Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Edge of Thought
By Bob Billing
2002, Bob Billing
you really need all that worldbuilding?
have an opinion, based on nearly forty years spent reading science fiction: to
write good SF or fantasy you must build your imagined world in eye-straining
detail. Then you must ignore it completely and get on with telling the story.
me try to explain by using a few references from outside SF.
Shute Norway was an aircraft designer in the 1930s, and the founder of Airspeed
Ltd. As a hobby he wrote novels, using just Nevil Shute as his pen name. Most of
his books are intermittently in print, more than half a century after their
initial publication. The fascinating thing about Shute's fiction is that he
takes readers by the hand and leads them into the world of pre-jet aviation.
More than that, he takes them behind the scenes into the cockpit and the
do this he calls on his extensive experience in the aviation world. How often an
engine needs to be overhauled, how it's handled and what tools are used, all are
second nature to Shute. That's what he spent his working life doing,
so he has no need to do research.
that's precisely why the background detail doesn't intrude into the
story. In Round the Bend he tells the story of Shak Lin, a ground
engineer with an interest in philosophy, who develops a new religion. It's a
fascinating novel, one that I re-read every few years. It's a matter of levels.
Shak Lin is trying to come to terms with his own ideas - and pass them on.
Meanwhile Tom Cutter, who owns the organisation that employs Shak Lin, is trying
to escape from his feelings about his wife's death. The book tells the story of
the creation of the Shak Lin cult - and by implication examines the process
through which all religions are created. Yet it tells the story in terms of nuts
and bolts, spanners and fuel pipes, simple things that the reader can easily
learn to understand.
is the operative word here. Shute's trick with the explanations of the
technicalities is very simple and very effective.
he does is include the characters' reactions to what is going on. This way the
reader learns how events touch their lives and by implication what significance
those events have.
isn't the only author to do this successful. Dudley Pope in his historical novel
Ramage's Signal has this line: "The tower, sir. There! It's - well,
it looks as though it's winking!"
the unfortunate sailor is reporting to his captain is that he's seen one of the
first semaphore towers. It has shutters near its top and they're being opened
and closed to send a message to someone several miles away who is watching
through a telescope.
Pope has done is describe the semaphore very lightly and then let the
characters react to it. It's at this point, the very edge of thought, where
the real or imagined world brushes across the characters' lives, that the
details are interesting.
let's apply this to science Fiction. In our worldbuilding, we're making
intelligent guesses about how the future will be put together. We weave from
thin air the politics and diplomacy, the sports and music, the manners and dress
codes of our imagined worlds. We try to do it consistently, we look at how human
beings have behaved in the past and we guess that, in similar situations,
they'll behave the same way again. They've always made money and spent it,
fallen in love, started fights, and kept pets. And as long as people are still
people, they'll go on being cruel, selfish, loving, and slightly dotty.
Nothing's going to change that.
a sense, a lot of our imagined future is history in fancy dress. That's why we
can describe it very lightly and touch on cultural ideas that already exist in
the readers' minds. Doing this well requires a gentle hand; it's too easy to
slap in references which may mean nothing to many readers or to force political
preconceptions into the story. I haven't kept a tally of how many stories start
off with "There was this evil empire..." as their premise, but there
are certainly too many of them.Why do empires get such bad press? Why can't
someone have a benign empire for a change? Star Trek more or less managed
it with the United Federation of Planets. I suspect that it's because "colonisation"
and "imperialism" are the current fashionable hate-words and that once
the fashion changes again we'll have something else to attack.
if we're simply going to dress up the past as the future, why bother to write SF
at all? Why not write historical novels and have done with it? To my mind there
are three valid reasons for going into the future:
it's possible to leave the reader's preconceptions behind. I've just written a
story about a man and a woman who hate each other but are trapped in the same
escape capsule when the starship they are on explodes. This triggered a debate
in our local writers' group - should it be SF at all? Wouldn't it have been
better to stay on Earth and have them trapped in an elevator or a lifeboat?
still think I was right to make it SF. Let's say I'd set the story in the 1930s
and dropped the hapless pair in a small boat when a transatlantic liner went
down. At once the reader will bring to the story a lot of ideas about the social
class of the characters, the blameworthiness of the captain, and the way the
boat's put together. Take them forward a few centuries and all that disappears.
I've changed the rules of the game; the reader knows nothing outside the story
and is willing to go along with whatever I say.
is of course a temptation to say everything, rather like the organist who
can't resist pulling out every stop. It's only too easy to drown the story in
detail, pour in the whole design of the escape pod, how its artificial gravity,
life support and electronics work. In the end I could go down to the pipe
fittings and wiring colours.
have to design in detail, get the pod clear in my mind so that I know what's
going to work and what isn't. But all the description it gets in the story is
that there is a radio which is broken, artificial gravity, some controls, two
couches, and a locker with food. The artificial gravity's only there because
zero-gravity scenes are confusing to read.
second reason for going into the future is also the reason stories sometimes
fail completely. It's possible to introduce elements that simply don't exist in
our world. You can have interstellar travel, non-human intelligences, telepathy,
mind-enhancing drugs, robots, and galactic empires.
it's too easy to put so much effort into designing the future that leaving out
even a tiny bit is utterly heartbreaking.
go and break your heart.
may suffer for your worldbuilding. The reader doesn't have to. Except where
the future technology impinges on the characters' lives, you must leave it out.
I've spent a few amusing evenings designing faster-than-light drives, looking
for a little crack in the mathematics of relativity into which it might be
possible to poke a new discovery. I've got pages of notes on the subject, yards
of equations, all of which are very useful for working out what the drive might
do under various circumstances. But unless the plot needs this sort of detail, I
simply don't use it.
why bother doing it at all? Why don't I save myself the work and make it up as I
go along? The answer is that if I did I'd never be able to make it consistent.
The temptation to change details in one place to suit the story would be too
great. I have to sit down and design everything from buildings to spaceships in
great detail. Then I won't touch the drawings again. The characters must take
the locations as they find them and make the best of them. To my mind this adds
a level of realism that "making it up as you go along" can't offer.
third reason for going into the future is that it's the ultimate tourist
destination. You can take your reader to see sights that only exist in the eye
of the imagination. The choices are endless. H. Beam Piper can sit a small,
friendly, and very furry alien on you knee, while Anne McCaffrey can sit you
on a dragon. Colin Kapp invites you to visit a planet so strange that the laws
of simple arithmetic break down, while James Blish lifts whole cities from the
your eyes and open your mind. What do you most want to happen? What one thing
does the future really need? Telepathy? Immortality? Time travel? What would
happen if we had it? Would it change the way live? Or as Richard Lupoff
suggested in Space War Blues, would human stupidity ruin it?
yourself into the changed world. Imagine the sort of people who live there. Ask
yourself how the change would impact on their lives.
start writing. And if you win the Nebula, let me know.
is of course another way of telling a story. Brian Lecomber wrote a novel with
the title Talk Down, which starts off with a simple opening problem. A
young man takes his girlfriend up in a light aeroplane. He gets up to cruising
altitude, engages the autopilot, has a stroke, and passes out. The girlfriend
gets on the radio and screams. A flying instructor in another aeroplane hears
her and gives chase. He has a few hours to teach her to fly well enough to make
a landing before fuel and daylight run out.
fascinating thing about the novel is that as the plot develops, Lecomber
teaches the reader to fly. He shovels in technical detail willy-nilly,
explaining it to the girlfriend as he does.
few years after the book came out, a passenger in a Cessna was in a similar
predicament - the pilot suffered a heart attack.
passenger had read the novel. He pulled off a perfectly good landing at Elstree.