Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Slow Reading The Lord of the Rings, part II

The Two Towers remains the volume of The Lord of the Rings I relish most, perhaps because in the context of my 'slow-reading' project it is not just a bridge between beginning and end but a wonderfully developed story on its own (though, when reading time is short, I start to question the length of the Treebeard passages).

The Two Towers is really two books, or two stories. One, a heroic epic, a tale of battles and strange encounters with magic and myths; the other, a more personal quest, a journey built around character and the subtle triangulation between Frodo, Sam and Gollum, and the delicate moral and practical choices imposed on them.

To my mind, the battle sequence around Helm's Deep is particularly fine, since Tolkien's epic view allows him to balance the movement of armies and great forces with personal struggle, and the action is expansive but never unclear. But what sticks for me in the slow reading is rather the brilliant confrontation with the defeated Saruman, for the voice of Saruman in the modern context represents the peril and corrupting power of political language, the elegant and insidious lie that worms its way into thought and cannot be stilled even in the midst of the destruction it has brought. Saruman is defeated, of course, but how many political Sarumans remain, still persuading us from the ruins of their towers?

The mountains of New Zealand and the paths, steps and ravines around Ithaca, NY are now permanently fused in my imagination when I think of the climb towards Cirith Ungol.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Worldbuilding and the maker's hand

Worldbuilding has been on my mind recently, following the AULLA Conference at The University of Queensland, this item on the '7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding' on, and my own efforts at shaping the world of my new novel, A Hangman for Ghosts.

Writers of speculative fiction are often positioned at the forefront of worldbuilding, encouraged to consider everything from consistency to tactile detail. The late Iain M. Banks was a masterful world builder because his worlds were vibrant, present and sturdy, and he could shift between them effortlessly. The Raven's Seal was also an effort in world-building for me, because the city and its society had characteristics that were critical to the mystery, but the true pleasure as a writer was to animate that world and make it feel like a lived experience rather than a static stage-set.

But as I argued recently in a paper at AULLA, I've come to suspect that worldbuilding in conformance to elaborate rules of procedure and solely in service of verisimilitude is in danger of making fictional worlds dull, prosaic, uninteresting even. Invented worlds can never be complete, and trying to catalogue all their features and account for all their internal mechanisms is a mere technical chore. The economy of Airenchester can't be found in micro-economics. The prison colony of A Hangman for Ghosts is not merely an administrative relic. Worlds come alive when we see them not as constructs, but as metaphors, figures, characters. This is something that Iain M. Banks understood implicitly, and this is what drew me to the complexities and wonder of worldbuilding in the first place.