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I like taking a literary approach to genre works like fantasy, sci fi, and supernatural horror and seeing what comes of it.

Worldbuilding: Harrison vs. Bakker

Wm. Timlin - The Seven Sisters

In my ongoing exploration of worldbuilding, I've gotten a great deal of inspiration from the observations of writers like Harrison, Le Guin, and Moorcock. Harrison's essays in particular helped me to put voice to my concerns about the worldbuilding obsession, my attempt to understand how it operates, and what purpose it serves. Yet, I've found relatively few writers able to write eloquently on worldbuilding's behalf, which is unfortunate, because it makes the issue feel one-sided. Of course, if it is as Harrison says, and the worldbuilding urge comes out of a desire for control, simplification, rote memorization, and authority, then it would make sense that individuals who are on the side of worldbuilding would not tend to be theorists, questioners, and underminers, searching for reasons.


I had heard that author R. Scott Bakker's response to Harrison (in this interview) was precisely the well-constructed, pro-worldbuilding manifesto I had been looking for--but unfortunately, far from presenting his own theory of the utility and purpose of worldbuilding, the response quickly devolves into a disappointing 'us vs. them' distraction, the tired old narrative of the Average Joe tilting at Ivory Towers, attacking Harrison's person and motives without ever presenting a clear refutation of his views.

Now, it can certainly be effective to try to get into an author's head and look for motive--an explanation of what drives them to write in a certain way--whether you're trying to determine why they fall to a certain error, or why they produce something effective or novel. It's something I do occasionally in my reviews, for example, when I suggest that a male sci fi or fantasy author will spend more time physically describing women because they are personally more interested in how a woman looks than how a man looks--thy neck is like an ivory tower. However, it's vital that a critic first establish that the author does, in fact, have this habit before searching out an insight into why that might be the case--otherwise, it's just casting aspersions.


Wm. Timsin - The Temple

It's all too easy for it to become an attack on a writer's character rather than a refutation of the ideas, themselves. It becomes more akin to a response to tone, or even ad hominem, which indeed, Bakker seems to recognize:

"What troubles me most though are the unconditional, declarative tone ... and the insinuations regarding the psychological type of the worldbuilder."

Which makes it doubly ironic that Bakker's knee-jerk response is to make the same type of insinuations about type right back at Harrison--and in an even more declarative tone. The form of this attack is: the writer's motivations are suspect, therefore his conclusions are faulty. This argument is flawed, because even if we accept Bakker's assertion, and take it for granted that Harrison's motivation for rejecting worldbuilding is some sort of literary elitism, it does not necessarily follow that therefore, his critiques of worldbuilding are somehow less valid.


For comparison, imagine a successful sports star, say a boxer. An analyst writes an article about how this pug is a man of low character, that the thing that motivates him to beat others is pride and insecurity, that he doesn't really respect the game or his opponents, that he is acting out of resentment, obsessed with proving himself, all stemming back to a difficult childhood. Even if this is all true, it doesn't make the guy an unskilled boxer, it doesn't deny his wins, or prevent him from being very effective at what he does. After all, this is hardly an ideal world, and as such--as much as it might irk us--it's entirely possible for a stuck-up asshole to be totally right, and for a sweet nice guy to be utterly wrong.


Punch - The Money-Boxing Kangaroo

Harrison, for his part, provides not only a reason why certain authors and readers might be drawn to worldbuilding, but also a theory about how worldbuilding operates. Bakker contradicts this theory several times, but never actually refutes it, because he does not quite provide his own theory to explain worldbuilding. He begins by denying Harrison's observation that worldbuilding is an attempt to do the impossible: to actually catalogue a false world and by doing so, make it real. Bakker tells us "But no one outside of characters in Borges stories have ever tried to do this. No one. Ever." Which, for someone who professes being troubled by an 'unconditional, declarative tone' is pretty damn guilty of both.


Bakker doesn't extend to suggest why it's outside the realm of possibility that someone might try to do this (don't humans try to do impossible things all the time?)--or what else these writers might be doing, instead, what else they might be trying to achieve with their worldbuilding. He doesn't provide us with a competing theory, he just states, unequivocally, that Harrison is wrong, for reasons unspecified. The closest Bakker comes to defending worldbuilding is the statement 'there’s meaning-effects aplenty to be explored here, believe you me. Profound ones.', to which I must respond that no, I can't simply believe him, no matter how matter-of-factly he puts it, because he's not actually demonstrating, in any systematic, theoretical way, that what he claims is true.


He does go on to compare Tolkien's worldbuilding to Harrison's postmodern wordplay, that they are 'probing the selfsame power of words to spin realities'--so apparently Harrison and Tolkien are really doing the same thing, except than when Harrison does it, it's bad, because he's being 'literary' about it, while Tolkien (Oxford don of literature), somehow isn't? Or perhaps, because Bakker puts 'literary' in scare quotes, he means that in some fundamental way, Harrison fails at actually being literary in the proper fashion, as Bakker sees it? It's unfortunate that he does not define what this difference is supposed to be, except in vague insinuations of Harrison's supposed pretension.



Then we get to this gem: 'imagine The Lord of the Rings without a separately crafted Middle-earth!', which Bakker intends as a defense of worldbuilding, but which I hear as 'imagine Ayn Rand without the walls of philosophical lecturing'--of course, it would be a very different book, but I don't see that it would be a worse one. Of course, I do think there are fundamental differences between Harrison's and Tolkien's approaches, but not necessarily differences that flatter Tolkien (I'd certainly agree that Tolkien is definitely not post-modern). To use Bakker's own words, from his response to Jeff VanderMeer's Politics in Fantasy:

" ...questions are so much more powerful than answers ... they can muddy things that otherwise seem "pure and simple" in the span of a few short seconds. Questions force us to take a step sideways, to reconsider our perspective ... they reference contexts—perspectives—that didn’t seem to exist simply because we couldn’t see them."

To me, worldbuilding (and didactic literature in general) whether it comes in the form of Tolkien and Lewis or Rand, is a literature of answers, a literature which delineates, which presents the reader with clear right and wrong, which narrows and simplifies the world into certain fundamental and opposed views. This also seems to be the core of Harrison's problem with it: that it presumes to literalize, to 'exhaustively survey a place that isn't there'. In that sense, I feel the 'great clomping foot of nerdism' is just as alive in Rand, that she is trying to literalize and exhaustively survey the world of her philosophy, and that it forms the 'secondary world' against which all her action is set--and that again, like any other system of worldbuilding, it is meant to be internalized by the reader--worldbuilding is a form of worldview.


Which brings us back to Negative Capability again

Conversely, the reason Harrison's work seems to me to be more powerful because it is built upon a literature of questions, of contradictions and many-sided views which invite the reader to come to their own conclusions, to explore and indulge and to come away with their own interpretation. Certainly, such works can become overly vague and fractured, settling into contradiction for its own sake, relying on oxymoron and paradox to produce what Bakker calls 'a multifarious, promiscuous, meaning event ... generated by the most mechanical of po-mo tactics, elision'--such are the pitfalls of a 'literature of questions', but even with these caveats, I find that it is much more effective, much more varied, and much better at exploring human existence than any set of simplistic answers.


This conflict between literature of answers and that of questions also seems to bleed into Bakker's issue with VanderMeer, specifically, that the latter, while he accepts that art is inherently political, still maintains that 'character and situation are paramount ... some truths transcend politics'. Bakker reads this as a contradiction, but I see it as VanderMeer's commitment to questions over answers. The point I think Bakker is missing is that Vandermeer is taking for granted the artificiality of fiction, the fact that it is personal and deliberate, it is not merely a recounting of facts and details, it is carefully constructed, from a certain perspective, or in a more skilled author, a set of perspectives. As such, it is not supposed to be simply representative, allegorical, or didactic--it is not a literalization of facts in the world, but an interpretation, an intensely personalized view. As VanderMeer points out, great works are more than just their place in time--a book written about war by someone who lived through Vietnam is undoubtedly influenced by the particulars of that conflict, but the fictionalized vision of war in that book is much larger than that single event, more universal, more personal and purposeful.


Mural by Zoo Project in Tunis

That is the sense I get when I hear VanderMeer say that 'art trumps politics', that it trumps specific politics, that the art is deliberately larger than a single allegorical reading of time and place, that it is applicable in some grander way to the whole human experience of war--that the symbols and conflicts it presents to the reader can be interpreted in many various and subtle ways. The fiction should not simply be an instruction, a manifesto, a set of explanations and opinions. Tolkien's fantasy war was written in and around World War I--so does that mean that it is that war, that this is the limit of our interpretation? Not at all: good art is much larger than any individual historical moment.


Now, I understand that with Harrison, Bakker was responding to an interview question, and as such, can be forgiven for not having an in-depth set of theories and arguments at his fingertips, but this is certainly not the 'opposing view' to Harrison that I was promised. I found his conclusion particularly nonsensical:

"What if the canned experimentalism of post-modernism, by leaving so many readers behind, reinforces the general anti-intellectualism that seems to characterize our culture, and so makes anti-intellectual politicians like Bush more appealing? This only needs to be an open question to throw a rather severe light on the political undertones of Harrison's position."

Yugoslavian Kadinjaca Monument

In order for this to be true, people would have to actually be reading Harrison's books in droves in order for them to reject them and act against them. It's like saying that the reason people go to Michael Bay films to the tune of billions of dollars is as some sort of deliberate rejection of all the French New Wave films that they obsessively watch and get upset with, that the average Dan Brown reader is just really angry with Proust, and that people watch the Kardashians only because they find Zizek overly frustrating. This needs to be way more than just an 'open question' in order to say anything about Harrison's position, it needs to actually have some kind of structure and specificity that directly connects it to the ideas at hand--which, indeed, is what Bakker's entire response would have required in order to be worthwhile.

I also want to respond more specifically to the presentation of 'art vs. popularity' implied by some of Bakker's statements, but I'll save that for its own piece.