“[A]ny existential statement – a statement, for example, beginning ‘Once upon a time there was…’ – always implies a world, because it implies a universal statement.” – Simon de Bourcier
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for the Apex Publications blog on “other-worlding,” the process of creating a place and time different than the one we as the reader currently occupied. It was a very naive bit of writing (that disappeared with the blog), but that theme of understanding how writing creates a world, and how readers enter into it (or not), has been one that I keep coming back to as I try to understand how reading works, because every work of fiction posits a world that the reader comprehends through their interpretation of the clues the writer has encoded in the story. A world is constantly implied in all fictions, and the question is: what ideas and angles of inquiry can open them up to more understanding both in their construction and their effects?
Last week I talked about the idea of being somewhere else, of transport, disruption, and estrangement. This week I want to delve a little deeper into that idea while bringing in some elements of possible worlds theory (hereafter PWT). PWT is essentially the idea that the world as we see and experience it is one of many such potential views and encounters; there are infinite variations possible. The idea of possible worlds is first attributed to the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the 17th century, “who expressed the belief that our actual world was chosen as the best among an infinity of possible worlds that exist as thoughts in God’s mind” (cited in Vassilopoulou [PDF]). The idea was the province of philosophy until the 20th century, when scientists and literary theorists began to elaborate the idea for their subjects.
In philosophy PWT was usually the province of logic. In the study of literature the objective is not to assert or validate truth-claims, but to examine how writers and readers create worlds in their minds with text as the instigator. That feat has several influences, the most significant one being that humans constantly think in terms of possible worlds. As James Bradley put it, “The idea of worlds different from the actual one is totally commonplace.” Our lives are filled with possible worlds that we dream and ponder all the time. The human propensity towards storytelling is part of this activity; we tell and take in and make use of stories to interact with the environment around us, seeking out, actualizing, discarding possible worlds. Part of fiction’s power comes from this practice.
Another part comes from the language, its form of delivery, and how we process it. Unlike the logician’s attempt to understand what is possible, PWT when applied to literature is about what is not possible. Improbability and impossibility are examined not in relation to “the real world,” but into what sorts of worlds they generate as graspable by the reader. The question becomes one of how fiction makes inconsistent and contradictory worlds seem possible to the reader. As Ruth Roman summarized it in her book Possible Worlds and Literary Theory, “Literary worlds are possible not in the sense that they can be viewed as possible alternatives to the actual state of affairs, but in the sense that they actualize a world which is analogous with, derivative of, or contradictory to the world we live in” (p. 50).
Science-fiction writers and readers might take issue with that statement, since classically SF was seen as an attempt to predict possible futures. But the author’s specific intentions are not what is at issue here. Ronan is stating that all fiction, mimetic or fantastical or interstitial, is the conjuration of the idea of a world that is not “the world” around the reader and is not exactly like the sort of possible worlds we consider and create on an everyday basis. Fictional worlds are the writer’s words as a template for the reader to follow to experience a different possible world. The writer asserts a world within the text and the reader extracts it, extrapolates from it, and actualizes the world as they discover it in the narrative.
Some fictions take the world-as-experienced as given and allow the reader to fill in the blanks. Others try to create worlds that are unlike some of the shared ideas readers have about the world, positing other planets and dimensions and realities. Some of those worlds have discernible similarities, while others are intentionally created as very different. Worldbuilding is the construction of a possible world, or sometimes an impossible world, one whose physical laws permit actions that could not happen in the world we live in. All fictional worlds are not strictly possible because they have made-up characters, histories, localities, and events. But their purpose is not to reflect the world-as-experienced, but to suggest new experiences for the reader to experience, fashioned from a discursive model of a world presented to the reader.
This may apply even more so to fantastika. “If a different form of logic and logical rules is allowed in a different universe, then any world is possible and is within the potential scope of science fiction. What is important for a poetics of science fiction, then, is not so much the logical status of the imagined universe, but the mechanics of its readerly construction and negotiation” (Peter Stockwell, Poetics of Science Fiction, 2001). What makes a story SFnal or fantastic is not just the tropes used or the conventions invoked, but the discursive shaping of its possible world. This is really a suggestion at this point, but instead of thinking of genre as characteristics, maybe it is more useful to consider genre as effects. Some stories meticulously create a world for the reader while others unravel one.
In Jeffrey Ford’s new collection Crackpot Palace there are several stories that can be easily identified as SF or fantasy, but then there are others that have their own world-illogic. In “The Double of My Double is Not My Double,” Ford plays with the idea of identity as influenced by the different experience of the world his own double and his double’s double go through. It seems to be “our world” and even features Ford and his wife as characters, but we quickly realize that there is no “one world” but that we each live in our own world and share it in odd moments with other people. The world not only impacts each of us differently, but we literally make different worlds for ourselves, even if an exact duplicate of us goes through life in the same world we think we inhabit. This is taken to a wider, more surreal extreme in “86 Deathdick Road” when “Jeffrey Ford” again seems to exist in our world but finds a very different reality just down the road, one which he is powerless to influence and which changes his life in a seemingly uncaring fashion.
Fiction shows us that there are more potential worlds than we can ever imagine, and PWT may be able to give us more insights into how stories hint at and unfold worlds for the reader. Unlike philosophy, PWT in literature is not anchored to an idea of “the real world.” Fiction mutates that idea, plays with it, annihilates it, and at its best presents us with worlds that let a story deeply affect us. The idea of possibility itself is remade in fiction, and with every story there could be a moment of impossibility or insight waiting within the world it invites us to make in our imaginations. Thinking about that elseness, and the possible world within it, may give us a way to, however fleetingly or imperfectly, make the world around us a little different.