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  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

September, 2008 : Criticism:

Inconsistencies of World Building

Working in any type of speculative fiction setting—other than fantasy set in a contemporary scene—often requires the creation of a secondary world. In some cases, this secondary world may exist merely as the background for a single story. In other cases, the world may become the setting for multiple short stories, novels, and characters, often taking on a life of its own and almost becoming the story itself. (As a friend once noted, "I don't necessarily like many of the characters in those Pern novels—but I want to find out what happened to the dragons.") Should the novels and stories grow popular, a writer may find him/herself with that supposedly most enviable of situations: a popular, ongoing, commercially successful series—complete, perhaps, with fans dressing up as denizens of that world at cons.

But what happens when an author ends up writing in this same world for decades at a time, while around the writer, cultures and attitudes change? Tolkien, for one, despaired of ever unifying his earliest visions of Middle-Earth with the later Lord of the Rings and his final philosophical beliefs; Le Guin returned to Earthsea to reexamine the gender roles created in the earliest books of that series, writing sequels that satisfied some readers and upset others.

As illustrative of this problem is Marion Zimmer Bradley, creator of the highly successful Darkover novels, which appeared between 1958 (The Planet Savers) and 1989 (The Heirs of Hammerfell). (Other Darkover books, co-written with Bradley or written entirely by other authors, have appeared since, but for the purposes of this essay, I am focusing on the books written solely by Bradley.) The Darkover series itself contains a few "series within series": the Renunciate trilogy (The Shattered Chain, Thendara House, and City of Sorcery); the Children of Hastur novels (The Heritage of Hastur and Sharra's Exile); and the Forbidden Tower novels (The Spell Sword and The Forbidden Tower). Bradley claimed that she wrote each book to be entirely self-sufficient, but a prior knowledge of other books is helpful before reading some of the books, most notably Thendara House. At the same time, reading all the books plays up the multiple inconsistencies between books, particularly when characters from one book appear in another, directly contradicting what was said elsewhere.

Bradley did not write her Darkover novels in chronological order: as she noted in her brief introduction to Sharra's Exile, "[…] I began with an attempt to solve the final problems of the society: each novel thus suggested one laid in an earlier time, in an attempt to explain how the society had reached that point." This created its own problems: "Unfortunately, that meant that relatively mature novels, early in the chronology of Darkover, were followed by books written when I was much younger and relatively less skilled at storytelling." (1) Indeed, the first published Darkover books are typically shorter, less complex, and less thoughtful than the later books. And the poetic touches that seized the 16 year old's imagination—four colored moons, endless cold with only a limited period of agriculture, the mystical cheiri, and more proved problematic to a middle-aged author more interested in writing serious speculative fiction and discussing feminist ideas. Her habit of allowing characters from some books to make "cameo" appearances—or even major appearances— in other books could also create questions. For example, Magda Lorne in The Bloody Sun talks about being childhood friends with Jaelle n'ha Melora—although in The Shattered Chain, the two meet for the first time as adults. It was this sort of inconsistency that could prove maddening to readers attempting to sort out the "history" of Darkover.

By 1974, the author already found herself confronting questions about the internal consistency and chronology of Darkover. Calling these questions "nitpicking," she noted at the end of The Spell Sword:

I do not really think of them as a "series" but rather of Darkover as a familiar world about which I like writing novels, and to which the readers seem to like returning. Where absolute consistency might damage the self-sufficiency of any given book, I have quite frankly sacrificed consistency. I make no apologies for this. (2)

Whether or not consistency, in minor or major things, might have damaged the self-sufficiency of any of the books is questionable, but in the following year, Bradley took matters further, making what she later termed "a landmark decision": she would not be bound by what she had written in previous books. In the late 1970s and 1980s, her books almost seemed focused on rewriting Darkover entirely: the acceptance of an aristocratic telepathic caste, so prominent in the 1960s, came under deep questioning, and in the Renunciate series, Bradley took a deep look at, and questioned and rewrote, the patriarchal assumptions in her early books.

Despite this, Darkover's most general history remained relatively consistent. Initially inhabited by non-human races, including the cheiri, aliens capable of extremely long life and telepathy, the planet was discovered by humans during a crash landing (described in Darkover Landfall), and later rediscovered by humans a few thousand years later (Darkover time) or a few hundred years later ("Terran"/Earth time.) Bradley explained away the time discrepancy by stating that the earliest faster-than-light drives warped time and space, in effect allowing the first landfall to occur thousands of years in the past. Between the two landfalls, Darkover abandoned its former system of government for a more feudal society with structured gender roles. Bradley would later use the contrasting societies to explore feminist issues, gender roles and sexual relationships. Much later—Bradley alternatively said 1000 to 4000 years—Darkover was "rediscovered" when a second human ship found the planet, and named it Cottman Four. Because of its convenience for interstellar trade, the inhabitants set up a trade city and port on the planet despite its harsh climate, thereby causing the two cultures—the feudal, constricted Darkover and the interstellar, egalitarian, emotionally cold Terran Empire—to begin endless conflict.

Key to Darkover society was the presence of laran, explained in varying ways as inherited traits from cheiri, or psychic powers held by most humans, or latent powers that could be enhanced with cheiri blood or training. The debate over whether laran is inherently part of the human race or not continues in all books: one of the most tedious parts of the series is the constant surprise from Darkover natives that "Terrans"—people that have arrived after the second landfall—have laran as well. This proved especially irritating in later published books that actually occurred earlier in Darkover history. Surely, after a hundred or so years of Terran/Darkovan interaction, someone would have gotten the message out? (This also points to an ongoing major inconsistency: in some books, the Terran culture and science fully accepts psychic powers; in others, the Terran culture is completely skeptical.) A second focus contrasted the patriarchal society of Darkover with the supposedly more egalitarian Terran society, but despite endless discussions of change, very little in the culture actually seems to change at all. This seems odd on multiple levels—surely the arrival of a spacefaring culture on a low tech world would cause drastic changes to that society and culture, but although the arrival of the Terrans does seem to spark some haphazard discussion of trade issues, it is not until Sharra's Exile, a much later book in the chronology, that we have any sense that Darkover's society has shifted much in response to the arrival of the Terrans. The Darkovans continue to discuss and quarrel about laran, and assassinate a few people here and there, but until the end of Sharra's Exile, the basic governing and caste system remains unchanged. And even that book ends with a reassurance from a Terran that Darkovan society need not change much. Equally oddly, the Terran society remained static as well.

It was perhaps this very static nature of the two societies that makes the inconsistency of the internal chronology between books and characters so maddening. For if the general history of Darkover remained consistent, the internal chronology between books did not. In some cases, this chronology proves impossible to unravel within a single book, as in Thendara House, where characters and the plot struggle to understand just how long the Terran Andrew Carr has been missing in action.

In other cases, these problems occurred because of the order in which the books were written. In Star of Danger, for instance, published in 1964, young Larry Montray is assured that Terrans have never managed to contact or make inroads into the ruling Comyn culture. This statement is directly contracted in multiple other books, perhaps first in The Shattered Chain, published in 1976, but supposedly set about 45 to 60 years before Star of Danger, where two Terran agents, Magdalen Lorne and Peter Haldane, spend several months at a Comyn estate. In the sequels to The Shattered Chain, Magda ends up living permanently on one of these estates, making the "latter" statement, actually written first, dead wrong. Bradley clarified that the Terran Empire had had difficulties setting up an Intelligence Service on the planet (in Bradley's books, this Intelligence Service focuses as much on anthropology as on the sorts of activities associated with the CIA), but the books never explain why. No one seems aware of the earlier acts of this Intelligence Service, or why the Terrans continue to be inexplicably unaware of who the Comyn—the ruling class—actually are, despite extensive interaction with them. Oddly, given the presence of laran in the novels, Bradley could have used the simple explanation that Darkover's aristocrats had simply ordered their psychics to wipe the minds and memories of their Terran associates, but for whatever reason—perhaps because that explanation would have countered her endless statements of the growing lack of telepaths on Darkover—Bradley chose to avoid that explanation. And any attempt to understand the timeline or family tree of the Alton family, major characters in several novels, is doomed to near failure, given the multiple contradictions in the novels.

As a young teenage reader, I found these inconsistencies tremendously frustrating. As an adult reader and writer, I still find the inconsistencies frustrating, but I also wonder if perhaps those very inconsistencies are not partly responsible for Darkover's popularity. For despite these inconsistencies, the Darkover series proved popular, even spawning a fandom and extensive fanfiction, some later edited and formally published with Bradley's approval. (3) Bradley herself, noting that the majority of Darkover fanfiction (or as she termed it, amateur fiction) was written by women, theorized that Darkover's popularity occurred because women were not encouraged to create their own worlds, and therefore created fictions in worlds created by others, starting with Star Trek and continuing to Darkover. (4) This idea may contain some truth, but Darkover's followers did and do not consist only of fanfic writers. Certainly Bradley's portrayal of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters, innovative at the time, won her fans among queer readers.

Too, Darkover's very inconsistency allowed it to be endlessly altered to fit a reader's perceptions or needs. After all, these inconsistencies in some ways mirror our own untidy world. And a culture that could simultaneously offer independent warrior maidens who broke off from their patriarchal societies along with aristocratic women content to remain pampered could offer something for every reader: warriors and battle scenes in Two to Conquer, mountain bandits, female merchants and explorers in Thendara House and City of Sorcery, outright magic in Winds of Darkover, aliens (especially in the earlier books), political fighting and comparative politics and governing methods (The Heritage of Hastur and Sharra's Exile), spaceships, swordfights, and sheer romance (The Spell Sword, Winds of Darkover, Stormqueen). Serious feminist discourse could be followed by a coming of age adventure story (Hawkmistress!). In a sense, Darkover could offer the ultimate in wish fulfillment and comfort to readers—which perhaps in turn helps explain why it spawned a thriving fanfic.

More to the point, however, I wonder if Darkover's popularity stems precisely from Bradley's willingness to rewrite, to create, to admit that the culture she created in the 1960s was not the culture she wanted to create or discuss in the 1980s. If that freedom brought frustrations to readers, it also allowed Bradley to use her poetic, colorful, and frozen world to discuss issues of culture shock, culture clash, and feminism, while allowing her to shift her stories to fit with the times and issues around her. If some of the Darkover novels now read excessively as products of the 1970s, and even if Darkovan/Terran societies were portrayed as largely static in books set in the later chronology, the series as a whole could slip in and out of time, and reflect the different societies that Bradley was living in.

I'll admit that although in my own fiction I attempt to stay consistent, I sometimes envy Bradley for the freedom she was able to bring to her works, liberated by the knowledge that she, at least, did not feel restrained by the expectations of fans or her past words—that she could continue on with new visions, instead of working with old ones, over and over, until they grew tired and faded with repetition.

Works Referenced

  1. From the introduction to Sharra's Exile, DAW Books, 1981
  2. From The Spell Sword, DAW Books, 1974
  3. Bradley later ended her official acceptance of Darkover fan fiction, because of a dispute with a fan who allegedly requested a shared byline on an upcoming Darkover novel.
  4. From the introduction to The Keeper's Price, an anthology of Darkover fiction first published in 1980.

Copyright © 2008, Mari Ness. All Rights Reserved.

About Mari Ness

Mari Ness lives in Central Florida, where she spends more time than she should attempting to convince the cats that her laptop is not, despite appearances, a cat bed. Her work has appeared in multiple online and print venues, and she keeps a disorganized blog at mariness.livejournal.com.

COMMENTS!

Sep 2, 05:28 by IROSF
This is the place for opinions on consistency within fiction.

The article is here.
Sep 2, 14:29 by Tim O'Donnell
Gene Wolfe would have to be an example of consistent world-building. Over the course of the Book of the New Sun, the Book of the Long Sun and the Book of the Short Sun (12 volumes in total including Urth of the New Sun) the consistency is maintained between all characters, events, timeframes and so on. True there are some mysteries and some places where information appears to be incorrect but by and large he should be applauded for his achievement.

Personally, I think it does make the work richer as it enables the reader to be more immersed in the world. But I can see why a mature author with interesting points to make would choose to couch their thoughts within an existing world with an existing fan base.
Sep 2, 17:24 by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Interesting article. It sounds like MZB was using Darkover more as a setting against which to shape various ideas and explore concerns than as a true exercise in "world-building," eschewing consistency in favor of storytelling "freedom." Personally, I prefer consistent world-building or a clear disclosure that the world in one fiction is different from that in another but just happens to share the same name :-)

I've never really been drawn to MZB's work, and knowing this doesn't help, lol. Increasing suspension of disbelief by sustained continuity may be one instance where it's acceptable for our little minds to strive toward Emerson's "foolish consistency."
Sep 2, 18:01 by Lois Tilton
As a rule, when Wolfe seems to be incorrect, it's usually a sign that the reader has missed something. There is no more meticulous author than Wolfe, and his work is full of puzzles and secrets for readers to solve.
Sep 28, 04:57 by Zachary Spector
I'll admit that although in my own fiction I attempt to stay consistent, I sometimes envy Bradley for the freedom she was able to bring to her works, liberated by the knowledge that she, at least, did not feel restrained by the expectations of fans or her past words—that she could continue on with new visions, instead of working with old ones, over and over, until they grew tired and faded with repetition.

There are plenty of options other than these two. We have an entire genre called "alternate history" where we read about what would have happened in the real world if some historical event had turned out differently; why not do the same thing within the context of one's own fictional world? It would certainly spare the fans a lot of trouble trying to sort out the inconsistencies for you.

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