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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Originality

So in the last post I discussed the major challenges of creating unique fantasy worlds and cultures.  The first challenge I identified was the tension between coming up with a new facet of world or culture while not breaking the logical coherency of your world.  Every aspect of your world-building exists on multiple axes.  The two axes that are relevant to this post are originality vs. familiarity and coherency vs. incoherency.  We’re going to need some definitions here:

  • Originality: I’m using this word in the sense of departing from your idea of the standard implementation of an aspect of physical laws or culture.  So the patriarchy is the example of a gender power structure that is most common in our world.  So you maybe want to use a different gender power structure.
  • Coherency: I’m using this word in the sense of the different parts of your culture fitting together logically.  Say you have a people who live on a river.  Their whole livelihood is bound up in the river and it’s natural cycles.  And they worship a god who lives at the top of a far-off mountain.  Can you make that work as an author?  Sure, with enough other factors, such as perhaps they lived on that mountain in the past.  But assuming only the information I’ve given you, wouldn’t a form of worship involving the river make more sense?  If you live in a matriarchal culture, is it more likely you’ll have a king or a queen as your ruler?  If your people live on the coast of the ocean, are they more likely to be known for their sailors or their mountaineers?  If they have huge deposits of iron are they more likely to be known for their ironwork or their copper-smithing?

Now, we’re assuming, given the subject of this blog series, that you want to err on the side of originality over familiarity.  You’re reading an article on world-building, so I’m going to assume you value coherency over incoherency.  (If you write surrealism, maybe not?)

 

One trick to originality is looking at the axes which we use to judge familiarity.  You might think the opposite of patriarchy is a matriarchy, but that only differs on the feature of gender.  It’s still following a complex set of assumptions about what power is and how we define who holds it.  We have in our world a common concept of a struggle for power between the male and female genders.  It’s a single axis alignment of power.  If you want to be really original, you might consider altering a different axis.  Or maybe two.  Or three.  Perhaps there’s an equal division of power between genders.  Maybe it doesn’t even match our pre-conceived gender roles.  Or maybe there’s no gender division at all.

Now, true origianlity would not just be, “okay, let’s have Japan but with a matriarchal power-structure and everything else is the same.”  That’s a valid method to create a fantasy setting, assuming you watch out for things like cultural appropriation.  But it’s not what we’re addressing in this post.

And there are other power structures or aspects of power structures.  Such as do we have a single absolute ruler?  A group of rulers?  A democracy (of sorts)?  How do we decide on who fills these positions?  More generally in world-building, you have to decide on your goals for the culture or world and then pick the method to achieve that goal.  So you can focus your originality on those aspects, which certainly makes life easier.  Perhaps you want everything to be original.  A lofty goal, though I’m not sure it’s a good one.

But you can have a fairly original culture by just changing a few aspects.  What provides the true originality instead of just being gimmicky is whether or not you let these changes trickle down through other aspects of the society.  You have to find the reasons that underlie your new surface structure.

Another important aspect to consider is whether your ground state culture is the average of real-world cultures or those depicted in secondary-world fantasy.  So a democracy is more common in the real world than in fantasy, so within the context of fantasy, it might feel a lot more original than you might otherwise expect.  Theocracies might be arguably more common in fantasy than in real life, so they might feel less original.

You could look at religion the same way.  Polytheistic pantheons are far more common in fantasy than in modern real life.  Monotheistic religions might feel very common in the real world, but are far less common in fantasy, despite being present.  And Judeo-Christian Gods make up most of the fantasy monotheistic Gods.  So even though mono-theism might not feel super original, the way it’s expressed in the world could be.  Pantheism/animism is similarly uncommon in fantasy, though we have real-world examples such as Shinto from Japan.

Worship of spirits and gods is the most common state of religion in both fantasy stories and the real world.  Rarely do we have supernatural forces acknowledged without worship.  Do you often see scientific explorations of the the river and wind spirits in fantasy the same way we look at meteorology in the real world?  When looking to create an original culture, one of the methods with the highest ceiling on originality is to find the underlying assumptions in our ideas of both what’s possible and what’s original.  We have a big conflict between theism and atheism in the real world religious landscape.  But especially from a Western viewpoint, it’s rarely considered that we might have supernatural phenomena acknowledged without being revered.  And there are many other examples.

 

I’ve used examples of religion and politics because they’re very common subjects of “unique” fantasy cultures and I know something about them.  You can do the same thing with food or cleanliness habits, art or clothing or architecture.  Family relationships, education, values either moral or practical.  How they deal with their economy.  With their debts or social obligations.  Politeness is a fun one.

Next time, I’d like to talk about how to make the aspects of your culture fit together in a way that readers will accept/expect.

 

 

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Challenges

It’s turned out that this is a series of rather long post rather than one or two medium posts, for wish I apologize.  I’m afraid I’m a bit of a discovery writer.  I had a very compact premise for these posts, but I found out as I went along that that premise entailed a large amount of background and set-up that couldn’t fit into a couple thousand words.  This post is going to be about the challenges of writing truly unique and original worlds.

  1. There’s nothing new under the sun.  Well, sort of.  The first thing to understand is that our only reference, our only source of inspiration for how the world and human cultures within it work is our world.  There’s only one.  That one contains thousands of years of recorded history among thousands of cultures.  But it’s still only one world, and all of those cultures follow one set of physical laws.  So even though in fantasy the possibilities are theoretically infinite, in practice, we suffer from a paucity of stimuli.  And even though we have an infinite number of possible combinations of physical laws, only a small subset of them result in coherent worlds and only a small subset of those are intelligible to us as humans.  So this challenge is a bit misleading.There are many things new under the sun, but our ability to understand them thoroughly or even conceive of their existence at all is actually quite limited.  And your challenge in creating a unique fantasy world is diverging far enough from real-world examples to feel new and exciting without diverging so far as to become incoherent to other humans–your readers.
  2. You have to convince the reader that your ideas fit together reasonably.  If you have a desert world where all the characters walk around in several layers of thick animal fur and you have a really cool social structure based around what caste of people wears what fur, that might be cool and original.  But it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  If you have a society set in the same basic geography as Scandinavia, it’s gonna be awful weird if they’re all eating rice and wearing Japanese-style clothing.  And this is because the environment affects how your society develops.  Tons of people in Illinois, USA eat salmon.  But there are no salmon here.  In a world without complex transportation networks stretching thousands of miles and supported by cheap refrigeration technology, that would be really odd.

    If you have quality steel armor and also katanas, then your world doesn’t make much sense, because katanas developed the way they did due to various factors including the lack of decent iron deposits, so that forging a decent blade required techniques that resulted in the shape of the katana, the sharp edge of which is forged from a different allow than the body of the sword, and so when it reacts to being heated, those two sections expand different, creating the trademark curve of the blade.  And beyond that, katanas only functioned because that same lack of quality metal meant the style of armor in use was vulnerable to the slashing attacks that are the main use of the katana, whereas steel plate is not generally vulnerable to slashes, but rather to chops, thrusts, and bludgeoning.

  3. In order to create a logical and coherent culture (or world), you need to know why things work.  But you don’t.  Most people will have no idea why Japanese culture developed katanas, or why the daimyos(lords) had so much power compared to the Emperor.  But they have the dual illusion of an incorrect idea of why those things existed and that they understand the why rather than maybe merely seeing the surface pattern of the what.  You don’t know the underlying reasons for gravity; you only know the surface effects.  Things fall rather than rising, falling causes damage.  But how does gravity create and affect the atmosphere?  How does gravity interact with other forces to create rain?  How does gravity create the tides?  You don’t necessarily need to know how the tides work to sail a ship.  You just need to know how they affect the ship.  The rules, not the reasons.  Because the world takes care of the reasons and how they create interactions between systems.

    The same goes for the systems that underlie human cultures.But when you are creating a a world or a culture for a story, there is no world to run the system for you.  You can’t input some facts about how you want the culture to work into a computer that knows how things work and let it hash out the results of your combination.  You have to be able to design and understand the way the systems interact yourself.  When you steal a culture from the real world, the reasons are irrelevant, because we all know the rules and we can extrapolate from our years of experience with those rules to create a logical model of how things work that we can use to both predict outcomes and judge how likely the outcomes the author presents are to really happen.  If their model doesn’t fit our model, we decide they screwed up or are outright cheating.

    But when you have an “original” culture, the surface patterns you expect the system to generate are much more likely to differ from the surface patterns your reader expects, and so they will judge your world-building or plotting skills negatively.  They will look at real world cultures that have similar rules and see the general consistency in the resulting surface patterns and extrapolate from that to the patterns your systems should theoretically create.  If your surface patterns don’t match that theoretical model, you’re going to have trouble with reader engagement.

So the two surface challenges for creating a new culture or world (or magic system or whatever) are making your world feel original and still feel coherent and reasonable.  And underlying those surface challenges are the mechanical challenges of not actually knowing how things in the real world work and so how they should work in your world based off your deviations, and how to derive new ideas from our shared experiences.  And in the next post, I’m going to start suggesting possible solutions to some of these challenges.

 

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Background

In my last post, as sort of a prelude to the complex topic I’d like to discuss here, I talked about ways to create fantasy cultures based on real cultures and the advantages and disadvantages of this method.  I’m going to start out this post by talking about such counterpart cultures again, but this time, I’m going to focus on the difficulties of creating a truly original culture and how the common use of counterpart cultures undermines such attempts.

 

So, counterpart and generalized Earth cultures make up a great deal of the fantasy landscape.  The exert an enormous influence.  On both the types of stories that are common, and on reader expectations.  I’m going to talk about reader expectations first.

Readers expect certain things when they pick up a book.  These are based on the cover, the blurb, the author.  But also on their past experiences with the genre.  If they’re used to parsing and relating to stories and characters in a pseudo-medieval European setting, they’re going to have difficulty relating to a character in a different setting, because setting informs character.  Also, writers and readers in the genre have developed a set of short-cuts for conveying various forms of information from the writer to the reader.  A reader is familiar with the tropes and conventions of the genre, and writers can and almost inevitably do manipulate this familiarity in order to both meet reader expectations and violate them without going into a wall of text explaining the violation.

Both the writer and the reader of high fantasy have an understanding of the concept of the knight.  Or at least the version in Europa, our faux medieval European setting in which so many fantasies take place.  So when a writer introduces a character as a knight, it’s shorthand for a great deal of information which the writer now does not have to explain with long info-dumps about the history of European chivalry and feudalism.  There’s a strong tension in fantasy between world–building and not info-dumping, because for the most part, info-dumps get in the way of the story.  You don’t want to drop craploads of information on the reader all at once because it interrupts the story.  But you need them to understand the background in order to put the story in context.  Why would a fighter give his opponent a chance to ready himself and get on an equal footing when the stakes of the battle are the conquering of the kingdom?  Because his culture holds honour as one of the highest moral values.  Would sneaking up behind him and stabbing him in the back be easier, have a higher chance of success, and not put the kingdom at risk?  Sure.  So would shooting him with an arrow from behind a tree.  Or two hundred arrows in an ambush as he walks through the forest.  But it would be dishonorable.  And then he might do the same to you.  The same reason why parley flags are honored when it might be so much simpler for one side or the other to just murder the guy.

People do all sorts of dumb shit because it’s “the right thing to do” or perhaps because due to complex cultural values or humans being shitheads, the short-term loss helps uphold a long-term gain.  The tension between the obvious solution in the moment and why it might be foolish in the larger context is a powerful way to drive conflict in the story.  But teaching the reader larger context is a heavy burden when they don’t have any real previous understanding of it.  By using Europa as our setting, we get all that context for free because the reader has previous experience.

The same goes for any sort of counterpart culture.  Rome or Japan have a large collection of tropes in say Western English-speaking society.  Readers will be familiar with those tropes.  So if you want a bit of a break from knights and princesses, why you can take a quick detour through samurai and ninjas.  Or legionnaires and barbarians.  Sometimes these are just trappings on top of the same style of story.  Sometimes these new settings and tropes introduce new things to the story that are really cool.  But because even then, audiences have less exposure to various renderings of these tropes or perhaps the real history underlying them, they can be even more stereotypical or empty than Europa fantasy.

And even in terms of world-building they can do the same.  The writer has to communicate less technical detail to the reader and they don’t have to world-build as deeply because they have less need to justify their setting.  When you just know that knights and princesses and stone castles are real, even if you don’t know how they work exactly, you don’t worry so much about the details.  When something is clearly made up and not based on real Earth history, the questions about how things work and would they really work that way given the frame the author has built can become more of a suspension of disbelief killer.  There’s a joke that some things are just too strange for fiction.  Sure they happened in real life and we have proof.  But in stories, most people most often expect a sort of logical cause and effect and that if a thing happens, it has a good reason based in the story or world-building.  If something could happen once in a thousand tries based on sheer luck and it happening in your story is an important plot element, readers are much less likely to suspend disbelief than if it happens 754 times out of 1000 in the real world.  So your world-building needs to make some sort of logical sense to the reader if you want your plot to hinge on it.  And when you have the weight of genre history behind you, readers are far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt than if you’re the first person doing it ever.

And that’s why fantasy counterpart cultures are so popular.  We know from Earth history, our only referent of a real history that actually occurred, that the things thus depicted (sorta, kinda, if you squint a bit) really did occur and function in a world rigidly bound by physical laws.  Unlike a world bound only by words on a page written by one dude who probably doesn’t even remember the six credits of world history he took in high school.

And as a very meta example of my point, I have now written two long posts full of info-dumping that I’m demanding you read before I even start talking about what I promised to talk about: how to overcome all these hurdles and actually create unique and original worlds and cultures for your fantasy story.

 

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Pre-Post: Fantasy Counterparts Cultures

So,  I promised a post yesterday on the challenges and responses to the challenges of creating unique new cultures for fantasy worlds.  But as I was writing my draft, I realized I needed to talk about something else first.  You see that post was going to be a response to a common trend in fantasy and what I dislike about it.  So I realized I should probably go into that trend, what it is, what I don’t like, and what it does do well.  On that note:

 

One of the most common criticisms of is that so much high and epic fantasy is just a pseudo-medieval European setting, with actually quite a few historical simplifications and misunderstandings.  Not least of which is because “Medieval” relates to a span of approximately 1000 years following the fall of the Roman Empire in approximately 500 AD to the start of of early modern age in approximately 1500.  These dates are rough generalizations, no need to nitpick.  My point is that it was a long and complex period over a broad swath of territory, the complexity of which is generally crushed down to knights and feudalism and chivalry.  (There has been subversion and counter-exampling of this trope throughout the history of fantasy, but overall, this generalization holds mostly true.)

In order to combat this issue, people began to make more of an effort to use alternate settings than they had in the past.  Different cultures and mythologies were incorporated into fantasies in an attempt to ride the wave of pushback against this trope.  Which led to the rise of a new over-used trope: Fantasy Counterpart Cultures.  (Evil lurks here!)  If you don’t want to get lost in the wasteland of TVTropes, this is basically when a for-all-intents-and-purposes real world culture is has the serial numbers sanded off in order to become a semi-consistent “new” culture in a fantasy setting.  Most commonly seen with Rome, China, and Japan.  Occasionally Egypt and Russia.  Making up new cultures, which are both consistent and believable, is pretty hard, I think most would agree.  Why not just give a new coat of paint and some sweet new rims to an old ride from Earth?  People will be able to grok the basics of the culture from prior exposure.

However, there are a few issues with this method.  That prior exposure is likely to be made up of stereotypes, misunderstandings, propaganda, and even occasionally  down-right racism.  You might think you know all about pharaohs and chariots, but did you know that Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian?  (You’re reading a blog about fantasy world-building, so you might, actually.)  Most people who aren’t history majors probably don’t.  (Did you know bushido was propaganda?)  It can also lead to lazy writing as the author relies too much on reader knowledge to hold together aspects of the story or world.

There are obvious benefits to the method, of course.  You can rely on reader knowledge, take world-building shortcuts.  It’s quicker.  It provides an exotic flavor to the world without info-dumps, flowery prose, and intense research and understanding of the world.  When well-done, it can be enormously appealing to readers.  There’s a great deal of Rule of Cool that can be applied to the story, both because of ignorance of historical facts underpinning the real-world culture that inspires the story and the verisimilitude it provides.  That way, the writer can “concentrate on a good plot” or build in-depth characters without all the hassle of good world-building.  There are outside rules known to everybody which can be exploited for the writer’s benefit.  The shared cultural context, regardless of its accuracy, can be a major driver in interest in the story.

Bushido is pretty cool as an ethic, much like chivalry.  And why not?  It was intended that way.  It allows for a lot of subversion and the creation of moral dilemmas that can provide depth to characters and explain otherwise odd plot developments.  The same for Rome.  The legions were a unique military construct.  The Empire was both inspiring and open to the sort of darkness that makes for good story-yelling.  Same for the Norse Gods.  And good historical fiction is fucking hard to do.  You have to find a story that fits your goals, or fit a story into the ambiguities and cracks in the historical record.  All while doing tons of research.  Or you could just create a “new” country in a fantasy world where that convenient but historically inaccurate river location just happens to exist, while all the other stuff is the same.  Where there’s no inconvenient “fact” to run your perfect plot idea.  After all, it’s just as hard to create a new living, breathing, believable world as it is to fit non-existent plots into our real world.

But, I’d argue, it’s a lot more interesting.  As I’ll discuss in the next post.

 

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I’m a Lazy Shit

Some of you may have gathered that I’m a lazy shit.  From the number of post series even with their own index page that never finished or even came to fruition.  I do in fact intend to get all of those up eventually, but I’m a lazy shit.  And some of them require serious research and planning and maybe even citation of sources, all of which I hate but the last of which I really hate.  Just ask my former Academic Advisor.  I’m more an off the cuff sort of person.  If you imagined this presents some major challenges to the goal of me ever having a story/book published, congrats.  You’re pretty sharp.

Anyway, for that reason, I will be trying to post on here more frequently, but in smaller bites to work my way up to having a stronger habit of consistency, which I hope will be beneficial to my fiction and also to those more ambitious series of posts sitting around the Chimney unfinished.

First up–today in fact!:

A world-building post on the challenges and answering techniques for creating a new and unique world not based on a set of previously existing Earth cultures.  Many of which are probably exocitized and stereotyped in your conception, particularly if you are a (white) Western European, or really any identity that isn’t a part of those cultures in general.  Fantasy versions of real-world cultures are fraught with risk, not just from cultural appropriation or downright racism, but from genre stereotypes, from lazy writing and characterization, from plain old old-hatted-ness.  But more on that in the post later today!

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2017 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Uncategorized

 

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The Problem with “Boy Books”

First, read this post by YA Author Justine Larbalestier: The Problem with Boy Books

I’ll wait.  It’s a very good post, and the parts I want to respond to are probably not the ones most would expect.

Unfortunately, comments on Justine’s post were closed, so I’m putting my response here on the Chimney.

I have a page here on the Chimney listing 200  YA/MG-ish books with male protagonists and/or authors.  For a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t made explicit on the page itself. For example, it makes the point that in fact there are many and even many good YA books with male protagonists and authors.

But to get to my thoughts on the whole “we need more YA books starring boys so boys will read” debate.  This argument, as Justine points out, makes several important assumptions, almost all of which are false.

  1. Boys don’t read.  Well, that’s obviously crap.  I read and I know many other folks of the male persuasion who do as well.   Not only now, but from back when many of us would have classified as YAs ourselves.
  2. Relatedly: we must solve this problem by getting boys to read YA.  Also crap.  Justine points  out that many boys do read, just not within the genre of YA.  The argument seems to be that YA books are for YAs, so if male YAs aren’t reading them, male YAs must not be reading.  Which is silly.  Although most YA lit focuses on YA (or lightly above) protagonists, sales data shows that the audience, whether intended target or not, is so much wider.  First, yes.  More female YAs read YA lit than male.  In fact, the readership appears to be drastically weighted towards females in all age categories.  So despite that settings and characters–and the blunt category label–I don’t think we can say that YA is lit for YAs, thus undermining the argument at issue here.
  3. A third assumption, which some might disagree about the truth of, is the assumption that we need boys to read more. Do we?  That depends on what value we believe/claim reading to have.  Is there some positive influence unavailable elsewhere that reading provides?  I certainly don’t claim to be able to prove either possible answer there.  But even without the full answer, the partial response we can rely on is that reading does have value and does provide some benefits, at least to some people.

 

I do have to disagree with Justine on one point: books do not have gender, sure.  But they have a target audience.  Just looking at the above-mentioned readership of YA, it’s clear that some books appeal more to certain people (and arguably groups) than others.  So in fact, there are “boy books” insomuch as marketing shows that  we can target our product and advertising towards specific groups we wish to cultivate as customers.  The underlying question is really whether there is cultural and individual to the reader value in such targeting. Most marketers and companies will naturally argue for the financial value to them.  Personally,as I suspect Justine does, I think there’s a great deal of value in having readers cross market category lines.  If we indirectly discourage boys from reading “girl books” by creating an opposing category of “boy books” and then hinting very strongly in our marketing that boys should read these in preference to girl books, we’re artificially preventing them from gaining the value of learning about different perspectives.

 

Now to address my points:

Boys do read.  They may not read YA, but as I say in point 2, that doesn’t mean they don’t read.  In fact, there’s a strong belief among the book-ish community that boys read a great number of Middle Grade books, and then generally mix in adult genre fiction over time as they age out of the middle grade category.  (It’s interesting to note that YA has a much wider practical audience compared to its supposed target audience than middle grade does, such that many readers never age out, or eve pick up the category later in life having not indulged when they were actually young adults.)  So there’s  no reason to artificially force some sort of supposed gender parity in YA publishing.  The fact that YA is less popular with boys does not as claimed equate to reading in general being less popular with boys.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy a broader array of male protagonists in YA, written by male authors or otherwise.  But keep in mind that I read over a hundred books a year, so it’s not that there’s necessarily a deficiency, but that I am an outlier, and further, no longer a young adult, thus somewhat disqualifying me from being a statistic at all.  (Though I read at the same pace when I was younger.)  Also, I had and have no trouble reading either female protagonists and authors or “girl” books, so again, still not an argument for forcing gender parity in main characters.

And speaking of consumption of alternate media, I don’t enjoy (fiction–or non-fiction, I suppose) books about sports.  But I love anime (and manga) that involves sports.  As Justine brings up early on, all boys are different.  Anecdotally, no amount of sports-themed boy-lead stories are going to automatically bring more males like me into reading YA.

 

I’m gonna now delve into the Go vs chess analogy in Justine’s post because as you probably know, I love both linguistics and AI.  It’s in some ways a brilliant analogy, since it captures the issue of ignorance on the part of the person criticizing YA as simplistic.  Although Go has far simpler tools and rules to play, it’s far more complex than chess in it’s play.  Words work similarly to games like Go and Chess in terms of the complexity of meaning that can be derived from very simple building blocks.  I took those stupid reading level tests in high school.  Scored too high to get any book recs.  As Justine points out, the complexity of stories come not from the quality of the words themselves, but  from how they are arranged.  Quality here being defined as conversational level words versus SAT words.  For example, I could have said  “verbiage” instead of words, but despite the fancy  vocab, the meaning is the same.  In fact, I could have given the same meaning with “Two-syllable words vs eight-syllable words.”  TL;DR: If your plot is simple, you can’t hide it beneath flowery prose.  So much more goes into a story than the grammar.

 

 

Finally, onto the third point.  Justine cites empathy as something that readers can gain from novels.  You’re more likely to get empathy from a competently written story about someone different from you than about someone much more similar to you. Similarity enforces rigidity in thinking, where as difference more often encourages flexibility.  So if we want boys to read more(they already read plenty accounting for non-gender-related factors!) because of what they gain from reading, then in fact forcing stereotypical gender parity is the opposite of the correct solution.  They might read more (they won’t!), but they’ll gain less.

 

*I’ve actually left out a few very interesting points Justine made in her own post, because I don’t currently have anything to add, and they are separate attacks on this myth from the ones I’ve chosen to address here.  But they are just as important!   Especially the point about general gender disparity in readership/charactergender/author gender  vs. YA specifically.

 

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Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.

 

Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.

 

Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.

 

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