The calculus of creative discipline

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over world-building. World-building is dull. World-building literalises the urge to invent. World-building gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). World-building numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done. Above all, world-building is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism.

Once I’m awake and have had my mug of tea, and once I’m done checking Twitter, I can quote these words of M. John Harrison from memory: not because they’re true – I don’t believe they are – but because they rankle. I haven’t read any writing of Harrison’s, I can’t remember the names of any of his books. Sometimes I don’t remember his name even, only that there was this man who uttered these words. Perhaps it is to Harrison’s credit that he’s clearly touched a nerve but I’m reluctant to concede anymore than this.

His (partial) quote reflects a narrow view of a wider world, and it bothers me because I remain unable to extend the conviction that he’s seeing only a part of the picture to the conclusion that he lacks imagination; as a writer of not inconsiderable repute, at least according to Wikipedia, I doubt he has any trouble imagining things.

I’ve written about the virtues of world-building before (notably here), and I intend to make another attempt in this post; I should mention what both attempts, both defences, have in common is that they’re not prescriptive. They’re not recommendations to others, they’re non-generalisable. They’re my personal reasons to champion the act, even art, of world-building; my specific loci of resistance to Harrison’s contention. But at the same time, I don’t view them – and neither should you – as inviolable or as immune to criticism, although I suspect this display of a willingness to reason may not go far in terms of eliminating subjective positions from this exercise, so make of it what you will.

There’s an idea in mathematical analysis called smoothness. Let’s say you’ve got a curve drawn on a graph, between the x- and y-axes, shaped like the letter ‘S’. Let’s say you’ve got another curve drawn on a second graph, shaped like the letter ‘Z’. According to one definition, the S-curve is smoother than the Z-curve because it has fewer sharp edges. A diligent high-schooler might take recourse through differential calculus to explain the idea. Say the Z-curve on the graph is the result of a function Z(x) = y. If you differentiate Z(x) where ‘x’ is the point on the x-axis where the Z-curve makes a sharp turn, the derivative Z'(x) has a value of zero. Such points are called critical points. The S-curve doesn’t have any critical points (except at the ends, but let’s ignore them); L-, and T-curves have one critical point each; P- and D-curves have two critical points each; and an E-curve has three critical points.

With the help of a loose analogy, you could say a well-written story is smooth à la an S-curve (excluding the terminal points): it it has an unambiguous beginning and an ending, and it flows smoothly in between the two. While I admire Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series for many reasons, its first instalment is like a T-curve, where three broad plot-lines abruptly end at a point in the climax that the reader has been given no reason to expect. The curves of the first three books of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series resemble the tangent function (from trigonometry: tan(x) = sin(x)/cosine(x)): they’re individually somewhat self-consistent but the reader is resigned to the hope that their beginnings and endings must be connected at infinity.

You could even say Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t been smooth at all because there have been so many critical points.

Where world-building “literalises the urge to invent” to Harrison, it spatialises the narrative to me, and automatically spotlights the importance of the narrative smoothness it harbours. World-building can be just as susceptible to non-sequiturs and deus ex machinae as writing itself, all the way to the hubris Harrison noticed, of assuming it gives the reader anything to do, even enjoy themselves. Where he sees the “clomping foot of nerdism”, I see critical points in a curve some clumsy world-builder invented as they went along. World-building can be “dull” – or it can choose to reveal the hand-prints of a cave-dwelling people preserved for thousands of years, and the now-dry channels of once-heaving rivers that nurtured an ancient civilisation.

My principal objection to Harrison’s view is directed at the false dichotomy of writing and world-building, and which he seems to want to impose instead of the more fundamental and more consequential need for creative discipline. Let me borrow here from philosophy of science 101, specifically of the particular importance of contending with contradictory experimental results. You’ve probably heard of the replication crisis: when researchers tried to reproduce the results of older psychology studies, their efforts came a cropper. Many – if not most – studies didn’t replicate, and scientists are currently grappling with the consequences of overturning decades’ worth of research and research practices.

This is on the face of it an important reality check but to a philosopher with a deeper view of the history of science, the replication crisis also recalls the different ways in which the practitioners of science have responded to evidence their theories aren’t prepared to accommodate. The stories of Niels Bohr v. classical mechanicsDan Shechtman v. Linus Pauling and the EPR paradox come first to mind. Heck, the philosophers Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend are known for their criticisms of each other’s ideas on different ways to rationalise the transition from one moment containing multiple answers to the moment where one emerges as the favourite.

In much the same way, the disciplined writer should challenge themself instead of presuming the liberty to totter over the landscape of possibilities, zig-zagging between one critical point and the next until they topple over the edge. And if they can’t, they should – like the practitioners of good science – ask for help from others, pressing the conflict between competing results into the service of scouring the rust away to expose the metal.

For example, since June this year, I’ve been participating on my friend Thomas Manuel’s initiative in his effort to compose an underwater ‘monsters’ manual’. It’s effectively a collaborative world-building exercise where we take turns to populate different parts of a large planet with sizeable oceans, seas, lakes and numerous rivers with creatures, habitats and ecosystems. We broadly follow the same laws of physics and harbour substantially overlapping views of magic, but we enjoy the things we invent because they’re forced through the grinding wheels of each other’s doubts and curiosities, and the implicit expectation of one creator to make adequate room for the creations of the other.

I see it as the intersection of two functions: at first, their curves will criss-cross at a point, and the writers must then fashion a blending curve so a particle moving along one can switch to the other without any abruptness, without any of the tired melodrama often used to mask criticality. So the Kularu people are reminded by their oral traditions to fight for their rivers, so the archaeologists see through the invading Gezmin’s benevolence and into the heart of their imperialist ambitions.