November 14, 2005

Po.... bre mio.

Mike Doughty is moving to Portland... why can't I?

I'm attempting to pick up reading Red Earth and Pouring Rain where I left off a few months ago. Somehow right near the end of the Book of Blood and Journeys, before the Book of Revenge and Madness (this book goes in for dramatic titles), I just stalled out and didn't want to read it any more. I got myself more or less re-oriented and read a good long piece of it on BART today, and I'm enjoying it. But there's still something happening that always happens to me when I read anything set in a remotely real world -- yes, I am still talking about the book narrated by a typing monkey born of the union of a woman and a piece of candy. All the same, typing monkeys and sugar-conception are remarkable phenomena in this setting. It's the ordinary actual world with strange and mystical events happening in it, not an invented fantasy or science fiction world, and this is the problem for me.

Zach mentioned world-building today, which explains a lot about my taste in books. My interest in stories has always been tied to the degree to which I can use them as backgrounds for personal fantasies. As a kid, I absolutely always had my head occupied primarily with some elaborate invented life based on the setting of something I'd read, and secondarily with things like what my feet were doing and was it dinnertime (the fact that I occasionally addressed family pets by entirely the wrong name has led to my persistent fear that I will someday call Jacob something which I will be forced to explain). I can't tell you how many years I spent mentally inhabiting Xanth, the USS Enterprise, the Tsurani Empire, and Redwall. Most of them so far, really. If I could find a plausible place for myself in a given setting, I'd devour the book several times to get all the details right and then walk around writing myself into it. If I didn't find a way that I wanted to fit into the story or the world, I wasn't interested.

I now permanently inhabit an outlandish soap opera that doesn't contain any literal magic, monsters, or yet-uninvented technology, but my need to have fictional worlds defined for me persists. This is not to say that the worlds necessarily have to be unreasonable or unreal, but they do have to be built. They have to be wholly envisioned and laid out -- how do people talk, what do they eat, what do they look like, how do they travel, what do they wear, was this always what they ate and wore, oh, why not, give me the whole story, what is their political organization, their religion, what else controls them, what can and can't they do, where are all of these places, no, really, where, draw me a map, can you get over there from over here?, why not, hasn't anyone tried, and so on -- all the billions of things that you really have to figure out if you're creating a fantasy (and in that I include the future worlds of sci-fi) world from scratch or even from pieces. The problem comes in with the fact that the real world is more or less known. It isn't necessary to specify that grass grows from the ground up and is green, because everyone knows that. So it's rarely explained. The loving appendices full of details and no, listen, there's this other thing I came up with and it's cool and has internal logic -- those are generally absent in works set in reality.

Based on that fact, I've learned to regard reality as something tedious that doesn't make for good books. I get this twitchy restlessness when I'm trying to read a book set in a world that doesn't require exhaustive explanation. Yes, yes, the boy who swallows a whole set of movable type is remarkable, but when you say he had to wash the ink off of his skin, did he take a shower or sit in a bathtub? Did they have bathtubs there? Private bathrooms? Public ones? Maybe a river? Where was he living? Okay, the letters clicked in his stomach when he lay down to sleep, but if I can't picture the room in which he slept, how far it was from his home, whether he paid rent on it and to whom, who else lived there with him, what the blankets looked like and what they were made of, and what he had for breakfast before he ate the letters (and I can't picture any of these things because they're going on in India, which you the author know well enough not to describe but I don't know well enough to imagine), then why the hell are you telling me any of this?!

I have to tear myself away from these lines of thinking and remind myself to pay attention to the story even though the backdrops have holes in them, and that's when I get twitchy. So, to return to my original point, Red Earth and Pouring Rain is very good, but I'm always hesitating to pick it up and read. It doesn't have room for me; the world just isn't defined enough that I feel inclined to make space for myself. Mom, the story won't scoot over and it's on my side.

Posted by dianna at November 14, 2005 07:50 PM

Xanth! So you spent a good part of your childhood in a magical version of Florida? I always remember feeling vaguely cheated when I visited relatives in real Florida. Nobody here has even one magical power! Where's Wizard Humphrey's Castle? And wasn't there supposed to be something in the middle of the state? Something really big that I can't quite put my finger on?

I remember trying to explain the plot to A Spell for Chameleon to my mom, about how everyone has a magical power, but Bink doesn't appear to, but really his power is subtle and powerful and hard to articulate. This caused my mom to get a suspicious look and ask "It isn't some sort of sex thing, is it?" "No, of course not!" I replied, then changed the subject because Xanth did, in fact, have a surprising amount of quasi-sexual content and my life would be better if my mom didn't know about it.

The map thing is one of the big reasons why I enjoy the Discworld books, but don't really love them. Yes, yes, "Can't map a sense of humor," "Maps are just areas between places where there be dragons, and there are dragons everywhere in the Discworld," very amusing. But can't you give me something to work with? A cocktail napkin sketch? Anything? I mean, otherwise fine world building, but when I read those books I have a tough time getting a sense of place, particularly when people leave Ankh-Morpork or wherever and start travelling.

Posted by: Zach S. at November 15, 2005 04:52 AM

xanth never satisfied my urge to put myself in a world because the only real role for me in xanth was as a shrieking, nubile young female obsessed with panties. because piers anthony is a sex fiend.

Posted by: didofoot at November 15, 2005 11:47 AM

Yeah. What was that other book that he wrote? Firefly? Someone I knew got ahold of it and showed me a couple pages that probably warped me for life.

I don't remember what I was in my head in Xanth, which is odd because I remember an embarrassing wealth of details about all of my other fantasy personae. Based on them, I'm guessing that I was fabulously wealthy and phenomenally powerful -- but indulgently kind to the general rabble -- and probably possessed of some terrible flaw requiring constant attention and sympathy. You can't go wrong with that even if you do have to deal with a preponderance of shrieking nubile panty fiends.

For the record, I've since substituted devastatingly attractive for wealthy and powerful, but I'm still in favor of constant attention and sympathy.

Posted by: Dianna at November 15, 2005 11:58 AM

Yeah, reading those as a kid the sexual parts always seemed exciting because, you know, I was a kid, and here was sex right in the middle of these fantasy novels aimed at adolescents. It's like I was pulling something over on my parents. At the same time, even then I noticed the odd dichotomy between the tone of the writing and the adult content.

Now I go back and look at them and they're just really creepy. I'm too embarrassed to even recommend the books to my fantasy-reading sister, despite my brief obsession with them.

Posted by: Zach S. at November 15, 2005 01:36 PM

especially creepy later when he starts in with the jenny elf thing and how in real life he's friends with the real jenny who is a little girl and I by no means think he is pedophilic but still, someone with such an immature sex outlook probably shouldn't be hanging out with the youth, you know? again, I am NOT AT ALL suggesting pedophilia. more like he is the immature little boy next door who you don't want stunting your kid's mental growth.

Posted by: didofoot at November 15, 2005 01:43 PM

hey i was thinking, you would LOVE pamela dean's 'the secret country' trilogy, and even more love her follow-up 'the dubious hills,' but i say you read the trilogy first as it establishes the world nicely. what else was i thinking of for you? hm. it will come to me.

Posted by: didofoot at November 17, 2005 08:08 AM

i remembered the other one, it's patricia mckillip's riddlemaster trilogy. neither of these trilogies has complex worlds, but both are satisfyingly detailed and real.

Posted by: didofoot at November 18, 2005 08:57 AM

I have 3 weeks off between work and school, and now a list of good books to investigate. I smell a trip to the bookstore; thank you.

Posted by: Dianna at November 18, 2005 01:43 PM

orrrr i could loan them to you tomorrow when i see you at gene's thing. you want?

Posted by: didofoot at November 18, 2005 02:13 PM

Oooo. Yes please!

Posted by: Dianna at November 18, 2005 02:42 PM

deal, but bring a backpack. we are talking about 4 smallish paperbacks and a 3-in-one volume trilogy.

Posted by: didofoot at November 18, 2005 03:44 PM

even though it's silly to feel left out since i am in NZ, what gene thing? i wish i was going to a gene thing. sigh. i don't wish i was reading those books though. however i am delighted with the new margaret mahy books i've picked up here.

Posted by: michele at November 18, 2005 07:40 PM