Just finished reading Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World (which I highly recommend; it’s like King’s The Gunslinger meets Steampunk during the American Civil War) and which got me thinking a lot about the tangible differences between fantasy and science fiction worlds. You might love them the same, but they might not both be places you would want to explore beyond the bounds of the story itself. Others, meanwhile, are places you feel like you could keep visiting forever.
In the former case, those worlds are somehow wedded to their stories and characters so inextricably, it’s hard to imagine those worlds outside the context of that story. If the characters didn’t exist, in other words, there wouldn’t be much keeping you invested in the goings on of that world. In this category I stick places like Westeros, Middle Earth, and Arrakis. Great settings, to be sure, but settings devised to support and explore the story being told there which is, as it happens, pretty much the only story in town. What would Westeros be without the contest over the Iron Throne? What on earth is there to do in Middle Earth besides fight the Great Enemy? If the Spice weren’t a big deal, do you have any other stories to play with in Arrakis?
Of course, the assessment of what gives a world a ‘life of its own’ is bigger than simply there being one story to tell. Even worlds with a lot of different things going on (the Firefly universe, for instance) need the attention to detail and the vibrancy of a well-constructed environment to make it somehow self-sustaining (which Firefly doesn’t quite have for me). The world needs a feel, a mood, a sense of possibility and a wealth of secrets ready to be unveiled. Star Wars has this, as does Star Trek, and I would say that it is that ‘something’ that gives those franchises a kind of eternal life. You can imagine yourself living there, but without needing to be aboard the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise to do it. Interestingly enough, Gilman’s West in Half-Made World, while really seeming to orient itself along a single story axis (the struggle between the Agents of the Gun and the Progress of the Line and those caught in-between), affords, with the creation of those two forces, a wealth and breadth of possible stories originating from various branches off that main axis. You have people who pledge themselves to the Gun but recant, you have those who fight off the Line, but still embrace its machines, you have idealistic republics and moral philosophers of every stripe that pervade the fabric of this vast society, and then, of course, there are the First Ones in the background and the simple realization that the world itself is not completely created yet.
This sprawling complexity coupled with a clear story and frequent places where one could see drama inserted and new stories born is key to making a fantasy world into a playground, a touchstone with infinite dramatic potential. All the best role-playing game settings have this, too (must have it, actually), and this places – these worlds that are fun to visit and always interesting to explore – can make for very long and successful story arcs or, if you like, RPG campaigns.
All of this, however, is not intended to denigrate those worlds that aren’t playgrounds and those worlds that are tightly wrapped around their creator’s narrative and thematic purposes. Worlds that are driven towards a single purpose, while perhaps not able to consume our daydreams, do have more narrative and allegorical power. Arrakis is a powerful metaphor for wealth, for faith, and for the greedy impulses that undermine both. Middle Earth is a story about the loss of the beautiful in the face of the practical, modern, and civilized. Arrakis and Middle Earth do this job better than worlds like Gilman’s or Roddenberry’s, because all of their narrative effort is devoted towards ‘the Cause,’ if you will. Their ‘playground’ may only have the one swing set, but it’s a damned fine one.
As I have built (and continue to build) worlds in which to set my stories and novels, I find myself teetering between these two poles – am I crafting a playground, or am I crafting a Message. The wise course is, perhaps, somewhere between the two. Inevitably, however, I find myself straying further and further towards the playground model, and keep making a place that not only suits my story, but that could suit stories far beyond those I, myself, have imagined.
Every year around this time we are bombarded by images and stories of people losing their minds in retail environments. People are trampled, beaten, even pepper sprayed, all in the quest to acquire the newest pair of sneakers, some doll that giggles when you tickle it, or God knows what else. It’s crazy, it’s stupid, it’s disgusting, and it’s contrary to what the Christmas Spirit is really all about.
Or is it?
Remember, now, that these people aren’t busting in faces to buy something for themselves. They’re doing it for somebody else. They want to please someone else, improve their lives, let them know that they are loved. To them, they are beating in that other person’s face because, on some level, they believe that it is the best way to make their children and loved ones happy. Deranged as it might be by materialism and cultural expectations, its genesis is a fundamentally good one. Weird, huh?
This is why, of all the wonderful characters in Tolkien, Boromir often intrigues me the most. Boromir represents the fundamental flaw in the human spirit. Boromir is a brave man, a hero, a good son, a good friend, and a man who wants, beyond all other things, to help his country, his family, and the free peoples of Middle Earth. You can’t help but like him. At the same time, though, he is brash, short-sighted, overly proud, short tempered, and foolish. When he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, he’s doing it because he thinks he can help. He believes he is doing the right thing – bring the Ring to Gondor, use it to defeat Mordor, save the world, etc.. Who wouldn’t want that to be the case? Nobody can say Boromir’s an evil man – weak, perhaps, and certainly unwise, but not evil.
Lots of folks can sit back and shake their head at Boromir basically trying to mug Frodo in the woods and say ‘what a jerk’ or ‘how stupid is that?’ Not that many folks, however, can say they wouldn’t be tempted to do the same in a similar scenario. For example, say this Christmas there is a screw-up at Amazon and they send you a new Ipad that you didn’t order or buy. You know the person who should have received it is going to be bummed out, but they’ll get their Ipad eventually and on Amazon’s dime. You could totally keep the Ipad – just a little lie, or even just a sin of omission, and it’s yours.
Well, do you keep it?
Understand this: no matter how you rationalize the keeping of the Ipad, you are now a thief. You have taken that which does not rightfully belong to you so that you can make either yourself or someone on your list happier. Perhaps this is just what your sick cousin needs as he’s laid up in the hospital and bored. Perhaps your unemployed brother could really use a new computer, but he can’t afford one. By taking this Ipad, you will be doing good. Who are you harming, right? It’s just Amazon – faceless corporation, soulless materialistic monolith – it doesn’t have feelings. They won’t even feel its loss! Doesn’t matter, though – you are still a thief.
Don’t get me wrong – almost everybody would keep the Ipad (well, except my wife, to whom this really happened, but she’s more Aragorn than Boromir, anyway). This is why Boromir’s struggle is so wonderful to watch – it’s the same as all of our struggles. Do small evil to do great good? Yeah, why not? Steal that doll from that other person’s carriage – they’ll be okay. Keep consuming – there won’t be any major repercussions, I’m sure, and everybody will be so happy, right? It’s Christmas, man – lighten up!
It’s just a little thing. Such a little thing…
One of my favorite things about a fantasy novel is the map of the world included in the front (or back) that gives me the lay
of the land. Ever since I read The Hobbit in second or third grade, I’ve loved fantastic maps of alien worlds, continents, cities, and even buildings. My favorite part of the Greyhawk: From the Ashes boxed set? The maps, obviously – the giant hex map that covered a dining room table and could tell you exactly how far it was from Dothrakaa to the forests of Celene was simply awesome, and I loved every inch of it.
As I got older and I started making maps myself, I started to realize how much thought can (and I think *ought*) to go into map-making for your fantasy world. It’s all very well and good to create a map that directly suits your narrative purposes, but such places look artificial and weirdly convenient (the first D&D campaign setting I devised in 7th grade had a whole series of impassable mountains and uncrossable rivers/chasms designed to restrict where players can go – it was foolish). Then again, if you make a map too complicated and too realistic, it becomes difficult to keep it all straight or describe it to the reader as they are going through the book. There’s a balance of detail that needs to be struck, I think, to make a map work right.
The reason this is all so important is that geography affects culture. It does in our world, and there is no reason to expect it to do otherwise in another world. If you have a society that evolves on the open steppes, they are going to likely behave one way, whereas a society evolving in dense woodlands or mountainous highlands is likewise going to behave differently. Furthermore, the proximity and disposition of one’s neighbors will make a big difference on how a people will act towards strangers, how militaristic they will be, and exactly what kinds of things they will trade or have in abundance. This kind of thing is what history is built from, and it has relevance and importance in a fantasy setting.
Failure to appreciate this and just slap things wherever you choose means you lose out on a huge opportunity. Every fantasy author wants his or her world to be as ‘real’ as possible, and constructing a reasonably realistic geography is a great place to start. Furthermore, geography can beget drama. Remember the attempt to climb Cahadras inThe Fellowship of the Ring? That was a function of geography – they couldn’t risk the Gap of Rohan, which was in the great wide open, so they took the more dangerous path in the hopes of evading the enemy. Managing geography was one of the things Tolkien did very well, overall. Even when looking at the map above, you can see how the mountain range splits to create Mordor – a geological possibility that, furthermore, could indicate the kind of tectonic activity that would result in Mount Doom. Now, did Tolkien consider this when crafting Middle Earth? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.
One of the things that dissapointed me from the beginning of The Song of Ice and Fire is that, for all the time we spend across the Narrow Sea, we never once get a map of the damned place. I can’t place Mereen or Braavos in my head, and it makes it hard for me to understand where it is in relation to where the characters have been and where they can go next. Qarth may be right next to Pentos, or it may be half a world away – I just don’t know. It’s frustrating; it’s like navigating a new city without a map or any street signs.
My own fantasy setting, Alandar, has a lot of maps associated with it and, furthermore, has been through several geographical revisions and will likely have more. Here’s one of the current ones to the right. You’ll note the giant mountain range down the eastern edge – the Dragonspine – which constitutes a major feature of the world and has major social and cultural and economic repurcussions the world over. Likewise, the oceans and their disposition as well as the rivers have another large impact on the locations of cities and the arrangement of nations. All of this filters down to my characters, who grew or are growing up in various corners of the world that have been shaped by the geography around them. This, I see, is my duty as someone trying to shepherd a new world into existence. To do any less is to acknowledge that Alandar is ‘artificial’ and, therefore, reduce the story from ‘fantastic’ to merely ‘absurd’.
Maybe I’m a little crazy, but hey, I’m a grown man wanting to write stories about imaginary places and times and hoping, one day, to make a living off it. You certainly shouldn’t expect me to be entirely sane.