Archive for September 2016

A Return to Known Space   Leave a comment

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1971

World-building is a term used to describe what science fiction and fantasy authors do to create the setting for the story being told. Any work of fiction requires some degree of world-building, of course, though in a murder mystery or a work of historical fiction this can be accomplished by describing the real world. In science fiction and fantasy, the world of the story may have few connections with the real world, and quite likely would have no connection to it at all. We often build worlds “from scratch,” so to speak. The “world” built for the story sometimes provides little more than a backdrop, but more often than not it becomes a powerful tool for moving the plot forward. It may even be the central element of the plot to begin with. To say that this is the case in Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning novel Ringworld would be an understatement.

Ringworld is a classic example – perhaps the best-known example – of world-building that results in the so-called Big Dumb Object (BDO). The first use of the phrase is usually attributed to British writer Roz Kaveney, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It was apparently intended as a tongue-in-cheek expression, but science fiction is a genre not afraid of playfully making fun of itself, so the phrase is now used on a regular basis. The idea is that you have a plot element, and often it’s the plot element, take the form of something mind-bogglingly huge and complex. The BDO is frequently (though not exclusively) of a nonhuman origin, and the humans who discover it generally experience a serious “holy crap!” moment when they do so. Then they begin to investigate, and therein lies the tale. The BDO can be done to great effect, as seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and John Varley’s Titan. And of course, there’s the ever popular “That’s no moon!” – the Death Star of the Star Wars Trilogy. Science fiction has an impressive collection of BDOs, but few – the river world in Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go comes to mind – can compete with the Ringworld for sheer scale.

The artificial world Niven builds for this novel is beyond the range of the superlatives of the English language. It’s an astronomically large band big enough to wrap around its star at about the distance that Earth orbits the sun. Its foundation is an impervious substance that defies analysis by the story’s heroes. This ring structure is broad enough that oceans larger and deeper than anything on Earth can be found within, and standing in the middle of it, you can’t see all the way to either side. Big Dumb Object, indeed, although I’d debate the “dumb” part in this case, tongue-in-cheek or not.

The Ringworld is one of the grandest examples of world-building you can find in science fiction, and Niven puts it to marvelous use in the tale of the first investigation performed on the object. He drops a curious cast of characters in the now decrepit Ringworld – the builders’ civilization having collapsed thousands of years ago. Two are human, a man who has lived two centuries and “seen it all,” and a young woman born lucky, which is a story of its own.  With them travel two aliens, one of the warlike Kzin, and a cowardly two-headed Puppeteer who happens to be the leader of their expedition, which is soon stranded on the Ringworld. To find a way off, they must cross to one of the edges, a journey that involves crossing a distance that would encompass all the continents on Earth. Along the way many things are revealed, of the Ringworld itself and the universe of which it is a part, and of the characters and their respective species.

For fans of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, the Ringworld adventure, and its sequels, form a sort of hub. So much of this tale touches on other works of Niven from that universe that you have the pleasant feeling of things tied together into a network of storytelling. And yet, for someone who stumbles onto Ringworld without prior Known Space experience, the novel stands on its own quite well.

I’ve reacted to previously read Hugo Award novels a number of different ways since I started this project. There have been numerous revelations of ideas missed, and disappointments that tales haven’t withstood the test of time. This rereading of an old favorite has started an episode of rediscovery. Ringworld brought me back to a sci-fi universe that I enjoyed immensely once upon a time, and a long time ago at that. So many comments and asides from the characters invoked half-remembered tales in the same universe that I find myself pulling old paperbacks off shelves, and hunting down copies of Ringworld sequels that I never got around to reading when they were new. Aside from the Hugo award winners for these reviews, I don’t reread fiction very often. There’s so much new (and new to me) to read! But I’m going to make an exception here, and revisit in a big way one of the first multi-book sci-fi universes to ever grab my attention.

The Process, Part Four: What a Bunch of Characters!   1 comment

Previous Installments:

Part One: The Stuff Of Which Daydreams Are Made

Part Two: Blazing A Trail

Part Three: The Lay of the Land

It’s a common joke, among writers at least, that part of the reason we do what we do is that we somehow never outgrew having imaginary friends. We don’t, of course (maybe I should say “usually”) call the imaginary people inhabiting the stories we tell “friends,” but we do get to know them pretty well. How they come into being, and sometimes surprise us, is a less than straightforward process, one that varies from author to author. For me, the characters often become companions of sorts along the trail I follow, on the journey of discovery that results in the story I’m trying to tell and in which they have their entire existence.

There’s always a character, sometimes two or three, right there when I start cutting the trail. The character (or characters) appearing on the first page usually figured prominently in whatever bit of daydream sparked the story idea in the first place. Nameless, sometimes genderless at the very beginning, these beings have an experience in my imagination and a story starts to unfold. Something has happened to them that must be explained, with suitable embellishments. That first bit of daydreaming usually evolves rapidly, if it takes on a life of its own at all. (Not all of them do so.) By the time I’ve thought it through far enough to establish the trailhead, these vaguely realized characters have usually acquired names and genders, as well as a general appearance – height, weight, skin and hair color, and so forth. In a matter of a few pages, personalities begin to emerge, as I experiment with how to show them as individuals, usually through their interactions with each other.

I’m in control of this, as I am of all other aspects of the process of writing fiction. I don’t, however, sit down and sketch out a dossier for each character; it’s a more organic process than that. The background that I invent to explain each personality evolves with the story, being shaped by it and, to a degree, shaping it as I extend the trail ever further. Along the way I often find myself describing things or creating dialog that wasn’t part of the plan a few hours or moments ago. It’s as if the characters, having evolved to a certain point, develop some sort of emergent property, a degree of self-will – hence the jokes about characters “speaking” to us, or taking charge. They don’t, really, in my case; the effect is the result of a certain logic involving what I’ve already done to create a character, which then dictates how they should respond in a particular situation, which in turn can cause me to reshape the story for a better fit. Being an organic, evolutionary process that isn’t always operating on a completely conscious level, the results often surprise me. I’ll add elements to characters, put words into their mouths, thoughts in their heads, all of it on the fly, and then set them into situations that call for a reaction. How would this person react to such circumstances? What would make sense, at that point in the story? And – more challenging still – does it still make sense in the context of how they started out back at the trailhead? The answers to these questions can lead to significant revisions, as changes propagate forward and backward through the story, suggesting more depth to the characters and changing the direction of the trail I’m blazing.

Think of it as a form of co-evolution. As characters develop ever stronger and clearer personalities, possibilities suggest themselves. All too often these possibilities, which occur to me late in the first draft, would be best applied nearer the beginning. The story, as a result, evolves as a whole, the characters along with it. Characters can (and should!) change over the course of a story, as a part of the story itself. But they require a degree of consistency, as well. As companions along that trail to story’s end, this can make them seem a touch psychotic at times, because their existence is equally valid at both ends of the first draft, even when the ends don’t match. And it has to match. I take who they are when I’m done and tweak them at the beginning to make sure the whole thing makes sense. If these imaginary friends of mine were in any way real, they’d experience moments of deep confusion, when I clean up the trail we’ve cut together. They might not recognize themselves from one draft to the next.

An imaginary friend with an identity crisis. That could only happen to a writer!

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