a tool, not a rule: thoughts on technique and worldbuilding

I’m off the the Netherlands next week, to give a couple of talks and run a workshop based on (among other things) the Magrathea Protocol essay. One of these events is public, so if you’re in or near Utrecht on Thursday 21st September (3pm to 5pm), why not come along and ask me awkward questions?

The second event is not public; I’ll be working with PBL, the national spatial planning agency, making the case for worldbuilding as a translational concept in futuring, and thus arguing that different approaches to the narration of climate futures in particular can open up those futures to boroader, non-specialist audiences.

As such, I’m thinking hard about how to explain these things, and looking to the wisdom of other folk working in the same area. Andrew Dana Hudson is always worth paying attention to, but his summary of a discussion that he and Madeleine Ashby had with Julian Bleecker during one of Julian’s “superseminars” was particularly pertinent.

The first of his three points is one that I’ve been trying to argue for ages, but which—rather typically—ADH has managed to condense into a much simpler and more memorable format:

I’d argue that fiction writing and futures thinking share core competencies. (This applies even to non-speculative fiction.) Both involve assembling big piles of hypotheticals and putting them in a convincing, compelling order. Both are a kind of imaginative play, throwing aside familiar norms and trying on new ones, like children in games of pretend. And both involve contending with the endlessly complicated system dynamics of human society. As the mid-20th century literary critic Lionel Trilling argued,

“Literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.”

Worldbuilding is synthesis. It is also, at its best, a bridging of scales: the micro and the macro brought together in a way that elucidates the linkages.

(Actor-Network Theory also does this, which is maybe why I felt such an instant affinity for it. I’m one chapter in to Elvia Wilk’s Death by Landscape, and it feels like this is the direction she’s going to be going with her examination of what she is (so far) calling “ecosystems fiction”.

One of the things I’ve tried hard to do with the Magrathea Protocol is to be very clear that the narratology of any given act of worlding is inextricably entangled with the medium or media being used. The work of modellers like the boffins at PBL tends toward what Haraway called the “god trick” of technoscience, which in narratological terms is something like the “objective” third person perspective—“objective” is in scare quotes because, as Le Guin points out in Steering the Craft, the supposed objectivity of that particular narrative mode is actually a disguise for a particular sort of subjectivity; this disguise is so effective, so baked in to the prevailing worldview, that it is taken as truth by those who wear it.

To condense a very long argument: narrative enacts epistemology. The way you think about the worlds you build is reflected in the way you narrate them.

My belief is that this relationship is two-way: if you narrate a built world differently, you will begin to see it differently, too. Hence the project of getting modellers to explore futures in different modes. The point is not to turn them into science fiction authors or critical-speculative designers or whatever. Rather, it’s to give them a sense of how those approaches differ to their own, which will make it easier for them to invite others to collaborate and re-narrate the worlds they build.

It’s not a case of modellers and scientists on one side and creatives on the other side, however. Different modes and methods work better (or worse) in different media on the creative side, too.

In the Magrathea Protocol essay I invoked (with some cautions and caveats) the old writerly principle of “show, don’t tell”; as discussed previously, this is enduringly contentious, and if anything we seem to have reached a point where dogmatic positions on either side have rendered the entire debate toxic to the point of pointlessness, at least in the happy friendly world of sf/f discourse.

So I was interested to see Warren Ellis discussing it in the rather different context of televisual and/or cinematic (and/or, presumably, comics) storytelling. At the risk of stating the very obvious, these are visual media: in one sense, they are (or would seem to be) nothing but showing. But of course it’s more complicated than that:

The most-often repeated piece of advice in visual storytelling is “show, don’t tell.” As I have railed before, this leads to the most egregious repeating moment in television: “You need to see this,” someone is told over a communications device, and then it cuts to that person standing with some other people looking at the thing they apparently need to see. This is because the writers have had “show, don’t tell” dinned into their heads.


Seriously, pick any bit of action tv, particularly streaming, and see if it happens in exactly that way. See how many times it happens. See how many times it happens in a single episode.

I don’t watch a lot of TV, so I’m obliged to take Warren’s word for the ubiquity of this device. But the takeaway is that it seems that “show, don’t tell” has become just as dogmatic in visual storytelling as it has in prose fiction:

It’s a principle. Not a rule. Everyone else may treat it like a rule, but it’s not and you don’t have to.


Like most things, show-don’t-tell is fine in its place. But it’s not connective tissue. It’s a bad end-of-scene gambit, it eats up useful time, it’s so over-used that it creates no anticipation or potential energy any more, and it’s not interesting. Images and words can strike sparks off each other with their frictions. The words can be telling a slightly different story than the image, and thereby enrich each other with meaning. If you want emotion, then emotion comes in the telling of something, not always the showing of it. Show don’t tell is a tool, not a rule – choose when to use it and you’ll surprise your audience.

The relevance of this for me is as a reminder that rule-of-thumb principles are risky: the tendency for them to be flattened by their context-free reiteration in well-intentioned how-to-write online content can lead to unhelpful creative habits. Furthermore, the medium and narrative mode in play changes the meaning of the principle. In prose fiction, “showing” can bring a scene or a character to life in the absence of visuals; it gives stage directions to the reader’s imagination. However, it also slows the pace, and uses a lot of bandwidth. One of the reasons that short fiction is more challenging than the novel—at least for me—is that you have to be very sparing with the showing, because you’ve only got so much wordcount in which to have things happen.

(Either that, or you need to have a much smaller plot, which is perhaps my real problem when it comes to short stories: I am always reaching for the (eco)systemic.)

Returning to ADH, he had two more points to make, which you should go and read in full. The second was that science fiction in particular has a mythologising function, particularly (but I would say not exclusively) when it comes to the role of technology in future imaginaries. This is a well-established question at this point, though regrettably underresearched—perhaps because it’s hard to find a funder who is interested in it without already having a horse in the interpretive race, so to speak.

(Either it’s money from the tech side that wants to justify the Stephensonean “sf is for inspiring engineers to build Progress!”, or it’s money—much smaller money, usually—from the social-scientific side that wants to understand how sf and Progress have been in a sort of symbiosis all along. Obviously I’m far more aligned with the second position, but I think both of them tend to get in the way of looking at what actually happens.)

But ADH’s final point was so pithily made that I couldn’t not quote it here. As he’s keen to point out, it’s something that Madeline Ashby discussed in some detail—and there’s someone who really does know both “sf as sf” and the “sf as futuring” as an established and excellent practitioner of both.

Madeline argued that dystopias largely share the same characteristics: poverty/inequality, oppression, disease, environmental ruin. “A jackboot is a jackboot is a jackboot,” she said, and I agree. Utopias, meanwhile, are rarely so clear cut, because visions of a good life and a just society are based on normative value judgements about which reasonable (or unreasonable) people might easily disagree. I.e., to choose one from The Discourse a while back, would you rather live in a communism that’s abolished restaurants or a communism where all meals are had in restaurants? And as Madeline argued in her own talk, one group’s utopia is sometimes another group’s dystopia.

I call this the Reverse Anna Karenina Principle:

“All dystopias are alike.

Each utopia is utopian in its own way.”

BAM. Again, a brilliant condensation of a really vital point, and one that I expect I’ll be quoting a lot.



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