I’ve recently been going through the blogsphere looking for shameless self-publicising opportunities or chances to discuss and share ideas on fantasy, world-building and their inherent cultural expressions and what they say about the writers and consumers of fantasy/sci-fi media.
I’d recently come across the idea of “geek culture”, wondering what on earth it was. I was already aware of the definitional wars of geek vs nerd, and which was inherently better than the other, such as goes on with the Urban Dictionary. And then I found this. I was somewhat shocked that the hitherto amusing hobby of world building, which I have enjoyed and enjoyed reading (to use a basic example, I hate the writing style and characterisation in the Harry Potter books, but think the world Rowling creates in her stories is great) is being held up as something that isn’t worthwhile. Once I’d calmed down and reread it, I noticed the closing paragraph:
Geeks who make “geek” their personality rather than merely a hobby, who take pride in belonging to SFF fandom, who take pride in the act of mindless consumption and mindless replication seize onto bits of culture in a desperate bid to become less banal. They vomit up map after map, PDF after PDF of imaginary histories, and by both their simple existence and their quantity they want you to believe this dribble is inherently worth something. They are “proud” of the apostrophe-ridden conlang they made up. They are “proud” of watery excrement they cobbled together by looking up furred hats and vodka on wikipedia. Because this is all they have to take pride in.
And I started to agree quite a bit.
At this point, full disclosure is probably necessary; I began dreaming up Mists of Albion as an idea because I wanted to create “a world like Tolkien’s” that was different to everything else, was as “deep and engaging” or somesuch feeling. I looked to Tolkien because I knew there were references to large amounts of stuff behind it (particularly the organic impression gathered by the amount of revisions) and enjoyed this. I have since done some digging around in historical sagas and the like to see what the Saxons, Celts and Norse wrote like in order to give my work some “authenticity”. The texts I found were fascinating reads, but that wasn’t why I was doing it. I was doing it, at least initially and possibly still am, to round out my ideas how my world should feel like. Historical culture would adapt to service mine.
Why is this what happens? Why am I not content to just take history in all its richness as it is? I think it’s a combination of two things. Firstly, it’s something I’ve seen China Mieville accused of; the charge of preferring ideas to people. The characters will frequently serve as archetypes for a particular concept rather than something that readers will necessarily empathise with. This is potentially where the problem begins, as it may be a cause of the second problem. It will generally result in bad writing and things that won’t have any relevance outside of the system of ideas that spawned it. It won’t speak to great themes unless they’re woven into those ideas, which they quite rarely are as the ideas are given primacy, rather than concerns for, say, literary or narrative structure. This would be fine if otherworldly literary structures were conceived to replace them, but then I remember a quote by a Games Workshop artist, speaking about the importance of knowing human anatomy before you try to draw an orc. It’s something like “If you know the rules, you can break them. If you don’t know the rules…”. And I think that may explain a lot of the problem of ideas-only sci-fi/fantasy. They don’t bend or break narrative rules because the authors may not (and sometimes don’t seem to have to) know the rules in the first place. And this results in bad writing, assumed structures, and the perpetuation of tired assumptions and prejudices.
The second point is potentially a development of the first; for many of my teenage years I was a regular contributor to the “fluff” forum of Librarium Online, critiquing people’s attempts at writing their own small part of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, acting as both a reality check on how good the ideas were, and thought police for the setting. One thing that happened regularly was that people would desperately want to build their own unique space marine chapter (for those unfamiliar with Warhammer 40k, this is basically writing about your own regiment of genetically-enhanced super soldiers). They frequently disregarded the background written for existing chapters to create chapters with very similar and usually (in my opinion) inferior renditions of similar themes. Granted 40K writing is far from great literature, but why replace it with something worse?
That article made me realise that it has nothing to do with the quality of what’s produced; what mattered to these people, who sometimes took critique very personally, is that they wanted something that was primarily theirs. They didn’t relate to the existing setting, and so they wanted something they would automatically relate to by virtue of their authorship. And the more they create, the more they can relate to, the happier they will be.
Until it gets threatened, and then the defensive tirades begin. And this is because it’s them, not their work, that’s being threatened.
I’m not sure exactly where this point leads, apart from in a request that everyone attempting to produce fantasy and science-fiction media pay attention to something outside of their own heads, and not write primarily for themselves, to but to someone else. This means detaching yourself from your creation, making characters in an attempt to empathise with the reader’s humanity, and expressing something meaningful not just in their created world, but in the real one too.