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A Foundation of Question Marks

This week I'm joined on the blog by Bryan Wigmore, not just one of the best fantasy writers I know, but also one of the most astute readers. Here, he talks about what the world in a story means to him. He also quotes Chief Wiggum. What's not to like?

‘We gods are only masks,’ Mictlantehcutli says. ‘Who wears us? Find it out!’
Grant Morrison, The Invisibles
‘What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?’
Chief Wiggum, The Simpsons

I’m going to write about mystery. Not the kind of mystery of who shot who (at the Copacabana or elsewhere) but the deeper mysteries that for me are an important part of an interesting story-world. A story depends on its characters, but its characters in turn depend on their world, are formed by it. A world that differs fundamentally from ours can be interesting in itself, an intellectual curiosity, but it comes to life when it gives birth to characters who do or think the unexpected because their world has given them a culture and mindset outside our own. It’s the fascination with the alien, even if that ‘alien’ is as human as we are.
A story-world is a mask worn by its history, and we all like to know what lies behind  a mask. But barring a massive front-end infodump, we can’t see behind the mask except by exploring the world through the story. Luckily, we don’t have to equip ourselves for an expedition; an author will lead us from the comfort of our chair or bath. In a fantasy, that exploration might take us to meet the gods that kicked the world around in the beginning and continue to affect its people. We might delve even deeper to where the gods come from. We might find they are fakes. We might meet the fakers. We might go back to the very beginnings of the universe.
                Or there might be no gods involved. We might discover that the political and cultural flavour of the world came about when an Emperor went mad a thousand years ago and began an age of chaos. We might begin to piece together how that happened. We might meet characters who know more about it than they first let on, who know that the emperor’s madness was brought about on purpose. Secrets that changed the lives of everyone.
                For me, this is a large part of fantasy’s appeal. I like the broad canvas of a big military conflict, a clash of empires, but if it digs into the roots of those empires too and finds something fascinating there, I’m in heaven. Stephen Donaldson’s The Illearth War, one of my favourite fantasy novels, successfully marries two very different plotlines – an army’s flight and fight for survival, and the quest of a small party into the very roots of the Land’s existence, in the company of a strange figure created by an ancient High Lord as an expression of Lore. That very satisfying two-arc structure mimics that of The Lord of the Rings, to some extent – Frodo and Sam’s lonely quest into the mystery of the Ring’s origins at Mount Doom, alternating with Gondor’s military struggle. For me, in both books, the war alone would be much less interesting.
                Of course, mystery doesn’t have to span hundreds of leagues and thousands of years. Sticking with Tolkien, my earliest memory of exposure to the excitement of the unknown in fantasy came from his cover design for The Hobbit. I pulled the hardback off my school shelf at the age of ten or so because of the spine image: a road leading to a dark doorway in a mountain. Who wouldn’t be caught by that? (Who has seen a far-off cave on a videogame map and not hungered to get there?) And within, the maps, the drawings, the ‘evil look’ of the old castles on the hills they pass (never mentioned again) — everything about the book encourages the urge to explore, an urge Bilbo Baggins ironically lacks. And what is the purpose of exploration? To solve the mystery of what lies ‘over there’. Which, if we’re lucky, leads to more mystery: turtles all the way down. We’re probably best off when we believe there to be an end without ever reaching it.
                For me, the best mysteries in fantasy suggest connections with some of the big questions about our own world, which is possibly why I enjoy them so much. Like many fantasy readers, and doubtless many sci-fi ones, in my younger years I had a strong interest in the psychic and the paranormal, which made the range of possible origins for the world, and my own place in it, so much larger and wider. This is probably why I read more fantasy than sci-fi. Sci-fi tends to look towards possibilities, and fantasy back to origins. My favourite SFF does both: fantasy that suggests a future direction for humanity, or sci-fi concerned with ancient alien artefacts (Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, Dan Simmons’s Hyperion) — for where an alien race has its origin, might not humanity have that same one?
So, is a story-world incomplete if it lacks such mysteries? I can only say that most of my favourite SFF stories have contained them. But what I am sure of is that they’re worth including only if they lead somewhere interesting.
                I’ll return to Tolkien for the end, and the warning of Gollum. Given that Tolkien seemed so in tune with the urge to explore, it’s perhaps surprising that he gave the most extreme expression of that urge to such a villainous character. For Gollum was fascinated by mysteries, and that fascination (along with the hatred of sunlight) took him deep beneath the Misty Mountains. ‘There must be great secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning,’ is his thought according to Gandalf. But in the end those secrets turned out to be ‘empty night.’ And this is the risk. Interesting-sounding mysteries without interesting answers are counterproductive: the mask would be better left on. Better to ignore mystery in that case, and concentrate on other story elements (which for many readers are the draw anyway). But for me, following a character on a quest for the meaning of their world, rather than solely revenge or gold or a roll in the castle stables with someone presentable, and discovering something eye-opening, is what reading fantasy is all about.