Worldbuilding 201: Normalizing the Absurd

I may be one of the very few readers who doesn’t actually want a writer to tell me what the hell is going on.

I am the ultimate anti-infodumper. I would rather claw around in a weird world for awhile piecing together through action, dialogue, and creative description how things work than for a writer to pause in the middle of the story and spend five or thirty pages and tell me the entire dry history of a country or how some shiny new technology works based on current technological principles.

This isn’t how people absorb and understand history and culture in real life. It’s the way people are presented it in a university lecture. And then tested on it. And then promptly forget it.

I got to thinking about this again when reading author Kim Stanley Robinson’s thoughts on the infodump. In fact, he’s in favor of it, and a little sensitive about being called a flagrant info-dumper. He argues that it’s all narrative. The principle of “tell, don’t show” is actually a fine literary tradition, from Moby Dick to anything by James Joyce. I won’t argue with that.

But do note the author/book examples I use. When was the last time you read Moby Dick or anything by James Joyce outside a university setting?

I remember the first time I ever became aware that there was such a thing as racism. I grew up as a middle class white child around a bunch of other middle class white children, so I’d never had to consider it before. Nobody mentioned it. That’s what it’s like to grow up with white privilege, much like male privilege. You just… don’t have to think about it.

Lucky, lucky you.

I was about four years old, and I was watching some kind of documentary about segregation and the history of the Jim Crow laws on… Disney? Some kind of Discovery Channel equivalent, maybe? It showed two public fountains that were exactly the same. And in one of the fountains, pale children were playing, and in another, dark children were playing, and the film showed how different areas were for pale skinned people and other areas were for dark skinned people, and how their were really terrible penalties for going into places that weren’t set aside for you. And I remember thinking, as I was watching this, “Wow, that is the stupidest, most illogical thing in the whole world. How stupid would people have to be to think of that?”

Nobody sat down and explained to me why it was (or wasn’t(!)) stupid. I didn’t even get the whole history as to why it was the way it was, as somebody changed the channel, or I went back to playing with my blocks, because hey, I was four years old and had a short attention span. It was just something I saw on the TV, about some other place and some other people who I figured were just really backward. I mean, how stupid would you have to be to come up with that? But it was absurd enough and new enough and crazy enough an idea that I remembered it. And I chewed on it. And I started to be aware of it.

Over time, I came to absorb and understand why it was some people thought (and, let’s face it, still think) that things like that were OK. But I didn’t gulp it all down at once. I didn’t get the whole long dirty history of slavery and oppression right there. I was four years old. Shove that all at me at once and my little brain would be like, “Holy crap – hold on, people!” Which was pretty much my reaction on the entire idea up front: well, isn’t that the stupidest thing ever! Huh, I’m going to go back to playing with my Legos.

But feed it to me over time and – though I still think it’s the stupidest thing ever – I understand how the fuck the world got to be that absurdly crazy. I start to understand how they came to think that way. And how that all fits into my experience of the world. When I was six or seven, I remember stopping and staring at myself in the mirror one afternoon and pinching at my skin and looking at the insides of my arms and thinking, “Why was I born white? Are people really treating me differently because of it? Am I treating people differently because of it?” I was starting to absorb the crazy fucking world, and who I was in it, and what my own signifiers were (figuring out I was a woman, and what my place was in that, was a far more terrifying experience. It’s always more terrifying when you figure out you’re the historically oppressed, not when you’re the historical oppressor. That’s how power works, sadly).

This is important to worldbuilding because when we build worlds, we are building them on the absurdist assumptions of others; of made-up people. When we first encounter them, they seem to be crazy, horrifying, outlandish. But I’m not going to stop my story to tell you why it was things got to this place. Instead, I’m going to let you go, “Wow, that’s the stupidest thing ever!” and then I’m going to slowly show you how the world got to this crazy absurd place. In bits and pieces. In scrawled notes and radio snippets. In the way your friends are treated differently than you. In the way people look at the world. In casual asides and geography and the way the people on the train start to look different as you move from north Chicago to south Chicago. How the air smells. How the food is different. How the voices change.

That is the history of the world I will give you, one terrifying piece at a time, until that world becomes so vibrant, so real, so horrifyingly normal, that you can’t imagine things were ever any different.

It’s an insidious way to show you a world, admittedly. But when you look up from that world and into your own, I want you to be shocked at how our world isn’t that one. I want you to be able to see the differences more clearly and concisely. And I can only do that if I’m not preaching at you, or dumping on you, or didactically banging you over the head with some made-up moral code.

I can only do it if I seduce you, the way our world has seduced you, into thinking everything you see and feel and hear is perfectly, boringly, absurdly normal.

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