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Giving the Worlds Thing Another Try

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Every once in a while, I have a moment when I really don’t understand how I can claim to be a writer, since I don’t seem to be able to communicate anything to anyone.

Yesterday I tried to explain the difference between a totalizing fictional universe and your ordinary everyday fictional universe, and I seem to have failed utterly.

Lots of people do write fictional worlds that you can lose yourself in. 

But Tolkein didn’t just do that.

There is such a fictional world in The Lord of the Rings, but there is also a complete grammar and alphabet in Elvish, which can be learned and is learned, and used, by hundreds of people every year.  The appendicies for The Lord of the Rings contain history that appears in no novel.  He wrote at least one companion volume–The Simillarion–that is supposedly one of the works referred to in the novels.

He didn’t just write a novel that gives the reader the allusion, for a time, that he’s living in a different world.

As far as he could, he constructed the elements of Middle Earth so that artefacts and records exist for it that normally do not appear anywhere except as the relics of actual civilizations.  He provides the languages, and the histories, and the genealogies that provide information that occurs nowhere in the novels, or in some cases is referred to in the fiction only tangentially.

If that sort of thing exists for Barsoon, I’d be glad to see it–but my guess is that it does not.

In general, writers of fiction do not do that kind of thing.  Rather, they evoke a “world” for which our only reference is to the fiction itself.

Before I wrote that blog post, I had a discussion with a friend about the fact that I thought Tolkein was the first person ever to do this.

I was told that it was not so, and that other writers had done “the same thing” both earlier than Tolkein and later.

I accepted that at face value, but it’s obvious from the comments yesterday that we weren’t talking about “the same thing” at all, but only about the ordinary kind of world-building novels have been doing for centuries.

So I’ll go back to where I started before I wrote that post–as far as I know, Tolkein was the first person ever to do this, to create not just a world in fiction, but to create the documents, devise the languages so that they could be learned and used to read and write, and all the rest of it.

I think Tolkein was such a powerful force on the culture that this kind of construction began to seem natural, which it most definitely is not.

What also happened was that, sometime in the last 20 years or so, we started to get writers, and sometimes fan comunities, who try to do the same thing.

You can read the Bible in Klingon–it’s up online.  Which mean somebody worked out enough of Klingon as a language to make it possible to read and write it.

The Star Trek universe, like Middle Earth, now exists independently of the fiction that created it.

Someone who was so inclined could immerse himself (or herself) in that universe without every reading the books or seeing the television shows or movies.

It would be wrong to underestimate just how deeply one could immerse oneself in such alternate worlds–the Star Trek have their own charities, their own celebrants for weddings and funerals and “naming days,” thick books of philosophy and ethics and history from every world in the fictional universe.

It is becoming possible for people who would rather live in that world that this, to do it.


And the almost is not a small thing.

But there is a movement in fantasy and science fiction to try to create such worlds–worlds with “extras” outside the fiction, worlds which can exist independently of the fiction that created them.

And that is something qualitatively different than our normal ideas of a “fictional world.”

And that, I think, is a very interesting development.

Written by janeh

August 7th, 2014 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Giving the Worlds Thing Another Try'

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  1. OK. In that sense, Tolkien’s only rival is Austin Tappan Wright with ISLANDIA. I know Wright has histories, maps, genealogies and such, and discussions of the languages, but I don’t know whether one could learn to speak them. Some of the Wright material is still in manuscript–which says something. If that sort of material on Middle Earth were being held in a library somewhere, there would be fans storming the gates–and if the material would let me learn Khuzdul, I’d be one of them. It’s worth noting that Wright was another amateur. World-building on that scale pretty well requires a day job of some sort.

    But I still think Tolkien is different in scale rather than in type from his world-building predecessors. I have the rules for Jettan (ERB’s Barsoom) and there are boards and players. I know snatches of the marching songs of the Bossonian bowmen (Howard’s Hyborian kingdoms) and I’ve read newspaper headlines from the Crazy Years (Heinlein’s “Future History.”) These and many others predate LOTR.

    I don’t think this is quite what “authors have been doing for centuries” though. There were utopias and satires since Greece at least, but the need to construct a world in which people could live but which was not earth as we know it in which to set a story seems to begin–well, about the time Tolkien was born, as the world was getting a little too crowded and well-mapped for the convenience of the more expansive sort of story-teller. You can see them working out how much information is necessary and how to convey it without stopping the story.

    The fans’ reaction changes about the time Tolkien hits paperback, but how much is Tolkien and how much is the Sixties, I can’t tell you. But your other example–STAR TREK–is also beginning in the Sixties. That may be significant. So we have one shiny glorious high-tech future, and one “appropriate technology” “small is beautiful” past. Maybe we could count Heyer’s Regency and Conan Doyle’s London. Everything else is a few phrases and the costume contest at Worldcon.

    What does it mean? I don’t know. Maybe a search for roots–even artificial ones. Maybe just wealth, leisure time and a desire to play. I think you need a critical mass of people who want to play in the same world, though, and it’s hard to get that without some very well-told stories.

    “Science fiction (and fantasy) writers build castles in the air. Fans move into them. Publishers collect the rent.”

    –Old saying among the fen.


    7 Aug 14 at 5:30 pm

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