Building and unveiling worlds in science fiction

Ever since I was a child I’ve been gripped by world-building in science fiction, whether it’s in film, tv, fiction, comics or videogames. These vast alternative worlds, with their own histories and cosmologies, swirl inside my mind and furnish my imagination. I’m particularly prone to getting sucked in by stories told within these worlds that rely on a gradual unveiling of elements of that world which have been concealed, presenting the reader (and this is a style of narrative which almost always is read) with a mystery that will gradually be resolved. For example I spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking about who Rabum Alal was in Marvel Comics and Jonathan Hickman’s storyline was the only time in nearly three decades of being a comics nerd that I found myself posting on comics forums.

The introduction of concealed elements into a (familiar) fictional universe which are gradually unveiled is a mechanism with astonishing capacity to suck me in. In part it’s the pleasure of what Jana Bacevic sometimes calls being cognitively occupied i.e. there’s an inherent satisfaction in having something to mull over. It also plays on curiosity which is probably my overriding motivation in life, or at least the one which most reliably incites me towards sustained action across any part of my life. The dynamic of introducing veiled elements and then unveiling them also stops me from getting bored by fictional universes I’ve inhabited since I was a child. These are the three mechanisms I can see which drive my engagement with fictional stories of this store. I can see the same mechanism in TV shows I’ve been gripped by as in comics. For examples Heroes, the 4400 and the X-Files wouldn’t rank on my list of the best TV shows I’ve seen. Those spots undoubtedly go to The Wire, Sopranos, True Detective (season 1) and (later) Succession. But they’re the ones I’ve been most gripped by in this fashion because of the mystery which runs through them like a stream.

However a few years I was introduced to the concept of Chekhov’s gun when attending a writing course. This principle says that elements shouldn’t be introduced to stories unless they serve a purpose. The reason this needs to be stated is that writers often introduce elements with no clear sense of the purpose they serve. I suspect this is particularly pronounced in modern television* because team based writing under a show runner means that a range of contributions inevitably have to be cobbled together to at least some extent. It also reflects the routines of production, particularly in comics where there’s intense pressure to deliver monthly issues. There might be a sense of overall direction for a story but my understanding is it’s rare for creative production on a regularised cycle to have a detailed map of how all the elements in the story will unfold. The person leading the course pointed to Lost as an example of a TV show which multiplied elements haphazardly from the earliest stage then struggled to resolve them later on, creating a sense of mystery which was never satisfactorily resolved in the viewing experience.

The reason I find this significant is because it’s the introduction of these elements which drive world building and world unveiling. For the reader/viewer who gets sucked into these words, it’s a cohesive experience characterised by mystery and wonder. For the writers it can be a more or less haphazard exercise which might at best be coherent at the level of general direction, as the story unfolding in part because of the path dependence of their cultural production i.e. at each stage they’re bounded by the decisions they made at the previous stage. I’m fascinated by this because it highlights such a dichotomy between the phenomenology of the reader and the sociology of cultural production in which the former remains insulated from the latter even with awareness of it, much as we can be immersed in a play** without conscious awareness the actors are acting.

*Though I’m not sure about this and would welcome insight from people who know more about it than me.
**My god I miss the theatre 😭

2 thoughts on “Building and unveiling worlds in science fiction

  1. As I understand it, a lot of long-arc TV writing is fairly open-ended: the showrunners probably have an idea of the core plot, but they’ll leave a lot of room for serendipitous development of subplots and secondary characters. (Things are a little more pre-planned these days, because the disaster that was the last season of _Lost_ taught everyone an important lesson about the seat-of-the-pants approach to plotting a long show.) My guess — with the caveat that I’ve never written for television! — is that you get a lot of Chekov’s guns in TV series because the writers have to sort of salt the world with them, in case they come in useful later on. But worth noting that Chekov’s gun, like most “rules” of writing, is open to constructive abuse; the red herring, for instance, is related to Chekov’s gun, but deployed intentionally as a misdirection.

    And then you have authors who exploit the hermeneutic instinct of genre reading protocols in order to undermine and subvert them; there are many examples, but perhaps the paradigmatic would be M John Harrison, who teases the decode-the-world instinct of sf/f reading by loading his stories with an excess of genre and non-genre signifiers that ultimately point to themselves, each other, or nothing. If you fancy losing half a day to a deep dive, try g**gling “worldbuilding clomping foot of nerdism” and wandering through the heyday discourse of the New Weird… 🙂

  2. That sounds like a dangerous black hole! Thanks very much for this. Though I’m now weirdly tempted to go and watch te final season of Lost which I never did….

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