Monday, February 23, 2015

The World We're Living In

I create worlds.

When someone says that, you can assume one of a few possibilities: A) he's a god who has taken human form, B) he has access to godlike technology, or C) he's a nerd. For better or worse, I inhabit the last category. I create imaginary worlds for writing, gaming, and fun.

When creating and conveying a world, you have two main aspects to consider. First, you need to come up with the basic facts of the setting. How is it different from the real world? Who or what are the major powers? Where are the locations of interest? What are the cultures like? Does magic exist? How advanced is the technology? Are there gods? If so, are they loving, wrathful, apathetic? And what is the scope of their influence?

Maybe the land is ruled by superintelligent dinosaur wizards. Maybe there's an interstellar cold war between the socialist government and a megacorporation. Maybe the Queen Mother dwarf lays eggs that hatch into rock-eating dwarf maggots. Whatever you want.

Second, you've got tone. What kind of world is this, anyway? Is life fair? Are bad people bad all the way down, or are they victims of circumstance? Can people change? Do nice guys finish last, or does evil always rebound on itself? (Or both?) Does every cloud have a silver lining? Is morality black and white? Black and gray? White and gray? Grey and gray? Can evil be defeated, or only mitigated? Is any act truly selfless? Who is worth saving? Does anyone have the answers? Does everything happen for a reason?

Welcome to the real world, post-apocalypse! There's bad news and there's good news.

The bad news is, all your friends are dead. It didn't take much. They were fragile. Frank, your best man, snapped like a twig under a capsized city bus. Last anyone saw of Ben, he was washing down Eighth Avenue in a flash flood, thrashing and splashing. Probably drowned. Your next door neighbor's a zombie. Nothing left of Eve and the kids but a mound of dino crap in some parking lot on the east side. It was quite the apocalypse.

(By the way, Clark, the president of the Homeowner's Association—he survived. Turned into a huge asshole. He's declared Thousand Pines a sovereign city-state. There are guards with flamethrowers at the gate round-the-clock—good luck getting to your place. Clark wears a crown made from bits of tire and he's got three gorgeous coeds living with him—mildly disfigured, okay, but still gorgeous.)

The other bad news is, the whole imagined future of your life—all your hopes and dreams and plans, everything you were carefully weaving together—is gone. The apocalypse plowed right through them like a 300-pound mutant jackalope through an ordinary spider web. You're never gonna get the band back together. You're never gonna start that chain of fast food restaurants with adult-sized playland equipment. You're never gonna retire. You might still have grandkids, but odds are they'll have scales or tentacles or something, and most of them won't make it to adulthood.

The other bad news is—this'll take a while to sink in—this is the same world as before. It's governed by the same physics. Some nights you're gonna lay there wanting to go back, trying to figure out how you could get everything back, but here's the deal: the apocalypse happened in that world. The terms of that world—your happy place, the place where good things happened to good people and everything happened for a reason—allowed all your loved ones to die, all your dreams to burn. Next time you're laying around wishing, keep this in mind: The apocalypse did you a favor. It took all the lies you were telling yourself—your ideals, your vision, your god—and shattered them like clay pots. Do you really want to go back to a cruel illusion, a doomed paradise? No. You're an adult now. The only way is forward. The more you leave behind, the less you burden yourself with Edenic ideals, the more free you'll be to move around.

As a fictional world shifts in tone from light and fluffy to grim and dark, the requirements for "hero" status also shift. If good really can triumph over evil, a hero does what is right, courageous, and noble. But in a darker setting, a hero sets aside heroism and does what is necessary. Anyone clinging to high-minded ideals is at best ineffectual—and more often ends up catatonic or dead.

For any character to succeed (whether hero, antihero, or villain), she must understand what kind of world she inhabits. In lighter settings, the villains fail because they imagine life to be worse than it really is. They never count on the power of love and friendship, the determination of scrappy underdogs, the essential goodness of the people. But in a grim world, would-be heroes only succeed if they can adapt, facing down naked brutality and accepting the death-taint of necessary evil.

Which brings us to the good news. You're off the hook. You don't have to be a hero anymore. Trying to be a hero—that's a great way to get yourself killed. All you do now is survive. Watch your back, figure out who you can trust, do what's necessary, and then do whatever the hell you want. A lot of us were already doing that before. Kind of a relief, isn't it? Take a deep breath. (Not too deep, the air's not great.) I know some very sexy, very single mutants, if you're into that. They'd have been out of your league before. Let me know.

The other good news is, if by some streak of improbability you manage not only to survive but to find a reason to live amid the smoke and wreckage—some rare beautiful thing that didn't burn—you'll know it's honest this time. Finding it won't take you back to your old life, but it'll make you feel a little better, while it lasts. Like a nice wool blanket. Or a cigarette butt that's still got some life in it. You take what you can get.

A fictional world is reflected in the values of the characters who inhabit it—the idealists, the cynics, the pragmatists, those who fight, those who go with the flow. The worldbuilder's values are reflected in the world she builds. The real world is reflected in values of a worldbuilder. And the values of the real world's builder—whether a thoughtful god, a senselessly arbitrary natural process, or something else entirely—are reflected here.

Where the hell is here, anyway? What kind of world are we living in? What kind of god would create such a world? What do the terms of this world require? Are we heroes, villains, survivors? Who are we supposed to be?

"The world we're living in." That was one of my late grandma's catchphrases. She'd utter it in amazement, disapproval, or both; and always while shaking her head and smiling. Even with ninety-one years under her belt, the world we're living in still managed to confound her.