Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Central Conceit Of Fantasy And Science Fiction

     Originally I employed the word conceit in the title of this piece in its contemporary meaning: “an excessively favorable opinion of one’s own ability, importance, wit, etc.” However, I’ll allow that the earlier meaning, as a synonym for conception, would also apply. But onward to the main point.

     The central distinction between “mainstream” fiction and F&SF is an idea or practice often called worldbuilding: i.e., the creation of a fictional setting that deliberately departs from the mundane reality around us in significant ways. Worldbuilding may be considered a special case of setting: the writer’s use of descriptive and related techniques to delineate the overall characteristics of his fictional environment for the reader. Viewed thus, it differs from the sort of setting-creation mainstream writers practice only in that it embraces possibilities that aren’t (currently) possible.

     The difficulty of depicting a fictional environment is considerable. That’s true even for one rooted in mundane reality. When the writer has dramatic departures from reality in mind, the difficulty is far greater. Yet contemporary F&SF tales abound in worlds so greatly at variance with our reality that making them real to the reader is a feat only the most courageous should attempt.

     (Notice the card I palmed there? First, “mundane reality” gave way to the unqualified term “reality.” Then I shuffled both to the bottom so I could speak of making a fantasy world “real to the reader.” Beware; there may be more switchbacks to follow.)

     When the writer’s fictional world is intended to be distant from the one we live in, he faces a challenge of no small magnitude: How much of my effort – and prose – should go into the description of this world’s distinctive characteristics?

     Many F&SF writers put the greater part of their efforts into worldbuilding. It implies that they regard their fictional settings, and the imagination that went into them, as the “really important’ aspect of the stories they tell. There’s a substantial community of F&SF readers that agrees, though I’m not part of it.

     Emphasis on worldbuilding, especially as it was practiced by SF’s “Golden Age” writers, is a large part of the reason literary critics tended to dismiss science fiction as “all rocket ships and ray guns,” not a serious genre at all. Similar criticisms have been leveled at fantasy fiction and its practitioners. It’s a point that should not be fliply dismissed.

     How best to approach his worldbuilding chore is one of the most vexing questions before the aspiring F&SF writer.

     In other writings on storytelling technique, I’ve exhorted the aspiring writer to “cultivate an eye for the telling detail.” I go into this at some depth in my little tome The Storyteller’s Art. I continue to think it the best approach to description in fiction – and worldbuilding really is just a special case of description. But aspiring writers put the question to me even to this day, so it’s time to go into it with particular attention to the speculative genres. Let’s start by contrasting the approaches of two very different writers.

     First, we have Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy gets more praise for his “descriptive prowess” than any other critically acclaimed writer. But he describes everything in every scene, as if he were cataloguing the scene for some unseen painter to reproduce from his descriptions. It makes reading his books an exercise of the reader’s patience, for he leaves it to the reader to separate the important details from the rest. It’s a large part of what makes War and Peace a “classic:” i.e., a book everyone wants to have read, but no one actually wants to read.

     Second, we have Dr. Alice Sheldon, better known to SF readers as “James Tiptree, Jr.” This exceptionally gifted writer practiced a sparsity of description that surprises most who encounter her, especially on first acquaintance. Her motto, which she actually articulated on at least one occasion was “Don’t tell them!” – by which she meant, of course, don’t tell the reader: make him claw for purchase on the setting while you (the writer) concentrate on what’s happening to your characters. Sheldon’s stuff reads like a swift-flowing stream, though if you’re not sufficiently “in tune” with her method, you can miss some of what makes her stories striking.

     The contrast between these two is amplified by several orders of magnitude when we add this: Tolstoy’s “world” was Russia. Whether he was writing of Russia of his time or Russia of the Napoleonic Era, the milieu was already familiar to his readers. Yet his descriptions were extraordinarily detailed, sometimes painfully so. Sheldon’s science-fictional “worlds” were a considerable distance from her contemporary reality, as anyone familiar with her stories would agree. Yet her descriptions were so terse as to disappear in the flow of story events; she expected her reader to absorb important details without lingering over them unduly, as it was what her characters were doing that really mattered.

     The F&SF writer must aim at the tastes of the F&SF reader. But even among those readers, there’s a range of appetites for description that runs from Sheldon’s starkness to Tolstoy’s lushness. Ultimately, it’s one more demonstration of the importance to the writer of conceiving of his intended readers and writing to appeal to them.

     “But what about you, Fran?” I hear you cry. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, I tend to “cheat.” When I write SF, it’s usually very-near-future stuff with only one or two departures from contemporary reality. So my “worldbuilding” task is remarkably simple, at least in comparison to the inventors of huge, galaxy-spanning epics such as Malorie Cooper’s Aeon 14 series.

     My recent fantasy The Warm Lands was another kind of “cheat.” The simplified, nearly depopulated world of Aeol after the Dieback demanded very little in the way of worldbuilding. Its pretechnological character gave it a starkness that didn’t demand a lot of description. Neither did the ascetic, rather scholarly environment of the Scholium Arcanum. But in those choices I was partly expressing my own emphasis on character development within a challenging context.

     There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to approach the challenges of worldbuilding. That having been said, allow me a caveat: Very few readers are “there” for the ingenuity of your fictional world. As I wrote recently in a somewhat different context, the reader is there for an emotional journey. Excessive concentration on your fictional milieu, no matter how proud of it you may be, will fail to satisfy their thirst for a tale that satisfies John Brunner’s Laws of Good Fiction:

  1. The raw material of fiction is people.
  2. The essence of story is change.

     Never forget that.

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