There’s a quotation from Newton, I don’t remember the exact words but lots of other physicists have made the same remark since—that nature seems to have a remarkable property of self-similarity. The laws—the fundamental laws—at different levels seem to resemble one another. And that’s probably what accounts for the possibility of using elegance as a criterion [in science]. We develop a mathematical formula, say, for describing something at a particular level, and then we go to a deeper level and find that in terms of mathematics, the equations at the deeper level are beautifully equivalent. Which means that we’ve found an appropriate formula.
And that takes the human being, human judgment, out of it a little. You might object that after all we are the ones who say what elegance is. But I don’t think that’s the point.
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional country would you most like to visit?”
On the list of books that have profoundly influenced my life, one of the more surprising is The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi. I no longer own a copy—although I’ve been meaning to get one for my daughter’s bookshelf for a long time—but when I first discovered it at twelve or thirteen, it quietly guided me toward a number of books and authors that have deeply shaped the way I think. It’s a big, handsome volume, almost absurdly rich and dense with content, that provides witty but essentially serious entries for upwards of a thousand different locations that were first described in fiction. All of the usual suspects are here: Oz, Narnia, Carl Sandburg’s Rutabaga Stories, and of course the countless cities and countries that fill Tolkien’s pages. I have a feeling that for many young readers, their first exposure to this work led to a lifetime’s love of fantasy fiction, and in my case, the impact went even deeper. Two of the entries that intrigued me the most were those for the Library of Babel and the Abbey of The Name of the Rose, and as soon as I was inspired to check out Borges and Eco for myself, much of my life’s intellectual path was decided. And I have Manguel and Guadalupi to thank for this.
When we think of the process that has been come to be known as worldbuilding, we generally regard it as a preparatory stage for a work of narrative fiction, whether the author’s approach is that of a gardener or an architect. Recently, though, worldbuilding has become something of a pastime in its own right, with hobbyists lovingly creating maps, history, and languages for entire planets, like solitary versions of Borges’s mysterious Orbis Tertius, with no particular aim beyond the satisfaction of the act itself. On some level, this approach has an honorable history: Tolkien wrote his novels to provide a setting for his invented languages, not the other way around, and even if most readers are only tangentially aware of this, the origins of these stories go a long way toward explaining why the geography of Middle-Earth—and, by extension, the characters who populate it—is so persuasive. The Internet has also provided a way for these works to reach a wider audience for the first time. In the past, a diligently rendered gazetteer of an imaginary country might have come off as the work of a misguided teenager or an outsider artist, but now, it’s easier than ever to find others who can appreciate such efforts. (I sometimes feel that Henry Darger, whose work anticipates many of the more obsessive aspects of contemporary fan culture, was born a century too soon.)
The other great factor contributing to the surge in independent worldbuilding—along with the prevalence of scholarship and secondary works, like The Atlas of Middle-Earth, that put all of this background material in one place—has been the rise of video games as an art form. Games have been creating convincing worlds ever since the appearance of the first text adventures, but the real turning point may have been Miyamoto’s Hyrule, the first world on a console detailed and beautiful enough to inspire its own miniature atlas. Gaming is the purest way we have of traveling through an imaginary territory: in a novel or movie, we’re still following the story from one episode to the next, with only a few hints of the landscape at the edges of the frame, while a shrewdly designed game can seem open to endless exploration. Really, though, like the worlds that a novelist creates, this openness is a carefully sustained illusion, and the best games have developed ingenious ways of hiding their boundaries. There are times, in fact, when a game can seem richer with possibilities than life itself: a game rewards curiosity, risk, and investigation, while in our own daily routines, we tend to stick to the same familiar routes, to the point where we might as well be on rails. (It’s only on vacation that we start to regard the world with the same hunger that a video game evokes.)
That’s why, when I think of a fictional country I’d like to explore, I find myself unexpectedly turning to the Mushroom Kingdom, especially the version we find in the Super Mario Galaxy series. It’s true that when we visit it, it seems like a rather dangerous place, but I’d like to believe that we’re only seeing it during periods of unusual crisis. Otherwise, it seems like the kind of country where a nap under a tree would be followed by a swim, a treasure hunt, or a stroll through the clouds. It’s a testament to the genius and ambition of Miyamoto and his collaborators that a game that began as a simple side-scroller has evolved into a country charged with beauty and nostalgia, although none of this would matter much if the games themselves weren’t so enticing. And this may be the ultimate lesson of worldbuilding. The countries we imagine for ourselves are reflections of our wishes and desires for the real world, not so much in the level of detail they contain as in the sense of some higher purpose and harmony: in an imaginary land, we have the feeling that everything is there for a reason, and that the map leads to a genuine goal, however freely it allows us to wander. Real life, alas, doesn’t offer such guarantees—although if we saw it as an beautiful country that we’ve been privileged to explore, we might take more pleasure in the journey.
There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge available to us: observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation…Our observation of nature must be diligent, our reflection profound, and our experiments exact. We rarely see these three means combined; and for this reason, creative geniuses are not common.
Every novel is the product of countess internal tensions, an attempt by the author to balance all the competing considerations that need to be taken into account, and the result is necessarily a compromise. The legendary biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, in his classic book On Growth and Form, argued that the shape of an organism’s body was a kind of living force diagram, the product of all the pressures and stresses exerted on it constantly by gravity, and much the same is true of a story. Ideally, it would evolve organically from a single perfect premise, but in practice, you find that the different pieces push against one another in unexpected ways. Let’s say you’re writing a thriller with a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist. Even if these two characters are separated for long stretches of the story, it’s sensible to think that there will eventually come a time when they’re in direct confrontation. Not only is this good narrative practice, but it’s a useful way of deciding which story, out of the many possible alternatives, you want to tell. All else being equal, a story that leads inexorably to a collision between two opposing players—whether it’s a hero or a villain or a husband and a wife—is likely to generate a lot of interesting material along the way.
Occasionally, however, you find the story changing before your eyes, until the big, obvious climax that you had in mind becomes logistically impossible. Nothing should be simpler than arranging events to give these characters the cathartic encounter that they deserve, but the narrative often has plans of its own. A nice example occurs in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of my ten favorite movies of all time, as well as a fascinating case study in how a fine story can emerge from the least promising of circumstances. Khan is one of the great movie villains, Kirk is at his heroic best, and each man is fundamentally defined by how he relates to the other—a point that Star Trek Into Darkness, in which Khan barely seems aware of Kirk at all, manages to miss completely. It’s startling to realize, then, that in the original film, Khan and Kirk are never in the same place at the same time, and the sum of all their interactions, conducted over viewscreen and communicator, are the matter of a few minutes, although those moments are unforgettable. (In retrospect, watching Khan and Kirk tussle in “Space Seed” seems actively strange, especially because one of the two combatants is clearly Shatner’s stunt double.)
It’s easy to understand why the story keeps its hero and villain apart: the entire narrative is predicated on two parallel lines of action, with Kirk and Khan attempting to outmaneuver and outsmart each other at a distance. Structure, in short, trumped a conventional line of action, and yet the writing and acting are pitched at such a high level that we don’t miss it at all. In writing City of Exiles, I was faced with a similar dilemma. I had created a formidable new character, Lasse Karvonen, specifically to serve as an antagonist to Ilya; looking back at my original notes for the story, one of the first things I jotted down was that the novel would be a kind of duel of assassins, with these two men hunting one another across Europe. It sounded like a pretty good premise, and it still does. When the time came to break the story down, however, another factor unexpectedly intervened. I found that I was constructing more or less the same kind of plot that I had already written in The Icon Thief, with Ilya, on the run from the law, continually remaining one step ahead of his pursuers. I didn’t feel like covering that ground again, so I ultimately cut the Gordian knot—spoilers ahead—by having Ilya captured by the police at the end of Part I.
This decision ended up opening up the entire novel, as well as its sequel, and it was absolutely the right choice. However, it also involved a radical reconception of the story I’d envisioned. Now Karvonen would be opposed to Wolfe instead of Ilya, and unbelievably, given my initial intentions, Ilya and Karvonen barely exchange a word. They run into one another briefly in Chapter 15, although neither man knows who the other one is, and it’s only in Chapter 20 that they’re given anything like a good look at each other. Even here, the structure of the scene prevented me from making this interaction any more than an exchange of glances. In that instant, though, each man sees his counterpart for what he really is, and it’s possible that I even gave the moment more emphasis than was strictly plausible because I knew it was the only one I would ever get. That glance is all that remains of the story I had once intended to tell, and part of me still wonders how the plot would have unfolded if I had allowed Ilya to retain his freedom. In any case, Wolfe ended up being a perfectly capable opponent for Karvonen, and Ilya’s role, in which he’s forced to outthink his adversary from within a prison cell, is considerably more interesting than what I’d formerly planned. These two men will never meet again. But the parts they will play in each other’s lives are far from over…
We must live fully in order to secrete the substance of our work, but we have to work alone.
When you’re a writer, one of the most surreal aspects of the process is seeing a story that exists only in the form of words on the page translated into visual terms. In some cases, the author has a chance to work closely with the artist involved, and the result can be a productive collaboration in its own right. More often, given the realities of the publishing industry, the writer is just as surprised by the result as anyone else. I’ve been lucky enough to have some degree of input into the covers of my novels, but the final version is designed and completed independently, and once it’s finished, my feedback is generally limited to small matters of typography. On the short fiction side, three of the eight stories I’ve published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact—”Inversus,” “The Boneless One,” and “The Whale God”—have boasted original interior illustrations, which I see for the first time when my author’s copies appear in my mailbox. For the most part, I’ve been pleased by the results, although there’s always some discordance between what I saw in my head and what the artist has envisioned. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Which is all just preamble to the fact that I’m thrilled to see my novelette “Cryptids” on the cover of the May issue of Analog, with gorgeous artwork by the legendary Vincent Di Fate. It’s the first time I’ve had an original cover illustration to accompany one of my stories, and I hope it won’t be the last. If you get a chance to read it, you’ll see that Di Fate has truly outdone himself here: it’s one instance in which the art is both remarkably faithful to the story and even more vivid than anything I could have imagined on my own. As I’ve done in the past, I’ll be commenting in greater detail on the story’s origins and development on the blog later this month. In the meantime, you can read a generous free excerpt on the Analog site, and as always, the issue is available both on newsstands and electronically. So far, the response to the story itself has been highly positive—I’m particularly gratified by the respectful notice I got from Prehistoric Pulp, a blog devoted to dinosaur and paleontology fiction—and I’m looking forward to seeing what the reaction from readers will be. But for now, I just can’t take my eyes off that cover.