Revenge of the Spec Fic Nerds!
Two old Speculative Fiction Nerds walk into in a bar…
No. Really. We met in a bar and realised we had one major thing in common: words. Preferably wrapped about fantastic worlds like some insane crazy quilt.
CC: All right, we said we were going to talk about worldbuilding this month, or at least partially, because it’s perhaps one of the biggest aspects of Spec Fic. While we usually start out with an OED definition of our topic, I’m afraid the OED doesn’t have one for this. So you’ll just have to trust us on this one:
~1 Worldbuilding noun \ˈwər(-ə)ld-bil-diŋ\
The process of inventing a world or universe to serve as a base upon which a fictional story is set. History, biology (and its evolution), psychology and sociology (and their evolution[s]), ecology and geology are all crucial components of inclusive worldbuilding and, when used effectively, can enhance and enrich a fully realized fictional world.
CC: No, we’re not going to tell you how to build a world, and we’re not going to cram in not-so-sly promos of the worlds we’ve built in our own books. Except, I did build this really cool world, and you can read all about it in my book. Here, let me paste in an excerpt and a link to—
CC: …Er. Yes, Jen?
JTH: Don’t give me that innocent look. No. Down, girl.
CC: *pours JTH honking-big glass of wine and grins endearingly*
JTH: *sips wine* Still no. And that grin isn’t half as endearing as you think it is.
CC: *grumbles* Okay, fine, we’re really not here to talk about our own worlds, and we’re not even really here to analyze the worlds of other authors. We’re here to talk about worldbuilding in Spec Fic and why writing it—and reading it—takes a different kind of mindset than it would in something like… oh, say, a historical memoir or a contemporary romance. We’re also going to talk about why anachronisms aren’t always anachronistic, even if they look like they are, and why—even when building a world encompasses the exposition of same-sex sexuality—the term “gay” does not necessarily apply.
JTH: And also, eventually, why worldbuilding can be its own most craven enemy, leading to such things as the Backstory That Drones On And On And ON, the World Without A Plot, and the World That Tells You–Every Stinking Paragraph–Just How Amazing It Is.
*looks at all the capitals* Bloody damn, that was exhausting.
CC: Have some cheese with that whine?
JTH: As long as it isn’t Cheetos…
CC: *lobs cheese*
JTH: *catches it* But then, worldbuilding is bloody exhaustive work and we should all cast a suspicious eye upon those who say otherwise. Which end upon the hard part descends hinges on how you work and write… but if you don’t do the work, it shows. And we have an entire rich world to base us in creating our own; SF is all about the mining and resculpturing of mythic encounters. It questions valued paradigms. There is, of course and like everything, a caveat to this: so much of SF started with a bunch of upper class white guys–many of them Victorians envisioning Other, and often in a less-than-culturally-balanced way. Nevertheless, some of the most amazing worlds were born in the breath of folk tales and faery stories. Perhaps all of it, when you break it down to its essential bits…
But it’s a different kind of work than, say, the work you have to do on an historically-based event. There is no less of a world being built (rebuilt?) in historical fiction but your… ‘map’ changes. The rules by which you have to abide can be fairly binding. You can wriggle around a lot of the Rules by putting a fantastical element into the history. Steampunk and alternate history are two good examples of this. I detest bunging everything up into tidy boxes, BUT. A magical element is not license to run amok. There has to be some sort of internal consistency, some sense to be gleaned from even a wild world, however anarchic or anachronistic.
CC: It’s tempting to shove dragons and magic and the Fae Folk (or spaceships and laser guns) into a story and think: “There, I’m done. I can do what I want, now!” But no. No, no, no, noooooo. Just because it’s a Spec Fic story and there’s more license for playing with the development of the world, does not mean there don’t have to be rules. Every world has to have rules—gravity, physical limitations, societal expectations, etc.—and just because a world is made up, that doesn’t give it a free pass. There still has to be a basis in the reality of that particular world.
Given that, Anachronism is still one of those words that gets thrown around entirely too much. I’ve seen complaints about an anachronism in a book that “threw a reader out of the story”, and when I go and have a look, I find that the word or situation in question wasn’t anachronistic at all. What a reader might think is an anachronism isn’t always anachronistic:
A world wouldn’t develop mass transit before it developed mass communication, WTF!
It wouldn’t? Why not? It’s a completely different world—why wouldn’t it develop technology on a completely different timeline and in a completely different way?
A hospital scene in Medieval Japan, WTF!
And…? First of all, if it’s a Spec Fic story, it wouldn’t really be Medieval Japan, would it? And second of all, Medieval Japan had hospitals.
JTH: So much of Spec Fic is based on medieval places; it’s far too easy to fall into those assumptions and expectations… in a genre where expectations are supposed to be shaken and questioned! And if you have a race, say, of telepaths that cannot physically teleport, then they don’t need artificial mass communication… but they just might have to get somewhere quickly. So I guess my question is: who wasn’t doing the work? There’s a problem on both sides of the author/reader dynamic: the tendency to be unwilling–or just too lazy–to submit to the world being built.
The writer has a lot more to prove, a lot more trust to garner–and they should. A writer’s job is to make absolutely sure their wild and fantastic world has some kind of interior logic that holds water, and all the while be preemptive in making sure that said logic is presented in stable and hopefully non-intrusive fashion. On the reader’s side, they need to agree to let the author take them on a journey of some kind–and often in SF that means being thoughtful and open-minded. Lack of know-how on either side can sabotage the trust.
And there’s always going to be someone–author or reader–who pulls something out of their arse without checking to make sure whether they’ve mined gold or crap.
CC: And writers get bent on the weirdest things. For example, I was watching a conversation on one of my writers’ groups in which the OP asked if she should stay away from using the word “earth” in the fantasy story she was writing, and whether or not it was anachronistic. And I kind of watched the comments build and multiply, all the while boggling that everyone seemed to think it was a huge mistake to use the word in a story that didn’t take place on Earth, and not a single person seemed to twig to the fact that, in its nonProper Noun form, “earth” is just another word for “soil”. Yes, someone thousands of years ago named our planet after it, but the primary definition of the word originated from the Greek “eorthe/ertha” and “erde”, both of which mean “ground”.
The thing is, writing a Spec Fic story without inventing a whole new language for the world in which the story is based—and then writing the story in that language—is anachronistic in and of itself. We’re already putting English words in our characters’ mouths, when they obviously shouldn’t be speaking English. The Lord of the Rings, for instance, wasn’t written in Westron, so technically, the entirety of the text is one giant anachronism. So you do have to give a Spec Fic story some leeway when it comes to language.
JTH: And Tolkien wasn’t building a world that was separate from OUR world; he was doing a myth of prehistory. So he could get away with a lot of things he shouldn’t have been able to had he been doing a totally different world… and had he not been a Fantasy Trailblazer and White Dude. 😉 A Fantasy based firmly in history has to be somewhat conversant with that history… (And truthfully, Tolkien kind of did what he bloody wanted with some of his ‘consistencies’. Being Fantasy Trailblazer garners respect, but does not get you off the hook, White Dude.)
CC: Yeah, there is certainly that. Calling a story Spec Fic does not mean it’s a free-for-all when it comes to building the world on which the story takes place. The religion of that world is a four-god system that never heard of Judeo-Christianity? Then having your character say “jeepers creepers” is anachronistic. Why? Because it’s a slang phrase meant as a nonblasphemous alternative to saying “Jesus Christ.”
JTH: Or Jeezy Creezy, as Eddie Izzard would say. (And if you’ve not heard of him… run, don’t walk to your retailer of choice, and grab one of his comedic DVDs.)
CC: In your mind!
*cough* Sorry. Had myself a brief Izzard Moment. Anyway.
There are tons of words and phrases like that, and sometimes readers will trip over them, and sometimes they won’t. But it’s the author’s job to be aware of language and to use it properly. And then not get all bent out of shape when someone does trip over an anachronism the author used, however inadvertently, because let’s face it—not all of us have a 5,000,000 word vocabulary and the brass to use it. *pokes JTH*
JTH: Kept me off the streets. Dirt roads. Whatever. I do believe I was the only kid I knew who had a dictionary on the nightstand–and read it. Of course, reading the dictionary means that you end up not knowing many kids…
And language… that is a whole ‘nother thing all it’s own… and I really-really want to dive in headfirst, but will restrain myself for another visit to the Armchair. I’ll just leave it for now that language can be anachronism. Or, given the proper basis, not. Anachronism is like… a debate, perhaps, and the entire hinge upon which it swings seems to be the validity of the defending argument. Does the author make the world-logic compelling enough to take in the use of this device, or wield that equipment? Are they insecure in their world and having to desperately defend it by bludgeoning the reader? Is the reader willing to go in and be convinced–or do they, too, have some underground agenda of needing to have their own world validated, and so much that they can’t wake up to another one?
Or did just some unfortunate fuck-up happen that nobody caught? Because, well, it does.
CC: When the author ventures out of that reality, that’s when it’s okay to call a Spec Fic story on anachronism. Authors know their worlds better than anyone else ever will, but sometimes we spend so much time in them, we don’t pay enough attention to the one everybody else lives in. So yeah, things—like a phrase or a word or a concept—can get by an author and no alarm bells will go off until a reader catches it.
On the other hand, just because a character in a SF world that looks like a 4th century Mesopotamia discovers a device that looks suspiciously to the reader like a battery—and probably starts a big war or has to keep the device from Evil Bad Guy, because we can’t forget about the High Stakes Endgame—that doesn’t make it anachronistic. If the possibility of that device is built into that world, the author has done their job and it’s the reader’s responsibility to roll with it. And if the reader still can’t buy it? Look it up. It’s sometimes surprising how many “unbelievable and anachronistic” things are actually neither. ‘Cause, you know, there is such thing as the Baghdad Battery. Oh, and hey, historians are pretty sure it’s from the 3rd century.
JTH: So it seems, when you get it whittled down, it’s cultural anachronisms in SF that can be the worst offenders, eh? If a reader or writer makes the assumption that things are expected to be nothing more than status quo, set in the stone of our own culture’s baggage… that’s when things can get really dicey. Like assuming another religion will of course look at things the same way as ‘your’ religion does. Like deciding that every being living on an entire planet will act the same and look the same. (Yes, Gene Roddenberry, I love you but am looking at you.) Like being irritated when words have apostrophes or are difficult to pronounce, and…? *pauses and toasts CC*
CC: And here’s where we get into “gay”, and why it really isn’t. At least, in a Spec Fic story that’s not based in our world.
Our history is not the universe’s history. If there are other populated worlds out there, chances are not all of them came up with vengeful gods who hate it when people stick their twigs in what they perceive as the wrong knothole, or eschew twigs altogether.
I like to think that other worlds wouldn’t develop our same prejudices. I like to think alien societies would be smarter about sexuality than we are. So when I’m confronted with a story that supposedly takes place on another world entirely, and yet that world includes all of the societal absurdities of ours, I have to hold back a few emo tears. Because what’s the point? Spec Fic, you know?—where the ‘spec’ part is short for speculative. If there’s no speculation, what’s so speculative about it?
“Gay”, as a cultural concept, is characteristic of our world, and the prejudices that—unfortunately still—come with it progressed from a societal evolution unique to us. Or, at least, I certainly hope we’re the only idiots in the universe to have hissies over who sleeps with whom. But I digress. And don’t mistake “gay” for a blanket synonym for “same-sex relationships”, not in Spec Fic. In Spec Fic, same-sex relationships are often part and parcel of the cultural norm—sometimes the expectation.
JTH: I think it’s that language thing again… and one that belongs to our more recent cultures. Gay, for instance–relatively recently and in the more dominant cultures of this world–has been claimed by a disenfranchised group of people as a statement and an identity. It seems to me somewhat discourteous–and disingenuous–to just hie off with that identity and use it as nothing more than a keyword. There has to be context. There will be subtext–either read into it or there waiting to be read–and we all need to be damn sure of what that subtext is saying. If history is taken from an identifier, then to some extent some of the identifier’s meaning is ripped away as well.
I can talk about a gay 12th century English outlaw–but do I use that terminology in the text proper? No. There are words from that century that are more appropriate–and many of them unfortunately brutal–but with some attention their meaning can make them pertinent to a struggle the modern reader can identify with. The cultural and language markers cannot be the same… but the subtext and questions within them can make them even more accessible.
As Spec Fic writers–and readers–we need to build upon existing identities… but we also need to know when to let them hold their own place. We need to build new identities as we’re building new worlds–and look for answers to old, troubling questions whilst we carry on our attempts to make some sort of sense within them.
And for you, Dear Readers:
What books and/or stories made you question your paradigm? Made you ‘wake up’ and ask questions about what was wrong–or right–about your own world?
Carole Cummings lives with her husband and family in Pennsylvania, USA, where she spends her time trying to find time to write. Author of the Aisling and Wolf’s-own series, Carole is an avid reader of just about anything that’s written well and has good characters. She is a lifelong writer of the ‘movies’ that run constantly in her head. Surprisingly, she does manage sleep in there somewhere, and though she is rumored to live on coffee and Pixy Stix™, no one has as yet suggested she might be more comfortable in a padded room. Well, not to her face.
J Tullos Hennig is suspected of having written since in utero. JTH was a professional writer 30 years ago, but Very Bad Luck prevailed so the publishing ground to a halt. JTH also tried to stop writing, but resistance is, yes, futile… and here we are. JTH has recently re-imagined the legend of Robyn Hood in a duology of Historical Fantasy; Book 1, Greenwode was published by Dreamspinner Press in January 2013. The second book, Shirewode was released on September 9th. JTH is presently working on the introductory book of a Speculative Fiction series.