Monday, 29 July 2019

You Wankher! Or, Glimpsed-at Worldbuilding

Having read City of the Chasch a long time ago, I've recently moved on to the second volume in Jack Vance's "Planet of Adventure" series - Servants of the Wankh. (Apparently the title was changed in later editions to Servants of the Wannekh to avoid embarassment for readers in the Commonwealth. I have an old pulp paperback version from 1975, so mine has the original title; I have to try to keep it hidden when reading it on the train lest people think I'm reading some sort of xenophilic alien porn story. But I digress.)

Jack Vance had a tin ear for proper nouns in alien languages - his approach seems to have involved just putting jumbles of consonants and vowels together. Pnume, Phung, Dirdir, Coad, Az, Braz...they sound a bit like the kind of species and place names an 11-year old invents. But other than that, it's astonishing how much of an interesting vibe there is to his worldbuilding, for want of a better word. These books are each about 150 pages long and the action is typically Vance-paced and lickety-split. One doesn't get the impression he spent a long time plotting them, or thinking about the world of Tschai in a deep and meaningful way.

But nonetheless, it does manage to feel deep regardless. I think this is because of his expert use of what I'm going to christen Glimpsed-at Worldbuilding - a way of referring obliquely to places, races and things that will never come up again in the story but make the world seem very complicated, rich, and lived-in. Take this section, for instance:

Coad was a busy town. Along the crooked streets, in and out of the ale-coloured sunlight, moved men and women of many castes and colours: Yellow Islanders and Black Islanders, Horasin bark-merchants muffled in grey robes; Caucasoids such as Traz from the Aman Steppe; Dirdirmen and Dirdir-men hybrids; dwarfish Sieps from the eastern slopes of the Ojzanalai who played music in the streets; a few flat-faced white men from the far south of Kislovan. The natives, the Tans, were an affable fox-faced people, with wide polished cheek bones, pointed chins, russet or dark brown hair cut in a ledge across the ears and foreheads. Their usual garments were knee-length breeches, embroidered vest, a round black pie-plate hat. Palanquins were numerous, carried by short gnarled men with oddly long noses and stringy black hair: apparently a race to themselves; Reith saw them in no other occupation. Later he learned them to be natives of Grenie at the head of the Dwan Zher.... Once Traz grabbed his elbow and pointed to a pair of thin men in loose black trousers, black capes with tall collars all but enveloping their faces, soft cylindrical black hats with wide brims: caricatures of mystery and intrigue. "Pnumekin!" hissed Traz in something between shock and outrage. "Look at them! They walk among other men without a look aside, and their minds full of strange thinking!"

This is easily caricatured as akin to the Mos Eisley cantina, but the crucial difference between what Vance is doing here and what Lucas was doing in that scene in Star Wars is that here you get those little extra snippets of pseudo information - names, places - that give the reader a sense that there really is an authentic world out there rather than just a lot of extra puppets and costumes in the studio. These are like tiny little amuses-bouches for the imagination: what's a Siep? What are Yellow Islanders? What's the Dwan Zher and why are the natives of Grenie rushing around with palanquins? You hope you'll find out, but at the same time you're almost happier not to, so that you can imagine for yourself.

I also think it's pretty clear that Vance was making this stuff up as he went along - he probably didn't have the answers for any of those questions yet either, until and unless they became significant. As a way of worldbuilding I think that's surprisingly effective: it makes things seem somehow untidy and illogical, which is of course precisely how the real world (and presumably real "worlds" if they indeed exist).

Pulling this off as a DM is not easy, because it places a lot of strain on one's creativity, but also rewarding: eventually, the PCs might want to find out the answers to those questions, and you're going therefore to have to decide for yourself what a Siep is, where the Yellow Islands are, and all the rest of it. But that's going to be fun for you too - which, let's face it, is all that really matters.

21 comments:

  1. I think you get this from Tolkien as well. A glimpse of a richer fabric of history. The difference is that Tolkien name-dropped just as casually, but had worked out all the backing detail to his own satisfaction.

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    1. I feel like Tolkien went more in the reverse; coming up with complicated background details, and then conceiving "glimpsed-at" tags to hang them onto.

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    2. Agreed. LoTR starts in the 3rd Age, just as Star Wars starts with Episode 4. Lucas said at the time, "that because that's where all the action is" (and was right).

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    3. Yeah, I was thinking about Tolkien when writing the post - maybe the only example of an author who, having gone to the trouble of designing an entire world in detail, DIDN'T then feel the urge to show it off.

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  2. Agreed on all points. And I would say that this is the primary problem with the sci-fi/fantasy franchise-building pop culture we're experiencing at the moment: it has absolutely no stomach for this kind of glimpsing, because the producers have learned that if you instead connect every dot and make an elaborate backstory for every extra who runs through the background of a shot, there are a thousand fanboys out there who will gobble it all up.

    Thus, instead of sprawling, overwhelming, exotic settings full of mystery and discovery, we instead get a world like that of the Star Wars franchise which is populated by all of about a dozen characters, all of whom are related to each other and are responsible for everything that has ever happened in the universe, sitting in a tiny room, breathing each other's oxygen and staring at each other for a thousand years. Somehow between 1977 and 2019 Star Wars went from the Mos Eisley Cantina to Gormenghast (but in a bad way). And that's the template for every modern franchise: everyone is connected to everyone and everything, and you just keep recycling the same ten people and the same ten tropes and rebooting and sequeling and prequeling the same goddam story, over and over, forever.

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    1. That's very true. At the same time, though, I think the film-makers got something wrong the other way. They confined the cast but expanded the background - so that we meet the same characters but rarely meet examples of the same space-faring species.

      Bumping into the same individuals is tiresome, but I think the sense of a coherent universe would have been strengthened by having more Walrusmen, more Greedos, more Bossks, more Hammerheads and more Snaggleteeth. Instead, we got an infinite expansion of space-faring species but with a few exemplars of some of them cropping up again and again.

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    2. Both of you are so right.

      Having gone one a bit of a Next Gen binge lately, I also have come to appreciate the "glimpsing" of the galaxy going on in that show.

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  3. I've always liked Vances naming whether it's characters, places or creatures. Somehow they work for me. Wanhk being a rare exception!

    I totally agree on the throwaway details. Vance has a real knack for distilling a lot of setting information into only a few paragraphs. This was first seen in the Dying Earth stories but gradually crept into all his work. He also started using made up in-universe quotes from various works (implying that these literary works exist somewhere) and footnotes. As world-building it was pretty much smoke and mirrors compared to Tolkien but because of this seems a lot closer to what we do running RPGs.

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    1. Yep, definitely. Doing smoke and mirrors badly is one thing, but doing it well is a genuine skill.

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  4. Vance is the master of this. Things like the "captive erb" at the start of The Eyes of the Overworld are terrific. I can't remember if erbs were ever discussed in later Dying Earth books, but there was really no need if so.

    It's the world-building equivalent of 'economy of line'.

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    1. It has been too long since I've read the Dying Earth books - will have to re-read them at some point soon.

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  5. I love China Mièville's ability in this. And like, some of the time it's a poetic allusion, some other times it's these world glimpses, then other times it actually blooms into full vivid detail

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    1. You're right - I'm not sure if I've ever read Mieville referencing Vance, but I do wonder if he was an influence.

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  6. Wankh isn't so bad if the latter part is pronounced like Ankh. I can recommend the tribute anthology Songs of the Dying Earth for other author's attempts at mimicking his style.

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    1. It's more how it looks on the page!

      I bought that anthology as a present for a friend but have never read it myself.

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  7. Of course that's one thing that makes DMing hard. As an author you know that those random asides can stay as random aside and not put too much thought into them, as a DM you have no clue which random asides the players are going to attach themselves to like lamprays.

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    1. True, but that tends to make it more fun, I think. It forces you to be on your toes, true, but also keeps things fresh - it's fun for the DM to be surprised too!

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  8. While this is a very good post - and indeed, it's a style of worldbuilding I've tried to draw upon as a DM - I feel it's unfair to contrast this technique against Star Wars. In fact, I had always considered Star Wars to be a go-to example of it. The movies are full of little references and namedrops that are never explained, but allude to a much larger, deeper, and stranger universe than anything we see on screen and make the setting feel more real in having details beyond what's relevant to the story. What's the Kessel Run? What is Tosche Station, and how does one use the power converters you buy there? What are binary load-lifters, and why was Owen so insistent that his droid speak Bocce? What did happen between Han and the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell? What's Ord Mantell, for that matter? Why was Vader so insistent that Boba Fett not use any disintegrations? It took us over twenty years to even find out how the Jedi Order functioned, or how Vader brought it down, or what the Clone Wars were. Sure, later works answered all these things - but anyone watching the movies when they first came out would hear these references without any context, and their imagination was left to fill in the gaps. We wouldn't have the Expanded Universe writers answering these questions if they didn't wonder about what they meant in the first place - just as you describe a DM looking to detail things the players might ask about.

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    1. That's a fair comment. George Lucas did do a good job with that in the original Star Wars. It's just the Mos Eisley cantina scene isn't I think a good example of it.

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    2. I think the problem with the Cantina scene isn't with the scene itself. It's that it sold a LOT of action figures based on these glimpsed aliens. And marketing considerations then trumped world-building ones going forward.

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    3. Yeah, I heard that too - there is a good episode of GGTG on it from a while ago: https://geeksguideshow.com/2014/11/20/ggg126-the-business-of-star-wars/

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