clear despite the fact that he’s not shoving them down your throat in annoying monologues? A commenter to this blog series expressed surprise that Abercrombie writes fantasy, saying that he should write historical fiction instead. But the sort of characters Abercrombie writes are caricatures, who wouldn’t seem real in our real world. It is because of suspension of disbelief that they work better in a ‘grimdark’ world that is just as much a caricature of our own as they are of us.

      But before you can think of mood or ideas, you have to play the game. You have to start out with something that’s believable at first glance. Our world is interesting. Then a fantasy world should be as well. ‘The Federation’ vs ‘The Empire’ is just boring and leads you to groan all the way through: even if we forget that it’s cliché and assume that it has mood and pace and voice, it still feels completely empty and unbelievable if there aren’t other states around, other than the federation or the empire. (Except if superstates are part of the point of the novel, like in 1984. I find that if you add something that doesn’t make much sense just to add tone once or twice, readers will pick up on that and find it easier to believe, but again, you shouldn’t do it too much)

      Why is it a good idea to have a character pick his nails from time to time, or have him like to drink milk, or have him disliking cats, when this doesn’t have much relation to the plot? Because it makes him more believable. Characters aren’t ‘just’ the Chosen One, they’re Todd as well. But just like they aren’t just their plot role, a world can’t just be a plot device, because to for readers to enjoy the plot more, it has to feel real at first glance, and just like Todd feels more real if he likes to play cards from time to time, the world feels more real if it has a few mountain ranges for other reasons than the plot, or mood, or pace, or voice.

      In the end, it’s like you said: “The world is full of information, more than could be consumed in a hundred lifetimes. There will never be a shortage of things for you to experience. This is why you have to choose what information you want to take in, to decide what's important to you--you have to draw the line somewhere. For many people, this isn't even something they consider, but in the words of Neil Peart: if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”.

      And just like a pond, where it just feels desperate and pointless if you add too much detail, you need to draw a line. When suspension of disbelief has been achieved, there’s no more reason to add filler. Indeed, the trick is to see exactly how much filler is needed for you to hold up your side of the bargain as a writer.

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    2. Oh, by the way, amazing writing as always! Really, really helpful.

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  7. World building, like Connections, or Glass Bead Game.
    http://playingworlds.blogspot.com/

    Let me respond in reading, I am just posting this as it relates to World Building as I understand.

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  8. My liege, and madam, to expostulate
    What majesty should be, what duty is,
    What day is day, night night, and time is time,
    Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
    Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
    I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .

    But one is to reference Hamlet as a habit when discussing the doubts of fantasy worlds.
    Fantasy itself was more vastly transformed by rpgs than novelists.
    Not to minimize the meanings of genre. RPG's though had this drama of interacting, tapping more into the inter subjective, wherein, ambiguities proliferate, and that fogs meaning.
    Also, rpgs are like puppet theater directing within Fantasy.
    So the magnitude of the discussion fails me.
    Clarity is of course, Hapaxious wit at work.
    A candidate I say, to play Sherlock Holmes!
    Poets then, past the pat to tones at play,
    what a world they made.
    No longer lone cliches,
    more like a pox after a parade.

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  9. If you want a philosophical defense of world-building how about looking into what Tolkien wrote about 'sub-creation' (and then musing on it)? You should also look into Shippey's work on Tolkien.

    Now, Tolkien may be the father of world-building, but I think he probably stands apart from almost all other world-builders. Tolkien's world seemingly organically emerged out of his life-long interests and studies. Tolkien did not just sit down one day and say 'I am going to make a world.' This may be a huge difference between the don and other author’s, and one of the reasons Tolkien’s world works so well and does not feel forced.

    Furthermore, Tolkien's world is not just a product of his imagination, but is really an organic synthesis of is knowledge of the 'ancient North' and its peoples, and this basis in the ‘real world’ is another reason for its substantiality.

    True for Tolkien, the story was secondary, yet what a story! Maybe this bugs some authors, that a man whose self-avowed goal was to make stories simply so that he could find a reason for using his invented languages, wound up being named 'author of the century'; wound up being a man whose works will almost certainly be read long after most authors have faded into obscurity.

    And at least as Tolkien is concerned, the idea that there is nothing there to interpret because the world-building supposedly explains it all is pure nonsense. Tolkien can be taken on multiple levels, as can any great work. LOTR can simply be read as a great action/adventure story, it can be studied for its references to real history, and like any 'authentic mythology' it can be taken as a mystical text. As the French scholar of religion, Henri Corbin said of LOTR "I think that this is the first time since the conclusion of the Grail cycle that there has appeared in the West an epic at once heroic, mystic and Gnostic, the narrative events of which can enchant the wise both young and old because they will recognize its hidden meaning."

    The idea that world-building somehow makes a work bad because it gives away too much is nonsense. What does this criticism even mean?

    As it is, as far as I am familiar with the work of post-modern/surrealist SFF I find it practically unreadable. Where these author's will claim they are making the reader 'think' by not giving away too many details of their worlds (as if this is the only thing a reader thinks about!) I think they are like a bad cook telling us his desiccated, ‘tough-as-nails’ steak is good because we have to ‘work’ to get it down. Who would buy that?

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    1. "Tolkien's world seemingly organically emerged out of his life-long interests and studies. Tolkien did not just sit down one day and say 'I am going to make a world.' This may be a huge difference between the don and other author’s"

      All authors' worlds emerge from their life-long interests and studies. Certainly, you could argue that Tolkien's studies go deeper than most, but I don't think he always succeeded in turning this knowledge into effective storytelling, because he concentrated so much on shoehorning the forms of history and philology into his fiction (an idea I go into more in Part III of my Worldbuilding series).

      "Tolkien's world is not just a product of his imagination, but is really an organic synthesis of is knowledge"

      What do you think imagination is except for the synthesis of knowledge?

      "Henri Corbin said of LOTR "I think that this is the first time since the conclusion of the Grail cycle that there has appeared in the West an epic at once heroic, mystic and Gnostic, the narrative events of which can enchant the wise both young and old because they will recognize its hidden meaning.""

      Well, there's quite good reason that those works went out of fashion: the work of influential thinkers like Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin on old systems of authority, including economic powers, churches, racial separation, nationalism, class and caste systems, and even the nature of identity.

      I've heard it said that much of fantasy is lagging far behind when it comes to how it presents society, as if the entire post-modern philosophical revolution had never happened. Looking at the way Tolkien presents race, sex, class, faith, and nationalism, he has a very old-fashioned viewpoint. His world is one where authority and proper place are not questioned, where there is an ultimate order to which all things must adhere.

      Of course, there will always be some people who want a throwback to a 'simpler' time, where one could simply trust in authority in all important things, and didn't have to form ones own opinions.

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    2. "The idea that world-building somehow makes a work bad because it gives away too much is nonsense. What does this criticism even mean?"

      That isn't a criticism I ever put forward. The problem with worldbuilding is that it tries to explain things that don't need an explanation. an author can skip over a night of sleeping, or a long day's trek, if it doesn't play materially into the story. They don't need to tell us what every character is wearing. We don't need to know the identity of the protagonist's grandfather in order for him to be an engaging character.

      Writing is all about deciding what details to leave in, and which ones are better left out. A worldbuilding author is spending huge amounts of time on thinking up all sorts of extraneous details that add nothing to the story except length and tedium.

      "as far as I am familiar with the work of post-modern/surrealist SFF I find it practically unreadable"

      The fact that you happen to struggle with such books is not an argument against them or their methods.

      "they are like a bad cook telling us his desiccated, ‘tough-as-nails’ steak is good because we have to ‘work’ to get it down. Who would buy that?"

      I could say the same thing about worldbuilding authors: that their novels are dependent on the amount of work the reader is willing to put in to collect and memorize all the random details they have included. Even if you just want to read it for the pure adventure, you still have to wade through all those extraneous details just to squeeze a meagre story out of a massive tome.

      I also don't think the tough steak analogy is apt, because no one would find a tough steak palatable, while many people find Post-modern SF to be delightful and wondrous. I would say it is more like an acquired taste, something which can certainly be off-putting at first (sometimes deliberately so), but which, the more you learn about it, the more you come to recognize the unique flavors and experiences it has to offer.

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    3. "What do you think imagination is except for the synthesis of knowledge?"

      Well, I suppose we could split hairs as to "what is imagination."
      I am talking about arbitrariness vs. consistency in a work of fiction. Arbitrariness does not imply knowledge as a basis, but mere whim or fancy.
      An example of what I am talking about are names in Tolkien's world, which have an inner consistency and logic that most authors never get close to, and this logic arises out of Tolkien’s philological knowledge.

      "Well, there's quite good reason that those works went out of fashion: the work of influential thinkers like Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin on old systems of authority, including economic powers, churches, racial separation, nationalism, class and caste systems, and even the nature of identity."

      Corbin said "since the grail cycle," not "since the 19th century." At any rate, these works have not "gone out of style" as many across the globe are still interested in them, especially outside of the West. The thinkers you mentioned are simply the type of decadents that always arise when a civilization is at its end. Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin...these men are a passing fashion, while mythology is timeless; I recognize that “mythology is timeless” may sound cliché, but the fact is it is nonetheless true. Mythology is found everywhere, it is universal, in that sense democratic as well. Freud, Nietzsche and the like are not found universally, across space and time, but are rather representatives of a very particular time and place, a decadent time and place whose influence will pass.

      Not to get too far off topic, but the thinkers you mention more or less work off of the assumptions of materialism, and one can already see the paradigm beginning to shift away from materialism as Western science is coming up against the fact that we cannot account for consciousness materially. Check out Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s (first Iranian graduate of MIT) lecture on consciousness given at Harvard, titled, “In the Beginning was Consciousness.” The full lecture can be found on youtube. We invite all these Muslims to the West and, lo and behold, great men like Nasr (and many others) pop up among them to explicitly denounce the bases of contemporary Western thought! Ha! I love it!

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    4. "I've heard it said that much of fantasy is lagging far behind when it comes to how it presents society, as if the entire post-modern philosophical revolution had never happened. Looking at the way Tolkien presents race, sex, class, faith, and nationalism, he has a very old-fashioned viewpoint. His world is one where authority and proper place are not questioned, where there is an ultimate order to which all things must adhere."

      So post-modern philosophy is not in itself an authority? Just the fact that you think one is "lagging behind" if they do not write according to such standards shows that it is an authority. Well, Tolkien (and since you mentioned it, Lewis as well) questioned the new authority. I suppose you can pretend that now there is no authority, just as you can pretend that post-modern writings give no answers, and only questions, and you can also pretend that in the past there was only authority, only answers and no questions, but that is all pretend.

      The plain fact is you cannot get away from authoritative worldviews; once those in power in a society accept a worldview it becomes authoritative, and enough of the powerful in our society accept post-modern views as to make them authoritative (and not just intellectuals and leftist politicians. Capitalists also use equalitarian views to their advantage. Instead of being seen as ruthlessly looking for the workers whom they can pay the least money, they can say they are “promoting diversity” as their machinations cause population displacements all across the globe).

      At any rate, per the above we are now back to the simpler question of determining what worldview is best (none is perfect, and this has always been recognized). Maybe Lockean liberty and capitalism is the lens through which all else should be viewed, maybe postmodernism is that lens, or maybe more 'traditional' worldviews are that lens.

      Tolkien took the latter view, he was a traditionalist, and therein we can see why the literary establishment cannot abide him.

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    5. "names in Tolkien's world, which have an inner consistency and logic that most authors never get close to, and this logic arises out of Tolkien’s philological knowledge"

      I feel it has as much to do with his philological habit as his knowledge--that he uses the rules of philology for fiction, even though they aren't really a good match. It's like how a science-minded writer might suddenly go off on a tangent about some cosmological theory, or another author makes their character a mouthpiece for their personal philosophies. The author's personal hobbies start intruding into the work in a way that doesn't benefit the story.

      So, you end up with situations in Tolkien where a bunch of characters, or places have confusingly similar names--because that happens in history and linguistics, so Tolkien copies that style. But that's not a good enough reason--fiction isn't real, you can do whatever you want, and it's best to write in a way that communicates effectively to the audience.

      Now certainly, Tolkien's knowledge also led to some interesting and lovely names--I won't begrudge him that--but I'm not convinced the entire linguistic structure was effective or necessary for the story he wrote.

      "The thinkers you mentioned are simply the type of decadents that always arise when a civilization is at its end."

      Oh, not at all--indeed, they rejected and rebelled against the decadence of great power structures like the church. They works were about personal responsibility, about not taking anyone else's word for it, but being your own man, creating yourself, and not leaning on old assumptions, but making your way forth and into the future.

      "these men are a passing fashion, while mythology is timeless"

      They are as vital as Socrates, Aquinas, and Descartes in changing the way we view the world--their thoughts pervade our society, from top to bottom. Certainly, someday a new school of thought will come forth, and we will change again--but it will be built upon the foundations of those thinkers, just as they built on the foundations of those who came before.

      Likewise, they recognized all too well the power of mythology. Had you forgotten that Freud based his theories on mythology? From Oedipus and Electra to Narcissus, he drew on the wisdom of the ancients (indeed, he sometimes missed insights they had into psychological types). Likewise, Nietzsche has his theory of Apollonian vs. Dionysian expression, as well as his magnum opus, Thus Spake Zarathustra, a mythological work drawing on Zoroastrianism, the New Testament, and Pre-Socratic traditions.

      "one can already see the paradigm beginning to shift away from materialism as Western science is coming up against the fact that we cannot account for consciousness materially"

      Curious, you must be reading different sources than I am, because neurology and artificial intelligence keep trundling forwards and making new discoveries about consciousness, learning, identity, and the structure of the brain, giving constant new revelations about how we think and feel. Just because we have not solved the great question yet does not mean we are faltering.

      "Check out Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s ... lecture on consciousness"

      I will, thanks for the suggestion.

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    6. "We invite all these Muslims to the West and, lo and behold, great men like Nasr (and many others) pop up among them to explicitly denounce the bases of contemporary Western thought!"

      But Muslim thought is part of Western thought--their religion is a branch of the Judeo-Christian, and their great philosophers based their work on Socrates and Aristotle--most of the Greek influence (and texts) of the Renaissance in Europe were received from the Muslim empires who had kept up the scholarship during the Dark Ages.

      "So post-modern philosophy is not in itself an authority?"

      A philosophy, itself, is not an authority, no. It is a collection of ideas, which can be used by anyone for their own purposes. An academic structure which promotes a certain reading of that philosophy is an authority, though.

      "Just the fact that you think one is "lagging behind" if they do not write according to such standards shows that it is an authority."

      Oh, it's not that--it's the fact that post-modern philosophy has fundamentally changed how we think, and at this point has trickled down even into our pop culture. The fact that it should be so pervasive, and yet fantasy writers ignore it and do not even acknowledge it in their works is what is most telling.

      I'm not suggesting that they should be thorough post-modernists, and agree with all the principles laid out by those thinkers, but the fact that they completely fail to address them is a great oversight--and I think, a rather deliberate one.

      You say that Tolkien and Lewis question this system of thought--but that's simply not true. They revert to old modes and pretend that the revolution never happened. They do not deal with it, they do not refute it, they merely try to evade it and ignore its influence and arguments.

      "you can pretend that now there is no authority, just as you can pretend that post-modern writings give no answers, and only questions, and you can also pretend that in the past there was only authority, only answers and no questions, but that is all pretend."

      Those aren't claims I make--you are arguing against straw men of your own invention. Even if they were claims I was making, merely saying 'it's pretend' is not a refutation--it is a schoolyard assertion.

      Certainly, there are always authorities, and there have always been skeptical individuals, but pervasive skepticism as a cultural value is not something you see studying history--indeed, you tend to see acceptance of authority as the norm, and skepticism as something a few people have.

      The way that thinkers like Socrates or Gallileo were shut up for speaking against tradition, the fact that countries would hold trials on religious heresy, trials which they took very seriously, in order to get rid of skeptical people, to silence their voices. These were not considered sham trials against dissidents (as we have today), but were taken seriously by the populace as real crimes.

      The fact that in pop culture the most common depiction of authority is as something you can't trust--lying politicians, sleazy lawyers, pedophile priests, corrupt bankers, sociopathic CEOs, killer cops, hanging judges--this shows a pervasive cultural recognition that systems of power are arrayed against the little guy, and that these formerly respected and irreproachable positions have been revealed as corrupt, not only to the educated thinker, but to the common man.

      "once those in power in a society accept a worldview it becomes authoritative"

      Certainly, any movement, especially one which threatens authority, will then be taken by authority, repackaged, and sold back to the masses in a safe, declawed form. This is not the same as saying that the authority genuinely takes to heart the lessons of post-modernism (indeed, how could authority operate on a philosophy of individual rebellion?), but that it twists the words of that philosophy in order to justify itself (as in your examples).

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    7. "we are now back to the simpler question of determining what worldview is best"

      That's not really the question that interests me, no--one must understand and engage with many different worldviews in order to look at the world, though of course you don't have to agree with them all. Trying to claim one is best is the work of the answer-men, trying to tell you what to think. The person who values questions over answers will seek many paths, and learn something from each one.

      The journey that we are on, in our lives individually, and as a culture, is never ending. There is always something more to be learned, there is never one answer that will end all discussion. That is why a literature of questions is important, because it's there to help guide us on our journey. Too often, we make the mistake of thinking we know the answer, but in the end, it always turns that we were short-sighted, and things aren't as they seem.

      My problem with Tolkien isn't that he puts forth an old-fashioned worldview, it's that he fails to address our modern concerns, he behaves as if they don't exist. Post-modernism was a direct response to that traditional worldview, tearing down many of its assumptions and creating new, vital questions about what it means to live.

      Tolkien fails to respond to this critique. He just gives us the same old thing over again. It's like someone today trying to use Aquinas' proofs for god, despite the fact that they are all based on Aristotelian physics, and that the modern discoveries of Newton and Einstein invalidate his premises.

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  10. The OP said:

    "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."

    You cannot get away from giving answers, so in the end you can just give better or worse answers. The post-modern who says 'there are no answers' is answering. The post-modern work without 'easy answers', is itself an answer.

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    1. "You cannot get away from giving answers, so in the end you can just give better or worse answers."

      While I agree that it's not possible to have a book without ideas and conclusions, you can definitely have a book which does not give out answers, by exploring the issue from many sides, and giving different perspectives, as Shakespeare did. Instead of structuring the work (and its world) to conform to one specific answer, building up an argument piece by piece, as in an allegory, you can instead present a multifaceted world where each character has their own motivations and desires. Instead of saying to your reader 'this is how it is', you can instead pose a difficult question to your reader--or a series of such questions.

      "The post-modern work without 'easy answers', is itself an answer."

      Haha--only in the way that 'fasting' is a school of cuisine.

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  11. Sorry about commenting more than a year after this post was published, but I thought you might be interested in this lecture by Brandon Sanderson (author of The Way of Kings) on the subject of worldbuilding. Here's a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlYt3zdw4Xg&list=PL2FCD81A6FE4280AC&index=45

    How would you respond? His views seem to align with yours on a couple of points, but he also makes a good argument (in my opinion) for the importance of creating unique and detailed settings. If this lecture seems intriguing, the rest of the course is also available on the playlist, which I've found very helpful in planning my own fantasy novel.

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    1. There are some general points of agreement between Sanderson and I, it's true, but I feel there is a fundamental difference in our approach. He talks about the importance of story and character, and yet he treats magic as a mechanistic system separate from story and character.

      To me, magic is inseparable from the tone, motif, and ideas of a book. Magic takes poetic images and brings them to life, giving them a physical presence in the book. It's like a more extreme version of the Gothic tradition, where the physical rainstorm and lightning outside is a representation of the internal turmoil of the character (something I explore more in this post).

      As such, magic already has an underlying structure--even in a 'soft magic' system of the kind Sanderson describes in his 'first law of magic'. The reason a skilled author doesn't just use magic to solve a plot problem is because they put that problem there deliberately, for a reason, to explore a certain idea or conflict through their characters, and so simply doing away with it makes no sense--the solution needs to fit the theme and the character arc.

      It's like constructing a philosophical argument: the introduction, arguments, supporting evidence, and conclusion all need to work in harmony in order for it to be effective. A skilled author isn't going to cut their own character arc off in the middle any more than a skilled philosopher would stop his proof halfway through and just say 'I'm right'--even though that might be easier.

      Certainly, if an author just thinks of their book as a mechanical construction, where conflicts are only introduced to give characters things to do to take up pages until the conclusion, then that kind of author would be tempted to find easy ways out of that conflict, rather than think of a real solution--but that's a very simplistic and superficial way to write a story.

      So, as magic is already confined and defined by the ideas and motifs of the story, I don't see a reason to place a second, arbitrary structure over that magic--if an author is having trouble with their magic getting out of control, then they need to spend more time thinking about their plot and character arcs, the symbols they want to use, and how their magic can serve those goals--instead of producing an artificial set of rules that has nothing to do with the themes they are trying to explore.

      Because of this, I often find that many so-called 'soft magic' writers actually have much more meaningful and solid structure behind their magic than authors who spend their time worldbuilding and inventing magic systems, because those systems aren't integrated into the meaning of the story they are trying to tell.

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  12. So it appears I'm late to the party, since this article was published quite a while ago. But I saw that you included a picture of the Kadinjača Monument and couldn't resist writing up a comment! It's delights me whenever someone shares an appreciation for Yugoslavian brutalist monuments. They so elegantly transform the pain of a tragic WWII event into expressive, abstract concrete. They're also quite obscure outside the former country, so you must have a fantastic and inquisitive eye to have picked this one out. Thank you for that!

    Anyway, your post and the lively discussion in the comments gave my mind much to chew over. I hope you haven't abandoned your posting here; your thoughts on fantasy are illuminating.

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    1. Yes, I find that whole series of monuments to be both beautiful and haunting. The fact that many of them have disintegrated over time due to lack of upkeep is sad--but there's also something poetic about it, true to the original pain and loss that inspired them, but also representative of the continued conflicts which have allowed some of them to become so neglected.

      As for my posting, I have gotten away from the blog, working on other things. I hope some day to get back to it, but I don't know when that might be. I am still taking notes and drafting up future articles, here and there.

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  13. Thank you for sharing such provocation and open discourse. I have just finished reading through all the comments and responses contained here and have, truly, a great appreciation for the breadth of knowledge on display! Wow!
    Reading this page (and other of your available critiques and reviews) has been as thought provoking as any narrative I have read (which pales in comparison to the works spaghettied about here) and found myself gasping, and indignant, and curious, and congratulatory, and shocked, and enlightened, and underwhelmed as much as overwhelmed by a number of responses, throughout the length of this wonderful scrolling debate.
    I even found myself fogging up the screen, so closely was my nose pressed against it in concentration, consternation, comprehension, and gratitude for all the fabulous words and angles and silliness and depth. My goodness! Such a delicious pleasure.

    Thank you

    I have so many questions...

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    1. I'm glad to hear that you found the discussion thought-provoking. It's certainly a complex topic to address, and one which has a bearing on many different authors and books. As such, it's hardly surprising that there are strong views on both sides. As to your questions, I'd be happy to discuss them with you, either publicly or privately, whichever you prefer (though I doubt I'll be able to engage in much discussion in the next week).

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