THE DEMI-MONDE: BUILDING A BESPOKE WORLD
Funnily enough I began ‘world building’ without realising that this is what I was doing but then being a novice writer I suppose I started the whole of the writing process without realising what I was doing.
World building is the term applied to the exercise undertaken by all Science Fiction and Fantasy writers involving the creation of a believable and coherent backdrop – be it an alien world, a dystopian future or an alternative reality – to dress the stage upon which the writer’s fictional thespians can perform. And its purpose is just the same as scenery; to allow the audience to more easily suspend disbelief and willingly to enter the counterfeit world of the writer’s imagination, a world (hopefully) made so speciously plausible, so consistent, so logical, and so precise that the reader is persuaded to think...well, why not.
The counterfeit world I built is the Demi-Monde. Most of the action of my book ‘The Demi-Monde: Winter’ (and the subsequent books in the series) takes place in a virtual world - the eponymous Demi-Monde - built for the US Military to train their neoFights – grunts – in the arts necessary to survive and triumph in an asymmetric war environment. The Demi-Monde itself is a circular, sealed world divided into five mutually antagonistic and disparate Sectors – disparate in terms of race, religion and religion – the whole realm locked, technology-wise, into a Victorian mindset. One other wrinkle: I’d seeded into this world what I call Singularities, these the digital duplicates of some of the most vicious and evil characters from history – Heydrich, Beria, Robespierre, Shaka Zulu, to name a few – the intention being that these psychopaths would provide each Sector with suitably perverted leadership.
So far so improbable.
Okay, so how did I begin my world building career? By drawing up a map. Maps are essential both to orientate both the author and, more importantly, his or her readers through this world of the imagination. In my case I wanted a sealed world – a closed system – in order that I could explore certain ideas I had about the deterministic nature of the human condition, so I fretted long and hard about what shape to make the world. The circular world thingy had been done before but because I wanted my world divided into five Sectors and because I had given it a militaristic cast I was drawn to having it pentagonal in shape (the Pentagon, geddit?). It soon became obvious why the round shape is so popular: depending where you stand on the circumference the external borders of a polygon are at differing distances from the centre and this can be confusing, especially for someone as non-spatial as me...I could get lost in a one-way street. So finally, reluctantly, I opted for the cliché – but geometrical convenience - of a circular world.
Right, map drawn, now I needed to ensure that the physical parameters of my virtual world were consistent and coherent. In my book the Demi-Monde was created by a publicity-shy corporation called ParaDigm CyberResearch so I had the idea of replicating the brochure ParaDigm used when it was first pitching its product to the US Military. This turned out to be a Good Idea. As these sort of documents can’t be woolly and vague the act of describing the cyber nuts and bolts of the Demi-Monde really crystallised my thinking. I had to define how the rivers of the Demi-Monde flowed, what the weather was like during the various seasons, how the waste and sewerage created by my Dupes was collected and disposed of, in fact all the minutiae that is needed to make an make-believe and somewhat unbelievable world, well, believable.
The other great benefit derived from this exercise was that it obliged me to decide what would be the ‘Areas of Tension’ built into the Demi-Monde that would provoke the five Sectors to be continually at each other’s throats, after all, for a war simulation the last thing the designers wanted was peace breaking out. And the Areas of Tension I chose were those I thought would be simultaneously the most fun for me as a writer to explore and the most provocative: to paraphrase Mr Bennet, what are the foibles of the human race for, if not to be made sport of. So I finally decided upon to make the inter-Sector antagonisms to stem from differences in race, religion, gender and sexual orientation...and the greatest of these was religion.
The religions I developed for the Demi-Monde - UnFunDaMentalism, ImPuritanism, HerEticalism, HimPerialism, RaTionalism, nuJuism and Confusionism - are merely the religions of our world stretched and distorted to breaking point, my belief being that only by showing a belief system in extremis is it possible to see it as it really is. Reductio ad absurdum and all that. I’d love the Demi-Monde series to be remembered for its satirical aspect. Satire is the way a belief system is stress tested. It is essential, if a society is to flourish that it is open, free of censorship and one in which everything and everyone can be criticised in a rational manner; the concept of a loyal opposition is one I subscribe too. Of course, for a writer this is treacherous ground, as Jonathan Swift, said, "satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.'
But I digress.
Finally, I my world building brought me to the selecting of the historical characters I would use to flavour the Demi-Monde, my psychopathic Singularities. And reading about them the one thing that struck me about these high-performing über-psychopaths is how stone cold evil they were; totally without empathy, without compassion and without remorse. Unfortunately our PC-world refuses to accept that there is such a thing as undiluted wickedness – nowadays everybody has to have some redeeming feature, has to possess some humanity - but I wanted to write about these bastards as they actually were, flat-out evil. Okay, that might make them, to modern folk, a little pantomime-esque but, folks, that is how they were.
So now I had my stage, my script and my players...enough to write my book, but in today’s internet-driven world that ain’t enough and this, I suppose, is the real purpose of this essay. Thanks to the internet, factual reality (if that isn’t tautology I don’t know what is) and fictional reality (a wonderful contradiction in terms) are merging. BI (Before Internet) the imaginary was distinct and readily distinguishable from the real. AI (After Internet) this separation is blurring. For instance some individuals operating on the web take the names and personae of celebrities (living and dead), so much so that it is almost impossible for the veracity of the real celebrity’s cyber doodlings to be accepted or even established. And as even the most spaced-out wacko has the same ability to spout his or her nonsense on the web as do 'normal' people everything on the internet has to be taken with several grains of salt, because everything has a veneer of cyber-credulity. Consider Wiki, the most used reference resource in the world. Wiki has become so adulterated by mischievous editing that every time you use it you have to question whether what you are reading has been infected by nonsense.
The result is that as time has passed - as the Internet has becoming increasingly all-pervasive - fantasy has begun to merge with reality. On the Internet reality and surreality, fact and fiction, rumour and truth have to co-exist but they can’t do this without contaminating each other. The result is sort of nu-reality - a faux-reality - which is simultaneously truth and lies. There was a nice phrase in a recent article in the Sunday Times by Camille Paglia about Lady Gaga (‘What’s Sex Got to do with It?’) which said ‘In the sprawling anarchy of the web, the borderline between fact and fiction has melted away’.
Oh, the idea of reality and make-believe become malleable and interchangeable is not new (Orwell explored this to great effect in '1984') but what is different today is that it is so easy to do. The real world and the cyber-world are becoming increasingly intertwined, creating a Gordian Knot of competing realities which are often impossible to disentangle.
And this process of merger has hardly begun.
In the future fact and fiction will become increasingly indistinguishable and this change has profound implications for writers. As I see it in the future, not only will truth and fiction conflate but so will all media, coalescing into one enormous cyber-continuum, the distinction between films, videogames, comic books, music, images and the written word blurring and finally disappearing. Even now there is an enormous overlap, this driven by the fact that now the audience has come to join the players on stage. Thanks to social networking, the audience is now part of the creative process.
And the implications of having the audience as a creative partner are profound: my suspicion is that today’s proto-reader is - and increasingly will be - looking for an altogether more immersive (dare I say, a more visceral) experience than one which can be found within the covers of a printed book. They will want to explore the backgrounds of their favourite characters, be able (especially with the SF and fantasy genres) to make a deeper, almost forensic examination of the world the writer has created, they will want to interact with the characters and with each other, they will want to see the writer’s visualisation of his or her book and, most importantly, they will want to become involved. This nuReader will want all his or her senses engaged and like it or not it will become incumbent on writers to create worlds and characters which transcend the printed word. This will be the only way they will be able to persuade a cyber-savvy generation to suspend disbelief.
Of course, appreciating this doesn’t make it any easier for a writer. My own modest step was the creation of the Demi-Monde website (www.thedemi-monde.com), this designed to allow my readers the opportunity of immersing themselves more fully in my virtual world and to better understand the nuances and detail that can only (because of considerations of pace and length) be alluded to in the book.
One small step, but an important one ‘cos if you don’t embrace the revolution that is upon us you’ll be in danger of being swept away by it. Just as the lust for spectacle engendered by Cinemascope ramped up the cost of film-making which in turn reduced the number of films Hollywood churned out and just as the need to promote bands on MTV made a costly-to-make video essential to the launch of a band and hence fewer being signed, so the need for a book to be transformed into an eye-popping e-book (paper is so last year, darling), this accompanied by an all-singing and dancing web-site, a film tie-in and a computer game down-load will ultimately mean less and less money will be available to finance new writers. Marketing will become king in the publishing world.
For world builders, life is going to get a lot tougher...and a lot more interesting.