The Impossible World of World Building

World building is writing hell. As incredible – even fun – as the idea might sound, it isn’t. By anything being possible, there is no place to start. Even if it seems like a matter of just picking and choosing and away you go, it isn’t. Not for me. While I might have the germ of an idea – such as using dark matter to fuel an inter-generational spaceship – fleshing that out is akin to chronic constipation. My writing practice is centered on the small things – an image or line of dialogue – and going out from there. It is an inductive approach to writing, finding the bits of evidence to create the whole, such as the serval image at the watering hole that begat My Bad Side.

Photo Credit: Michael Nichols, National Geographic

I didn’t know what that image meant at the time, but I knew it meant something and used it to find what might be next.

Building worlds demands the opposite to my approach to writing, a deductive method, going from the big picture to develop the small, focusing on time machines or warp drives, creating a story from those. This is what grinds my flow to a halt. If I can’t see where I am – the details of what it looks like to live on board a spaceship – I am perpetually stuck.

I got into the world of speculative fiction by accident. The protagonist in an earlier book, Dee Sinclair, stumbled ahead and wondered aloud if she might venture on to something else. As far-fetched as her world appeared at the time – a sex performer holed up with her pet serval – it was nothing compared to Greenland where she witnesses a fledgling world constructed before her eyes. This is the outset of Anori, the first book of The Cx Trilogy.

The crux of the speculative/sci-fi genre is world building, something beyond what we live in today. It isn’t just a matter of a propping up a couple of rocket ships and having characters walk about in space suits. Every detail has to be in tune. My most effective world building elements in Anori are Holoweb and Second Skin because they were simple to envision – a three-dimensional version of today’s internet and a spray-on fashion statement – and only a step ahead of what we have now.

I raised the world-building stakes in the second book of the trilogy, Aqaara, where Dee boards a generational spaceship bound for a planet light-years distant. Daily life aboard the spaceship took a long time to create, not just the details of the sleeping quarters and gatherings places but, more importantly, the mindset of leaving Earth to never return. I was in the Highlands of Scotland while mapping out this world, a far cry from outer space but at least isolated and quiet.

I planned the design of the ship while hiking, soaking wet, through the silence, but could not attain a genuine sense for what it felt like to live in this space, to sleep and eat, to lose all sense of time with a lunar or solar cycle, to see people every day – there was no day! – and to not know when, if ever, the journey might come to an end. That took another two drafts – in Puglia and then New York – to get it so it seemed like it really was so.

The final book, Mina, demands a literal new world. That’s where I am now. The temptation to settle for lunar landscapes and prehistoric beasts remains hard to resist. After all, what do I know about another planet’s flora and fauna? I have settled on a leopard seal/hedgehog hybrid as the creature atop of the food chain, as well as string of camera-stealing starlings. Who knows what the deep seas will offer? Something astonishing should happen soon.

My challenge with world building has given me pause. As transfixed as I can be in the fantastic landscapes of science fiction – where absolutely anything is possible – the writing craft must remain the focus. In other words, while the visions presented in this genre might be spell-binding, the characters, dialogue and construction of the narrative remain the foundation. My aim in writing The Cx Trilogy is to bridge the gap between literary fiction and speculative fiction, and not just build worlds but build worlds where we can literally picture ourselves alive and wondering. We will see what Dee’s progeny find next.

Oxy Thinking

I am now six weeks out of a double knee replacement which was made sless (slightly less) arduous because of the Oxycontin. It’s a very fine drug for many obvious reasons but mainly because it made me realize the silliness of thinking rational or, more to the point, the importance of slurtionality. That’s a word. I know it.

Anyway, what I want to say is that I came to understand things with my newfound thinking patterns, some very important things such as why Amy Klobuchar and Lois Griffin (the Family Guy wife) have the exact same voice. To understand the importance of understanding this, you only need to superimpose the voice on the girl from the Best Buy computer ads and see how many products would then be moved.

Oxy knowledge is also visual, surrendering such sparks as a metallic box of oily relics, a gurney that drifts to the left and the distinct memory of writing these things down, which means that the essential difference between spiritual and intellectual nausea is laid bare in Rachel Maddow’s speech patterns. (I know what you’re thinking.)

The point is that I’ve lost it. It’s all gone from my brain because I have weaned myself clean. All right, just one a day. Just the one! The point is that I see things right and true now. I believe in the Values and Beliefs committee even if they did find me guilty of things the chairwoman is guilty of (and not me). I’m good. She’s good too. All of them. And who really cares about any of that? We’ve all got other things on our minds.

Non-Fiction > Fiction

I can’t read fiction when I’m writing. I can’t read novels or short stories. I can barely watch a film. I can’t buy into any of it because it isn’t real. I know that someone made all of this stuff up, and so it isn’t interesting. More to the point, the fact that I know it is made up makes it irrelevant because it is untrue. My suspension of disbelief has been annihilated. Instead of the world being offered, I can only picture the writer plodding along, trying desperately to con me with turns of phrase and magic imagery but ultimately failing. I only see the artifice.

Even if I were to accept the falsity of the fiction, I obsess over the writer’s style. I focus solely on the literary devices and consider how I might employ the same tools myself. Whatever the reasoning, reading fiction is too distracting when I’m writing. And so I don’t do it. Read fiction that is.

Non-fiction is the only option, literally the only thing I can enjoy when I’m writing. The non-fiction author still has to be able to write, but this is more a craft than an art. Its primarily about the material, which is always interesting because it is real. This stuff actually happened. These people and places existed, simple as that. The content can be almost anything for me, anything from Krakatoa’s infamous 1883 eruption or the tragic history of the caviar industry to the life of Bobby Orr or the making of The Wizard of Oz. Whatever the story, they are filled with gems.

For a sense of theme, the big picture, as it were, I am reading Sue Prideaux’s description of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing of Also Sprach Zarathustra in her book, I Am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche: At some moment in prehistory, Nietzsche conjectures, there arose some specific practice that was bad for the community. It led to the imposition of punishment. This was the moment of the construction of morality. Burdened with bad conscience, we turned against ourselves in misery and self-loathing. Man ‘is like an animal who batters himself raw on the bars of his cage.’ The antidote to this slave morality is the Ubermensch, the free, affirmative, independent spirit. The moral quality of this higher man is driven by his life force, his will to power. (273-4)

For a sense of place, I found a clear portrait in Margaret Horsfield’s Cougar Annie’s Garden: The chill of winter can be piercing here, for cold air flows down from the mountains at night, settles damp and low in the garden, trapped by the forest all around. Even on clear winter evenings, a bank of mist flowing over the mountains is a common sight, cold air streaming down to hover low in the garden where ground frost can be sharp and boardwalks icy. (80-1)

Characters are everywhere – at work, on the subway in the pharmacy – but it is always interesting to see them rendered in non-fiction, what details are developed, what action highlighted. In Natalie McLennan’s auto-biography, The Price: My Rise and Fall of Natalia as New York’s #1 Escort, the details she offers are all the better because they are matter-of-fact: As the weeks went on, days and nights got more and more frenetic. I’d fly to Florida for a four-day appointment, come back and immediately do a ten-hour appointment, followed by another two-hour job. I’d then sleep five hours and start all over again. I spent about $100 per day on cabs. There’s nothing sexy about arriving to an appointment smelling like the Canal Street Subway station. Oh, and those fuck-me shows are definitely not made for walking. My body was all lean muscle from copious sex and lack of food. (60-1)

For my latest work, Mina, set on a distant undiscovered planet, I am looking out for tales from the edge, where creatures beyond our imagination roam. Nathaniel Philbrick offers his well-researched version of the white whale attacking the ship in In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.The whale began snapping its jaws and thrashing the water with its tail, as if distracted with rage and fury. With its huge scarred head halfway out of the water and its tail beating the ocean into a white-water wake more than forty feet across, the whale struck the ship just beneath the port bow. No longer going backward, the Essex was now going down. (82-3)

The Ten Directors You Should Know (and Watch)

A limited number of filmmakers have garnered world-wide acclaim through a definitive style and understanding of the medium. These range from the American Giants (such as John Ford, Stanley Kubrick & Martin Scorsese) and Independents (Paul Thomas Anderson, Terence Malick & Spike Jonze) to International Visionaries (Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni & Andrei Tarkovsky).

The following is a list of directors whose work has been equally vital and vivid and yet often overlooked. In other words, these are the filmmakers who you might not know but should:

Agnes Varda, France

Style: French New Wave, personal, human and direct

Quote: If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes.

Key Films: La Pointe Courte (1955) Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), The Gleaners and I (2001)

John Boorman, UK/USA

Style: New American, raw and intuitive

Quote: I think they’re all bold films, for better or worse.

Key Films: Deliverance (1972), Excalibur (1981) & Hope and Glory (1987)

Jim Jarmusch, USA

Style: Eclectic, character based & banal dialogue

Quote: I talk kind of slowly. I think slowly. I like slow music. I like slow films.

Key Films: Down by Law (1986), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995) & Paterson (2016)

Michael Haneke, Austria

Style: Spare and metaphoric

Quote: How much can I not spell out when constructing a film and still not frustrate the audience?

Key Films: The Seventh Continent (1989), White Ribbon (2009) & Amour (2012)

Jafar Panahi, Iran

Style: Quietly defiant, personal and spare

Quote: I have a tendency to make “film time” the same as “real time”.

Key Films: The Mirror (1997), This is not a Film (2011) & Taxi (2015)

Bruce Sweeney, Canada

Style: Lost, uncertain and unresolved

Quote: I have a lot of anxieties and insecurities.

Key Films: Dirty (1998) & Last Wedding (2001)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium

Style: Working class, responsible and realistic

Quote: Film helps you think and reflect. It’s a quiet kind of conversation.

Key Films: The Son (2002), The Child (2005), Two Days, One Night (2015)

Susanne Bier, Denmark

Style: Influenced by Dogme 95, unblinking focus on relationships

Quote: You can’t be ashamed of big emotions if you make movies.

Key Films: Open Hearts (2002), After the Wedding (2007) & In a Better World (2010)

Lynn Ramsay, Scotland

Style: Brooding, personal and challenging

Quote: You’ve got to stick up for what you believe in. If you don’t do that, you’re doing a disservice to the audience.

Key Films: Morvern Caller (2002), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) & You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan

Style: Meditative focus on family dynamics

Quote: You can no longer interpret the true value or purpose of family based on the antiquated traditional tropes of society.

Key Films: Like Father, Like Son (2013), After the Storm (2016) & Shoplifters (2018)