Tag Archives: Worldbuilding

The Clomping Foot of Orbis Tertius

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

So… as I said in my last post (oh so long ago now), recently I reread Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” after it turned up on the shortlist for the Retro Hugo awards, juxtaposed with pulpy stories by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Leigh Brackett. Which, I grant, seems incongruous.

It’s possible to argue–I’ve seen arguments made, anyway–that salting a SF shortlist with classic literature is a dubious move. That such a list might simply be grabbing at cultural respectability, poaching a work that came from outside the SF tradition and therefore doesn’t really belong with it. What’s interesting about this argument is that it could just as easily come from people skeptical of genre fiction, or from genre fans who resent “literary” fiction and insist the beloved pulp of their childhoods is just as good as–no, better than–the books their ninth grade English teacher forced them to read. I would refuse to belong to these groups even if they were willing to have me as a member.

Genre is just a tool for describing what fiction is doing. Any interesting fiction does more than one thing, and might be grouped with any number of genres. The people of Tlon assume all books are the work of one all-encompassing author, whose mind they reconstruct by juxtaposing such wildly dissimilar volumes as the Tao Te Ching and the Arabian Nights; we probably shouldn’t go that far. But no laboratory test in existence can establish definitively how much of which genres any book contains. I’d argue that anyone who can come up with an argument (reasonable or not) for putting a particular work in a particular genre should feel free to do so. The only excuses you need are “Does this make for an enjoyable argument?” and “Could putting this story next to these others lead to interesting ideas?”[1]

For those who haven’t read “Tlon,” a summary: the narrator, a fictionalized Borges, hears of an imaginary world, Tlon, referenced only in an article on a nonexistent country appearing in a single bootleg copy of an encyclopedia. Later he discovers a volume from the Encyclopedia of Tlon which gives a more complete picture of Tlon’s radically different worldview.

SF still has a lot to learn for Borges. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like much of his work, is a story in the form of an essay. You don’t see this much in science fiction or fantasy. I mean, yeah, there aren’t massive quantities of fictional nonfiction in general. But it’s odd that essay-stories don’t turn up much more often in SF, because the format suits SF so well. Some strains of SF just want to build worlds, or speculate about new technologies’ effects on society, and these are too often the ones with clichéd plots and flat characters. Maybe these stories authors’ only cared about (and, incidentally, had the right sort of talents to deal with) the ideas that weren’t related to plot or character… but, not realizing that fiction didn’t have to be conventionally plotted and narrated, they bolted on perfunctory plots and characters about which they felt no real enthusiasm. A lot of golden-age-style engineering problem stories would benefit from being written as fake journal articles. A lot of epic fantasies would be better off as fictional travel writing in the vein of Leena Krohn’s Tainaron or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. Still, not many essay-stories turn up in Best SF collections; in genre the only writer I can think of who embraced the form enthusiastically was Stanislaw Lem, whose A Perfect Vacuum (which includes a nod to Borges) and Imaginary Magnitude collected reviews of, and prefaces to, nonexistent books.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” uses its essay format to build a world in a small space. Worldbuilding is core to science fiction and fantasy, but it’s often seen as a distraction, an invitation for geeks to vanish down their own navels; M. John Harrison famously called it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. (For the opposing view, see China Miéville.) “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” leans toward Harrison’s vision of worldbuilding as toxic labyrinth–but more on that later.

I sometimes agree with M. John Harrison, but I think there are different kinds of worldbuilding. One kind, the kind that can seduce a writer into compiling a thousand-page wannabe-Silmarillion recording the undistinguished deeds of indistinguishable gods and heroes, is boring. But I think other kinds are relevant to creating worlds with a sense of life, and characters who seem to live as citizens of those worlds instead of using them as sketchy backdrops for narcissistic protagonisting. One concerns itself with the material conditions of people’s lives–their food, their jobs and pastimes, their plumbing. Another, the kind of worldbuilding Borges is doing here, is concerned with how people in this imagined world think–not so much their surface opinions as the underlying philosophies and fundamental beliefs. What makes them tick.

The Tlonites tick differently. Their worldview resembles the “subjective idealism” proposed by the 18th century philosopher George Berkely: Tlon denies that material reality exists. Instead there are actions and perceptions. Tlon’s languages have no nouns; one is composed entirely of verbs, another of adjectives, which they use to describe objects, which exist only when perceived. Tlon’s geometry insists that a moving person modifies the forms that surround them, its mathematics claims that counting changes an indefinite number into a definite one. In Tlon, ideas make things: the desire to find a lost object, or even the hope to find something previously unknown, can create new objects called hronir. In Tlon science and philosophy are more games than searches for truth. The point is to construct arguments that come to interesting conclusions.

In the final section of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, ostensibly written seven years later, we learn about the secret society that invented Tlon at the behest of a rich American who wanted to prove God wasn’t the only entity who could create worlds, dagnabbit. The Encyclopedia of Tlon, it turns out, exists in its entirety.

Which brings us back to M. John Harrison’s suspicion of worldbuilding. When I looked up that famous “clomping foot of nerdism” quotation I was struck by a passage that seemed to resonate with Borges’s story:

It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

The Orbis Tertius group releases the entire Encyclopedia of Tlon into the wild, along with a handful of artifacts apparently from Tlon. Now Tlon is everywhere, more inescapable than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The public devours Tlon’s history, adopts Tlon’s culture. Schools teach Tlon’s languages. It’s what everyone on the internet is writing inane thinkpieces about. Everybody loves Tlon because Tlon is simple. Bizarre, yes. But Tlon is the product of human minds, so can be completely contained in and comprehended by human minds–unlike the infinite, complex, accidental, ultimately unknowable real universe that produced the minds that produced Tlon. In a few years, Borges speculates, the world will be Tlon.

So, worldbuilding. What’s it for? Potentially lots of things. I think a lot of them are good. Worldbuilding can create just the right environment to make a story work. Stories of other worlds can show readers other possibilities, good and bad; other ways of thinking or arranging societies. I’m even sympathetic to worldbuilding as consolation, providing imaginary places to daydream about. If occasional escapism helps someone exist in the world, I’m not one to sneer. (There’s a Lynda Barry quotation that turns up a lot on the internet: “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”)

But in these worlds some people find consolation of another, stupider kind. Science fiction and fantasy, the genres most concerned with worldbuilding, are beloved of geek culture, which in the 21st century is mainstream culture. (See: Marvel Cinematic Universe, inescapableness of.) See, geek culture has this pathology–well, geek culture has several pathologies, but this essay is concerned with just one. Geek culture has a habit of relating to its favorite fictions, especially franchises and expanded universes, through a kind of obsessive collector mentality. Not collecting things, collecting facts–fictional facts, at least. Memorizing every detail of the history of Middle Earth, knowing exactly which issue of X-Men each character was introduced in, remembering the name and personal history of every alien in the Star Wars cantina.

Which sounds harmless, but leads to so many annoyances. Like, any discussion involving a pop culture phenomenon, something like Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes, stands a nonzero chance of getting derailed by obsessives arguing over canon: which fictional facts fit with all the other fictional facts, and which have to be thrown out? I’m usually the first to argue that any critical approach can lead to an interesting conversation regardless of how generous you have to be to describe it as a “critical approach,” but even I must admit this stuff is tedious.

What’s worse are the geeks who form in-groups based on obsessive cataloguing, and resentfully police their boundaries with trivia. You’re not a proper fan unless you’ve read all the right science fiction novels,[2] or agree that the animated Star Trek series isn’t canon, or like the right version of Doctor Who. Women in particular seemingly can’t show interest in geek culture things without being quizzed on trivialities by tedious nerds hoping to expose “fake geek girls.”

And then there’s the way any remake, addition, or slight change to any media franchise brings man-children crawling out from under their rocks crying that their childhoods are being ruined.[3] And we have to put up with this nonsense constantly, because the studios that control 90% of American pop culture have run out of ideas and produce nothing but remakes, additions, and slight changes to franchises. As I write this the internet is up in arms because what appears to be a perfectly inoffensive remake of Ghostbusters happens to star women. It’s exactly as tiresome as turning on the radio and hearing the overplayed single you’re most sick of.

So why does this subset of geekdom treat exhaustive surveys of places that aren’t there with a seriousness normally reserved for nuclear nonproliferation treaties? Why the pathetic overreactions?

You might as well ask why everybody in Borges’s world is obsessed with Tlon. Exhaustively surveying a place that isn’t there is exactly the kind of worldbuilding Orbis Tertius does. As M. John Harrison notes, a literally exhaustive survey of the world would be too big for anyone to comprehend in its entirety. Reality contradicts itself, and it keeps changing–tripping people up with new facts. And, let’s face it, reality has terrible continuity. Like, the characters in the “United States” spinoff are supposed to be incredibly afraid of terrorism, but nobody does anything about the mass shootings happening every other day. What sense does that make? Something here isn’t canon! And then there’s that “quantum mechanics” business, which the writers are obviously making up as they go along. And don’t get me started on the way they keep randomly killing off major characters!

Tlon is orderly. Tlon can be catalogued, managed. Tlon can be mastered. The real world is confusing, but with Tlon the fans can feel like they’re in control… At least until Orbis Tertius decides to rewrite Tlon. Or add some new characters. Or remake it with a non-nerd-approved cast. That’s when the panic sets in.[4] The fans, tripped up by new facts, this formerly managable system out of their control, have to face the fact that they’re not masters of anything at all.

Borges identifies the impulse that drives people to Tlon–the desire to simplify and tame the universe–with the impulse that drove people to fascism and totalitarianism. When I look at the grimier edges of nerd culture I’m not sure he’s wrong. Note, again, how much of the behavior I’m describing is bound up with defining and expelling out-groups, and with sexism in particular–whining when the SF canon lets in authors from marginalized groups, refusing to accept the new, diverse characters added to their treasured franchises. There’s some irony in the fact that science fiction, a genre full of stories about opening minds, discovering new things, and accepting the alien, has fans terrified of the new and different in real life… but fictional difference and novelty are under control, and that’s how they like it. Imagine a nerd foot clomping on a human face–forever.

I have no solution for any of this. Neither does Borges in his story; he just does his best to take no notice. Maybe he has the right idea. There are styles of worldbuilding that don’t pander to obsessives and can handle glitches with grace; there are fictional worlds where two planets can have the same name and Atlantis can sink three times without falling apart.[5] Let the Tlonist geeks freak out whenever their authority over trivialities is challenged; I’ll be over here, actually enjoying myself. Only… maybe they could freak out where I don’t have to listen to them?

  1. Incidentally, the first place I read “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was in an anthology called The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which I read when I was young and just recently interested in SF. Like many older anthologies it had a serious gender imbalance–there were more women it could have included, if the editors had worked harder to find them–but within its limits it was a great anthology. It had lots of translated stories, some by writers I’ve never read elsewhere, and brought writers like Sheckly, Le Guin, and Bradbury together with writers like Borges and Boris Vian.  ↩

  2. Some SF fans will tell you proper SF fans should be conversant with the works of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, which is like insisting that anyone interested in English literature absolutely must read Samuel Richardson.  ↩

  3. Invariably followed by a flood of superfluous online thinkpieces noting that, hey, man-children are crying, what’s up with that?  ↩

  4. Although continuity can be rewritten in the service of Tlonism, too. The last thirty years of DC Comics constitute an endless series of increasingly baroque and preposterous attempts to force their entire line into internal consistency.  ↩

  5. My favorite media franchise, Doctor Who, has over the years has gone off in any number of mutually contradictory directions. I might get annoyed when one particular strand of Doctor Who seems to be playing narrative Calvinball, but I don’t lose sleep over the fact that different strands of the series have featured two different versions of Human Nature with two different Doctors and two different political slants. This is a show that had an episode where the Doctor had to defeat somebody wanting to set Earth’s canon in stone to better catalogue it. And yet Doctor Who fans still have arguments about canon!  ↩

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible

In retrospect, the most significant thing about Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible is what it did for Gallifrey. Which is interesting, because it’s also the smallest part of the book.

For years, Gallifrey was a mysterious, rarely seen planet of space gods who, in their first appearance, casually sent the Doctor spinning into a big black void with his head missing. Subsequently they did crazy crap like unexpectedly appearing in midair outside of radio telescopes, or pulling transmat beams halfway across the galaxy and thousands of years into the past, all the time wearing relaxed, bemused expressions that suggested this kind of thing was just part of the morning routine, and after they’d had their coffee they’d really get going.

This changed with “The Deadly Assassin.” Robert Holmes gave Gallifrey layers of down-to-earth corruption and politics which added interesting story possibilities but were not immediately accepted by fans. A now-legendary review from a fan club newsletter, written by one Jan Vincent Rudzki, was reprinted 20 years later in Paul Cornell’s book License Denied. It’s worth tracking down, if only as a reminder that the style of writing that dominates many internet forums–a sort of breathless, half-literate nitpicking –did not originate there. As with a lot of this stuff, Rudzki’s criticisms are mostly based on unwarranted assumptions and personal hobby-horses, like his innocent faith in the notion that all Time Lords have easy access to “time scanners.” Most awesomely, he ends his review with “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” in big capital letters, which should end every post on rec.arts.drwho. Even so, he does get something right: “This story really showed up the infatuation for Earth people in Doctor Who. It could have been set on Earth and no one would have known the difference.”

Robert Holmes’s Time Lords are mundane. They’re very, very human–almost indistinguishable from a herd of aging Oxford dons. Later writers took the wrong lesson from Holmes, making the Time Lords more and more prosaic until by “Arc of Infinity” they were pretty much a bunch of nice middle-class office workers hanging out in the food court at the mall.

Until Time’s Crucible. Marc Platt made Gallifrey weird again. Ancient Gallifrey is a world of telepaths dominated by those few with the will to make their thoughts entirely their own, ruled by a mad old seer whose office is a cage suspended above a fissure. The nice office workers don’t speak the language, and will probably lose their travelers checks within a couple of days.

What’s less immediately obvious is the skill with which Platt drew this society. Time’s Crucible displays an easy mastery of the technique that fantasy writer Jo Walton calls “incluing,” conveying more background through implication than infodumps. He trusts the readers enough to know that, from phrases like “strange-featured people who thought in strange accents” and the stress placed on words like “Individuals,” they can infer a great deal about this world, orienting the readers so that, by the time he states outright that everybody’s telepathic, they already have some idea of what this means.

I’m not blathering on about this because I think the art of suggesting more background than is shown was new to Doctor Who. Robert Holmes had mastered of the technique, as is obvious from something like “The Ribos Operation.” What’s important about this is that Time’s Crucible–to a greater extent than the more mythic Revelation–signals the point when Doctor Who seriously began learning from the themes and techniques of mainstream literary SF. This was a break with the TV series, which naturally was more influenced by other visual media, especially Hammer films and Nigel Kneale. Its literary sources tended to be writers old or famous enough to have works adapted to film, so that, when books like The Left Hand of Darkness and Stand on Zanzibar were winning SF awards, Doctor Who was broadcasting “The Dominators” and “The Space Pirates.” The New Adventures brought Doctor Who to the point where it was only about five or ten years behind the times, rather than twenty or thirty–which sounds snide, but it really was a major accomplishment. Their literary influences were a huge shift in tone for Doctor Who, and a sign of the writers’ recognition that this was a series of novels and not novelizations. The new direction alienated those few fans who wouldn’t accept anything but a TV episode frozen in print, but gained a stable audience and led to an artistically successful line of books. (I’ll repeat that, just so you realize how amazing it is: an artistically successful line of TV tie-in novels. That’s huge.) This success is only more obvious in comparison with the BBC Books, so many of which looked away from literary influences towards Hollywood blockbusters and modern media properties–and suffered as a consequence.

There are a couple of things you realize about Time’s Crucible on a second reading. First, that there’s a lot less Gallifrey in it than you remember. Second, that the issues the rest of the book deals with, which you didn’t remember at all, are a bit… well, abstract.

Judging from online reviews I’ve skimmed through, this is thought to be a difficult book. At first it’s hard to understand what the Process is trying to do, or what the hell it’s even talking about most of the time. But Time’s Crucible is less complex than it seems. There’s a reason why the Process’s goals are hard to understand: it doesn’t understand them itself–it doesn’t even know it doesn’t understand them. The Process’s plans, its blather about the “stolen future” and the conflict between its older and younger incarnations are all, in themselves, meaningless. The Process is an unwitting character in a psychodrama, acting out the conflict between Rassilon and the Pythia on ancient Gallifrey, absorbed through the Pythia’s mental link to Vael. The barren city where the biggest chunk of the action takes place is an empty stage for a few actors to play a stripped-down burlesque of the Pythia’s fall, a planetwide political revolution boiled down to its essence.

(Time’s Crucible was originally a TV proposal, by the way, and here we see how some version of this story, rewritten to require fewer special effects, might have worked–about six or seven actors besides the regulars in a setting that could be cobbled together from whatever sets and locations were on hand. Keep the Gallifrey bits brief, and you could suggest an offstage political coup with just Rassilon and the Pythia arguing in a cave.)

Time’s Crucible is a political satire. It’s about what happens when the powerful become complacent; when political power is something to be held onto for its own sake, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Usually at that point a special kind of denial sets in. It’s a defense mechanism. Powerful people don’t like to admit, even to themselves, that they could stop being powerful. They see the future as a kind of eternal Now, which their heirs will rule forever. Often this extends even to the past, which they conceive of as a place of eternal “traditional values,” unchanging and unchallenged until the decadent present. Anything that suggests even the possibility of change is blasphemy.

U.S. politics provide an illustration. In a recent (at the time of writing) primary election in Connecticut, a longtime Democratic senator who had lost the trust of his constituents was thrown out in favor of a new candidate. This is the kind of thing that happens in a democracy, and always a disappointment to the loser… but the senator and his supporters reacted like a dog had walked into their dinner party on its hind legs, climbed on the table and recited dirty limericks. It was his right to run for reelection, damn it, and anything that challenged that was unnatural. Something of his attitude is demonstrated by the name of the third party he immediately formed in order to stay in the race. In the U.S. political parties usually take names that communicate their values: Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green. Senator Lieberman named his new party “Connecticut for Lieberman.”

The Pythia can’t imagine a future she hasn’t chosen. As she becomes entrenched in power her denial grows stronger, until she literally can’t see the future that it’s her function to predict. Meanwhile, the city reduces the struggle to retain power and deny history to absurdity. Time has looped back on itself, creating three eternal presents. The Process, unable to admit any change, struggles not with successors but with other versions of itself to preserve not only its reign but a particular moment of its reign as the true reality.

Despite this, the Process talks a lot about the future. Just what it’s saying about the future is one of the less clear things about Time’s Crucible, mostly because none of its dialogue means very much. It’s convinced the future was “stolen” because the Pythia believes that Rassilon has stolen her future, but it has no real idea of what the future is, beyond something that ought to belong to it. In the mouths of the Process “the future” becomes political jargon–the kind of word that shows up in speeches because of its great emotional appeal and slight intellectual content. Every government has jargon words, and the more self-aggrandizing and inbred the government the more of them there are: just think of the piles of inane buzzwords associated with communism. Closer to home, “freedom” has been taking a beating lately from George W. Bush, and if you sat him down and asked him what the word meant to him I doubt he’d have a coherent answer.

Taken to its furthest extreme, the obsession with holding on to power leads to a totalitarian state, arranged to suppress anything that might threaten the rulers. We don’t see a lot of Gallifrey, but what we do see suggests that the Pythia’s reign approaches totalitarianism. (Who needs telescreens when everyone constantly hears everyone else’s thoughts? And the Pythia seems to have no qualms about probing Vael’s brain at whim.) The city again reduces the situation to its barest essentials: a tiny closed ecosystem where the State is all that exists. With all else stripped away, the ruler’s preoccupations are revealed as pointless, egocentric absurdities. The citizens are literally made to participate in their own oppression, as the brainwashed guards from the final phase police their own past selves.

But the city, though useful for satire, is also Time’s Crucible’s big weakness. It’s a high-concept world of big ideas and mind-blowing set pieces, but curiously lifeless in its chapter-to-chapter existence. The only inhabitants are the Process, a group of mostly indistinguishable early Time Lords, the Doctor and Ace–and the Doctor vanishes for most of the book, leaving Ace to carry whole chapters on her own. This book apparently bores a lot of readers, and I don’t blame them; I liked it, but even I wanted less Ace and more Gallifrey. It probably wouldn’t have hurt the book to be about 50 to 75 pages shorter. The biggest problem is that Time’s Crucible is so very sedate. It needs more wit of the dry, not quite laugh-out-loud kind found in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Eugen Ionescu’s play Rhinoceros. It needed, in other words, to be a true absurdist novel.

Even so, Time’s Crucible isn’t nearly as much of a slog as its reputation suggests. It didn’t equal Timewyrm: Revelation, but if you’ve never reread it–or never read it for the first time–it’s worth going back to.