Secondary Worlds, Secondary Sources

07Mar12

One part of creating a secondary world is working out a culture for that world: its songs, stories, plot devices and cliches; its holy books and its vocabulary of affect; how it represents and celebrates and criticizes itself.

One method of doing this is to build primary sources into your secondary world.

I’m talking about everything from “the scroll of the prophecy” to the works of philosophers & scientists that characters can cite or idolize. Think about all the times on Star Trek when somebody brought up Zefram Cochrane, or think of Paul Atreides quoting the Orange Catholic Bible.

But this method alone isn’t always enough.

Because if you’re building a world with anything like a modern feel, you have to attend to how print culture and information technology mediate people’s relation to culture, distancing them from primary sources and encouraging the use of secondary sources that refer back to the originals.

Or to put it less like a grad student: I’m talking about moments like when you saw a famous movie scene parodied on The Simpsons, before you had seen the original movie.

Think up ways that your characters might’ve learned their own culture without reading the primary sources.

Think up secondary sources for your secondary world.

My first quote isn’t a secondary-world example, but it’s a perfect statement of how print culture affects people’s relations to systems of knowledge. It comes from George Gissing’s New Grub Street, published 1891.

When she found herself alone and independent, her mind acted like a spring when pressure is removed. After a few weeks of desoeuvrement she obeyed the impulse to occupy herself with a kind of reading alien to Reardon’s sympathies. The solid periodicals attracted her, and especially those articles which dealt with themes of social science. Anything that savoured of newness and boldness in philosophic thought had a charm for her palate. She read a good deal of that kind of literature which may be defined as specialism popularised; writing which addresses itself to educated, but not strictly studious, persons, and which forms the reservoir of conversation for society above the sphere of turf and west-endism. Thus, for instance, though she could not undertake the volumes of Herbert Spencer, she was intelligently acquainted with the tenor of their contents; and though she had never opened one of Darwin’s books, her knowledge of his main theories and illustrations was respectable. She was becoming a typical woman of the new time, the woman who has developed concurrently with journalistic enterprise.

See how a reference to secondary sources can cause your characters to get a more atomized, general, less “authentic”, far more modern take on the culture they live in?

What people read structures how they think, how they build categories, how they refer to themselves… Think, for instance, of the queer character in John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer who observes that the word for what he is “isn’t even in the dictionary.”

If you’ve decided to use today’s technique, one thing to consider is the contending claims of secondary sources: how they can misrepresent the eras they attempt to study.

Voltaire, in his Philosophical Dictionary, takes classicists to task for creating secondary sources that confuse the issues:

[The ancients] had vague, uncertain, contradictory notions about everything relating to natural philosophy. Huge volumes have been written to determine what they thought about all sorts of problems of this kind. Four words would have sufficed: they did not think.

I for one would love to read some secondary worlds where scholarship is partial, biased, and even self-deluded — as opposed to how it’s usually portrayed, which is 100% effective at reconstructing the past. Think of Gandalf’s research project in Minas Tirith to determine the provenance of the Ring. Sure, it took him 70 years, but was Gandalf wrong about anything in the end? (Right now there’s no Tvtropes entry for the ridiculously chancy research project that winds up being right about everything, is there?)

A final variant on the “secondary source” is to ironically deflate a concept by presenting it as already SFnal from the point of view of the characters, like this exchange from my 9th grade obsession, the Ghost in the Shell manga:


You can use this move in a lot of different ways, from lampshade-hanging to chilling, like this instance from Roadside Picnic:

Suddenly he had a horrible thought: it was an invasion. Not a roadside picnic, not a prelude to contact. It was an invasion. They can’t change us, so they get into the bodies of our children and change them in their own image.

He felt a chill, but then he remembered that he had read something like that in a paperback with a lurid cover, and he felt better. You can imagine anything at all. And real life is never what you imagine.

Check back tomorrow for a light but hopefully still interesting entry, SpecTechnique readers…

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