Bartender: That green beer you’re peddlin’ just ain’t any good.
Capone’s man: It ain’t supposed to be good! It’s supposed to be bought.
The Untouchables, 1987
When I lose my mind and foolishly allow myself to participate in the endless Mac vs. Windows debate, one of my favorite ways of differentiating between the Mac OS and Windows for those who claim that there’s no difference between the two is to paraphrase my favorite quote from Brian DePalma’s film The Untouchables — the difference between Mac and Windows is that Mac was designed to be used, while Windows was designed to be bought.
Operating system orthodoxy aside, the sentiment can inform one’s efforts when starting a world-building project. This is especially true, I think, for a project like the one I launched in the previous essay in this series — a fantastic world based not on a pseudo-mediaeval template, but rather based on our own modern, contemporary society. In fiction and even in gaming, one doesn’t see this sort of fantasy world all that often. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that contemporary society is extremely complex, so making an analog fictional world similar enough to this world can be difficult. I also get the impression that a lot of creators may well not see it as worth the effort, because the end result would not be especially different from our own world.
I think that there’s a flaw in that logic, and the flaw is the idea that the way things have happened in our world are the way things will always happen, that the forces that have guided the creation of our own civilization are the same forces that would necessarily guide the creation of any fictional civilization with a look-and-feel similar to the real world. I don’t believe that that is true, at least not entirely.
Sure, many of the issues, drives and problems faced by a society in a fictional world would have to parallel the issues, drives and problems faced during the development of society in the real world — that’s necessary if one wants one’s fictional world to have a sense of verisimilitude and familiarity with the real world and not be completely alien or completely fantastic. There is still enough wiggle room, however, for the fictional world to be different enough to be worth developing.
Greed, for lack of a better word, is good
When one looks at the forces that drive human beings, especially in the modern era, standing out front on the stage has to be greed. Of course, that is true of any human society. As individuals, people want power within their societies, and in our society, the elementary particle of power is money. You can have fame, you can have beauty, you can have wisdom, you can have talent, you can even have respect, but if you don’t have money, you don’t really have any power.
An interesting element of our global culture today is that the pursuit not just of money but the pursuit of the maximum amount of profit available with the minimum amount of effort has become not just one way of doing business, but is essentially the de facto standard for doing business, often without regard to the long-term costs of such a policy — economic costs, environmental costs, even “spiritual” costs (for lack of better word). Profit for the sake of making profit is the only pursuit that matters, and the source of that profit — consumers — must be encouraged, even required, to suck themselves dry in order to serve it.
Yes, that description may be a bit reductive, but there is more than a bit of truth in it. In the past generation or so, at the very least, our global civilization has been transformed so that its primary purpose is to service corporate profit generators, and to convince us that this is not only right, not even only inevitable, but that it’s the way things should be. Uncontrolled growth is the only goal worth pursuing.
Of course, when one has an uncontrolled growth in one’s body, it’s called “cancer,” but that’s neither here nor there.
Now, it would be possible to extrapolate this model from the real world into our fictional world, even to exaggerate it so that it is even more true in our fictional world than it is in reality, and that is often the path world builders follow when developing fictional settings based on the modern world. That would be a perfectly legitimate path to follow.
However, it really isn’t the path that I’m interested in following with my world building project. I don’t have anything against a good dystopia, but when I spend time and effort creating a fictional world, I’m really interested in creating a place that, if it were real, would be a place that I would be interested in visiting, if not a place in which I would like to live, and if you haven’t guessed by now, a place where the greatest flaws of our real world are concentrated and expanded upon just wouldn’t really suit me.
While a dystopian world doesn’t attract me, neither am I interested in developing a utopian vision. That could very well be an interesting world building exercise in its own right, but for my purposes, I think it would lack verisimilitude. Most certainly, it would lack conflict, and without conflict, there can be no stories, whether those stories are told as fiction, as role-playing scenarios or what have you, because a story, by definition, deals with the development and resolution of some conflict.
I’m not even opposed to unbridled capitalism being an element within my fictional world, because it is a characteristic that is true to human behavior. As long as there has been the concept of profit, likely long before there was even the concept of money, there were likely individuals for whom the pursuit of it was the end-all-and-be-all of existence. I’m happy to have it as an element in my new world; I just am not interested in it being the only element.
Well, what else is there, then?
If the pursuit of power as measured by the accumulation of wealth isn’t the point of this fictional culture, then what is? Let’s take a look at the possibilities.
In our own world, nearly as important as the pursuit of profit is the pursuit of knowledge. The modern world in which we live is a product, ultimately, of science’s search for understanding how the universe works. One could argue that the application of this knowledge has created both the wonders and the terrors of our world.
So, if we want our fictional world to bear a close resemblance to our real world, then the development of science and technology must also be a significant factor in its culture. Conversely, one could also argue that much of the drawbacks of a technological civilization have been caused by the inappropriate application of knowledge in pursuit of excessive profit. If one removes most of the profit motivation, or at least tempers it with the desire not to inadvertently cause more problems than one solves, then what we could expect is that cultural changes because of science and technology would be significantly slower in our fictional world than they have been in the real world. We would also expect that some of the drawbacks of a technological civilization would also be mitigated by allowing time for the culture to envision ways around the various problems that might crop up, such as pollution.
Even if the evolution of a technological civilization is slower in our fictional world than in reality, the pursuit of knowledge would still be enormously important. Having advanced knowledge would conceivably be one means of gaining social power, unlike in our world, where only those who can monetize or weaponize advanced knowledge gain any power from it. In that case, scientists, engineers and technicians would have considerable social capital, which means that someone, individual or organization, would have a vested interest in controlling that capital lest it be misspent. They would be almost like a priesthood, members of a church-like organization or organizations dedicated to pursuing knowledge, preserving knowledge, implementing knowledge and policing the use of knowledge to ensure that it was not misused.
Of course, when there is a group dedicated to restricting access to power, there will be individuals dedicated to gaining access to it, either for their own profit or for what they perceive as “the good of all.” Right there, we have a potential source of conflict within our fictional society – and conflict, as we all know, is an essential element of fiction, especially the pulpy sort we all know and love.
In our world, the pursuit of knowledge doesn’t always take the form of just science and engineering. We have philosophers wrestling with the understanding of moral and ethical questions, the social sciences dealing with issues of social and psychological significance, artists searching for some aspect of meaning through the creation and interpretation of cultural artifacts. We also have individuals who search for answers to spiritual and theological questions that have haunted humanity, likely, since long before the development of civilization as we know it.
A drawback in the real world of pursuing knowledge of a spiritual nature is that, in spite of thousands of years of inquiry and thought, there has never been produced even the most tenuous piece of evidence that the spiritual even exists at all. Of course, this lack of evidence hasn’t stopped individuals in every culture from working to leverage their beliefs into social and cultural power — indeed, one could argue that the lack of evidence allowed such individuals to create whatever set of rules and beliefs they desired to justify their actions, whatever they happened to be.
How very different would a world be if the supernatural, the esoteric were not only real elements of existence, but that they were elements knowable by people, just as the laws of nature and principles of science are knowable?
Summing it up a bit
It may seem that I’m rambling on in this entry, and that’s true. In the early stages of world building, there is and likely should be a lot of rambling on as the builder thrashes out the core concepts of his fictional world. What is the world about, the question is, as if the world itself were a story with a long and involved plot.
What I’ve determined through the rambling process in this case is that I know some elements of this fictional world in development, which are, in no particular order:
- Unbridled capitalism is not the end-all and be-all of this world’s culture, although it certainly does exist.
- The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a valued activity here.
- The supernatural exists, although that label is a bit of a misnomer; what we would call “the supernatural” is just another aspect of the natural world, and is knowable and subject to investigation in the same way that those other aspects are.