Creating a world we’d want to live in

Back when I was at Mysticon in February I talked to one of the attendees who said he didn’t care for Game of Thrones (I don’t either). He commented that the world of GoT was a horrible place, a world he wouldn’t want to live in. Then he added that nobody seems to create worlds we’d want to live in any more. I don’t think I agree on that last part, though he does have a point — there do seem to be more grimdark settings out there than there used to be.

Lots of successful writers are famous for creating worlds we’d love to visit. For many modern readers, part of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes is the Victorian setting, with hansom cabs, gas lighting, railways and old-fashioned manners. Wonderland, Oz, Middle Earth and Narnia have enchanted millions of readers. Conan’s Hyborian place looks like it would be great to live in, at least if you were a rogue such as Conan (“want to live in” any world usually comes with a clause about “if you had a better life than a scullery maid or a serf.”). Not necessarily safe worlds or consistently happy worlds, but worlds that somehow seem … fun. I’m not sure anyone thinks that about GoT. It’s the difference between a world that looks exciting or entertaining and one where even for the rich and powerful life is nasty, brutish and short.

I think there are still lots of worlds around that look fun to live in. While RS Belcher’s Golgotha is a creepy place, it’s so gloriously bizarre, I must admit I’d love to visit, at least. Whispers Beyond the Veil‘s 19th century tourist town appeals to me too. And there have always been specfic worlds one wouldn’t want to live in — H.G. Well’s dystopias, Lovecraft’s mythos.

For some fans, the problem is politics. Writer Brad Torgerson, for example, has complained that instead of books where the brawny barbarian or the daring space explorer is the hero, specfic has sold out to the social justice warriors and gives us books that are lectures on colonialism, racism or sexism. As noted at the link, I disagree. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books are rousing adventures, but they’re also about colonialism and the way England exploits its dragons as beasts rather than intelligent creatures. City of Blades is about colonialism and empire but it’s also a great story.

It may reflect that we’re less optimistic about the future than we used to be. One article I read while working on Now and Then We Time Travel found SF films set in the future had become increasingly bleak as we moved from the 1950s to the 1980s. Or consider the limited series Marvels and its sequel tracks the Marvel Universe from the sunny optimism of 1960s superheroing to the bleaker tone of the Bronze Age and the 1980s.

From the writer’s perspective, does it matter if our worlds appeal? Obviously it’s not a deal breaker for readers or Hunger Games wouldn’t be a hit. Even though the resistance overthrows the Capitol and President Snow, it’s not a setting I’d like to be in, even as the hero. It’s still awesome.

But an appealing world can be a selling point. One of my writing group friends told me that she loved the setting of No One Can Slay Her and she hoped I’d do more books set in the same world. That reaction is obviously a good thing.

I think it’s also possible to have a setting that’s neutral. Pharisee County in Southern Discomfort is a pleasant enough place (when not being hit by floods or half-elf killers) but I don’t think of it as one of those small towns readers fall in love with. And that’s okay too.

Like so many other things in writing, it’s a judgment call.

#SFWApro. Cover by Raymond Swanland, all rights remain with current holder.

5 Comments

Filed under Reading, Sherlock Holmes, Writing

5 responses to “Creating a world we’d want to live in

  1. Zosimus the Heathen

    Interesting post – it’s made me think about which fictitious worlds I’d like to live in myself. Middle Earth certainly – I remember falling in love with the place after reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a child, and being disappointed that there weren’t more books set there (well not ones as readable as the aforementioned two at any rate – I tried reading the Silmarillion as well, but found that too dry and dull to perservere with beyond the first few chapters). (I remember making a few silly attempts to recreate the wonder and magic of the place in a few fantasy worlds of my own creation, but found that a futile endeavour – that said, it took me a long time to accept that I should stop trying to copy Tolkien’s worlds, and focus on creating my own unique ones (which would hopefully be awe-inspiring in their own unique ways).) I also remember being very disappointed to discover that once the last of the Fellowship of the Ring passes away, Middle Earth and all its magic passes away with them.

    While I’ve not read much Sherlock Holmes, I can understand the historical appeal you say many modern readers find in the stories featuring him. It puts me in mind of a very good series I recently watched called The Knick, which was about a fictitious hospital in New York at the turn of the 20th Century. Although that series didn’t shy away from showing all the ugly aspects of life back then, there was still something quite appealing about its setting (all the beautiful houses and buildings probably played a big part in that!), and I found myself experiencing the strangest longing for it. Then again, I’ve long had a fascination with that period of history.

    Unlike you, I actually *have* wanted to live in the world HP Lovecraft (and others who would later contribute to his Cthulhu mythos) created. When I first got into his work as a teenager (and read a couple of very good stories a school friend of mine had written while dabbling in the Cthulhu mythos himself), I was crazy enough to think that living in the world he’d created would actually be kind of awesome (and, as a result, was only too willing to believe some rather fanciful claims I’d read elsewhere that Lovecraft had actually been under the malign influence of real cosmic entities when writing his stories, and that, as a consequence, those stories were actually all true). Partly, I think, that was because the real world seemed kind of boring at the time – it was actually kind of fun to think it might be nothing more than a facade behind which all manner of unimaginable cosmic horrors lurked – and also because Lovecraft was just such a good writer that, to me anyway, he could make even the ugliest things sound awesome and beautiful. Certainly, the Dream World that would be the setting for many of his stories sounded like it’d be a cool place to visit.

    As for other fictitious settings that have appealed greatly to me, the world of Doctor Who (the “Whoniverse”) has been one I’ve wished I could visit for years. Of course with that one, it doesn’t hurt that there’s no shortage of time periods and places one could visit, though I’ve always been particularly partial to the brightly-coloured worlds that the Sixth Doctor tended to visit in his adventures myself (I’m one of what I gather is a tiny minority of Who fans who really liked Colin Baker’s Doctor and the (sadly too few) stories that featured him). Even as a young adult, I’d find myself wishing that the Doctor existed; a favourite fantasy of mine for a while was that while I was being forced to endure the tedium of a particularly dull university lecture, the TARDIS would suddenly materialize at the front of the lecture theatre, the Doctor (any incarnation) would pop out, look me directly in the eye, and say, “I want YOU to be my next companion!” Of course, given how often his companions ended up nearly (or actually) dying (in macabre and gruesome ways, no less), that’d probably be a case of “Be careful what you wish for!” I always had a nasty feeling I’d end up getting myself atomized at some inopportune moment (say, because I’d gotten myself captured by the soldiers of some particularly nasty interstellar empire, and couldn’t keep myself from bursting out laughing at the fact their uniforms looked absolutely ridiculous)!.

  2. Okay, fair point about the Dreamworld. And yes, traveling with the Doctor, despite the risk, does sound awesome (hopefully classic TARDIS–the big control room of the new series just isn’t “my” TARDIS).
    When the Silmarillion came out, despite its commercial success, it seemed like all the reviews had the reaction you did (one summed it up as “no hobbits.”). But in the years since, I’ve learned a lot of people find the epic scope fascinating. I’m somewhere in between but I do think the Beren and Luthien section is awesome.
    SF writer Doris Egan wrote a great tribute to Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey books as being the same sort of fantasy I have about Holmes’ era: elegant dress, “everyone who isn’t a servant has a servant” and the people at the top of the class system are actually worth it (http://www.dorisegan.com/2014/07/13/lord-peter-wimsey-and-the-golden-age/).

    • Zosimus the Heathen

      I definitely agree with your classic TARDIS comment. I could never really get into the “new look” TARDIS control room – it just seemed to be a case of visual overkill on the part of the show’s creators. Does your preference for the classic TARDIS reflect a preference for the classic series as a whole? I know I prefer the classic series myself, probably because it’s the one I grew up with; a lot of the new episodes don’t seem to resonate with me quite so much.

      Re The Simarillion, it probably didn’t help in my case that I tried reading that pretty much the instant I finished LOTR, and was hoping for “more of the same”. This probably wasn’t an unreasonable expectation on my part given that a blurb I’d read for the book (in the back of my copy of The Hobbit, I think) had actually made it sound like it was going to be the further adventures of many of the characters from LOTR; as far as I could tell, however (after flicking through the later chapters to see if it got any better), the only reference to such characters in it was a very brief mention of Frodo and Sam successfully bearing the Ring to Mount Doom, where it was then destroyed.

      Maybe I should give The Simarillion another crack, now that it’s been some time since I finished LOTR. I remember being positively devastated when I finished that book; it really was one of those stories I never wanted to end. On a somewhat positive note, that meant I found it very easy to accept the premise of another fantasy story I read a year or so later, The Neverending Story (ie “Wouldn’t it be awesome if some stories never ended?”). The world in which that one was set was also an interesting place, though any desire I might have had to live in it was squelched by the chapter about the City of Old Emperors. *That* was a terrifying place – indeed, I probably find it even creepier now than I did when I actually read about it, given the unnerving similarities I can now see between the titular Old Emperors, and people in the real world who’re afflicted with dementia.

      • I have more of an emotional attachment to the original series, for sure. I like the new one a lot, but I have problems with the Doctor as a kind of cosmic superman, as it frequently presents him.
        Having watched the 1940s Thief of Baghdad this weekend I was reminded that the Arabian Nights is definitely another world I’d love to live in.

  3. Pingback: A world I’d LOVE to live in: Thief of Baghdad (1940) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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