29. On world-building and Things Go Boom

(The post formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net/entry.php?id=37 )

Robert Frost speculates on the end of the world in a succinct poem, “Fire and Ice,” that outclasses so many longer works (including this one). Aside from poetry, many people will not read science fiction because “it’s so depressing.” This may be a reason that “Star Trek” is so popular, as it is one of the few futures that tries to be hopeful.

Sometimes readers are just doing what is best for themselves according to the Romans 14 stress test. That is, sensitive individuals, believers of tender faith, and the like may simply know what is good and best for them. Doomsday stories are hard, stark: they can break hearts, and not just because God is largely absent. For those with stronger constitutions, a Things Go Boom story can point out where we as a species are going wrong and what, if anything, we can do about it.

What got your host (that’s me) scribbling on this odd topic is the sheer work that goes into the suspension of disbelief, of immersing oneself in a story, and by extension, the effort that goes, or ought to go, into the author’s attempt to create a world to blow up. Rogue asteroids, exploding volcanoes, Acts of God, and the guy-with-his-finger-on-the-trigger-just-slipped-on-a-banana-peel theories may blow it all up, but why should the reader care?

Consider the reasons why people dwell on end of the world stories:

Entertainment. It’s spectacle. It’s big, it’s cool, it’s a release for the thrill-seeker to watch the world’s end without the inconvenience of experiencing it. It’s no coincidence that doomsday stories that vaporize faceless crowds tend to be more popular and profitable (Independence Day, anyone?). Ask these same people why they would not delight to watch the earth being born, Digory-and-Polly-in-Narnia style, and they’ll hastily reply that of course that would be good to see! in the same tone of voice of the spouse who forgot your birthday, and is making some excuse about the present being hidden behind the car, and to fetch it the car has to be moved, apparently all the way to the store.

Fear of death. Alternately, if Things Go Boom in a sufficiently extravagant manner, perhaps the end will be instantaneous and painless. The doomsday stories most likely to be labeled “depressing” are the ones that doom the characters to die of attrition. Examples include On the beach, The road, What Niall saw, and the “Moon novels” of Susan Beth Pfeffer. Such stories dwell upon an internal logic that some people want to live as long as possible even if life is misery: “where there’s life, there’s hope.” Characters trapped on a dying planet may resort to hoarding and clannishness, rationalizing it as “times are different.” In such works religious people often are portrayed rather poorly. Corrie ten Boom and Victor Frankl may have seen real-life individuals “who gave away their last piece of bread,” but that philosophy is not always found in fiction.

Also, in this category the line between hope and delusion sometimes gets blurred. A married couple in On the beach spend the last months of their lives planning a garden they will not live to see. Whether they are living Martin Luther’s observation that “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree” or simply hiding their faces from death is something the novel chooses to leave unanswered.

Displacement. Aliens become substitutes for the stranger, the rival, the enemy, whoever that is from one decade to the next. Klingons and Romulans and Borg, oh, my! Even inanimate objects will suffice. One can “hate” the asteroid in Armageddon, for example, because it’s okay to hate the asteroid. (On a whim your host rented both Deep Impact and Armageddon for a weekend. Your host preferred DI, by the way.)

Distraction. Sooner or later, people get exhausted dreading all those killer rodent viruses, mosquitoes, flesh-eating bacteria, flu-of-the-week, melting icecaps, holes in the ozone layer, comet strikes, briefcase nukes, bad guys trying to light their shoes, Yellowstone’s super-caldera burps, Skynet/Borg potentials, and of course killer bees. Doomsday stories are the flip side of the man of the house turning off the football channel to watch a World War II film: “I just wanted to watch something I knew we would win.”

Extinction (of the earth, not of us). Subdivided into categories of Academic Curiosity and Disillusionment.

Disillusionment arises from the notion that the earth is a condemned house that needs to be torn down. Whether anyone escapes largely depends upon overlap with other categories such as Prophecy. Curiosity arises from an assent that the house is burning down but it’s not our house. Characters can lift off from the doomed world and watch its destruction from a safe distance (classic Christian rapture fiction, classic Star Trek).

Modern rapture fiction may fall into either category, but any novel (When worlds collide) or film (Deep Impact) that evacuates the chosen to a safe haven will do.

Extinction (of us, not the earth). This is the thinking behind the otherwise insightful book The world without us. How would the earth respond if humans simply vanished? Not “dropped dead,” since the corpses would pollute the ecosystem. Just vanished: bodily removed by the Kanamits, the rapture, or the Enterprise. Some parts of the earth would heal. Other parts would flood, burn, melt down into radioactive sinkholes, or drain into the whirlpool of garbage—plastic can’t sink—that even now roils in the far Pacific like a toilet that can’t stay flushed. In the last chapter, the writer argues that all we have to do to see Eden restored is to stop having children, to graciously go extinct, as if humans are not really native to this world and should be weeded like any invasive plant. (Amazon.Com readers almost melted down, themselves, at that: “God promised that humans will never go extinct!” being among the politer protests.)

Sin (ours). Things simply must Go Boom because of humanity’s fallen nature. See the classic A canticle for Leibowitz.

Sin (throughout creation). Things Go Boom regardless of which species acquires sentience: that sentience itself is the trouble. See the classic Planet of the Apes film series. Sometimes overlaps with Dystopia, in which the world does not end but the “other” is in charge.

Depersonalization. People find it easier to visualize the end of the world than the end of themselves. It is the individual’s fear of death, fear of growing old, fear of getting really sick, fear of outliving your money, your family, your church, or your wits. If the world goes Boom, you don’t have to worry about what you, personally, will need for the next 50+ years of your life.

This theory is popular among economists. They argue that Westerners buy on credit and save so little money because the discipline required to manage money derives from one’s ability to visualize the future and then to visualize oneself living in it. The theory is that those who see the future as too distant or otherwise unreal cannot plan for it.

Prophecy (inevitable). Different from disillusionment. Sometimes the prophecy is secular (say, when scientists predict that a meteor called “Aphosis” might hit earth in the 2020s), sometimes New-Age (say, the Mayan calendar), and sometimes religious (say, Jack Van Impe). Televangelists Jack & Rexella Van Impe (pro-Rapture, pro-animals-go-to-heaven) endorse the Mayan calendar’s 2012 date. Based on that calendar, JVI predicts the Christian Rapture in 2012 followed by 7 years of tribulation, with doomsday in 2019. JVI interprets it as that the Mayan calendar doesn’t “end” so much as predict a cataclysm, and that that calendar has already had several of them, one of which he says was Noah’s Flood. That sets him apart from most of the other rapturists, a lot of whom were betting on 2007 for the departure day. Where prophecy meets fiction, people may read Things Go Boom stories for rehearsal, for advice, for pointers. Stories become handbooks.

Message (also called Prophecy, negotiable). The future can be changed (The book of Jonah, Terminator 2, and A Christmas Carol ). Our world faces imminent catastrophes, some of which do not necessarily rise to the level of all life being wiped off the planet, but are nonetheless scary beyond what we like to acknowledge at a rational level. Keeping doomsday scenarios in mind on a more abstract level (e.g., in our history, literature and entertainment) may inspire people or help mobilize them, to keep the boat afloat or at least make an effort to patch the hole.

Once upon a time, Westerners had to pay the garbage truck to take old newspapers; now fundraiser recycling bins inhabit our parking lots. Until recently, lead was everywhere; now lead is banned from gasoline, paint, and from grocery store cans—staggeringly, the latter ban was not achieved until 1993. We know more about nutrition nowadays. And then something else “too big” comes along and knocks our baby steps out from under us. Sometimes we learn to walk and realize we have tied our shoelaces together. (The switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs may save a few coins in the electricity bill—but if you drop and break the bulb, it releases poisonous mercury into the room, carpet, and fabrics and can cost money to clean up. This is progress?)

The feeling of being overwhelmed makes us wonder whether our bit makes a difference. And that is “mere” calamity; sin adds so much to the mix. Fiction offers the satisfaction of detecting an “unsolvable” problem and then either solving it before the end of the story, or closing the book and being so thankful that it’s not us.

Note that in the Message category, the characters sometimes advertize a political message: both Life as we knew it and One second after chastise politicians. Also, the Message category tends to include an expositional character whose job is to blow a trumpet … a lot. “Someone should have prepared! Someone should have known! [Tech speak] [geek speak] [prophecy]! Message, people! Pay attention to the Message!” The story, in other words, can get heavy-handed. On occasion such views (of the characters) even influence the outcome in the sense of, say, the characters treating food and goods as as renewable or non-renewable resources e.g., should we farm or should we migrate. However, as no party or philosophy can make the sun shine or the rain fall, the reader needs to be alert for such distractions.

(As to your host’s observations on Things Go Boom, no one seems to pay attention to water. Where are we going to get water? There’s a crisis that could qualify as natural, supernatural, man-made, or all of them together. But it probably won’t be marketable as a manly action movie.)

Now that we know why fictional Things Go Boom, we return to the original question: why should the audience care?

Well, because the storyteller cannot destroy a nothing. He needs to blow up a Something. The reader needs to care about the Something that is being blown up. Otherwise, they both might as well watch a lightning display on a distant horizon: spectacular, but without risk or reward or context.

There are two popular techniques to make readers care about the world soon to Go Boom: make your own world, or use a world already in service. Less commonly, one encounters a world-within-a-world set in the aftermath of a super-catastrophe that the narrator cannot clearly describe or remember. (See What Niall saw, The road, and Part 1 of Canticle for Leibowitz.)

Life as we knew it and Deep Impact start with a world just like ours and then break one thing. All other consequence flows from that one ruined thing. Readers have little difficulty identifying with such stories, since the settings are familiar and character responses tend toward the realistic rather than the fantastic.

The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are examples of a created world which C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien had to form, breathe upon, and populate before proceeding to blow it all up. If an imaginary world contains non-human species, the author also must create “point-of-view” characters with whom the audience can identify. It need not be restricted to human characters, but the POV must have relatable human characteristics. The purpose of all this extra work of world-building is much the same as with a prefab world: by the time the author gets around to destroying the world, the reader has to care that it’ll be gone. “See, I have watched my mother’s death,” declares Tirian of Narnia. “It were no virtue, but great discourtesy, if we did not mourn.” Tirian is comforted and overjoyed to realize that all which was good in Narnia came into the afterlife with him. For the author, that requires building yet another world, one without the defects of our reality.

The Left Behind series, as it does with so many other things, tries to have it both ways. It creates a new world after the old one Goes Boom but struggles to make that Edenic world both realistic and fantastic, or either realistic or fantastic. The Edenic world, called the Millennial Kingdom by the characters, is preceded by seven years of history during which the old, existing world gets blown up real good. This existing world is purported to be just like our world, thus no world-building ought to be needed. In the world of LB, the United Nations rules all, abolishes nations’ currencies, buys news outlets to promote itself, nukes defenseless cities at will, and makes treaties with “little Israel.” An Israeli scientist who lacks Galadriel’s magic ring independently invents her miraculous plant fertilizer, and Israel becomes the wealthiest nation on earth by growing cereal grains. Russia and Ethiopia become sufficiently annoyed by said cereal grains that they drop nukes on Israel in numbers like unto a locust plague (fortunately, no Israeli loss of life was recorded, God having performed a miracle to deactivate the nukes). A rabbi is spoken of as being eligible for a Nobel Prize (in which category?) for making a checklist of what his fellow Jews should look for in the Messiah. Every child on earth vanishes, but aside from a few hysterics behaving badly the world recovers nicely in two weeks. (No one actually looks for them.) A villain tells the world press that the children are vaporized (“like someone striking a match in a room of gasoline vapors”), and the parents react to this minor mystery solved by going back to work, remarrying, selling the big house with its unnecessary extra bedrooms, and buying gold while the market is good. And that’s before the fantastic elements of plagues and judgments rock the world until it is utterly destroyed. Other than that, though, it’s just like our world. It’s uncanny, really. Well, maybe not.

Having blown up that Tribulation-world, the authors of Left Behind go on to build an earthly Millennial realm supposedly modeled on Eden, populate it with mortals and immortals side by side, let them mingle for a thousand years … and then blow it all up and create a third realm, the New Heavens and New Earth … in ten pages. To paraphrase that planet-wrecker James T. Kirk, “Where’s the terror of blowing it all up? The suspense? The fun!” Here we have a Built-and-Boom story that is, well, lightweight.

To make the audience care about Things Go Boom, the storyteller has to create a world that is “heavy” and believable. How does one build a world? There are authors, directors and professors who make a living at this, but for our purposes, we can restrict the list to a few manageable elements.

The creator must decide if his world will be realistic or fantastic. He must decide how realistic to make his fantasy, how fantastic to make his reality. The creator must decide what will be retained from existing worlds, what must be invented, and what will be absent.

The creator needs characters, an environment for them to live in, and a belief system to explain them or, alternately, to explain their adversaries. When a character “comes alive,” he often surprises his creator, and the author must decide if the world should be changed to accommodate the character, or if the character can be said to be sent by his creator to change the world. It should be noted that many storytellers actually come up with the character first, then have to create a world to be his home. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories all sprang from the simple sentence, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” But what a world Tolkien had to create to support that sentence!

The creator has to decide how long the characters will live. Do any of the characters have health problems? Would the narrators sacrifice themselves for the sake of children, pets, friends, enemies? Will the narrator be among the first to die or among the last to die? The doomed narrator—a child or other person who can neither survive unprotected nor contribute survival skills—tends to live in a short book because the character’s life is cut short. Longer books may feature a narrator such as a retired soldier or some other person with survival training. That’s not a flaw, unless the readers cannot identify with this hero-person. The larger flaw with such narrators is when hero types crowd out better-trained survival types: One second after focuses on the retired soldiers, while the off-the-grid hippies and Tinfoil Hat recluses remain an untapped resource. In contrast in Life as we knew it the chief survivalist is a mother who has absorbed Great Depression penny-pinching skills from her grandparents. To feed her family, she knows which flower bulbs to eat from the garden. Both are among the doomsday novels with pets in them.

The creator must decide what coping mechanisms the characters will employ. For example, Left Behind, On the beach, and Panic in the Year Zero! enforce strict routines and gender roles. In the first and second, the dad does not even lose his job. In the third, the dad does not even lose his suit and hat. The world may be ending, but Dad will be impeccably attired and clean-shaven to meet this end! His wife and children, including adult children, will be deferential to his authority. It may not stop the rain of death, but it calms Dad and gives him a feeling of having protected his family, however fleeting that feeling might be. Alternately, gender roles can be used to tear a family apart as in Pfeffer’s “moon series”: Life as we knew it, The dead and the gone, This world we live in, Shade of the moon.

Finally the creator has to decide what he will and won’t attempt. As of this writing, One second after is almost too new for review, but an immediate reaction is that a doomsday novel takes a big risk when it skips the crucible known as Winter. This novel also includes a teenaged pregnancy conceived after the disaster. In contrast, in LAWKI a teenager is punished for dating because of the parent’s terror that it might lead to pregnancy and another mouth to feed. In A Canticle for Leibowitz the author decides not to explain how the nuclear war was begun. In The road, the author goes one step further by refusing to explain what disaster actually happened. Thus “the Man and the Boy” could be living ten years after Life as we knew it or ten years after Canticle or Niall, and we would never know it.

To build your very own world, it helps to understand the existing one a little. Such understanding itself may be shaped by the author’s belief system, and by extension, the experts upon whom he chooses to rely for his history lessons. Some Christians will not read a secular work because of the book’s starting point of old earth, evolution, and so forth. Others who do not have a Romans 14 stumbling-block response might browse the more digestible secular hits such as the world-building trio of Guns, germs and steel; A short history of nearly everything; and The world without us. The “humans should go extinct because we’re bad for the earth!” comment in World we have already noted. Short history lacks motive, though to be fair modern humans are its audience not its subject, and Guns fails to take into account either peer pressure or belief system as agents of culture.

A created world needs at least as much cohesion as the real one, and often a little more. (Writer’s proverb: “The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”) To the extent that one can, a creator often borrows from our world what works. We can poke a stick at, say, Middle-Earth and build a speculative history of Man cultures, and Tolkien’s work would stand up to the scrutiny. The same theme of music as an accompaniment to creation appears in the Bible, The Silmarillion, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The magician’s nephew. The fictional Canticle for Leibowitz and Babylon 5’s “Deconstruction of Falling Stars” draw upon real-world instances of holy men preserving knowledge and civilization after a great fall.

Tolkien called fictional universes “Secondary Worlds” as opposed to the Primary world in which we live. Tolkien argued that an author shows respect for his Secondary World by making it internally consistent through character, language, geography, and timelines that fit together like puzzle pieces. When this is done properly the creation “comes to life” and becomes believable. In a bit of a mystical turn, Tolkien believed that creating fictional Secondary Worlds helps us to understand better our Primary, divinely created world and the God who created it. But this is Tolkien’s personal belief and does not necessarily reflect his religion as a Roman Catholic. More on Tolkien’s views on world-building can be found in his The monsters and the critics.

Building a world, in other words, is harder than it looks. But your host believes in giving points for degree of difficulty attempted.

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Author: The_Old_Maid_of_Potluck

Author of Potluck2point0: The resource formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net (a.k.a. My humongous [technical term] study of "What's behind 'Left Behind'").