Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Exploring the Impact and Implications of Your Speculative Concept

So this session, with a very fancy title, is basically about what happens after you have a really cool speculative idea. You got an idea for a gadget, or for a magic power, or for a fundamental change in physics, or, or, or... There are potentially an infinite number of such ideas, but once you've decided to create a world with one of these features, what comes next? How do you figure out what life in a world with magic, or life in a world with this unique technology, would be like? How far would the impact of that change spread, and what kinds of different things might it influence?

These are important questions to ask, but we established one caveat before we dived into the topic, which is: you don't actually need to explore these questions in incredible depth in order for your story to succeed. We talked about Harry Potter, where people act as though magic has always been around, and yet muggle society (and even, arguably, wizarding society) is surprisingly un-influenced by it. You need to understand enough for the story to work. How much is too much? Hard to know. But if you do too little of this, you may leave some opportunities off the table.

Che remarked, about urban fantasy, "Does everyone knows vampires and werewolves exist? Or is it a secret? How does it stay secret?"

What are the parameters of your speculative phenomenon? Do they have legal implications?

I recommended Soulless by Gail Carriger because it demonstrates a lot of great thinking about the social consequences of having vampires and werewolves integrated into British society. The social details here are quite delightful. Che recommends Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, with a different view of what would happen if Dracula took over England and changed it. One of the details she mentioned was a scene with a live pig with a spigot in its neck, from which vampires would drink the blood. She also mentioned that in this book, young vampires are not supernaturally strong, and that it takes a long time for them to develop their strength. Variation within a group like this is important.

Keep in mind that it's relatively easy to think through the surface details of something like this, and much harder to think about the deep underpinnings of it, including its inception, history, and large-scale influences on society.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is a stellar example of deep worldbuilding, where the implications of her orogenic magic are explored on a lot of levels. One of the most interesting aspects about it is how she portrays the powerful orogenes as persecuted minorities.

Morgan said that if you have an introduced social group, you need to figure out whether they are dominant or not in society. You also need to know if they are publicly visible or publicly acknowledged.

How does the thing you've invented change physical infrastructure? Even a special dominant social group can change physical infrastructure, because furniture and architecture are designed with the dominant group's needs in mind.

Kate pointed out that when you have TV shows where white people are being oppressed, they  never seem to go to the minorities on the show for advice on how to cope with oppression.

The question of how you live under oppression is one that people tend not to engage with in much depth. Even the X-Men world doesn't dig deep into the question.

These kinds of questions deserve TIME. Particularly if you are working in a complex, socially realistic world, give yourself the time to muse about these details. Sometimes getting all the complexity in will take several drafts. If you give it enough time and care, you can get a cool feeling of immersion.

Of course, you don't need to have complexity for enjoyment. But there's a difference between a light-hearted conceit and a phenomenon deeply integrated into its world.

Ann Leckie's universe is extremely complex. In general, she doesn't ever stop out of the action to explain things. However, she makes the necessary information available to readers when it is maximally relevant. This is a really good technique to use (and similar to what I do).

Whenever you have a world that is super-complex, you'll run into the problem of how to control it. One really useful tool for controlling world information is Point of View. It's very helpful if we only need to understand what one person understands (particularly so, since we are One Person). Multiple point of view can add to this in helpful ways without letting the entirety of the world weigh down the narrative.

Outsider perspectives on a world are also helpful at times because outsiders are allowed to ask questions and struggle with comprehending things. Ann Leckie's character, Breq, is uniquely positioned as a point of view character because she is both on top and on the bottom. She is the instrument of the Radchaai's power, and therefore has power over people, yet is a piece of nonhuman equipment to them. When a character is considered harmless, or as in Breq's case, totally under control, people may not be careful about what they say in her presence.

Kate recommended the book Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman for an example of a character who is an insider and an outsider at the same time... and then ends up having to be the go-between for someone who is even further outside. The consequences of this are complex and interesting.

Cliff mentioned how in the Hunger Games, it's helpful to readers how Katniss' tight point of view changes over the course of the story. She starts as the lowest group, an outsider to Capital society, and then gains some status by Book 2 and has to cope with its consequences because she retains her class consciousness. She has real power against the Powers That Be, but it is still limited in key ways.

I mentioned how my world of Varin has several different speculative features, each of which has its own set of consequences. People there have lived underground for so long that when they find themselves on the surface, they feel more comfortable at night than in the daytime. The reason for this is that they can comprehend the idea of darkness overhead, and even darkness with little lights in it (because of the wysps).

Cliff mentioned that Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky has sentient spiders, and because the sun dims and brightens, underground is safety. This isn't just a practical concern but also feeds into the symbolic understanding of a statue that looks like it's digging. The statue is actually reaching downward for comfort, and represents peace.

I mentioned The Shifter by Janice Hardy as a great example of thorough exploration of a speculative concept. In this world, the only magic is healing magic, and healers pull pain out of the people they heal into their own bodies. Then they must push it out into a magical metal before it hurts them. When she was designing the world, she told me about how she wanted magic users to be strong and burly, rather than bookish... so the sorcerers are the metal-workers. The concept of healing magic and metal used to store pain grew a lot, though, into a whole economic system. Once the pain is in the metal, there is demand to use the metal for weapons that can throw that pain at others. So there starts to be a drive for war, because the wounds of war provide fuel for the weapons needed to win it. It's fascinating and troubling.

Dune also has really extensive consideration of the impacts of Spice, which keeps you young, lets you fold space, and gives you superpowers.

As you expand a concept and explore its implications, keeping sense-making and consistency are very important.

Cliff mentioned how Star Trek transporter technology should have had much greater impacts than it did. Why not use a replicator for babies? Can the transporter fix DNA and keep people from growing old? If you run into the people of the phage, why can't you replicate organs rather than stealing them?

As we can see with Harry Potter and Star Trek, underpinnings are not necessary for you to have a very successful story! But sometimes it bothers readers when things have not been thought through. Sometimes you can run into inconsistencies in sequels and prequels.

Thank you very much to everyone who participated in this discussion! Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 4pm Pacific to discuss Building Back Histories. I hope you can join us!