The Empty Chair: A Eulogy for Leonard Nimoy and Spock
March 5, 2015
I’ve been thinking about the topic of world building, as this is the subject of the panel I am leading with my client Andy Metzger at Pensacon. As it so happens, I’m also reading a manuscript that has made this topic front and center for me. The subject is interesting, because of course it applies to all writing, not just to speculative fiction, and I’m wondering if it should be approached in that fashion.
Every writer world builds. Each work you create is its own world, with its own rules and parameters that you establish as you write. Whether you are playing in someone else’s universe (such as Star Trek) or in the universe of now, or in one completely of your own creation, you still get to make the rules your characters live by. You can establish them quickly or slowly by revelation, but once those rules are in place, you have to play by them. Nothing will turn your reader off more than an author who breaks the rules and parameters that they’ve just spent fifty pages creating.
How is a mainstream novel involved in world building? You create a character, and then that character’s family. You create the need the character has that will turn your character into a protagonist and give your story a plot. You’ll create a setting, and a background, and secondary characters, and an antagonist, and a life your protagonist will navigate. That’s a world, whether it’s set in Park Slope in Brooklyn, as my novel The Mortal Part is, or it’s set on the Enterprise-D, as A Million Sherds was. Your protagonist set in our “now” can’t live off air, or manna from heaven, so he needs a job. And he wasn’t born from Zeus’s forehead, so he needs a family, and since none of us live in a vacuum, there are co-workers, and children, and mail carriers, and cashiers, and employers, and the disembodied voices on NPR…in short, an entire world.
My protagonist in The Mortal Part is a 72-year-old actor named Hugh Ross. He lives in my old neighborhood of Park Slope, in Brooklyn, which means he’d better be a successful actor, if he’s living there in 2012, when I set the novel. His two-storey flat in an 8th Street brownstone next to Prospect Park probably cost him nearly a million dollars, when he bought it in 2001. He also has a townhouse that he’s owned for years in Primrose Hill in London. So now we are talking about a seriously successful actor, and given those parameters, I had to create a world and a background that would give Hugh the dosh to afford his lifestyle. His childhood, his training, his CV has to be completely believable, or my reader won’t particularly care about whatever else is happening in his life.
So now we are back to world building in speculative fiction. The writer of speculative fiction has a particularly difficult task that simply comes with the territory. Not only does the writer have to create the same kind of world that every writer creates – a character and a life for that character, a need, a point-of-view – but the genre demands a special expertise when it comes to the setting. Even if you are writing a mainstream novel, as I am, you have to “know” your setting. After all, you want to reach the widest audience possible, and that will include readers who live where you’ve set your book. If I were describing the Park Slope neighborhood that I remember, from when I lived there in the 1980s, the reader would not be able to suspend disbelief; when I lived on President Street, it was a rough-and-tumble working class Italian neighborhood, with people from the Islands and Central America moving in. Now Park Slope looks just like the worst of the Upper East Side.
The writer of speculative fiction needs to decide on the world they are creating before they begin to write. What are the rules? Orson Scott Card in his Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction goes into great detail about the different rules and parameters for the genres of fantasy and science fiction in great detail (Although, he is quite wrong, as it turns out, about Star Trek, for which he expresses deep scorn. NASA’s prototype FLT ship is called Enterprise, and they are looking specifically at warp drive; Card is lagging in his physics research, apparently.) If you are writing of a future in which we are playing amongst the planets and the stars, and you have created a plausible version of FLT, taking into considering the problems with the speed of light and the problems of mass and energy, you cannot saddle that futuristic world with references to everyday, 21st century Americana without a reason. That futuristic world is going to look and sound as differently to us as we do to people of the 18th century, were they to suddenly arrive for tea. Language, which is evolving faster than most people can keep up with, will have changed. Food and food preparation will change. The way people “look” will change. The writer of science fiction must take into consideration each of the small details in order for the reader to suspend disbelief. One jarring note – Kraft macaroni and cheese, for example – will throw the reader out of your world. Permanently, as most sf readers are very, very close readers.
The same is true for the fantasy and horror genres. If you are writing a horror novel, and you expect the reader to believe in ghosts, then you have to have a plausible reason as to a) why there are ghosts, and b) why there aren’t vampires and werewolves and invisible men too. In fantasy, you can’t create a world in which magic is free because nothing is free – energy cannot be created or destroyed – so if you are employing magic, using energy, there has to be a reaction to your action somewhere. If you have dragons, there had better be a perfectly good evolutionary reason why you have dragons – and even if you never tell your reader how a dragon can convert a sheep into flame, you’d better know the reason yourself.
We are asking our readers to open the book or scroll down the page. We are asking them to suspend disbelief, to join us in our world, for an hour, or two, or two weeks, or a month. We are promising them value. If we deliver on that promise, then we have a fan, who will continue to buy our books, even when they are no longer offered for 99 cents on Kindle. But if we lure a reader in and then give them a box of orange macaroni and cheese one hundred years into the future, why should we expect them to stay?