Saturday, 10 September 2011

Compelling World-building—Luck or Craft?

Thousands of writers have pitched their skills at creating new worlds and associated compelling stories. Some worlds have been more successful than others. Why?

I wish to analyze this issue using four general premises.

Premise 1:

The characters must integrate well with the fantasy-SF world. This is the marker for any exceptional piece of work—the maker or breaker.  If the characters fail to fit seamlessly into the world, then the story is going to have a tough time. Any bit of awkward groping by author or character spells reader disconnect, and that fatal ‘jar’ which takes the reader out of the story.  For example, quick ways to kill seamlessness are anachronisms, dialogue that doesn't fit, characters all speaking from the same voice.

Probably the classic example of a time-tested successful world is the wildly exotic concocted universe of Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”. Though written in 1865, here we have proof of a riot of topsy-turvy characters, unlike any of those conservative times, plunged into a dream world in the interior of the earth. The story marches along at a jaunty pace; we are kept in tenterhooks, as to Alice’s safety and the horror of her never returning to ‘proper British society’.

Why is the world perfect? The rich potpourri of unpredictability is entertaining—Alice and her outlandish guardian The Mad Hatter take centre stage and find an endless number of distractions and challenges—easy for the author to engineer drama.  The setting is rich enough, and full of caprice and eccentricity. There is enough of a dark force and nature to keep the world tempered, and the story hangs together. The Red Queen, in my opinion, is the invariable glue which keeps the story melded (I call it melded, otherwise there may be a falling apart due to an excessive slapstick and farcical component, without the driving force that modern readers demand.)

To similar degree, I would class the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis in similar configuration. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the classic YA adventure, is fundamentally a children’s story which has influenced millions of readers and writers, including myself for years. My first book report written back in public school was on The Silver Chair, the fourth book in the series, and to this day I remember the story’s effect on me! Why, is the series so successful then?–the characters merge seamlessly in the world and the fluid presentation resounds in such a rich context that there is no room for reader boredom or a creation of a distracting question in the reader’s mind—like, why ’o why a silly wardrobe? Or, can a lion really talk? Such distractions only server to kill the narrative and which might crop up in derivative works penned by less-experienced writers than Carroll.

I have attempted in similar fashion to create a playful, imaginative fantasy in my two shorts, The Magic Hoop and Hat, and The Mirror of Eventualities. In the former, an archer is plummeted into the world of mysterious Ynos where a mischievous glist, a kind of changeling creature, befriends the protagonist, and through wise agency guides the archer through his frustrating path in the ‘real’ world above. In The Mirror of Eventualities, a bungling Magus plunges himself unwittingly into an alternate dimension where he must strive to get back to reality to fulfil his destiny, invariably perambulating along lines of his Queen’s thaumaturgical wishes—alas, it never ends so idyllically, in either real life or fantasy, so the reader and the protagonist are unprepared for the ultimate consequence . . .

My observation is that Premise 1: (seamless integration of character(s)) runs so deep, that an author can create even a clichĂ©d world (like a sword & sorcery pseudo-Celtic, mediaeval, dungeons and dragons sphere) and still create a successful tale if the author adheres to the basis of the principle cited earlier and integrates his/her characters with a style and consistency that the reader finds coherently pleasing. This includes the trope of the ubiquitous classic spaceship/ark out to explore new worlds and encountering hostile forces or tentacle-bearing aliens or other malign foes. No holes, or gaps, or breaks in the natural extension of the world itself—this is the blessed formula which creates the necessary suspension of disbelief that marks all good stories. I cite the Shannara series by Terry Brooks as tried and true fantasy, even in a somewhat over-troped world, where earlier pioneers like Tolkien and his followers developed a D&D tradition.

Another sub-premise of this feature: If the world itself forces the characters to meld seamlessly, then the author achieves the desired result spontaneously. Looking at some hard core worlds, you’ll see what I mean. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Day of the Triffids, 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, The Road, Resident Evil, and similar subgenres of zombie apocalypse.

These stories are so popularly gripping, if not intriguing for reasons largely along the lines of the hostility of the world. In these action-horrors, the world as we know it is turned topsy-turvy: there is anarchy, death, and soul-stripping of the worst kind as humankind’s known systems are undermined to the point of extinction and there are no simple solutions. We are horrified, trapped in our armchairs, waiting pinch-nerved to see how the protagonists can survive against such desperate, dismal, chaotic, brutal forces. Well, provided we are not hokeyed out by bad writing . . . A lot of modern zombie and vampire fiction gets nebulous at times and does not demand the respect or sophistication of the better fiction.

Because the apocalyptic world has been modified in such a brutally vivid way, the characters have no choice but to plunge themselves against the ferocious forces at work and take their best shot at the menace(s) just to survive on a minute by minute basis. The action comes automatically, without the author having to do a lot to build it up in any formal or esoteric sense. Superficially, it seems like a short cut, but it isn’t. The characters still have to engage the audience and use their wits. We have seen lesser forms of zombie and vampire fiction degrading into pure nonsense.

The whole point of mentioning the examples above, is to reiterate the fact that these devices are reflections of the author’s cleverness in choosing them: a sumptuous backdrop or container or containing field which harbours enough forbidden elements and caveats to create the suspense, drama, horror and riveting action necessary to push the reader over the edge, and ultimately pigeon-hole the success of the story.

In the sci-fi film District 9, South Africa’s fulsome ghetto of aliens and alien machinery creates a beguiling background for action and terror. Oddly, the film starts out comically, with the mild-mannered protagonist Wikus uttering his jejune dialog which seems almost unreal—but watch out!—it is a red herring! If the writer(s) were to put a less potentially-menacing array of aliens and machines in place—or stinted on the ruthlessness of the Earth-world organizations wishing to snatch such technology for their own, the story would be less pungent. The film receives a thumbs up for me in terms of seamless integration of character with world.

On the topic of shocking worlds, the space thriller Audra lives up to its reputation. A SF horror—beginning when a military-explorer is intercepted in space by alien forces (see trope previously mentioned)—the sheer atrocity of the situation and the rising events are impetus enough to keep the reader engaged. The world, in this case, the hostility of space, coupled with a modern demonology of technology that allows alien to interface with human, is enough of a catalyst for the story to erupt in fire and grip the reader to the very end.

On another tack, the 1851 story Moby Dick, is okay: we’ve got a quasi-interesting setting, somewhat glorifying the austere melancholy of the sea, but it doesn’t have enough of a gripping plot to keep us engaged for 300+ pages. In this story, I was wondering if it was not so much an issue of the world being dull, for the sea is a rich and fertile setting, but more of what Herman Melville chose to focus on in his novel. The underlying plot, a whaling captain’s obsession for revenge upon a huge white sperm whale after having his leg ripped off, is great, but the discursiveness of the themes and the numerous symbolisms and metaphors and soliloquies employed, inarguably mutes the potential of the action. Melville’s content—the minutiae of fishing and Ishmael’s day to day existence—seems rather dull. Whereas the leviathan Moby Dick has much more of an interesting potential—I wish the author had focussed more on the whale—I think not just I would agree with this, but most readers.

Contrasted with the thriller Jaws by Peter Benchley, we see here an adventure-horror focusing solely on the terror of a mutant shark and the heroes’ attempts at capturing and luring the mutant to its demise—unlike Moby Dick, which plods along at a snail’s pace. Jaws has infinitely more accessible resource to mainstream audiences over Moby Dick.  The point here is not a criticism, but merely a comparison of both books from a world-building perspective in lines of Premise 1.  What are the impacts of both stories? The characters in Jaws (shark included) create seamless gripping action through the harrowing teamwork of Quint, Matt and Martin against the monster, whereas Moby Dick seems like more of a fairy tale with our attention diverted on issues far away from the whale.

In the Dystopian SF-thriller The Jisil-ou-az-lar, the protagonist has not only the mutated spine-chilling fish-forms to contend with, but the competition with the rival steamers and the brigs, and the bleak promise of harshness of a future earth, where polar ice caps have melted and an eternal ocean drowns the land. The hero is a lonely soul; his sombre temperament is reflected in the somewhat lugubrious setting, yet his spirit is strong and propels the action, thus fitting purposefully with the world.

Premise 2:

The world must have a unique element which drives the speculative thrust of the story.

Here we take the blockbuster Avatar as an example—an advanced race of forest beings connect with their winged steeds by mystical-physical fusing with their bodies. The steeds are somewhat huge and ferocious, like dragons, allowing the nature-beings dominion over the skies. The heritage or skill allows the tribe to confront the ultimately technologically-superior invaders that infringe on their domain and who have come to destroy them. A brilliant premise, and the numerous characters weave expertly with the far-world. This is probably the main strength of the story—what with taking out all the special effects and the glitter. Outside of some cheesy dialog in the beginning and scattered here and there, I think this sci-fi adventure ranks amongst some of the finest in the business.

In Touched by the Tithys, we have a harshness of a jungle-forest similar to avatar where winged predators guard evil powers that can freeze a living being to liquid carbon by the lick of their tongue or the waft of air from their monstrous wings. Men and women war with each other; they enslave each other for their own mating purposes. The strife between men and women comprises the main conflict, and one coming-of-age healer’s struggles to understand her primitive world, and who wishes to make a difference in the dystopian light. The heroine, because of the lurking danger of her world, must band with her peers for survival; she is trained in that manner since birth, yet her pugnacity is tempered by her healer’s pure heart which wins out in the end, creating an endearing drama, keeping the reader out of the deadly, annoying ‘jar-state’ and the ‘who cares?’ phase.

In Flowerfly, the cold vastness of the Psanis star system is the arena for conflict. A lone plant-animal hybrid Flowerfly clues into her power and explores the solar system, ultimately to experience various conflicts with the denizens populating the nearby worlds. The very nature of her stark settings leads the reader to ask many questions: what mysteries lie outside her cosmos? How is the ambitious solitary likeable Flowerfly to fulfill her destiny, her audacious quest for exploration and inquiry?

In far-future Phane, the young bullies of an off-world planet are finding their way in the mire of adolescent life.  One from their gang breaks free from the oppressive clique and befriends an old mystic in the hills, purportedly a recluse sorcerer.  The reader learns much about the backward world through the young protagonist’s fascination with the history and the technology of a race long gone.  The off-world description and seamless build-up of tension paves the way for a moving tale, near novella length.

Brian Aldiss’s excellent visionary fantasy Hothouse deserves some attention. Meticulous detail and vivid description offer credence to the master’s world itself, coupled with the breakneck pace and the excellent SF premise, which create a profound tale. Plantpods travel in space on cables between Earth and Moon; we are left wondering how do they survive in such a vacuum? How large are these colonies? The author creates enough rich texture in his description; we are naturally asking these questions on our own and extending the author’s suspension of disbelief. The relatively human characters involved in the web give us a measure against the evil, alien presences out there. The questions are left lingering in our minds, without the author having to write about them directly. What genius! A powerful world!

On the topic of Aldiss, we also have Super-Toys LastAll Summer Long and Other Stories of Future Time, a title story which formed the basis for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. The story—or the film—was very well executed in my opinion, and again, Aldiss’s uncanny ability to craft an engrossing, uncanny read is phenomenal. The sheer profundity of the futuristic world of earth and its massive spread of time is breathtaking. Alas, a master of the field does it effortlessly, and not without significant craftsmanship. Who knows what went on in Aldiss’s brain back in 1969 when he came up with this glorious concept, and then coupled the idea with Spielberg and Kubrick. We get SF-computer-android-millions-of-years-in-the-future where androids have the power and intelligence of humans and can restore visions of the past through undreamed-of technology. The world is staggering; set up with masterly care.

Robert Silverberg writes, in his excellent, “Worlds of Wonder—Exploring the craft of SF” that a science fiction story ought to be built around some idea that stimulates thought. I add, that ideally it should be original too!

The Brain Machine was an attempt at following that rule. Yes, artificial intelligence is inevitable in our horizon, and is no new idea to readers and writers alike, but do we have a media-telenet interview with a mad scientist demonstrating his AI creation? Does most AI fiction have to so insidiously revolve around Machiavellian possibilities? Again no. The Brain Machine attempts a new foray into the concept.

Another means by which authors can enhance their themes is through means of a lengthy time-arc as seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monoliths, for example, extend an ancient, intricate mystery, in which Clarke’s story attempts to explain, over protracted time, the alien sentinel as observing the history of humankind over millenia, along with its curious denizens. The concept is ingenious and coupled with the whole Jupiter exploration and the fastidious ‘Hal’, the onboard computer, create a world that is rivetingly original.

The short story, “Benevolent Influence” attempts in some way to offer a daring, albeit, trope-heavy, theory for evolution, along similar lines as 2001. The world in this story, is surprisingly set up intrinsically by recorded history as we know it. The earth has born witness to a huge time-arc (millions of years), and with the reader’s common knowledge of the earth’s history as researched by palaeontologists, evolutionists, anthropologists and scientists, we get a believable framework for ‘what could have gone before’ if we consider a cunning alien interference. The various life forms evolving on earth over the aeons form the rationale—such as the dinosaurs, the fishes, homo sapiens, which become the protagonists of the story, and only solidify the premise and the coming of the twist at the end.

Premise 3:

The most awesome worlds are not just what comes to the author’s mind. They are carefully engineered brainchildren: revised and tweaked to ultimate perfection, maximizing the impact of the character’s development.

The effective world is one which is constructed in such a way as to further the character’s conflict and deepen the theme.

It’s not just enough to slap together a few pieces of fantasy or SF, fiddle with them and put a half-baked story around the edges. It’s not just ‘pick the world’ and now let’s ‘build the characters’. We generally must start with some idea of what the world is and modify it, evolve it in our mind, let the characters and action gestate and become clearer, then flow in a moving, profound harmony of precision, implying deeper significance to the betterment of the drama.

The perfect example of this is Brave New World. Huxley’s depiction of his futuristic dystopia is so disturbing and emotion-grabbing that it brings the reader to tears; and yet it remains so stifling to the protagonist that it forces his incisive intellect to analyze his world, try to figure out why it is like this, grasp its existence and make a stand, even though it defeats him in the end. The world is so evocatively scripted right from the very start, that we are constantly identifying with the main character. We are carried along with his plight, caring for his emotion and his pain. It is our plight that we care for upon reflection, as we are naturally drawing parallels from Huxley’s far-future creation to our own. Huxley’s fictitious world exhibits certain degenerate elements: the dependence of the masses on technology, the controversial genetic manipulation of food, animals and crops, and the insidious ramifications implied, as well as birth control gone berserk.

Fritz Leiber’s World of Lankhmar demonstrates a different sort of mastery: we have thieves, ruffians, wizards, sorceresses, pirates, rogues, giants, and any number of colourful creatures and locales and places. It is a land rich with colour and action.  The heroes—invariably Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser—come to real life and are awarded rich potential for adventures and heroic (and not so heroic) action due to the nature of the exotic flavour riddled throughout Leiber’s Lankmarian world. I have only the highest praise for Leiber’s contribution to heroic fantasy—especially the first three volumes of his series.

In Tim Stretton’s entertaining The Last Free City we have hierarchical and intricate organization. A tightly-knit society where etiquette and tradition rule, and tradition seal the acts of most of the characters—most, except the rebel protagonist Todarko who goes up against the grain; his emotional convictions won’t let him sit back and stay complaisant, nor the disgruntled second-in-line descendant, Malvazan, who is constantly seeking recognition. Stretton is attempting to bring life to a world which defies change. Its petty politics and machinations of the ruling class clamp individuals down, heroes and villains alike. I admire Stretton for the purity of his attack. He is not relying on magical tropes or talismans to ‘jazz up’ his world, or serve as convenient means to get his characters out of jams. No, they must fend for themselves and use their own wits. This is somewhat artful and to be admired in today’s world of ever-growing adventure and pseudo-magical tales. The strength of “The Last Free City” lies in its vivid depiction of reality of its participants. They are linked together in complex ways, and are intelligently-wrought humorous characters who meld perfectly with their renaissance world.

Premise 4:

Putting some limitations on the world or its potential makes the story more interesting for the reader.

(1) A limitation inspires character(s) to discover creative ways to get beyond the limitation(s). This gives rise to richer plot and action.

(2) The hint of a ‘potential’ untapped in the world inspires a protagonist to explore the potential even more, though there may be insurmountable risks. Again, this creates a richer storyline.

Some examples of limitations on magic:

(1) The ring that Bilbo Baggins carries in The Hobbit that is used to escape his foes by becoming invisible: Gandalf warns the Halfling against employing the talisman and we don’t know why until later in the The Lord of the Rings when Frodo Baggins hides from his enemies through means of the ring, but with the tragic side effect that its grip on him becomes ever more insidious and addictive.

(2) Cugel the Clever’s boot wax in Jack Vance’s Cugel’s Saga: such wax spread on a wayfarer’s boot gives an object buoyancy when the object is kicked—often with the disadvantageous effect of having the object rising into the sky and disappearing forever.

(3) Baus the Bold’s magic talisman wielded in Rogues of Bindar: it allows the hero-and-villain to play tricks on his enemies and save his skin more than once. The talisman’s power is enduring for no more than ten minutes—not an eternal, lasting power—which makes the wielder’s task a little bit more difficult. The protagonist must think carefully on its use. Improper technique, leads to, well . . . mishap.

These are a few of the observations I have accumulated on the topic of successful world-building. I find it a fascinating subject, and I’d love to hear your opinions and comments.