subjective and iterative magratheanism / the whys and wherefores of worldbuilding

It’s always nice to get an insight into the creative process from an expert, and this short bit on worldbuilding by Paul McAuley is exactly that. Worldbuilding as a concept is having a bit of a moment, or so it feels, having jumped out of genre fiction theory and metastasised more widely, following in the wake of fantastika as a dominant mode of storytelling; video games have helped a lot, but it’s bigger than that, I suspect.

Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day—let’s look at what McAuley’s actually saying, here. As I understand both positions, this is less of a counter to Mike Harrison’s legendary salvo against the “clomping foot of nerdism” than a demonstration of the way in which a better—or perhaps better to say less generic—creator approaches the problem of worldbuilding, so as to avoid said clompiness. And that way is iterative and subjective:

Worldbuilding is hard only if you pay too much attention to it. Less is almost always better than more. Use details sparingly rather than to drown the reader in intricate descriptions and faux exotica; question your first and second thoughts; set out a few basic parameters, find your character and start the story rather than fleshing out every detail of the landscape, drawing maps, and preparing recipe cards and fashion plates before writing the first sentence. Wherever possible, scatter clues and trust the reader to put them together; give them the space to see the world for themselves rather than crowd out their imagination with elaborate and burdensome detail.

Now, the purposes to which people working in my field of endeavour are putting worldbuilding are rather different to the primarly entertainment-driven concerns of a novelist—but nonetheless, a lot of these suggestions still hold fairly well. With the Notterdam guide, for instance, the speculation had to be bounded by the goals of the Paris Accords because that was how the project of which it was a part was bounded; but even were that not the case, we’d have still needed some sort of bounding scenario to start from. Indeed, I’m in the process of contributing to the structure of a set of design research workshops to be (hopefully) staged later this year, and the same challenge applies: the parameters of the bounding are up to you, of course, and if you want them to be really way-out crazy, well, that’s fine, but you still need to have them, however far out they may be. Creation requires friction and limits, and that applies just as much to the notionally more realistic creative practices of engineering: as I put it many years ago, the valorisation of “thinking outside the box” is counterproductive, resulting in placeless technological utopias which can’t be reached.

Also of note above is McAuley’s injunction to trust the reader. This is probably what many writers mean when they trot out the (well-intentioned but nonetheless not-always-helpful) admonition “show, don’t tell”; while there are clearly people who greatly enjoy having a richly elaborated Tolkeinean world handed to them as a finished orrery, effective worldbuilding exploits both the innate human capacity for sense-making and a culturally inculcated capacity for extrapolating imaginary worlds from telling details. My argument here is that we’ve learned to do the latter in increasingly more sophisticated ways, and that fantastika across a variety of media has been the training ground for that skill. Furthermore, that skill is what my academic work hopes to operationalise in the service of sociotechnical reconfiguration: if we want to build a world in which we do things differently, we have to be able to imagine it first. And that’s my argument against the technological utopia, too: the technological utopia is all tell and no show, the clomping foot of the notionally-objective god’s-eye-view.

But the utility of story goes further than that. McAuley again:

Discovering details essential to the story as it rolls out gives space and flexibility to hint at the kind of random, illogical, crazy beauty of the actual world; the exclusionary scaffolds of rigid logic too often do not.

You can’t just deliver a future (or a past, or a secondary world) in one big package; rare is the person who will just sit down with an encyclopedia and read the whole thing end to end. A future is a world, a timespace, and the human way of relating to timespaces—not an entirely unproblematic one, historically speaking, but nonetheless—is exploration. Now, a novelist has the challenge of making a guided tour feel like exploration, because the novel—with the exception of some liminal high (post)modernist experiments with form—is a linear thing, a single route through the imagined world preprepared by the author. But what’s notable here is that, for McAuley at least (and I believe for many other writers of sf, though certainly not all of them), that preprepared route is prepared through the writer themselves exploring rather more spontaneously. As such, serendipity and the happy creative accident are important—you need the initial bounding parameters, as mentioned above, but the detail emerges from responses to that initial set of constraining parameters. The writer explores the possibility-space defined by the bounding parameters, and compiles from their meanderings what they hope will be an exciting tour.

Furthermore, those responses are generated through the drives and subjectivity of the characters of the story: the sense that it’s an exploration rather than a tour is formed by the world’s being filtered through the limited (i.e. non-omniscient) point-of-view of the character who, while they know some things about some parts of the world, doesn’t know everything about it, even though the author (by the end of the process, at least) does:

… because the novel is written in close third person, everything is filtered through the sensibility of the main character, focusing on things that he would think important or memorable or odd, evoking the mundane stuff of his life by allusion or by borrowing the perspectives of others.

This is why I think that using the narratological toolkits of fiction can be a more effective and appealing way of depicting futures than the future-tense-passive-voice mode of corporate and policy futuring: it exploits the human desire to explore a timespace from a relateable (if not necessarily human) positionality, and it does so with devices and strategies which have evolved to make the best use of that instinct.

Of course, there are issues of teleology and intentionality that complicate this comparison—and I dare say that many creative writers might see this as cheapening of the art, just as many more “rational” futures people might see it as frivolous and artsy dilettantism. (I’d be lying if I claimed I don’t have days where those doubts haunt me, too, from both directions.) But it seems clear that we are going to continue to collectively imagine and advocate and dispute futures, not least because we’ve been doing it for yonks—at least since the fall of eschatology as the primary relationship to futurity in the so-called West. And if we’re going to do it anyway, and if—as seems equally indisputable—some folk are going to step up with futures (whether political, sociotechnical or otherwise) that we don’t want, then we have to get good at presenting the ones we do want.

It’s a war of stories; perhaps it always has been. While there are certainly ways of prosecuting that clash of narratives which are morally repulsive and destructive—*gestures at, well, everything*—I have come to the conclusion that refusing to counter the darkness with some sort of light is to let the darkness triumph. Utopia as method, innit?

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