As a lot of people who know me could tell you, I’m kind of obsessed with the perils and pitfalls of world-building in fantasy and sci-fi. It’s an endless topic of fascination to me, and so I was pleased as punch when the AV Club did a discussion between editors Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson about just that subject, and the way it pertains to dystopian society books. (Which are also a thing that I have occasional opinions about.)
At the heart of the article is a question: when we read about dystopian societies, do we need to know where they came from? And the answer, after much very interesting back-and-forth that you should go read, turns out to be a resounding…maybe. Yes, sometimes. Some of the time definitely, others not so much.
Keith: [Tasha,] you listed a lot of instances of books and movies that succeeded in part because they filled in the details of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds in which they were set. I’ll co-sign that if you agree that Metropolis wouldn’t be any more powerful if Fritz Lang provided a detailed history of how the class divisions of his film’s world widened. Or that Blade Runner wouldn’t work better if we were given more information about the off-world colonies, or we knew what those C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate were, or who revived Pan Am and put up all those neon signs. Or that Sleeper would be funnier if we had a better sense of what happened in the 200 years Woody Allen spent in hibernation. Deal?
I think I’m pretty much with Keith on this one. Tasha is of the mind that most dystopian society stories would be improved if we could see the clear logic of their existence, but I tend to be in the camp that says that’s only necessary if it’s the story you’re telling. The Hunger Games is not the story of a nation’s rise, just as The Lord of the Rings is not about the dawn of Middle Earth. They are each, in their own ways, about the end of the worlds they’ve constructed, and expecting authors to interweave the equivalent of The Silmarillion into their books and still make it interesting just isn’t going to result in a compelling story.
People are weird, and we are never weirder than when we’re trying to talk about what we want. Because we’re wrong, most of the time. We say we want naturalism in theatre, but we also want the living room on stage to only have three walls so we can see what’s going on. We say we want to see our lives reflected back to us, but we often connect more to stories about talking toys or fish. And we say that we want to know the details and history of the worlds that we read about, but then we all skip the Star Wars prequels when they’re on television and watch A New Hope every damn time.
People want as much information as they can get, but as writers it is our job to give it to them in a way that feels like active discovery. We need to make our audiences participate in the uncovering of our worlds. And, at the end of the day, we need to leave them wanting more. Otherwise, how will we ever make any money off of the sequels?