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.


Anonymous said...

The "Science Fiction Tropes" site said that "future cities have no history" - they're all steel and glass, with no old neighbourhoods or remnants of same!

Rick said...

They are pretty much right - that was the convention for many decades, pretty much from when the future was first invented till around the 1970s or 80s. Then we got the Dystopian City of the Future - pretty much like the traditional version, but shabby and run down, with hookers in woven titanium hot pants and drunks sleeping it off in the monorail stations.

In the original rocketpunk era it was all too clear why cities had no old neighborhoods - city names like New Chicago, with its spaceport built on the still slightly radioactive site of old Chicago. (Heinlein, Between Planets.)

Anonymous said...

When I was a teenager, back in the '70s, it was almost taken as gospwl that the Cold War would end in a nuclear exchange. After that, civilization would rise from the slightly glowing ashes, stripped of its past. While the tone of those old stories was almost always optimistic, they left me with an unsettled feeling. Years after, when I thought about it, I was amazed at how cavalier the writers were about doomsday and its aftermath.
On a lighter note, I think that the best way to create the illustion of a fictisious world is layers. Each new discription of a street, a building, a park, a palace, a taproom, or what a character is wearing, paints a new layer onto your world. If you've done it right (and I've tried and failed more times than I've succeded), than the reader comes away with a picture of that world by the end of the story. Now if I could only get more people to read my stories! Oh, well, (insert approperate self-depreseating idom)

Sam said...

The future cities we built here in the UK - Milton Keynes and Welwyn Garden City for instance - didn't have any history either when they were built. But then those ones really were constructed ab initio, by the same people who hated the dirty, messy Victorian past and knocked it down to build clean new vistas of concrete and glass.

Bernita said...

Underneath every city lies history, for cities are built, not by arbitrary whim, but following geographic imperatives, followed consciously or unconsciously.
In world building, the flavour , illustrated by casual detail engage the reader more than a careful town plat.

Rick said...

Ferrell - an apocalyptic subtlety: At least in Heinlein stories of the 50s, when he implies a nuclear war in the past, it clearly was fought mostly with Hiroshima-yield bombs, and probably dozens rather than hundreds of them. A nuke war on that scale would "only" be about as horrific as WW II, just in one day instead of six years. It took the H-bomb to introduce full frontal apocalypse to SF.

Sam - some other types of cities start out "clean," Roman colonies for example. Caesar speaks, and up springs a city with its forum, baths, and theater. But once the clock is started it runs, and the city begins to change, accumulating a past.

Bernita - yes. I have created worlds in detail only to do nothing with them, but (anticipating my next post) I've been very sketchy about the conventional world-building of Lyonesse. I know its essence: Britain, shifted a couple of hundred nautical miles west, a bit closer to Faerie. Specifics can be filled in when I come to them, because I know the flavor they should have.

Anonymous said...

Re:"city names like New Chicago, with its spaceport built on the still slightly radioactive site of old Chicago"

In a way It's curious that people think of a-bombed cities as being radioactive & if not 'uninhabitable' then undesirable to live in for a long time after the bombing.

The only 2 examples of a-bombed cities were rebuilt immediately & became perfectly fine places to live.

Rick said...

I have a 1970s vintage world railways book with an endplate showing a Japanese cityscape with the bullet train line running through it. I'd had the book for a couple of years before I realized that it was Hiroshima. It was weird encountering it in a non-atomic context, just a scene of modern urban railroading in Japan.

Radiation, and especially lingering radiation, has a mystique of its own, because it is like a reverse lottery ticket. It's a bit ironic that the truly catastrophic nuclear war scenarios have nothing to do with radiation, but plain old firestorms and the like.

(As opposed to those less catastrophic scenarios, where a mere few dozen million people get incinerated or simply buried in the rubble. Even then radiation is a fairly minor factor.)

Anonymous said...

More on radioactivity & its mystique:
I read a book titled _Wormwood Forest_ by Mary Mycio.

It's subtitled 'A natural history of Cheynobyl' & is about how the area around Chernobyl has become the greatest wildlife refuge in Europe.

Any harm done by the radioactivity to the wildlife is far outweighed by the benefits of not having human activity interfering with the wildlife.

Rick said...

Jim - I'm totally unsurprised by that.

Canageek said...

Actually, my understanding is there is a hell of a lot of debate in the literature about if Chernobyl is a boon or bane to wildlife. Some studies and casual observation show it flourishing, as while birth rates and survival to adolescences are much lower due to mutations, the overall removal of humans is positive. Other one are finding large amounts of damage and mutation to songbirds and plants that may harm the species in the long term, even if it is getting a population boost now, and (this is all from memory) some smaller bird species are suffering very heavily from the radiation.