BEING THERE

by Peadar O Guilin

Continuity matters in a movie and it’s not hard to understand why. When a car appears in the background of The Lord of the Rings, or Dorothy’s hair changes length between one shot of The Wizard of Oz and the next, the magic of the story dies just a little. For a moment, we viewers forget about Sauron or the Wicked Witch. We look around in bewilderment. Middle Earth has faded. Oz is but a memory and all that remains is the smell of coagulating butter on stale popcorn and the realization that we’re getting up early tomorrow to work on the project from hell.

This is not what we came for. We want nothing less than full immersion, because there are few pleasures greater than losing yourself in a fictional world. You surrender to it completely, allowing it to throw you around its many twists and turns, or to lull you into momentary carelessness before the mists part and you gasp in wonder at the Emerald City rising before you. Later, having left the cinema, or having set aside your book to sleep or to work, the story lingers. What would it be like to wake up with ace powers? To find your skin had become transparent with all your organs on view? 

Sadly, not every story can hook you in like that, and it’s not just because of continuity errors.

The older I get and the more I work on my own writing, the harder it becomes to immerse myself in another author’s world. But it still happens. Many creators out there have mastered the arts of immersion sufficiently to draw me in and to keep me spellbound. In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the techniques they use, taking special notice of the unique advantages enjoyed by the Wild Cards Universe (WCU).

Engaging with another person’s imagination requires work on the part of the audience. There’s a lot of mental effort involved in those opening scenes. Where am I? What’s a Takisian? And why the hell is there a talking walrus here all of a sudden? 

We swallow as much of this as we can, knowing we’ll learn the rules soon enough and knowing too — this bit is vital! — that the authors putting us through all of this won’t make fools of us and will obey the rules that they themselves have insisted on.  Painfully Honest Joan from chapter 6 can’t start telling lies in chapter 8 just because the author wants a plot twist. And there’s no way Beer Belly Bill can fit through that tiny window without causing half the readership to throw the book across the room.

Our mental effort continues as we collaborate with the author to maintain the illusion of the story. In some ways it’s like trying to hang onto a lovely dream after the alarm goes off. We readers are not really in Narnia. We’re not running through 1940s New York City with Jetboy flying overhead. It’s all an illusion, gossamer thin, endangered by the slightest breeze. Every word on the page, every action or figure of speech needs to be shoring it up. 

That’s where the author comes in. She builds the world around us as we walk through it, but she can only do that well if it feels as real to her as she wants it to feel to us. She needs to respect the world, to accept it on its own terms.

For example, my first novel, The Inferior, was written from the point of view of a cannibal tribesman. The first draft was full of words like “minute” and “hour” and other measurements of time that had absolutely no place in his technologically primitive world. It was also full of disgust at the idea of hunting intelligent beings for food. 

These were my thoughts, however, and not those of my protagonist. The truly immersive quality of the story only began to emerge when I purged the script of my own prejudices and embraced his viewpoint instead.

All authors need to do this, to absorb the rules of the world they are building. For example, if every character can fly or teleport, why do ladders exist? Teleportation should have consequences or why bother? The same goes for every other rule: a dropped cup must break or bounce; a slapped face must smart; a twisted ankle on page fifty leads to a poor performance in the fight that follows on fifty-one.

Otherwise, it’s like the movie scene of a storm where the actor’s hair never so much as ruffles. We might snigger at the ridiculousness of it, but the joke’s on us as we waste our time with a creative team that just doesn’t care.

While consequences are vital, audiences happily forgive some lapses more than others. Sometimes we choose books on the basis of which anachronisms we are willing to accept. This is especially true in the speculative genres.

Many science fiction enthusiasts are fascinated at how the technology introduced into a story will ripple out to affect the rest of the world. For example, the fact that people can occupy different bodies in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and its sequels leads to all kinds of interesting consequences, from the new difficulties introduced in committing murder, to the way an individual can use their immortality to concentrate wealth and so on. It would be — should be — impossible for any society or culture to remain unaffected by such a technological miracle.

In spite of this, a whole class of books exist that I call, “White Picket Fence Science Fiction”. In these stories astonishing advances occur, but the society remains untouched. People still watch TV and attend baseball games and eat apple pie and drive around in the sort of cars that have already been superseded in the real world, let alone in the story.

As a lover of “real” SF, I can never get to the end of one of these books, but they sell well all the same, because many readers are in search of something that is both familiar and slightly different. They want something that contains cool tech without turning their world into a bewildering alien hellscape. Either they can’t imagine the implications of the technical innovations or they don’t want to. The lack of a ripple is part of the suspension of disbelief that they signed up to when they bought the book. However, this does not mean that they won’t flip a lid if any of the other rules are broken. If a character changes their personality between one paragraph and the next, they will certainly want to know why!

As a shared universe with many different creators, it might seem at first as if Wild Cards is going to suffer badly from the problems of loss of immersion. The more cooks there are, the more theories there are for how a broth should be made. Perhaps each will demand their own list of incompatible ingredients, while one drunken chef will seek to enhance the flavour by bathing in it. 

Luckily, this very issue was foreseen by George R. R. Martin back at the beginning. He took careful note of the conflicts that arose in previous shared worlds, especially Thieves World, the mother of many modern shared universes, and he learned that even with a strong editorial hand at the helm, creative rivalries might eventually sink the entire series.

And so, as part of the initial set-up, two particularly consequential rules were adopted: 

1) authors would be strongly encouraged to use characters created by other writers, and 

2) any scene they wrote with somebody else’s ace or joker, had to be vetted by the original creator.

These two simple rules have made WCU what it is today. And they’re not just a way to force cooperation on wayward creatives, because crucially, they also work to strengthen the immersiveness of the worldbuilding. Rule number 2, in particular, is what I think of as the “Wild Cards immune system”, protecting a decades-long body of work from continuity errors.

No single human being can remember every twist and turn that has occurred in the story since 1987, nor every mannerism used by an army of characters. But when I recently sent Captain Flint running through 1980s Belfast, his creator, Kevin Andrew Murphy, made sure I didn’t deviate from the Captain’s speech patterns or, more importantly, his sense of honour.

This process became even more important in the forthcoming mosaic novel, Three Kings, where I needed permission for my insane war goddess, Badb, to do something unspeakably awful to another ace. However, although this attack inflicted physical damage, the integrity of that victim’s character was never harmed. It all made sense, because the person who knew the character best, was always on hand to keep them consistent.

But, as we will see, the first rule, the one that requires authors to play with each others’ characters is also highly beneficial in maintaining the reality of the world.

Earlier in this post, I pointed out that nothing undermines your worldbuilding more than actions without consequences. If the bat hits the ball, then that ball had better go somewhere! Rain should soften the soil and if your protagonist’s partner leaves the toilet seat up, well, he’ll be spending the night on the sofa. By contrast, however, each time my character interacts with a person from another story, they anchor each other in time and space and both become more real as a result.

And it’s not just about people affecting each other. They interact with the physical world too, leaving their mark on it, even as it changes them. The WCU takes that part very seriously indeed. That’s why, in contrast to other superhero universes, WCU doesn’t do reboots. Time is real. The passage of years ages our heroes, or heals them, or turns them cynical. Old wounds become scars and fears. And when a character dies, they leave headstones and memories behind them, or even the odd plot twist…

And because time is “real”, our heroes get to change it — no white picket fences here! WCU history has diverged from ours, more and more as the years have gone by. Whole countries have had revolutions led by living “gods” or “prophets”. Presidents and monarchs have felt the cold touch of the Black Queen.  This is not Springfield where everything resets at the end of an episode.

Apart from acting as an “immune system”, having a large collection of authors brings other obvious advantages too. For a start, there is the constant renewal of the franchise that takes place every time rookie writers are recruited. Their differing backgrounds and passions add to the variety of the stories and characters produced. As the real world changes around us, the younger authors who are “native” to more recent decades, keep the WCU from feeling dated. 

And then, of course, there is the Gnarl.

This is a word used by Science Fiction writer Rudy Rucker. In his own personal lexicon, gnarl means “a level of complexity that lies in the zone between predictability and randomness.” 

Have you ever played one of those free-roaming video games and noticed how there are only five different tree shapes that repeat again and again throughout the whole forest? The same goes for rocks and for the rough walls of a dungeon. We accept that computing has limitations, and that it isn’t currently possible for every last blade of grass in Zelda to look unique. But we know it’s not normal and that if this repetition were reflected in the real world around us, it would freak us out, because nature doesn’t do that. A tree is similar enough to its fellows for us to recognize it, but different enough to be an individual. The same goes for grass and rocks, dogs, people, clouds and manticores. And this is the very definition of gnarl. It is the difference between lego and actual clay bricks from a kiln.

Multiple authorial viewpoints come with a veritable wealth of gnarl. Even if we authors all tried to sound the same, to give our stories the exact same feel, we wouldn’t be able to do it. When you wander through the WCU, no two trees will ever be identical, and believe me, that’s how our subconscious prefers it.

So, there you have it: a brief guide to immersion insofar as it pertains to the WCU. I’m not going to pretend that anachronisms are completely absent, or that nobody’s hair changes length in the space of a scene. Mistakes happen even with such eagle-eyed editors as George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. However, when that “immune system” kicks in and authors fight tooth and nail to defend their various creations, when the rules ensure that characters constantly ground each other in “reality” by interacting, the readers can relax and allow the story to sweep them away.

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