August 16, 2010

Praised Be the Fathomless Universe - Fantasy Worlds Need Depth

        The other evening as the family was taking an idyllic stroll, P and T were happily occupied in playing catch with acorns, leaving D and me free to fall into the subject of "Star Wars."  I don't remember why, but it's not such an improbable occurrence in our household, so the beginnings of the conversation aren't relevant.  What is important was D's sudden clarity into why Episodes I-III don't ring as true as Episodes IV-VI.  But before I get to his brilliant insight and its implications for all of fantasy, let me give a few disclaimers.
1.  Yes, I am of the generation to whom "Star Wars" Episode IV came as a revelation, and I am well aware that it would be almost impossible for anything to match it.
2.  No, I don't think that Episodes I-III are dreadful trash and a hideous crime against the original holy trilogy.  I think they were decent movies with great special effects that were a lot of fun to watch.
        That said, D and I still feel that I-III were lacking something beyond complaints about the dialogue or the story lines or Jar-jar Binks, something that until D's revelation on our evening stroll neither of us had been able to put a finger on.  D suggested, and this at once rang true to me, that the problem exists in the depth of the universe.  Quite simply, the universe of Episodes IV-VI seems to have depth and reality beyond the presence of the immediate characters and story, while the universe of Episodes I-III, for all its beauty, seems to exist merely to be a stage to serve the requirements of the plot.  (D thinks this a problem inherent in prequels in general, but I'm not going to get into that now.)  Take Kamino, for example.  Kamino is the planet on which the clone army is being built (or grown) by the Kaminoans, and when I watch Episode II, I get the feeling that creating the clone army is the only thing that ever has or ever will happen there.  There is no history, no culture, no other cloning jobs under way, no depth beyond the immediate needs of the plot of Episode II.  Compare that with Tatooine, and Mos Eisley in particular.  Mos Eisley, that "wretched hive of scum and villainy," seems to have hundreds of stories to tell, not just the story of Luke and Kenobi's meeting of Han Solo.  Watching the movie, I feel that Mos Eisley existed before Luke's arrival and will go on existing after he leaves, and that to all the other aliens and creatures, smugglers and pilots, Luke's story and the story of the rebellion aren't even all that important.
        I'm not sure exactly how the difference is achieved, although I think it has something to do with the balance of information we receive.  If we get too little back-story it feels like there's nothing else to the world, but too much back-story crammed in and we feel like we've now heard all there is to know.  D suggests there's an issue of intimacy, too.  When we see Coruscant with its teeming swarms of vehicles whizzing in every direction, there's clearly plenty of life there, but it's so impersonal that it's hard to get a feeling that all those little vehicles hold people with stories of their own.  The Cantina in Mos Eisley, by contrast, gives us just enough of a glimpse to see that the world is full of individuals.   That gives the whole movie more of a soul and a depth that I can connect with and believe in.
        Obviously this idea of universes with depth is key to every sort of fantasy.  The best fantasy immerses us in worlds that are believable, and a lot of the believability, it seems to me, depends on giving an impression that the world is more than the single story being told at the moment.  Tolkien may be the obvious example here, because of course The Lord of the Rings was not the only story Middle Earth held.  I'm not such a hard-core fan as to have memorized the lineages of the Noldor - I've read every scrap of Middle Earth writing once, The Silmarillion perhaps twice, but for the most part I don't care for the stories of the mythology and history.  What I do like, however, is that their existence gives Middle Earth a certain solidity.  LeGuin is another master at world creation, and, to give credit where credit is due, so is Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials.  On the other hand, the world of E.D. Baker's The Frog Princess, which I'm reading with P and T now, is nothing more than a blank stage on which the action can move.  Baker seems to have no interest in creating a world at all, but the result is that I'm not finding myself convinced by the story.  Worlds seem to be richest when the background is neither too explicitly spelled out nor simply left out, when it's hinted at, alluded to, and just visible around the edges and in the background.

        I happen to love creating worlds and have been doing it to one degree or another ever since seeing "Star Wars" for the first time.  The universe in which my Otherworld Series is set has been under construction for over 25 years now, and huge amounts of history and culture exist beyond what the window of the 5 books in the series has ever illuminated to a reader.  One of the most enticing things about fantasy is its ability to transport us to new and wonderful worlds which are magically strange and unique and yet utterly real.  I hope my Otherworld books do that for readers.  It is exactly what "Star Wars: A New Hope" did for me, as it did 1000 miles away for D, when the house lights went down in those movie theaters thirty-some years ago, and we first saw the suns rise on Tatooine.

[Pictures: Anchored in the Living Sea, rubber block print by AEGN, 2005;
Coins of Yuwara Ul Sahd, photoshopped pen on paper by AEGN, 2008.]


Nan said...

I always have a great time when I visit here. I enjoyed this discussion.

I'd toss in the overwhelming increase in computer generated environments as adding to our disappointment. As they get easier to create, they run the risk of slickness and provide a less tangible place for the actors to inhabit.

Keep up the interesting brooding!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Nan, that's a good point. I'll also add that the ease of computer-generated environments means there are just a lot more out there to look at. When I first saw "Star Wars," it was probably the first fantasy environment I'd ever seen, with the possible exception of "The Wizard of Oz." By the time P & T watched "Star Wars," by contrast, they had already seen any number of fantasy worlds from television, computer games, other movies... Inevitably they fail to realize just how amazing it is to be able to look at these imaginary realms.