Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Notes on Worldscape

So, after an entry by Larry over at OF Blog of the Fallen in which he referenced this discussion of setting and worldbuilding, I got my theoretical hat on again. Setting and worldbuilding are both nebulous, so it's no suprise they get conflated, it seems to me. While the latter term was coined as a descriptor for distinctive approaches of the secondary world fantasy writer in the largely pre-literary stages of (sub)creation (map drawing, etc.), enough of this process also takes place visibly in the text that the term has come to be used -- the gerund working as a noun -- for an epiphenomenal construct that overlaps with setting, not the act of creation but the end result considered as a quality of the text, like voice. If we want to understand the relationship between setting and worldbuilding, we need to break them down.

Note: I'm going to try and not reiterate stuff I've gone through before, so if terms like "mimetic weft," "credibility warp" and "quirk" don't make sense to you, go read this entry. Don't worry, if it uses even more poncy terms like "alethic modality," it does so with lemurs. And it's really quite short for me, honestly.


Staging: At the scene-level there's staging written into the text, a construct of glimpses offered in words and phrases like "in the kitchen," "out on the marsh," "under the bed." In the reader's imagination these shards of place and time woven into the mimetic weft cohere into a sense of location, layout of objects, orientation of characters within that immediate frame -- at night, on a street corner, where a side-street joins a wide thoroughfare.

Dressing: Framing in time and place is seldom enough to generate a sense of "setting" though. Cultural signifiers will also largely be required -- e.g. street-urchins, a horse and cart, a gin-sodden drunk -- to dress the location and render it an effective locale -- e.g. a street-corner in Victorian London. Even dialogue or the voice of the narrative itself may double as dressing -- "Gor, blimey, guvnor!" and all that.

Locale: Staging and dressing together constitute locale and their absence will render it "vague" or "vapid" -- though a writer might, of course, pare away the requisite details deliberately, in the same way they might pare away features distinguishing voice. Locale is immediate. Other locations may be referenced or implied but until they are represented they are unrealised locales.

Locale Layout: Different locales may be laid out as we see a character, for example, driving along a road through the mountains, stopping at a motel, parking in the lot, entering the reception. At the scene-level, locale layout may be continous and fluid or a matter of integrated but discrete locales. As we scale up and encounter the disconnected locales of different scenes, the reader constructs a mileu.

Milieu: Separate locales cohere across the suturing of scenes -- e.g. in one scene the character is on the road; in the next they are booking into the motel. As they do so a fictive milieu is constructed. While references to and implications of off-scene locations are not part of the layout, they effectively pencil in an exterior framing of (as yet?) unrealised locales; this is part of the milieu. Dressing also creates milieu from the offset -- e.g. the Victorian London that steet-corner is in. Milieu is sufficiently abstracted from locale layout, in fact, that dressing and general staging may override specifics -- e.g. the milieus of two contemporary realist novels could be functionally equivalent despite the fact that one locale layout is mapped closely to Liverpool while the other is mapped closely to Glasgow.

Setting: The ambiguity of the term "setting" rests in the fact that it could be applied to locale, locale layout or milieu. A distinction can and should be made between locale layout as figure and milieu as ground.

Mimetic Milieu: The reader could be said to have an experiental milieu, constructed from their life rather than fiction. Where a fictive milieu is sufficiently consistent with this that no credibility warp is introduced, it can be classed as mimetic. In terms of consistency, whether locales and locale layout map to real-world locations is irrelevant, since we are mapping fictive milieu to experiential milieu, not to reality itself; hence the milieu of Thomas Hardy's Wessex is mimetic, despite the non-existence of key locales.

Milieu Recognition: With different specifics of comparable locales elided, a fictive milieu may be recognised as essentially matching the experiential milieu of the reader -- e.g. where the fictive milieu of a novel set in Liverpool resembles the experiential milieu of a reader living in Glasgow. Even where the same reader finds, for example, a South American village milieu foreign rather than familiar, that very unfamiliarity indicates gaps in the reader's experiential milieu into which the fictive staging and dressing can be inserted as an imaginative surrogate for experience -- recognised in the sense of accepted.

Semiotic Milieu: A fictive milieu may be mimetic in part because a writer has drawn directly on their own experiential milieu, but much of the collage of staging and dressing will likely be clipped from sources or created from whole cloth. The writer being also a reader is likely to be working with an experiential milieu partly constructed from imaginative surrogates. As a construct of staging and dressing, even the most mimetic milieu remains a system of signs; it is always already also a semiotic milieu. Where mimesis is breached and the figurative function of the semiotic milieu foregrounded, the result may be a radical schism from reality.

Alterior Realities: With some works, staging situates the narrative beyond the range of any practical experiential milieu. The fictive milieu is expressly ulterior: "existing beyond what is obvious or admitted; intentionally hidden; beyond what is immediate or present; coming in the future." The ulterior milieu is an alterior reality. Even without quirks, credibility warp is introduced here; the narrative is itself a quirk, asserting an incredible status as a narrative of the beyond. Its artifice made blatant by this unequivocal alterity, the semiotic milieu is offered as an overt act of figuration rather than representation.

Pre-Modern Contextual Dewarping: Historically, with the reader's experiential milieu limited, ulterior mileus (alterior realities) could be situated as spatially exterior to the audience's known world (as with the traveller's tale,) or as temporally exterior, beyond the known past (as with folklore & myth.) The foreign staging and dressing could be afforded a mock-recognition as an imaginative extension of the experiential milieu; the dislocation becomes a justification for credibility warp -- the use of quirks that challenge suspension-of-disbelief by contradicting facts and principles of the experiential milieau -- and thereby a mechanism for countering it.

Modern Contextual Dewarping: Such conventions persist, but with the increased scope of post-Enlightenment experiential milieus, such mock-recognition is less likely to be afforded in the face of credibility warp; the unknown world and the unknown past are expected to conform to the same principles. The beyond has therefore been reformulated: sf situates the ulterior milieu in the future, positing it as an evolution of the experiential milieu; alt-history situates the ulterior milieu as temporally parallel to the experiential, positing it as an alternative track of causality; secondary world fantasy situates the ulterior reality in an ordinate reality, entirely out of the plane of the experiential milieau, not "grounded" in the same metaphysical principles.

Interstitial Realities: A special case is found where staging situates the narrative within the spatio-temporal scope of the reader's practical experiential milieu, but beyond the capacities of their experience. The ulterior milieu is situated as a system of alterity dispersed throughout reality, hidden in the interstices between what is known. The reader's willingness to insert fictive staging and dressing into gaps in their experiential milieu is exploited to posit events that contradict facts and principles of the experiential milieau but do so covertly -- e.g. conspiracies operating secretly throughout history.

Worldscape: In these sort of works, the collage of staging and dressing must construct a (distinctly semiotic) milieu on the scale of the world, one characterisable by the significance (extent and meaning) of its difference(s). The more deliberately this type of milieu is fashioned from the foreign, the more the process of composition can be considered a craft in its own right. The term worldscape seems apt for a milieu which has, to some extent, ceased serving simply as ground and come to function as figure in its own right.

Worldblazing: A bottom-up process whereby the writer constructs the worldscape in the process of writing, generating the milieu from staging and dressing improvised as required, with the implications of a conceit being explored through that milieu, the alterity generated often feeding back into the narrative, functioning as trigger and/or key to resolution. Any flavour of quirk -- novum, chimera or errata -- may be exploited in this way.

Worldblocking: A top-down process whereby the writer constructs the worldscape prior to writing as a basic conceptual framework of key facts and principles. The basic topography of the milieu may be designed -- e.g. in a map -- even before the first scene begins locale layout. Dressing may be methodically developed, independent of staging, in a meticulous specification of the alterior reality and its culture. Adherence to theories of how our world and various systems in it work may imbue the worldscape with a sense of authenticity.

Worldbolstering: Where dressing is familiar to the reader, recogniseable from an experiential milieu, this adds to the mimetic weft of a narrative. Exhaustive detailing of locales and mundane actions of narrative agents in those locales may therefore be used to compensate for credibility warp with a sense of verisimilitude.

Worldgilding: Where dressing is foreign to the reader, not recogniseable from an experiential milieu, it may be imbued with a sense of the strange that adds to the overall warp of the narrative. The use of quirks purely to create an aesthetic veneer to the fictive milieu is a complement of worldbolstering and may be used in conjunction with it, in the aim of furthering reader immersion. (c.f. Roberts's "worldbling".)

Worldbumphing: Faux documentation incorporated into the narrative, (as in a song,) or into the text, (as in a quote from a fictive scripture within the fictive milieu,) adds to the mimetic weft where such documentation is in a familiar form, (e.g. song or scripture,) but also serves to elucidate the milieu.

Worldbuilding: The ambiguity in the term "worldbuilding" resides in the fact that it was coined for the craft of creating ordinate realities in the manner of Tolkien's highly methodical "subcreation," largely a matter of blocking, bolstering, gilding and bumphing, but has come to be applied not just to worldscapes generated by worldblazing but to any sufficiently foreign and/or complex fictive milieu, even to milieus that are largely mimetic. While it might well be interesting to examine historical fictions in terms of worldscape and alterity, (do they use worldblocking? if distant enough, do they function as alterior realities?) the term "worldbuilding" is entirely inappropriate where we are simply talking about an effective locale layout.

Intrigue: Worldblazing requires the specifically literary skill of developing milieu from staging and dressing, and where it binds milieu back to narrative action at a basic level it renders it the root of intrigue. Where the narrative is aimed to function mainly as a conceptual exploration of a quirk's implications, we may expect to see less bolstering as the alterior reality is argued via that exploration; in some cases -- some future and ulterior realities, for example -- the fictive milieu may be argued directly from the start point of a recognisable mimetic milieu. Which is to say, the milieu only becomes alterior as we read. Where gilding and bumphing are employed, we may see a deliberate thematic import to these, with the former used to imbue the worldscape with a relevant aesthetic, and the latter used as intratextual commentary.

Immersion: The skills involved in worldblocking, on the other hand, are largely organisational, and the narratives that takes place in a milieu generated by worldblocking are often quite separable from it, structurally speaking, reiterable Romance with a straightforward epic/adventure/mystery/thriller/noir/horror narrative grammar, played against an estranged but interchangeable backdrop; the most central quirk may be functionally no more than a MacGuffin. Where the narrative is aimed to function mainly as an immersive Story, authenticity and verisimilitude may be held more important than even basic literary skills. The substance of the text is only a means to an end and may be so sublimated into the imaginative experience that readers ignore craft deficits irrelevant to their experience. Meanwhile, bolstering, gilding and bumphing that would be considered extraneous by a worldblazing writer may be valued for enriching the immersive experience. Since bolstering and gilding only require the addition of dressing, they also involve little in the way of literary skill; clumsy description will still bolster, while clichéd tropes will still gild. Ultimately, an obdurate insistence on the capacity of the worldscape to function as an imaginative playground and an indifference to the actual craft of writing may lead a writer to coin a term like "the clomping foot of nerdism."



Blogger Colin Meier said...

Ah - continuing my second-hand literary education at the University of The Sodomite...thanks, Hal.

I suspect (having followed the original links) some people tend to disregard authors who "worldbuild", assuming that all of them do so for the reasons, and in the manner, you describe in the last item "Immersion". (The clomping foot of nerdism).

At its heart this is elitism, and it can lead to dismissing and ignoring some very good writers.

That said, I also practice a form of elitism - with me it's entirely about the quality of the prose.

I'm not even going to ask which of the techniques you favor - Ink and Vellum are worldblazing stories, even though the story is, to some degree, *about* worldbuilding (if worldbuilding could be recursive and re-entrant). The Book of All Hours, after all, is a physical map in the beginning of Vellum.

Here's another (not-very-serious) stab at your favorite non-distinction :

"The main difference between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy comes with a map."

(Before you scream and shout, bear in mind this would put "Dune" firmly on the fantasy side of things which would seem to support your previous arguments).


7:13 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

> The Book of All Hours, after all, is a physical map in the beginning of Vellum.

Although, of course, the first line of Vellum might give ye a clue as to one source of the term "blazing," and how I feel about them maps, heh. Slash and burn, muthahfuckah!

Fantasy comes with a map? I don't *remember* noticing a map at the start of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." ;)

7:22 pm  

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