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Panel Discussion: Worldbuilding Part 4

5 panellists, one big topic, lots of thoughts.

Continuing the panel discussion on Worldbuilding (previous parts Here and Here, and Here) I’ve drawn together a panel, each of whom is knowledgeable about how various talented writers have dealt with this issue. They turned out to be a talkative bunch.

They are:

Thomas Anderson, speaking about the books of Terry Pratchett;

Tom Colton, whose specialist subject covers the films of James Bond;

Andy Cooke, Tolkien afficianado.

Dom Ellis, who knows more than pretty much anyone about Pathfinder’s RPG game world, Golarion.

Matthew Kresal, Specialist on Dr Who.Worldbuilding Panel Part 4.

How much of the world-building is commentary on our world?

Andy Cooke:

It’s complicated. Tolkien’s initial aim was to get a mythology for England. Some might suggest: “King Arthur”, but he’d look at any who said that in disappointment and point out that Arthur fought against the Anglo-Saxons.

King Arthur. Not English.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This is made clearer when you discover that “The Lay of Leithian”, which was the in-universe name for the tale of Beren and Luthien, once pointed to England specifically: in The Lost Tales, “Leithian” was also known as “Albion” – England. In one version, the Elves actually cut the English Channel to separate England from mainland Europe.

Later, Tolkien changed the etymology and Leithian meant “Release from Bondage”.

Other than that – not as much as you might think. Tolkien famously detested allegory.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

This brings up “Applicability” – which can draw on historical and cultural parallels but gives the reader the choice of how to read them. Of these, the treatment of Sam Gamgee is one of the most illuminating. Tolkien was a child of the upper-middle classes – going to University and the professions and, in the Army, straight in as an officer. However, his experiences in the trenches led him to see the “lower” classes as being worthy individuals in their own right and Sam (who Tolkien described as the true hero of the story) showcased those people.

Other than that, an idealised view of pre-industrial Victorian England shines through – the Shire is an idyllic place and one in which Tolkien would long to live. A distaste of technology (for thus Saruman fell, and before him Feanor), and the “sin” of the Second Age Elves was in attempting to impose their will onto the natural world – and thus created the Rings. This is reinforced by Tolkien’s description of Sauron’s motives: the desire to impose his own will on the world – initially “for the best”, as he (being superhuman in all aspects) would “know best.”

No running water, no sewers, no fridges, very modest medicine. Idyllic.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The strongest Applicability, then, is a veneration of pre-industrial England moderated by respect given to the working class, a distrust and dislike of machinery and technology, and an abhorrence of a controlling will imposed on anyone and anything.

Thomas Anderson:

Discworld is always intimately tied with our world (‘Roundworld’). Sometimes this is in serious commentary, as with the anti-war message of Jingo or the use of ‘deep-down dwarf mining law’ in The Fifth Elephant and Thud! as an allegory for sharia law in insular Muslim communities in the West (or similar examples) but more often it is about humour. A recurring point in Discworld is to point out the absurdities in our own history by featuring them in a scarcely-exaggerated way in the text, often for the young reader only to learn the real prototype later on after laughing about it. For example, a couple of books mention that Ankh-Morpork’s famed General Tacticus was offered the throne of Genua, upon which, after analysing the city’s interests and enemies, he promptly declared was on Ankh-Morpork. A funny footnote when you’re fourteen (10/10 alliteration) and then you learn about the real life prototype, Napoleon’s Marshal Bernadotte, who was given the throne of Sweden and indeed turned on his former master out of Swedish national interests. That is one example and there are many more. Pratchett read a lot of eighteenth and nineteenth century books at a young age and it really shows, with him having a mastery of imitating the style of “A New and Accurate Mapp of the Worlde” which already inherently sounds parodic to us now. Fundamentally, Discworld is repeatedly described in the text as “a world and mirror of worlds” for a reason.

The inspiration for General Tacticus, Marshal Bernadotte.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dom Ellis:

You see it fairly often as Pathfinder is a modern game aimed at a modern audience. Unions are forming in countries in Golarion, and gods which support these unions are shown as Good-aligned gods. This is at the same time as the staff at Paizo, publishers of the Pathfinder game, are forming their own union.

The Hand that will Rule Golarion?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Colton:

James Bond lives in our world, more or less, in two very different senses. The world of 007 is essentially the pop culture of our own, with the biggest deviation from Ian Fleming’s canon of its time (swapping On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with You Only Live Twice, and changing the plot of the latter past the point of recognisability) being sparked by the Japan-mania gripping the world in the late 1960s.

Later instalments, of course, were even more egregious (The Man With The Golden Gun’s source material has no chop-socky kung-phoeey action, and Moonraker was more Sputnik than Star Wars), but almost right from the beginning, James Bond’s world-building has directly mirrored our own in its efforts to stay relevant and appealing to an audience increasingly born after its literary counterpart’s debut.

While James Bond’s world is more or less ours, he, too more-or-less lives in this world. Here, I mean that regardless of decade, 007 is perennially set against a world with more modern attitudes than his own; while the character evolved over time, it seemed that his world just that much faster, with Bond lagging behind by choice.

One of the simplest ironies of the series illustrating this point is the contrast between Connery’s 007 likening drinking warm champagne to listening to the Beatles without earmuffs in Goldfinger and that band’s Paul McCartney and producer George Martin providing the title tune to Roger Moore’s debut as 007 in Live and Let Die a mere seven years later.

This subtext becomes outright text come the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig eras, where practically omniscient and omnipresent surveillance, the added dimensions of information warfare and other technologies, along with other aspects of encroaching modernity, threaten to render 007 entirely obsolete, but it’s important to note that it’s the culmination of a tension which very much existed in the novels and the early films.

Nevertheless it’s important to note that it’s the culmination of a tension which very much existed from the beginning. Ian Fleming himself grasped this as early as the ending of Casino Royale, where Bond has this insight whilst reflecting on his failures:

While he, Bond, had been playing Red Indians through the years (Yes, Le Chiffre’s description was perfectly accurate), the real enemy has been working quietly, coldly, without heroics, right there at his elbow.

He suddenly had a vision of Vesper walking down a corridor with documents in her hand. On a tray. They just got it on a tray while the cool secret agent with the Double-O number was gallivanting round the world – playing Red Indians.

(Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, chapter: The Bleeding Heart).

Matthew Kresal:

Long-time script editor Terrance Dicks once said that a writers’ preoccupations come out in their work. Doctor Who, written and produced by many people over the decades, presents many different commentaries. So much so there’s a documentary called When Worlds Collide as one of the DVD special features for a serial called The Happiness Patrol.

Actually, Happiness Patrol is a good example of the kind of commentary you asked about. It’s a serial often dismissed for being cheap looking because it was recorded all in a studio with sometimes brightly lit sets and colourful costumes. It’s a criticism that misses the point that it was meant to be cheap and tacky-looking, as it took place on a planet where happiness was required by law, with anything approaching melancholy or even wearing dark clothing is punishable by death. Graeme Curry, that serial’s writer, used this science fiction setting to comment on the Thatcher era, but also right-wing regimes at large trying to enforce their particular version of “happiness” and “traditional values” on people. It’s no wonder, perhaps, that it’s one of the Classic Who stories that’s been undergoing reappraisal in the last decade or so.

Curry was far from the only writer to do that sort of thing. Malcolm Hulke, who contributed throughout Jon Pertwee’s time as the Doctor, touched on issues of Cold War detente in serials like Frontier in Space or the dangers of extremism in the burgeoning green movement in the Invasion of the Dinosaurs. The latter sees an interesting conspiracy involving like-minded figures in government and military (including UNIT’s own Mike Yates) using the titular invasion of London as cover to get time travel technology working to take a select group of people back in time to restart civilisation as they’ve decided the modern world can’t be saved and they have to start over from scratch. It’s Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” 18 months or so before it happened in real life, but hidden beneath a story best remembered for its cheap and unconvincing rubber versions of prehistoric beasts.

Modern Doctor Who has continued that, as well. 2005’s Aliens of London/World War Three is an almost blatant commentary on 9/11 and the Iraq War, from a spaceship crashing into a famous landmark to the alien disguised as the Prime Minister insisting to the UN that the country’s telescopes have “inspected” the skies and found “massive weapons of destruction” capable of being deployed in 45 seconds. Steven Moffat’s The Beast Below aired in the lead-up to the 2010 general election, sees Matt Smith’s Doctor commenting when hearing about people on Starship UK voting a particular way every five years that: “Everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.”

Of the modern showrunners of Doctor Who, Chris Chibnail probably took the commentary aspect the furthest, to great controversy. 2020 saw that in many ways, starting with Orphan 55 making pointed (sometimes blatant) points about climate change. The Timeless Children, which aired at the end of the year’s series, revealed that a child from another universe gave the Time Lords their regeneration abilities, with their entire society built based on the exploitation of a child, including torturing them to regenerate. Given the ongoing nature of conversations about slavery and oppression in the founding of the modern world, I would be surprised to learn that wasn’t somehow a commentary written into a Doctor Who context. Especially with Chibnall having confirmed in an interview that making that child turn out to be the Doctor, with their past taken away from them and no knowledge of where they really came from, was based in part on his own experiences as an adopted child.

Spaceship incoming.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What lessons would you draw from your source that AH writers can apply to their efforts at worldbuilding?

Andy Cooke:

Believe it or not, the greatest lessons that can be drawn are in opposition to Tolkien. The fantastic detail and coherence of his world shine through, but these aspects are well known and key aspirations of almost all worldbuilders.

The key lessons are to avoid the traps into which he fell. It is common to find aspiring fantasy writers spending all their time of “Lore”. The worldbuilding and background. The stage for the story. Yes, having a well-detailed and internally consistent world for your story is ideal. But many aspiring storytellers stall here for months, years, and even decades. Until a story is told on your stage, that stage is useless. Get to the story, tell the story, and fix it as you go. This doesn’t mean you should skip the worldbuilding and do it all off the cuff, but avoid the siren call of spending all your time on the worldbuilding. Believe me, I know the allure of that trap.

In addition, the story you tell will feed back into the stage. It will develop and extend it. The process of writing Lord of the Rings caused the most creative and productive worldbuilding that Tolkien ever did. The legendarium changed hugely during the writing, and thanks to the writing of the story.

The other trap is the desire to revise and perfect the world and the background. Tolkien never managed to update the later elements of the Silmarillion because he never got that far in any of his however-many revisions. In fact, the closest times he ever came to that were when he pushed himself to write the Great Tales (which he never completed, as he went back and revised them and re-revised them. Inevitably).

So key lessons: detailed worldbuilding is wonderful – but don’t get trapped in that phase. Use a feedback process of kicking off into a story, and then pulling the creativity from the story back into the stage on which the story is set, and use that to trigger other stories. You will have to “retcon” elements; that’s just the way it will go, otherwise you will trap yourself in a sterile “lore creation” phase. And secondly – finish the draft. Don’t stop and go back and restart it again and again. Push the draft to the end and then revise it. You’ll come across so many times when you feel some story element needs to be improved or restored. Fine. Fix it in the second draft. But complete the draft.

Tom Colton:

The Bond franchise has survived to this day by very much being a reflection of an evolving world, but one which while sometimes blindly imitating its trends keeps at its core a central cast of recurring characters, with the tension of their world and their settings providing much of the richness of the franchise.

It’s far from unique in that regard, given that comic books (and presumably that other British long-runner Doctor Who) have to navigate these apparent contradictions, but beyond merely surviving, 007 has indeed achieved world domination through permanently embedding itself in popular consciousness.

Thomas Anderson:

That worldbuilding always comes second to story (and, in Discworld’s case, humour); that it is a good idea to leave bllank space on the map rather than artifically constrain one’s future writing; and that truth can be stranger than fiction, and if one wants some really out-there ideas for one’s fictional world, there is no better place to start than the dustier corners of our own.

Matthew Kresal:

When canon gets in the way of the story you want to tell, throw it out. Alternatively, find a way to work that into what you’re doing now. Hopefully, without having to be excessive about it in your exposition. That’s been what the series has fundamentally done for decades now to keep itself going, sometimes getting mired when it’s become too focused on navel-gazing at the past. Doctor Who, like stories in general, is like a shark: it keeps moving because otherwise it sinks and dies. It may retread old ground from time to time, but it can’t stop and linger there for too long.

If all else fails, let someone write a book (or three) trying to make sense of it all.

Dom Ellis:

I think a key lesson is that collaboration is good! The work on Golarion was made by many hands, and it is all the better for it.

Just to add to that last point by Dom, I’ve always maintained that RPGs were collaborative stories, with both players and GM contributing. It would make sense if that were also true for worldbuilding in what is essentially a shared story.

Does the same applied to stories in shared worlds generally?

Tom Colton:

Putting aside the means through which characters and their relationships are established, or how they relate to their world, one factor which has led to the success of James Bond is simply that the novels’ and films’ plots have captured the public imagination. Worldbuilding here, I feel, is crucial but ultimately secondary to selling the main plot to the viewer.

Right from the beginning, the existential meances of the world – the powers behind the Iron Curtain for the novels, criminals beyond the reach of world governments for the films – have been condensed into grotesque, yet compelling, villains and goons for the last bastion of civilised society to terminate with extreme prejudice (and usually in equally grotesque fashions).

Being able to simplify such threats into a form which can be overcome by one man on the job has been just as important, probably even more so, as the series’ worldbuilding and constant reinvention in keeping Bond in the public’s imagination.

It’s hard to put this in the form of simple advice to the writer seeking to make the next big thing, save for the seemingly simplistic notion that worldbuilding serves the plot, but both are necessary for one’s stories to have staying power.

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including the Look To The West series, The Surly Bonds of Earth, and is editor of the Great War anthology N'Oublions Jamais.

Andy Cooke is the author of many books, including The Fourth Lectern, and the Endeavour series, from SLP, and the Shadowlands Chronicles and Skyborn from Sergeant Frosty Publications.

Matthew Kresal is the author of Our Man On The Hill from SLP.

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