Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Worlds We Create

That’s enough of theology for a while. Not that I really know much about it but the joy of having a blog is you don’t have to be an expert. “Everything in this blog may be wrong”, to paraphrase Richard Bach.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how writers create their worlds. I've just finished doing a red pen job on the draft of my cousin Allan Smith’s second book, Owleye’s Songs of the Night. He’s self-published the first in the series, Quid and Harmony, with all proceeds going to the Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia – you can find out more about it at It’s worth a read and if you don’t like the book, at least you're supporting a great cause. These are fantasy works but knowing Allan as I do, I can see various bits of the world that are drawn from his world – places and customs that are similar to his own, and ideas that fit Allan’s world view.

All fiction writers create artificial worlds. For many, the resemblance between their world and the one we inhabit is so close that we forget that the book world is artificial. Hence we use Jane Austen as a source of social history, forgetting that she has exaggerated some aspects of her society and minimised others. How do poor people marry in Austen’s world? Do the women who marry a man with 5,000 a year “in the funds” ever look wistfully at the poor charmer they turned down who ends up with 10,000 a year as a result of hard work?

One place you can’t mistake the artificiality of the world is in speculative fiction. As an 18 year old I was blown away by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, and I still love them. Despite his clumsy prose and the fact that the most important events to the plot are the most boring for the reader, the world Tolkien created is so rich and detailed that readers love to immerse themselves in it. This is because Tolkien himself devoted so much of his imaginative life to the creation of that world – its history, its geography, its languages, its spirituality, the characteristics and cultures of its different people. In the short-term he was a publisher’s nightmare because he was so immersed in this imaginary world he was unable to meet deadlines or understand what readers might be interested in. Yet 50 years on he is a perpetual gold-mine for his patient publishers!

More recently I’ve been loving the work of two contrasting writers of speculative fiction – Iain M Banks and William Gibson.

I was referred to Banks a few years ago by another relative. He writes two kinds of books – as plain Iain Banks he writes a kind of dark literary fiction/magical realism which you should only read if you have a strong stomach. With the M in his name he writes the richest, most imaginative space fiction I have ever read. His “Culture” novels are full of strange life-forms and bizarre civilisations – creatures the size of small planets which create their own sub-creatures to do their bidding, immensely powerful spherical beings that live in the heart of gas giants, civilisations evolved from arthropods, mullusks, fish, birds, clouds and pretty much anything else you could name. The richness of detail is very similar to Tolkien, with an imagined (if only hinted-at) galactic history, a detailed political system, a set of technologies that could almost be imagined to work.

However, just as Tolkien created hobbits and humans that his readers could relate to, Banks centres his civilisation around two things we think we understand – humans and computers. The humans are similar to ourselves although they don’t appear to share our history – they are mortal although advanced medical technology means they don’t have to die, they reproduce sexually (and do a lot of other sexual things, too!), they have two arms and two legs, breath oxygen, and share our passions, delights, fears and failings. Even though many of them live aboard world-sized spaceships or huge artificial habitats, they are essentially the same as us.

His computers, on the other hand, are hardly recognisable as the same type of machines as the one you’re accessing this blog through. They are fully sentient artificial intelligences. Some of them are simple, human-like creatures built to maintain machinery or serve drinks. However, the great Minds which actually run the Culture – Minds of major ships and artificial worlds – have so much intelligence that the complexity of their thinking is beyond our imagination. Still, he uses little touches to “humanise” them. The ships give themselves bizarre names like “So Much for Subtlety”, “Of Course I Still Love You”, “Frank Exchange of Views” or “I Thought He Was with You”. They also have bizarre hobbies – the ship which is the central character in Excession, for instance, is creating a sculpture park made of real human bodies frozen in various attitudes of dying.

However while they are bizarre, his artificial intelligences are not psychopathic like the ones in the Terminator films or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – they are amazingly life affirming. Indeed, in the end what makes the Culture most home-like for us is that it is essentially liberal society writ large – a society in which people (and computers) are free to do and be what they like as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else, and in which intervention in other societies is well intentioned if not always 100% competent. Theirs is the society we would like to have, the dream of the great 19th century liberals inflated to a galactic scale. The sheer seductiveness of his vision makes you forget that the plots hardly make sense.

This same focus on world over plot is typical of William Gibson. Unlike Banks, Gibson’s world is recognisably our own. In a formal sense, the stories are set on Earth, either in our time or in the not-too-distant future. Yet in their essence they are set in an entirely different place – a version of cyberspace which could conceivably have grown out of the Internet. His characters don’t so much access information over the Net as live in it. In the novels set "now", the action and the characters are driven by the tracking of objects and information, by the way information can be controlled, stolen and manipulated. In the stories set in the near future he goes a step further, allowing people to live a large part of their lives online, to create their own identities, to travel from place to place, to kill and be killed, to take over territory, even to create new forms of life online. In these stories, physical place, time and nationality become almost incidental, people travel around the physical world at a frantic pace to keep pace with the virtual world, and at times the boundaries between the two become so blurred you can’t tell which events are happening physically and which virtually. Because of this emerging virtual world, the structures and systems of the “old” world – government, law enforcement and commerce – appear to be crumbling, lagging far behind those on the edge of the law who are masters of the new technology.

Is this our world, or what our world could become? Well clearly, few or none of us live this way, nor could we afford to. There are parts we hope are not true – like the way every movement, action and purchase it traceable online, or the way our systems of law enforcement become so rapidly outdated. Others seem exciting, like the way new sources of knowledge open up, the way physical boundaries can be transcended. Yet at its core, Gibson’s vision is much more pessimistic than Banks’. While in Banks’ stories the Minds are indeed watching you, they are both benign and effectively all-knowing, working out the statistical probability of everything and acting to obtain the best possible outcome. By contrast, in Gibson’s stories there are no Minds, no-one knows what’s going on, and you could just as easily be being watched by a well-intentioned corporation or an organised crime cartel – or both. It might be impossible to tell which is which, or they could be one and the same. Our certainties and securities are thrown out of the window, and there is nothing to take their place.

Both these writers show different ways of creating an imaginary world, and of linking it to our own. Banks seems to start with the imagination – what possible life-forms and civilisations could be imagined? He lets his fancy fly free before finally anchoring it to our own world through recognisable personality traits and philosophies. Gibson goes in the other direction – he starts with our world as it is, and particularly our current technologies, and then imagines what they could become and what the implications of that could be. It is disturbing precisely because it just could be true. Yet ultimately neither world is “true” – both writers take us into worlds of their own imagining, and invite our imaginations to play with them. Play on!