Because I figured we’re overdue for another installment on world-building. As always, this is not a how-to manual, but a survey of the questions that writers should keep in mind when designing a world.
So finally I was like, Being busy is no excuse — if you have time to surf the internet for a few hours, you have time to read.
And so I did.
The Gies’ Life in a Medieval City was a fun and fast read, absolutely crammed with useful details and indispensable for world-building. I recommend it as a jumping-off point to anyone doing research for medieval or fantasy fiction — it has enough information in itself for people who just want a period feel and don’t require strict historical accuracy, and it also has a comprehensive bibliography for people who do.
This book focused especially on the rise of commerce and the merchant class, which is particularly relevant to my interests, since the protagonist in one of my books (the book that is Most Likely To Be Publishable, should I finish it) is the son of an urban merchant/trader, and money & politics (& magic!!) is the backbone of that plot.
Same dude who won a Pulitzer for Guns, Germs, and Steel — and I can see why they’re reluctant to give him a second one, but really, this is the book that should have earned him that.
Socializing is awkward at the moment, because I’m “between jobs,” as the euphemism goes, but then every time I’m meeting someone new —
“So what do you do?” they ask.
beg for jobs worry about money do sweet fuck-all read a lot,” I say.
“Cool, what are you reading now?” they ask.
“Uhm…….” I say. “Stuff.”
Granted, I make no pretensions that I enjoy or understand it particularly well. The first section, Metaphysics, by which they mean philosophy, re: study of the truth and nature of things, was so abstract and so navel-gazy that I was hard-pressed to give a fuck. Does knowing whether/how something ~really~ exists make the least bit of difference? No? Okay, then can I move on to something that does?
Philosophy: I’m glad that somebody’s doing it, but it is so not my thing.
It also started making less and less sense as I kept wading further in, with the word “something” appearing four times per sentence on average, every noun an abstract one with nary a concrete example in sight, MY KINGDOM FOR A METAPHOR, until I was like, “Are these words even supposed to mean something?”
And that’s when a lightbulb went on, because yes, they do mean something, we’ve had this discussion before. What was throwing me was the prevalence of words like “form,” “substance,” “kind,” “essence,” and “attribute,” which in everyday speech encompass a number of different ideas, but in philosophical writing each have ONE, and ONLY ONE, very specific meaning. Much like my abortive foray into hard sci-fi, I was trying to read it without realizing that I didn’t know the language.
Moral of the story: don’t skip the introduction. Once I knew exactly what was meant by, for example, primary vs secondary substances, or substance vs quality, it started making more sense and I felt like less of an idiot.
Apparently (as I discovered in the introduction) there are two modern approaches to Aristotle’s work: historical and philosophical. The historical approach focuses on how Aristotle’s ideas were shaped by the culture that he lived in, and the effect that his writings had on later generations of thinkers. Most of his writings on natural science, for example, are of only historical interest, because they’re about concrete facts that have either been proven wrong or proven so right that they’re taken for granted these days. Philosophy, meanwhile, can’t exactly get proven right or wrong, so the navel-gazy questions about the nature of the soul that Aristotle put forth in the 300s BC are just as alive and debatable now as they were back then. The Signet edition takes the latter approach, all philosophy all the time, and I really wish it hadn’t.
I want to try this Aristotle experiment again, because there were nuggets here and there that sparked some excellent world-building ideas — in particular, how to incorporate magic into natural science — but I want (A) more commentary and (B) a historical approach.
Aristotelian koan of the day:
If animals have souls, how do you account for a worm that can be cut in half and continue living?
Blows my mind, man.
This topic is relevant to my interests for the purpose of world-building — specifically for Keilja’s story, because he grows up and becomes a university professor, and there’s more to writing a medieval university than sticking some turrets on UCLA. Initially I bought this book and Charles Homer Haskins’ The Rise of the Universities to get concrete details about university life, such as how classes were chosen and scheduled, where they were held, how students paid for them, what subjects were taught and how classes were conducted, how professors interacted with their students in and outside the classroom, and all the other things that I didn’t even know I didn’t know.
Being dead broke of late, I’ve had to resort to hobbies that require no money, namely running and reading.
For those of you who may not be familiar with his works, Mieville is a writer in a literary movement termed “The New Weirdists,” utterly brilliant, not even my type but still totally freaking hot, and a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist. I think I fell in love with him when I learned about 50 new words from reading Perdido Street Station, and then went on to discover that he has a PhD in economics, wrote a textbook on theories of international law, and ran for Parliament on the Socialist platform.
(For new readers, Kraken or The City & The City are good ones to start off on, much more immediately accessible than his New Crobuzon books. DO NOT START WITH IRON COUNCIL. I personally preferred Kraken, hands down, but it seems that most other people thought C&tC was better.)
I haven’t read his newest book, Embassytown, yet, but I came across an interview with him in which he articulates a number of opinions about writing in general and fantasy in particular that make me go, YES. THIS.
In particular, his appreciation for nuance and complexity when it comes to world-building:
One of the things about genre fantasy that I loathe is that race becomes a pigeonhole for a character type. Your elf is kind of deft and mysterious, and your dwarf is always grumpy but the salt of the earth, and it becomes a way of defining character rather than actually dealing with culture.
What I wanted to do with Perdido was have a book in which the characters were much more malleable and culturally mediated. And what that meant was that cultures would not be distinct hermetic balloons, they were going to taint each other. And also, very importantly, that individuals of all races, not just humans, could reject their culture, could feel at odds with their culture, but are still going be to defined by it in some way.
One of the things that is dangerous about genre fantasy and science fiction is that ethnic stereotyping is true. It is absolutely the case that trolls are stupid and bad and like to smash things up. What I have tried to do in Perdido is have an idea of culture that is both constraining and enabling, but doesn’t describe you in cold genetic terms.
And despite being political, Ayn Rand he is not:
Just because you are a leftist writer doesn’t mean that you have to be into propaganda. I would never try to convince someone of socialism through my novels. It would probably make a very bad novel, and a very bad case of socialism.
Ending with an observation that lies at the core of my own feelings about literature:
One reason why I don’t like Lord of the Rings or the Narnia books is because they have no sense of narrative as being an organic thing created by the actions of individual people. It is all predetermined.