This entry into The Vault is Mr. Wingrove’s is about the concept of world-building as it relates to the history of science fiction and where Chung Kuo fits into that scheme. It’s worth noting that Wingrove co–authored the Hugo-winning book The Trillion Year Spree, a history of science fiction, so he knows his stuff. Full text after the break.
A World Of One’s Own: Science Fiction And World Building.
What is world building? And what function does it serve?
It might be argued that every science fiction story is an exercise in world building of a kind, but that’s not what’s generally meant by the term. What we mean, usually, is a thorough-going attempt at taking the world as it is apart and re-constructing it, such that the difference between the two is pronounced. More often than not this is done by a process of transference – by setting our newly created world at a distance either in time or space – but sometimes the difference has a political or historical basis. Such works – utopias, dystopias and the whole sub-genre of alternate worlds – are often the most successful instances of world-building, fuelled as they are by a strong regard for process and a curiosity about what might happen if you tinkered a little with the existent social order.
I’ll come to the various kinds of world building in a while, but it must be emphasised from the outset that world building is not a singular type of activity, not has it a single underlying motive or guiding principle. Just as there are many ways of building a world, so there are many reasons for doing so, and many ways of using them once built.
Is world building, then, something specific to science fiction?
Leaving aside, for the moment, the fantasy genre, I have to answer not entirely, for the re-invention of the world – that meaningful rearrangement of the materials within our world to dress a tale – is at the heart of all story-telling, all fiction. Every story is a complex process of selection and exclusion, such that, even within the literary mainstream, no two worlds are alike. But though the worlds of, let’s say, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf are all markedly different, it’s much more a question of interpretation than re-interpretation. All of these authors, whilst dealing with different aspects of the world and in very different ways, would have shared a rough consensus regarding the facts of that world. It is that consensus reality – a reality created in great part by the media, by political commentators, historians and sociologists – that underpins mainstream literature. And whereas the mainstream rarely strays outside of that consensus, science fiction has the irritating habit (irritating, that is, to those critics who consider consensus reality sufficient) to use it as a jumping-off point for experiments in ‘What If?’ speculation. Indeed, it is that twisting of consensus reality – that self same ‘What If?’ element – that distinguishes science fiction from all other forms of fiction, even, ultimately, fantasy.
Here I must digress momentarily. Throughout this talk you’ll find me using this term, ‘What If?’ fairly liberally. It’s a simple, handy, highly0useable little term which, to my mind, is much preferable to others like ‘a literature of cognitive estrangement’ and which currently comes closest to my idea of a capsule definition for the SF genre. In Trillion Year Spree, the history of science fiction, Brian Aldiss and I defined SF in the following terms:
“Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.”
In the five years since Trillion Year Spree was published, I’ve come to feel ever more uncomfortable with this definition, primarily, I guess, because it seems to cast its net over so little that we now identify as being within the science fiction genre. Firstly, it’s a somewhat questionable proposition that more than a very small percentage of science fiction stories concern themselves with the search for a definition of mankind. The best of science fiction always has, true, but the best isn’t the all. Secondly, as concerns mode: in the last few decades the science fiction field has been regularly irrigated by the floodwaters of numerous stylistic waves – Post Modernism, Metafiction, Magical Realism, Noir, Technopunk, even by Kim Stanley Robinson – making our claims for the gothic seem a trifle out-moded. With this definition in disarray, I cast about for something more comprehensive and less wordy. What was the one basic principle behind all science fiction? What was the one question all science fiction writers asked whenever they sat down to write? The answer, of course, was ‘What If?’
What if there’s this desert planet and on it there’s this tight, self-enclosed ecological system, and what if the by-product of this ecosystem is a spice-like drug that allowed specially-trained adepts to bend time and space, and what if that’s the only way of travelling across the vast distances of this future galaxy, and what if, one day, a Messiah comes to that planet, and what if…?
You see how it works. Now, ‘What If?’ might be applied to any form of fiction in a similarly crude manner, purely as a means of generating story. The real distinction is that science fiction’s what-ifs are almost universally directed at consensus reality. They challenge what is and try to picture how things might shape up if the ‘What If?’ were applied in a certain situation. Moreover, there’s a certain quality to these speculations – a rigorous working out of all the logical consequences of the ‘What If?’ alteration to consensus reality – that gives science fiction its particular texture and flavour.
World building of the kind we are discussing here tonight depends almost entirely upon this kind of rigorous application of the ‘What If?’ principle. Unlike the run-of-the-mill SF story, it asks not a single ‘What If?’ but a whole series of them, dismantling consensus reality with the unconcerned thoroughness of the Khmer Rouge.
But before we get carried away by the idea, let me say this. There’s also something suspiciously grandiose about the term ‘world building’; something suggestive of some god-like ability to create new materials which is, I feel, quite misleading. The novelist John Fowles once called the business of fiction “the god game” because of the author’s supposed ability to create places and people that never existed and to have full control over their fates. So it might seem at times. But might I suggest that, as writers, we’re more like thieves, stealing from the real, or, to be more kind to my profession, like architects and interior decorators, making use of the materials we find in new, creative ways.
Pursuing this image for a moment, let me make this last distinction clearer, for the science fiction field can – if only for the sake of an illuminating exercise – be divided into those writers who are architects and those who are interior decorators. It’s a question of scope… of ambition and, I guess, of taste.
Let’s try that for a moment or two. In the latter category – the interior decorators – we find, perhaps, the great majority of modern science fiction writers; authors who like to play with reality in tiny doses – to make small ‘What If? experiments, keeping their consequences on a decidedly human scale. This group of writers make few alterations to the framework of consensus reality – the actual building; the walls and windows, doors, plumbing, wiring and floor plan are barely touched. Most of their changes are superficial – matters of coloration and decoration. Examples of this are too numerous to list, but let me select a few of the oldest and most garish to give you the idea.
There’s the space opera that sets the rise and fall of the Roman Empire in a galactic context, complete with plastic costumes and false scenery; there’s the frontier planet adventure that’s little more than settlers and redskins with rayguns; then there’s the re-match of Word War II in space, complete with super-dreadnought starships and thinly-disguised orientals as the villainous and inscrutable aliens; of there’s the alien planet tale first patented by Edgar Rice Burroughs – Tarzan in Space – which spawned a thousand Mars-as-Africa clones.
Ah, I can hear the objections already. But that’s the old stuff – all that golden age, traditional, hard SF. Things have changed since then; grown more sophisticated. But have they? Modern-day variants abound. The surface colorations change but the underlying patterns often remain the same. The galactic Roman empire has become a tentacular Japanese daibatsu; while on the frontier planet the settlers have become a group of all female, parthenogenetically-created horse riding telepaths, threatened by savage aliens who embody, naturally, all of the worst traits of masculine behaviour; World War II in space has become Vietnam-in-space – the drugged-up combatants much more world weary and cynical, but still, essentially, the same old GI Joes we know from comic books. Only Mars-as-Africa seems to have fallen by the wayside, to be replaced by a new variant – West Side Story as near-future technopunk morality tale.
Because of the almost literal transcription of reality involved, this kind of SF relies to a great extent upon engendering a mixed response in its readership; a blend of reassuring familiarity and exotic frisson. Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy is the classic example of this, with its Bronx-speaking Jewish characters and its plots straight from the pages of Edward Gibbons’ Decline And Fall. But even within this category there are writers who manage to transcend the limitations of the form. Amongst these one might number M John Harrison with his Viriconium novels, Richard Cowper with The Road To Corlay and the whole ‘White Bird of Kinship’ sequence, Gene Wolfe in the Book of The New Sun, and Ian McDonald in King Of Morning, Queen Of Day.
Of course, I’m talking here of science fiction novels. Of what might seem at first glance to be whole-hearted exercises in world building. At a shorter length, science fiction rarely troubles itself to build whole worlds. I mean, when the film’s only ten minutes long, why bother building huge, expensive sets? Those shorter works that do – Brian Aldiss’s “Hothouse”, Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld”, Robert Silverberg’s “Nightwings”, Anne McCaffrey’s “Weyr Search”, Bill Gibson’s “Burning Chrome”, Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm”, Orson Scott Card’s “Hatrack River”, all of which first saw light of day as novellas in science fiction magazines – whilst the most memorable, are often only the launching pads for fix-up novels, or, indeed, whole sequences. But that’s understandable: a great deal of time and effort goes into the creation of such distinct and varying worlds. Being cynical we might argue that the writing of sequels is a mere matter of economic exploitation. Then again, we might admit that writers, as much as readers, can be seduced by the worlds they create.
However, to return to our basic distinction. At the other end of the spectrum are the architects, those writers who want to take what is back to the drawing board for a radical re-design. In this latter camp I include myself.
Okay. But what distinguishes the architects from the decorators? Well, for a start, they’re motivated by the desire to make a BIG CHANGE. They don’t just want to throw a pebble in the pond and watch the ripples spread, they want to hurl a bloody huge boulder in there. A re-upholstery job and a lick of new paint isn’t good enough for them – they want to take the whole structure apart and put it back together again with a completely new floor plan.
Structure. It’s a key word in this whole business. For whereas the approach of the interior decorators is essentially imagistic and relies heavily upon the shock of stylistic innovation – the new surface textures determining to a very great extent the underlying social changes – the approach of the architects is, as one might expect, the complete opposite. For them the radical alterations to the structure of the world dictate what kind of new surfaces result. They are, if you like, asking the big ‘What If?’, attempting to follow the logic of change through to its ultimate end. This difference of approach is reflected in several ways, but essentially in the depth of the background and in its quality of realism. Which makes sense, of course, for a society built from the bottom up – a world painstakingly ‘created’ in close (if not perfect) detail, and not just slapped together, however creatively, simply to clothe a tale – must, unless the author is a total dunderhead, carry with it a stamp of authenticity – or robustness – it would not otherwise possess.
Let me put this another way, just to make things absolutely clear. In the first case – that of the interior decorators – the background world is generally the result of something glimpsed during the creation of the story. It is a retrospective rationalisation of why things are as they are. It may be a very clever rationalisation and might even play some role (even an important one) within the story, but it was not the originating nor the motivating force behind the work. In the case of the architects, however, the story to a very great extent evolves from and depends upon the world in which it is set. It draws its life, its breath, its thought-patterns and modes of behaviour, its dress sense, its culture, its philosophy and deep-rooted social drives from that world. If drawn well enough – if the structure is sound – then we might say that the story is the world; that the world has a metaphoric richness that is somehow greater than the characters and events that are embedded within it.
At least, that’s the theory. But it ain’t necessarily so. As I said earlier, just as there are many ways of building a world and many reasons for doing so, there are also many ways of using those worlds once built. The dunderhead factor should never be ignored.
I might be wrong, but I’d argue quite strongly that there are five identifiably distinct approaches to world building. We’ve touched upon three already – Utopias, Dystopias, and Alternate Worlds. To that brief list add Adventure Playgrounds and Paradigm Worlds. I’ll come to what I mean by those last two in a while, but first let’s examine the more familiar groupings.
Utopias and Dystopias are normally discussed together, perhaps rightly, for they are, in many ways, the two edges of the one sword. Here, however, I’ll deal with the two separately, for it seems to me that they have quite distinct qualities.
Thomas More’s Utopia – his ‘no place’, first published in Latin in 1516 – very much set the tone for all the utopian literature that followed down the centuries. Its earnest attempt to depict an efficient and workable future society places it quite clearly within the architectural school of world building. Yet Utopia is not really a novel as such. What it gives us is a blueprint for a world, not the experience of the resultant, living world. It’s as if a modern science fiction writer had published the research notes for his novel instead of the novel itself. Moreover, the sad fact is, Utopia – like the vast majority of utopian works since, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, for instance, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward – is dull. Deathly dull. And the reason why utopias are dull is that their creators are not concerned with reflecting life as it is, but with the creation of an unliveable ideal state, where all human imperfection has been ruthlessly repressed or driven out. Or simply over-looked, as in the case of William Morris’s News From Nowhere. In almost every case utopias prove little more than religious or political dogma cast in the form of grand metaphors.
With one exception. Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.
What distinguishes The Dispossessed from other utopian literature – even from LeGuin’s own Always Coming Home – is two-fold. Firstly we are provided with the living experience of utopia – of LeGuin’s anarchist society, her desert moon, Annares – through her central character, Shevek. In all other instances of utopian literature we could be certain of getting a tour guide to the wonders of the newly-ordered world, but not here, for Shevek is a living, breathing being, who, in his person, suffers all the hardships and imperfections of his “perfected” world.
Secondly, a direct comparative is made to a world, Urras, which is not so dissimilar from our own – a world riven by ideological warfare and the corruption of materialism. This comparative – made, once again, through the focal lens of Shevek – serves not merely to highlight the gains of living in utopia, but the losses. In that the book is unique.
Both of these highlight an obvious yet often overlooked feature of The Dispossessed that it is a novel and not simply an ideological guidebook, and a real science fiction novel, to boot, for it asks the question ‘What If?’ and, as in the very best of science fiction, pursues the logic of its hypothesis – ‘What if the perfect anarchist society really existed – what would it be like?’ – through to its ultimate, discomfiting as it proves.
Moreover, The Dispossessed is unique in another way, for the transition from Urras to Annares – from the familiar to the strange – is easily and peacefully accomplished. The Odonian anarchist society of the novel has not come about by violent revolution or social upheavel on a vast scale, but by peaceful coercion. They have been given the desert moon. It is a rare instance of such a peaceful transition, for most new worlds rely upon the destruction of the old. In most instances one must find a path of blood between the Now of the story and the Then which is, in reality, now, if change is to come. More often than not, however, that interim suffering is unacknowledged – Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time is a good instance of this – as a screen of reticence is drawn over the horror. Wrongly, I think.
Let’s consider this briefly. It might well be better if the world were run on a smaller, saner scale, but how do we get there?
First. What happens to the billions presently inhabiting the globe? Are they going to fade into the air, or will they simply stop breeding? Well, to believe either is to admit to a dangerous fantasy, so, in real terms, if our dream is of a smaller population then we’re assuming fatalities on a scale that would make the wars and persecutions of this century seem like mere inconveniences.
Second. How would the fall of the present power-structures come about? I’ll admit that in the last few years we’ve seen the fall of regimes in Eastern Europe that seemed as eternal as the rocks themselves, yet we’ve also seen Tiananmen Square, the conquest of Kuwait by a power-mad despot and the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia. Corruption, greed and the desire for power seem human eternals. In the light of which, can we assume that those with power and money would ever willingly give it up without a fight? Or would they, as history teaches, use every means – fair and foul alike – to hang on to their positions of privilege?
Third. Even if our first two caveats (and more besides) were to be answered satisfactorily, why should we assume that mankind would happily adapt to the new regime? This last, and perhaps most important question, was answered in no uncertain terms by John Boorman in his film Zardoz, the conclusion of which is that too much lotus-eating can engender a need for extreme violence, if only as an antidote for a debilitating ennui.
But to return to our argument. If The Dispossessed is critical of utopia, what, in fact, distinguishes it from its supposed counterpart, the dystopian novel? To answer that we must first look at some of the qualities of the dystopia.
Dystopias, of course, always tend to be more exciting than utopias. Disorder is always more dramatic than order. But there’s more to it than that. If utopian literature is meant – however misguidedly – to be prophetic in nature, dystopian novels tend to be prodromic. They are designed to warn us. Which is to say that, whereas a utopian work will tend to show us the best side of the newly-arranged world, dystopias show us the back-side of creation; worlds where the tobacco falls out of your cigarettes, where personality and intelligence are determined in utero and suit the needs of the state, or where you need an official pink coupon before you can have sex.
Perhaps the best known of all dystopias is George Orwell’s 1984, yet it is only one of three major dystopian novels written in the first half of this century. The other two are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
We is the story of the perfect social system, The One State, a city enclosed within a great glass dome, six hundred years after the holocaust. Within the confines of the City all are supposedly happy: emotion has been removed from the vexed equation of existence, to be replaced by a total reliance upon Reason. The One State is governed on sound mathematical principles. There are appointed hours for doing each and every thing. Food is masticated fifty times before swallowing, recreation consists of marching in ranks of four to the sound of strident music and sex is had at the appointed hour with the person allocated (by means of a pink coupon). The One State is, of course, a utopia, and in certain respects it’s no more unsavoury than Thomas More’s. Yet it is not Zamyatin’s aim to promote The One State. His great work of architecture is not meant to be an end in itself. Thus, into the sterile, ordered world of We’s male protagonist, D-503, comes E-330, a woman who is the very embodiment of the creative, anarchic principle. It is in this clash between the orderly functioning of utopia and those things denied by the system – human passion, creativity and individuality – that the real story of We has its being.
I’ve dwelt upon the details of We because they reflect something basic to the dystopian form. The business of world building is secondary to the socio-political message imparted by the tale; the new world is, quite deliberately, a backdrop, its details exaggerated to serve the metaphoric clash of order and anarchy and to underscore the poignancy of D-503’s final, and, of course, inevitable defeat, his friends betrayed, his imagination surgically removed, his lover – E-330 – executed by the state, her breath sucked from her lungs in a giant bell jar.
In the dystopian novel, realism is always secondary to the socio-political message. The form plays upon the patent stupidities of the standard utopian novel to derive its potency. In We this aspect of the dystopian novel is in its most perfect form, but even in 1984 – Orwell’s attempt to instil a larger measure of realism into the sub-genre – character is still subordinate to the dystopian message. Thus Winston Smith is never a fully-realised human being, but an Everyman cipher to be swept up by the machine and put through his paces like a rat in a laboratory cage. Nor is it entirely coincidental that his E-330 – Julia – should find her dark, feminine potency ultimately crushed by the system, for that’s the message.
Not so in The Dispossessed. There the very care LeGuin takes to construct her Odonian society and its atypical representative, Shevek, prevents her book from ever becoming a political cartoon – a prodromic morality tale with no winners and everyman a loser. One comes away from The Dispossessed still admiring the anarchist society it portrays and its brave attempt to break the mould, even as we recognise its harsh inflexibility and the imperfectability of the majority of its citizens.
Before moving on, however, mention ought to be made of one dystopia in which the pleasures of world building – that architectural urge to reconstruct reality – almost transcends these general rules, Pohl and Kornbluth’s 1952 novel, The Space Merchants.
The novel is a hard-hitting satire about advertising which, rather than using the contemporary world of advertising (which Pohl knew well), built a whole new world of great metaphoric richness by extrapolating various social trends – overpopulation, obsessive consumerism, economic slavery and the depletion of natural resources. The result is a marvellous black comedy which, for once, is as memorable for its architectural structure as for its starkly utopian message.
But let’s move on to what is, perhaps, my favourite category of world building – the construction of alternate worlds. Here the ‘What If?’ factor is to be found in its purest form, focusing on pivotal moments in history and speculating upon what might have been had things happened other than they did. It’s a form that even the late Winston Churchill tried his hand at and which has attracted almost every science fiction writer at some time or other. What if the Confederates had won the Civil War? What if Germany and Japan had won the Second World War? What if Elizabeth the First had been assassinated and England had remained catholic? At its most straightforward it is perhaps the simplest form of world building, for the author has the great cushion of historical reality to fall back upon. At its most elegant, however, it can prove the most delightful and insightful of these architectural forms, particularly when the historical alteration has a strong cultural and technological emphasis.
Some of the classics of science fiction can be found in this sub genre, amongst them Keith Roberts’ Pavane, Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, and Brian Aldiss’s The Malacia Tapestry. But whilst there’s an undeniable fascination to the business of re-writing history. It’s also a useful social tool, one which permits us to understand far more clearly the complex and inter-related processes which underlie social development. Moreover, like any long perspective view of history itself, it emphasises the fragility of all social forms.
If there’s a certain element of play – of having fun at history’s expense – to the alternate worlds sub genre, then the next category of architects, those who create what I termed earlier ‘adventure playgrounds’, might be said to be science fiction’s game-players. If ever Disney goes for a science fiction theme park, these are the writers whose works they’ll plunder.
In many of the works in this category the new world is not a planet but a giant artefact – a thought experiment given tangible form, as in Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, Fred Pohl’s Gateway, Greg Bear’s Eon and John Varley’s Titan. Within each of these vast artificial environments the tale unfolds – a tale which, for the main part, is little more than an extension of the kind of scientific puzzle story patented by John Campbell back in the thirties: technological mystery-thrillers which slowly reveal the nature and – most importantly – origins of these vast creations. This is not to denigrate the intelligence of this form, nor its entertainment value, merely to point out that – with exceptions – we are not to look behind the tale for any meaningful commentary upon what is, merely to ogle gosh-wow at what might be.
A sub-set of this kind of story is the pure action-adventure yarn set on an elaborately-constructed alien planet. Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld is essentially of this kind, even if it promises more in the first novel of the sequence. Other examples are Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor, and Poul Anderson’s Earth Book Of Stormgate. The chief exponent of this kind of novel, however, is Jack Vance, who has created a number of such intricate worlds: Durdane, the Big Planet, The Dying World, Lyonesse and Tschai – the last of which is tellingly referred to by Vance as The Planet of Adventure series.
Such worlds, whilst preferable to the dour utopias of More and Morris, are very much sugar-candy offerings: they are intended to amuse rather than instruct. Yet why should a book not do both – why, as in the case of the best alternate worlds novels, should the game of world building not also have a serious purpose?
Which brings us to the last category of worlds created by our architects – which, for the lack of a suitable term, I’ve called Paradigm Worlds. If this group of writers were to form a club and have a badge, they’d take for their motto W. B. Yeats; “Things Fall Apart”, for at the heart of all their work is the central notion of social upheaval, of CHANGE writ large.
The word Paradigm is defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as an example, or model – the Platonic ideal, of you like – and comes from the Greek, “to set side by side”. I’m using it here to describe the kind of science fiction novel which sets up – through its ‘What If?’ World building activity – a new kind of reality model. These works seek not merely to order the world anew but to make sense of it as it is.
In general, the novels in this final architectural category are wide screen epics which plunder the whole spectrum of experience for their effects. They are, more than any other, the kind of works I had in mind when I talked earlier about asking the big ‘What If?’, and following the logic of change through to its ultimate end. These novels painstakingly create worlds from the bottom up, so that – as I said before – their thought-patterns and modes of behaviour, their dress sense, their culture, their philosophy and all of their deepest-rooted social drives are drawn directly from the created world. These Paradigm Worlds are the very embodiment of the architectural urge in science fiction and are the kind of works we first think of when we talk about world building.
But before you get too impatient with me, I’ll name a few names. Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, and the world of Winter in Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness. These are worlds which, whilst palpably inventions, impinge on our imaginations with all the strength of something real. But what makes these so different from the novels we’ve been discussing earlier.
In writing this, I paused for a long time before answering. You see, I knew instinctively why I had chosen these books to represent the ideal of world building. It was to do with their quality of realism, their intricacy of design, the power they had to convince you utterly, the way they overwhelm the reader and at times reduce even the greatest character – even a Paul Muad’dib – to a mere figure on the landscape. As any traveller knows, this is how worlds really are. But what is it that gives these works these qualities? Is it just the care with which their architects have structured them? Certainly that has something to do with it. But I think it’s more than that. I think it has to do with a certain mind-set which looks not to describe the small and circumscribed, but to embrace the whole vast complexity of existence. But how do that? How reduce that to the scope of a novel? It’s here that science fiction, with its rich pallet of metaphors, has the advantage over the mainstream, for it can produce landscapes and societies which are both symbolic and realistic. Paradigms. Distorted mirrors through which we might glimpse the meaning of our own world.
But again I ask, what makes them different? Well, I guess once again that it’s a question of scope, of ambition. For the novels in this last grouping are as distinct from the rest we’ve looked at as the architects are from the interior decorators. In these works the ‘What If?’ world whose components were taken from consensus reality and re-ordered, has finally transcended its utopian, thought-experiment origins and become a thing in itself, all traces of that two-dimensional cartoon reality that clings even to books as good as The Space Merchants, cast off. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that in these few instances our architects have become master builders.
Which brings me, finally, to my own piece of monumental masonery, Chung Kuo. I’d like to think that Chung Kuo aspires to membership of this final grouping – that it is, in some way, a kind of Paradigm World. At the same time I’m aware of what my multi-volumed novel has in common with the other forms I’ve mentioned tonight. I’m conscious, for instance, that the first book of the sequence, The Middle Kingdom, has a great deal in common with dystopian fiction, depicting, as it does, an attempt at constructing Utopia – ‘the World Beyond the Peach Blossom River’ as the Chinese call it – which has gone wrong.
I also know that, in the long years of its gestation, Chung Kuo has evolved through many stages of development, several of which we’ve touched upon tonight. It began life back in December 1983 as a short story, as a simple science fictional murder mystery which, through my long-held interest in China, was salted with tantalising glimpses of a Chinese World State. As the short story became a novella and subsequently a 65,000-word novel, so my interest in the backdrop of the tale grew. Even so, it was still subsidiary to my tale. I was using it merely for colour and decoration. It was only when I took a step back from the work and began to consider, in depth, how such a world might come about and what it would be like, that I ceased using the idea as interior decoration, It’s at that stage that the real work – the long and painstaking work of architectural construction – began.
Some of which might interest you.
It would be too much to claim that the ideas that lie behind Chung Kuo were there from the start. In fact it would be a lie. Chung Kuo was pieced together much like the Great Wall of China, piece by piece over a period of time, sections of it being slowly joined together, until the semblance of a structure could be discerned. A process that took almost four years of hard work and in which time I wrote two long novels set in that evolving world – novels that have subsequently been stripped down and re-structured, re-written, to form what will now be the first five books of the sequence.
But let’s backtrack slightly. Let’s return to the starting point of the whole project and try to pin things down a little more clearly. I say that my original short story had a Chinese World State as a backdrop. That’s true. But that’s not all it had. It had six main characters, men and women in their late fifties, some of whose names might be familiar to readers of The Middle Kingdom. Li Yuan, Ben Shepherd, Kim Ward, Jelka Tolonen, Jack Neville and Meg Shepherd. Moreover, underlying my story were certain assumptions about how people would live in the future – many of which have not changed as the project has evolved. The great continent-spanning City was there from the start, as was the Domain – the valley retreat owned by the Shepherds in the West Country. And, because I’ve always believed it was the great problem facing us in the future, there were too many damn people. Too many by far.
Upon these basic building blocks I built my great edifice. But how?
My honest answer is that it was part instinct, part serendipity, and part sheer hard work. For, once I’d glimpsed that this was something different from anything I’d attempted before, I realised I had to knuckle down to the arduous – if fascinating – business of research. Of getting things right. And as I did, I asked myself one question:
If the Chinese were to construct a world state, how would they go about it?
Much of what I read confirmed my gut instincts about the kind of world that would result, some contradicted my first assumptions. Slowly the project grew. The notion of a great war between life directions crept into the equation after a while – I can’t pin down when – and the whole idea of a struggle between the forces for Change and the forces for Stasis grew from that, as did the Edict of Technological Control – the statuary means of preventing change.
It was a very heavily masculine world that emerged. A Yang world, I realised after some time. From that came the conception of a world out of balance, the soft, feminine principle – the Yin – totally lacking. And this realisation fed into the idea of the struggle between life directions. It was not just a contest between Change and Stasis, but between Dark and Light, Male and Female, Soft and Hard. The Tao was at war with itself. More than that, the whole of my society – Chung Kuo itself – was at war with itself. Was latently schizophrenic.
Suddenly, I had my larger framework – my skeletal structure for the whole thing. Chung Kuo was not merely about Change, but about finding balance.
It was only at this point that I could begin to formulate – as ground rules, if you like – the four great ‘What Ifs’ which were to underpin Chung Kuo:
(1) What if China were to become the world’s dominant power?
(2) What if the population of the Earth continues to grow at its present rate?
(3) What if the future development of super-plastics allows us to build super cities?
(4) What if we finally manage to irreparably damage our eco-system?
Of course, each of those four spawned numerous ‘What Ifs’ of their own, but essentially these were the questions I asked, time and again, as I designed my world and peopled it.
The first ‘What If?’ – about China’s dominance – determined to a great extent the rules of behaviour. Chung Kuo would be hierarchical, male chauvinist, traditional, conservative. It would be a world of levels, with each man in his place. This, in its turn, determined the design and function of the great cities. They would need to reflect this world of rigid hierarchies. And so they did.
Beyond that, I had to be clear in my mind exactly how China might come to dominate the world. The old Capitalist-Communist power axis would have to have crumbled. Nuclear Weapons would have had to be traded away. China itself would have had to shake off 150 years of lethargy and harness its immense potential. Finally, the West’s economy would have had to undergo a sudden, terminal decline. These were large assumptions, but not, as it turned out, so unrealistic.
So far as my second ‘What If?’ was concerned, I looked to the United Nations/World Health Organisation reports on future population growth. By their reckoning the world’s population was going to level out, at the very worst, at 14 billion. However, the evidence they gave for this assumption was slender to say the least, and they’ve since, I’m glad to see, re-evaluated their assessment. For my own part I sat down and did the calculations for myself, based on present trends and allowing for a huge hiccup – my own path of blood, coincidental with the collapse of the West in the middle of the next century – arriving at the figure of 40 billion that I’ve used ever since in Chung Kuo.
The precarious balance between food output and population growth has been China’s major problem for more than two thousand years, so I’ve hardly been daring in my speculations in this regard. Nor are the stop-gap solutions offered in Chung Kuo – the huge Cities, the vast plantations, the orbital farms and gargantuan meat-animals – meant to be definitive answers to the problem. The whole point was to highlight the problem: to bring it forcefully to people’s minds. Because the problem is not happening then, it has its roots right now.
In presenting my list of the four big ‘What Ifs’ behind Chung Kuo, I was aware that many of you would probably consider my third – about the development of super-plastics – the least important. Yet I’d argue that it’s quite vital, if the world is to live in the imagination, that its construction be as realistic as you can make it. It must be functional. Habitable. On one level, you see, my great City is no more than a fiction, a pack of cards – something you could fold down almost to nothing. But this symbolic level – the level at which the City is a huge glacier stretched across the world, or a vast box, holding in the emotional life of Chung Kuo – can only work if, at another level, the reader believes in its substantive reality. So with every aspect of the world. To attain its symbolic level it must first possess a real function. For it’s only in that balance between the two aspects – the realistic and the symbolic – that the imagination can catch fire.
Last of my four great ‘What Ifs’ and the most underplayed, perhaps, is the irreparable damage to the eco-system. To all intents and purposes Nature – Gaia, if you like – is dead by the time the great City of Chung Kuo has come into existence. The world of Chung Kuo has cut itself off from the great Mother – the Yin, the feminine principle. Quite literally, for the City is held up on great pillars above the earth. And that’s the root of all its problems. This aspect of Chung Kuo, more than any, represents for me that lack of balance which – if we extrapolate on current trends – faces our world not only now but in a much more exaggerated form in the future.
There are other levels of Chung Kuo, of course. Any novel, if it’s any good, exists on several levels. But to me it’s the interplay of these four big ‘What Ifs’ – constantly applied – that generate the novel’s metaphoric richness and which constantly give it a power that a less ambitious or non-generic book could not possibly possess.
But to come full circle, why build a world in the first place? Why not simply write a series of essays or go out and campaign on environmental issues? My answer is two-fold:
Primarily I am writing Chung Kuo because – aside from the obvious attractions of a world of one’s own – I find a very real need in myself to dramatise – to make concrete, if you like – those dilemmas, moral, social, philosophical, which, since I was first able to think for myself, have troubled me. In this respect, Chung Kuo is the great battlefield of myself wherein the Whitmasnesque multitudes that go to form my character can argue and make deals and, just occasionally, be nice to each other.
Secondly, I’ve always believed in the power of fictions to affect the way we view the world. Not all fictions, of course. Yet I know that many times in my past I have found myself changed – shunted off into a whole new direction – by someone else’s words. So maybe…
Well, let me admit it. I’ve this somewhat arrogant belief that, by this means and no other, I might stimulate new thought, new conceptual growth. That’s not the same as saying that I want to ram my ideological baggage down the reader’s throat. Indeed, the one thing some of my critics find hard to understand is the apparent absence of any ideological standpoint within Chung Kuo. But that, too, is part of the attempt to create a Paradigm – a comprehensive portrait of a world, warts and all – and not simply a dystopia. It’s my belief that all the voices must be heard, all the viewpoints expressed; that the reader must be nudged, not led by the nose, through the moral minefield. At the same time I’m conscious that neither I the writer, nor the ultimate readers of Chung Kuo, are going to make that long journey – that huge commitment of leisure hours – without it also being good entertainment. That’s simply part of the age-old story-teller’s deal – you must sing well for your supper – and whatever else I want to achieve via the medium of Chung Kuo, I cannot renege on that requirement.
But to conclude. As I’ve said, we science fiction writers build worlds for many different reasons: to posit perfect social states and to criticise them; to create thought-experiments in historical process or scientific problem-solving; to provide gung-ho, non-stop entertainment, or – in the most ambitious instances – to try to capture the essence of the great, diverse what is of consensus reality in a living, breathing metaphor. But whatever the reason, the allure of a world of one’s own is, perhaps, the ultimate attraction within the science fiction field and – if done well – the most satisfying of fictional ventures.