Sunday, April 27, 2008

Faking It

First a note of housekeeping for anyone still actually dropping by - I have been even longer than usual in updating this blog, largely due to an interesting work gig that I can't describe yet, except to say that the actual work I'm doing is a great deal like blogging about history. Great work if you can find it, and I hope it keeps going for a while!

This blog has now been going for a year and a week, and this will be my 60th entry, so I've actually been averaging about a post a week - not so well so far this year, alas, but we will try to do a little better!

Spinoff discussion of a post at Carla's blog gives me my text for the day, the difference between convincing and unconvincing fakery. Faking it is of course the heart of all fiction, for once including "mainstream" and the true novel as well as Romance in all of its various forms. The standard of fakery required is high - so high that in one notorious recent publishing scandal a writer found it easier to peddle his stuff as a memoir rather than fiction. In other words, it was easier for him to convince publishing people that his story actually did happen than to convince readers to play along as if it really happened. Fiction, as the saying goes, has to be believable.

All fiction writers fake their characters; writers in most of the Romance genres also have to fake their settings, at least the critical foreground. Moreover, great deal of the stuff peddled as mainstream fiction is actually disguised Romance. Any story that is full of junkies and hookers might as well take place in one of the tougher hoods of Faerie, or down by the cargo airlocks, for all that it has to do with the suburban milieu in which most of the readers live. Even in novels of campus infidelity, the characters are probably getting a lot more action than most real-life professors do. In this last case, though the authors have to invent and explain the bed hopping, so far as constructing the setting goes, all they have to do is oil the hinges on the bedroom doors.

Some authors of mainstream novels about junkies 'n' hookers may have first hand knowledge of that world, just as some writers in Romance genres such as detective fiction are actual investigators. Most of both groups of authors probably fake it, though. They've got to make up their characters and situations anyway, so not why not make up the background as well, with a little research to find out that revolvers don't have safety catches and no one has shivved anyone in decades. (I believe a prison knife is a shank.) Once you making it up, though, you are two thirds of the way to Faerie, which is why fantasy writers have been slipping in through back alleys and the subway tunnels in the last couple of decades.

I have a theory, unprovable and conveniently unfalsifiable, that experienced readers have good intuitive bullshit detectors, even for stuff we don't know. None of us, after all, really knows much. I know a little about sailing ships and plausible space drives, hardly anything about ecoregenerative life support systems or what a 16th century brewery would be like. (Except that it would presumably have some sort of beer or ale around.) You, dear reader, probably have similar islands of knowledge in a sea of ignorance. Yet when someone is faking it and badly, we can usually tell. Something in the fermentation vats smells bad, even if we aren't sure what it is.

How do we make up a world? Most guides to world building are roll-your-own formulas for creating statistical abstracts of a world, or cautions on mistakes to avoid, like a world full of lords with a regrettable absence of peasants to tug forelocks and pay rent to them. This is refining the creative process, not the creative process itself.

Forget a whole world: Imagine a city. We assemble it, I imagine, out of bits and pieces of real cities - not in an exactly literal way, but out of types. If it is a modern city we know what urban shopping streets and suburban minimalls look like, and we imagine them spreading across some suitable landscape, a bay or a river valley. If it is a retro city, for the nearer past you can mentally run the tape back - glass buildings giving way to lower brick ones, freeways flickering into elevated rail lines. For the more distant past you pretty much have to construct a mental Disneyland - at least on this side of the pond we do - based I suspect primarily on old movies, refined by whatever research we've done.

Visualizing the future is odd, because our cultural images of it are mostly retro themselves - the City of the Future is still Metropolis, modestly updated to the 1930s with streamline moderne architecture. Getting dressed in the future is even tougher - what can a woman, to make things more interesting (yes, I'm sexist) put on that will not make her look a) indistinguishable from the present, b) like a 1980s punk rocker, c) an inmate in a minimum security prison in the 1950s, or d) RenFaire? Personally I favor (d), on the premise that if you can't have believable, at least have pretty.

Whatever the era of our city, most of it is forever vague, unless we get truly, obsessively into the world building, and probably never get around to writing anything set in it. Oh, let's be honest, sometimes our worlds are a virtual model railroad layout, intended for nothing but our own enjoyment. Even so it can never be fully detailed. Like model railroaders or film set designers, we not only fake, we have to fake selectively.

Apart from the blur of half-seen and scarcely noticed streets and neighborhoods, what brings a fake city to life, I think, is a combination of a two things: a sense of its overall logic (the warehouses are near the docks), and the telling foreground detail, such as those that hint at a past - grooves in the pavement marking onetime streetcar tracks; a medieval town square that preserves, encrusted under later work, the outlines of an imperial-era forum; a clutter of old building half concealing the stump of a freeway ramp.*

Multiply cities, and the countrysides between them, and you have a world, whole cities and countries receding into the background blur, but still the overall thrust to give it shape and the telling foreground details to give it character.

To be continued!

* Speaking of concealed, underneath all this lies the one unanswerable creationist argument. If God created the universe ex nihilo in 4004 BC, or whatever date you prefer, wouldn't his masterwork have all the features a full working model of a universe should have, including evidence of its simulated past? This same argument, however, leaves conventional creationists arguing for sloppy workmanship on God's part.