Thursday, November 27, 2008

Worlds of Possibility

How big is a world?

We can put a specific set of figures on the size of a planet, of course.  I could Google the circumference of any of the planets in our solar system in ten seconds.  With that single figure I could work out how far it was to its core and its surface area .  But a world is not a planet, at least not to a human mind.

In the 40kverse, "worlds" are invariably reduced to "cities" and even "cities" find themselves reduced to little more than villages writ large.  A typical 21st Century English village - a large one, that is - is a hugely complex place with a dense mesh of political, emotion and spiritual connections all overlapping and interacting: something Agatha Christie knew well enough to imbue her heroine Jane Marple with all the wisdom of human evil merely from observing St Mary Mead and its many comings and goings.  When you increase to a city, you get the same meshes increased by a power of ten or twenty.  When you increase to a world - even a comparatively sparsely-inhabited one - it becomes so complex a place that to pretend at setting a story on "a world" is the height of arrogance.

I've just finished Star Wars Republic Commando: Triple Zero by Karen Traviss and this is a good example.  It's set on Coruscant, which is supposed to be a whole world turned into one city.  Even overlooking the many physical obstructions to this idea, the scale of this admittedly-cool concept is so vast as to overwhelm any story that claims to set itself "in" Coruscant.  Triple Zero suffered from this: its characters either had to be overwhelmed by the scale of their environment or else the events of the story had to be compressed into, rather than the whole world, a small, "village scale" section of it.  The same thing occurs in Matt Farrer's otherwise excellent Crossfire.  Hydraphur is supposed to be the capital world of a whole Segmentum, heart of an empire incorporating thousands of inhabited worlds and, itself, a world of immense scale and complexity.  But a single glance at the map of the principle city of Hydraphur (also known as Hydraphur) is enough to show that this "city" is no more than a village: completely inadequate to the scale of its alleged position.

None of that detracts from Matt's writing, of course, and it's still and excellent tale with many enthralling moments and, to Matt's credit, the subsequent stories, Legacy and Blind improved vastly upon the initial failure... although, even then, the sheer putative size of Hydraphur was too overwhelming for the plots at hand.

Perhaps the only author to have really taken this problem to hand was Richard Williams in his latest novel, Relentless.  An imperial ship is pretty much a small city in space, but Rich managed to convey the complex inter-relationships of the different "villages" within the ship by moving his protagonist from one to another, to face different challenges in each one.

What's the alternative?  To conventional authors, the solution is simply not to set a story in a world or in a city when you can set it in a village instead.  That doesn't mean rustic settings for everything: it means that a police procedural sticks to one precinct, or a space adventure sticks to one ship and a couple of small ports.  It means that a political drama stays within the "villages" of national or international politics.

But in a Black Library novel, you have more trouble.  Part of the glory and pleasure of the 40kverse is the sheer scale on which everything is done.  Fortresses aren't merely large, they fly kilometres into the sky!  They plunge miles into the planet's crust!  Cathedrals are ten times the size of something like York Minster.  Something as significant as the Emperor's palace occupies a space the size of a small continent.

Why?  Why in heaven's name do they need to be so big?  A typical plot of human drama and conflict could be set in onesuite of one tower of one wing of a standard cathedral of the Imperial Cult, but the demands of the Black Library are that the stories must match the scale of the galactic setting.

For most authors, the solution is to approach things from a village with the right perspective: one that's a good way up the pole, able to take in the sights and sounds without having to intrude upon the lesser villages or disturb the villages that are so high up as to alienate the readers.  Hence the focus on Space Marines, Inquisitors and Imperial Guard officers.  They represent villages all of their own.  But I feel certain that there's an alternative approach.

What it is, I'm not yet sure.  But if I can work it out, I'll be sure to let you know.


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