Society is like sex in that no one knows what perversions it can develop once aesthetic considerations are allowed to dictate its choices

February 25, 2013 § Leave a comment


M. John Harrison, the great British anti-fantasy writer has written brilliant screeds against world creation. He deliberately messes with the reader’s expectations of world creation. He likes to torture us with that nerdy desire we have for a stable secondary world—and I speak as one who shares it. So, for example, the name of the city he’s created in Viriconium changes from story to story with no particular explanation. The map shifts. A character who is dead in one story comes back later on. This of course makes continuity freaks scream in physical pain. I really love this about him. It’s incredibly provocative, and while it’s not the paradigm I write within, I do try to take some of the lessons from that.

What that would mean would be, for example, don’t fill in everything on a map. If you don’t know what’s on a map in the real world, how can you possibly fill one in in a world that doesn’t exist? It’s meaningless. Leave things unknown.

With The City & the City, one of the things that fascinated me was the number of people who criticized it on the grounds of wanting to know how the cities got like that. Look, I’m not the police, so if not finding out bugged them, and the book didn’t work for them because of it, then it didn’t work for them. Personally that has no traction for me as a reader, partly because I like mystery—I like not understanding things in the books that I read. But also because—and I know we’re not talking about the real world—it’s an equivalent question to asking, “How did London come to be?” “Why is Budapest like that?” It’s a question that demands such an amount of history that the weight of totality is so great that you can’t possibly answer it. Totality evades our complete understanding, not because the world is unknowable, but because there’s so fucking much of it.

For all those reasons, I think one of the most important things in world creation is to leave certain things unsaid. I think there’s nothing wrong with frustrating your readers about that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pissing them off at all, as long as they’re interested.

To mention Harrison one more time, there is a lovely formulation from when he was at his slightly more “world create-y” early on in his career. He has a lovely phrase in the opening of Pastel City where he says, “There were some seventeen notable empires in the later ages of man. None of them concern us here.” And I love that. It’s so cheeky to pitch this historical weight of world creation, but then say, “Well, I’m not going to go into that because it’s really not relevant.” That to me is sort of like the most elegant and funny moment of world creation in speculative fiction in the last thirty years. “None of them concern us here.” That could be the slogan of the epistemologically rigorous world creator.  read more


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