OK so: the good people from fantasy-faction.com were good enough to collar me for an interview, focusing on the challenges offered by short stories, which interview will presumably be up on their site some time soon, and on the Saturday evening there was a Gollancz (/Orbit?) party that was crammed full (literally) of Names (not literally), although by that time I was somewhat beginning to flag, and the later evening was a bit more sedate for me, sitting around and chewing the genre-related fat with the Tor team and fellow authors
But I get ahead of myself. There was another panel that I want to have a look at. This was "It's not a story, it's a map!" and was about world-building, ish. Tagline was "does fantasy place world-building over character", but it did get hung up on maps as my earlier one did on elves. Although chair Juliet McKenna did try and put a pro-map case, with some support from David Tallerman and Ian Whates, there was a lot of anti-map sentiment from Gaie Sebold, Sam Sykes and especially China Mieville. I do a lot of maps, as you know, and I'd have had some pro– stuff to put in. To be honest, maps are a bit of a side-argument, but I would propose:
- on the "show don't tell"(1) basis, maps are a useful tool for the reader, in any story that travels around or involves multiple states/nation/etc. However:
- Maps that don't have anything off the edge of them so that the whole world is contained therein are bad maps, and will work against the imagination of the reader (and the writer)
- Maps that could serve as the contents page because every conveniently distinct little country is going to get a visit are also bad maps, and indeed such a howling cliché of epic fantasy that they get a derogatory mention in Diane Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Basically, maps are a tool subordinate to story etc (and indeed subordinate to world-building, see below) but a useful tool nonetheless, a reference and resource for the reader and (when you get long enough through a series and need to check your own consistency) the writer as well.
And that's most of what I wanted to say about maps. You don't have to have them. A stand-alone book doesn't need them as much as a series might because a series likely has much more legging it about the place. A book with a stationary setting such as a city doesn't need a map in the same way that one with multiple locations and/or hoofing it around might. I stand by my maps. I also confess to using an entire map in The Sea Watch as a mean-spirited piece of plot misdirection. Very meta of me.
So much for maps, and it's unfortunate that "maps" turned up in the title because much of what followed kind of got tangled up in the idea of a map as the symbol of all that is unholy. However what I really noted was something China raised about halfway through: His stance was that the "reality" of a fantasy world stops at the page — that asking "what happened next?" or "was there really a ghost?" or whatnot is a meaningless question, because what the author wrote is all that s/he wrote. His position was that it's a pointless exercise to look for the "reality" of the fantasy world beyond the author's intentions.
So, here we go. Disagreeing with Mr M is sort of entering an ass-kicking contest with a centipede (2) — and I wasn't on the panel so who knows what I might have said at the time? — but if I understood his point correctly, I disagree with it.
I think that readers are absolutely entitled to ask, "What happens next?" or "who lives over the hill." I think that putting this question in the map debate is problematic, because it leads on to "setting too much in stone" arguments. I myself, speaking solely for my personal preference, like worlds that extend beyond the story, and maps that extend beyond those locations the story visits. As China noted, M.John Harrison - a writer that he and I both greatly respect — has kicked very hard against the mere idea of world-building. I'm not sure if he uses the phrase in the same way I do. In his succinct and elegant essay (quoted here and elsewhere) he feels the practice is an offence to writers and readers. For me, story and world have unfolded in complementary tandem, and the world beyond the boundaries of the story — as shown in chance mentions, nods, remarks or the rumoured origin of a stranger passing through — has been instrumental in inspiring the story's further development. Does that mean that I let plot and character suffer as I fetishise over the world? I would say no. I would say that they are the richer and the more interesting for having a rounded world to be set in. Those fantasy series that I truly do not respect are generally those that don't take the time to build the world, but simply cobble it together from stock concepts and then just drive a similarly ill-shod plot through them. It's like the elves — too many writers use fantasy standards like elves and the like as a crutch that means they don't have to think about the world: Who lives in this nicely square country? It's elves. That's fine then. Everyone knows what elves are like. Nature, bows, interminable poetry.
Isaac dan der Grimnebulin in (of course) Perdido Street Station, trying to solve the problem of flight for his client Yag: "Well, first of all there's the problem of getting hold of insect wings big enough. The only insects big enough already aren't going to just hand'em over. And I don't know about you but I don't fancy fucking off into the mountains or wherever to ambush an assassin beetle. Get our arses kicked." To me, that is world-building. That is the essence of world-building, and those books (and all of China's books) are full of that kind of intricate, immersive detail. I'm not expecting there to be a painstakingly detailed place on the map that says "here be assassin beetles". There should always be something off the map, because that's how a world works (see how the map debate colours the wider argument?). I'm similarly not expecting whatever author to have a 4,000 word essay on the life cycle of the assassin beetle or to be able to give any more details than are on the page if they don't want to, but it is the mention of those far places, those rumoured things, that pushes back the boundaries of the world, that gives the story itself a reality that it would otherwise lack. And yes, I know I've lost the reality argument barring serious psychotic imbalance, because of course these places are not objectively real. But they have a reality beyond the page: they have a reality in the writer's mind, and the readers'. The writer must not (as Harrison says) restrict the reader by making too much concrete, but the writer also has a duty to draw the reader, to tantalise, to hint, to feed the imagination. That, as I'm sure the counterargument would run, is what character and story are there for. But world-building, as I think of the phrase, is a part of that. In providing a world that has the blush of life to it you show the reader that this is a vehicle worth exercising the imagination on. You encourage it. It is the world that the writer has not given that kind of thought to that cripples the imagination, because it has no depth.
And the interaction between world and story is complex. And over-planning is going to be restrictive — the world is likely to evolve like that "fog of war" you get in strategy games, so that the map (sigh) is revealed as your characters move around the world (which is why my later books have new maps).Yes, the story should not be to showcase the world. That is exactly cart-before-the-horse — or authorial masterbating, as Sam Sykes put it. However, a well-considered and consistent world showcases the story. And if you have that world, which grants your characters breadth and history and surrogate reality, then your readers will ask "what happened next?" I'm not going to go into detail about long serii like Shadows of the Apt needing more of that kind of stuff, but I think it's true just because writer and reader inhabit the same world for so much longer. Consistency and the suspension of disbelief require you to ensure that it all fits together.
And as far as suspension of disbelief goes, I feel that a fundamental part of reading a story — and most especially a fantasy story — is entering into a world that is presented as having a reality that stretches beyond what is written (3). On a literalistic interpretation, of course it need not have. The author can create that story and have no thought to anything beyond those words, or even be vehemently denying any "extended universe" — to use such a horrible phrase — with every word that gets typed. To expect the reader to somehow have that in mind as they read, though? It would be like interrupting a play half way through to show the audience backstage and see the actors smoking and going to the loo. To expect the reader to stop when you stop, at that final dot of punctuation, and never ask "what happens next" is to expect too much — and to expect something that would be actively damaging to the reader's appreciation of the story. Both China and Mr Harrison prompt that "What happens next?" question from me in all sorts of different ways. Harrison's Viriconium, in its own shifting and degrading detail, is fascinating. And yes, it changes story to story — it cannot possibly be mapped — but that change is in itself part of the fluid setting (perhaps I will be shot if I say 'world') that Harrison is presenting (see my references to it in my recent post here). That very uncertainty in the characteristics of Viriconium is an integral part and point of the story sequence (4). It is a valid reading. What do I say if Mr H tells me it is not a valid reading? I don't know, but the debate on author and authority (5) is one that all literature has fought over for a long time.
(1) Do not start twitting me with the anti-"show don't tell" thing. I know, it's not a universal rule, but similarly, sometimes it's better to show. The geographical relationship between places can be one of those times. If that makes any sense whatsoever.
(2) a buff, good-looking and incredibly erudite centipede.
(3) Yes, I'm sure there are works out there that very explicitly don't do this. My gut feeling, no doubt born of my ignorance, is that they will be reaching for a part of literature where art elbows out readability.
(4) So a follow-on point is that you can't expect every book to be a Viriconium. The fluid reality of the stories was, often explicitly, what the stories were about. If you start from a standpoint of "no reality to any story" then they actually lose much of their impact.
(5) Not one of Austen's better works. Too self-referential.