Founding a field

Finally, an academic has written a book about what I spend most of my time doing. Well, I say finally… it would be more to the point to say that I’ve finally got around to reading the book I bought several years ago. However, it is a very new thing that world-building has become the focus of some kind of a scholarly sub-discipline, a sub-discipline which has produced several more books now, all also edited by Mark J.P. Wolf, who wrote this one. I’ve lined them up on Kindle, since I can’t really afford to be buying paper copies of that many academic monographs, but so far I’ve just read this one, in which Wolf lays out the fundamentals of the practice of world-building and his proposed model for its study in academe. Wolf is a media studies scholar, and he argues convincingly that media studies is the appropriate field for the study of world-building, since imaginary worlds tend to trans-media objects, existing in any combination of prose fiction, role-playing game, meta-fictional documentation, film or TV drama, videogame, comic book, illustration, reference grammar, map, and any other medium in which one could conceivably present information about a constructed world.

Wolf opens with a discussion of the theory and philosophy of imaginary worlds (a nascent topic if ever I heard of one), which is interesting, and explores the fundamental duality between spatial and linear arrangements of information that Lev Manovich described in his The Language of New Media in 2001. Manovich’s book has shaped my own thinking on world-building, and on the relationship between the ‘bible’ of a world and the stories that are set in it, so it’s good to see it briefly mentioned here. After this is the best part of Building Imaginary Worlds, a history of world-building, which of necessity overlaps considerably with the history of imaginative literature. Wolf is thorough, and does not allow himself to exclude work because it doesn’t fit with what people at large might think of when they hear the term ‘imaginary world’. Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) is a prominent part of this history (although it is far from the earliest text he mentions), as are L. Frank Baum’s Oz books from the early twentieth century. These two early chapters provide the basis on which the rest of the discussion proceeds, but they’re more than a framework—if world-building comes to be accepted as an art-form in its own right (as I believe it should), then these are the first published attempts that I’m aware of to define it.

Wolf goes on to discuss the various media in which an imaginary world may appear, what the components of such a world are, their ‘trans-medial’ status, the ways that the notion of authorship relates to these often collaborative ventures, and so on. It’s an interesting and wide-ranging discussion, which I found largely intelligent, well-constructed, and on-the-money. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, and Wolf covers all the ground that seems important to me—as well as covering a lot of the same published material that I would. It’s not a comprehensive work, and given that it is sketching the territory of an entire, virtually unexamined field, it feels quite brief, like an introduction for undergraduates: each of its chapters takes on a topic substantial enough to warrant multiple monographs of its own. I’ve enjoyed the read, and I’ve found it very helpful in clarifying my own thinking on the subject, but perhaps the greatest pleasure I’ve taken from it is a profound sense of validation, that somebody in the academy thinks that the art-form to which I’ve chosen to devote my time on earth is something worthy of respect and study, rather than some sort of ancillary activity that has to be carried out in order to get to the important business of writing a novel or making a TV show.

The book’s subtitle is The Theory and history of subcreation, and this brings me to the only real issue I take with it. ‘Sub-what’? I mean, when we invent imaginary worlds we are unmistakably creating something that has a subordinate status to the physical universe, but the term ‘subcreation’ doesn’t mean that: it means (as coined by J.R.R. Tolkien and taken up by Wolf) a form of creation that is subordinate to a greater form. This, for me, is a misnomer. World-building, like novel-writing, painting, or any other art form, is primary creation: it takes place in a universe which came into being in complex, incompletely understood ways, whether we are discussing the physical universe, or the less objectively singular experiential universes in which we all separately spend our time. But the one thing we can say with some certainty about the universe is that it was not ‘created’: creation is something that we human beings do within it. Now, this might not seem to be the case if you happen to hold some kind of religious belief about a creator deity, as indeed Tolkien did—a belief which directly informed his thinking when he coined the term ‘subcreation’. Many other people hold such beliefs, but given that they are not subject to material proof or disproof, they don’t really have any place in the fundamentally material processes of scholarship in the humanities, and nor does Wolf’s closing remark that ‘subcreation is not a usurping of the Creator’s role, but rather cooperation with it, and acknowledgement of it’. I for one will be acknowledging no such thing! However, Wolf’s religious beliefs don’t seem to undermine his work elsewhere in the book, and I expect I will probably find myself using the term ‘subcreation’, as it’s becoming established among the tiny community of academics that are interested in this field, and I’m not about to take them all on… Overall the book is an excellent introduction, indeed a foundational text, in the study of an art-form that has rarely been acknowledged as such, despite pre-dating many of the new forms that emerged so spectacularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’ll be following Wolf’s work with interest in the future.

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