The advice to ‘write what you know’ is good advice because writing in ignorance can lead to a lot of unconscious assumptions and prejudices. I’m very much in favour of imagination, but for your imagination to take you somewhere, it needs to engage with reality in some way.
I’m world building at the moment and most of my Tuesdays have gone over to pieces that relate to that. The world I am building with Dr Abbey is post-war, post environmental disaster. My aim is to write something hopeful, something in the hopepunk genre perhaps. To do that well I need to think both about what might go wrong and what might be restorative. So, I’m playing with ideas and I’m also reading around and looking at what people are already doing to find solutions for climate chaos.
Fantasy is not enough – in fiction and in life. We’re all engaged with world building as an everyday issue. The choices we make, the dreams we pursue, the things we value and the things we reject all go into making the future, into building the world we inhabit. Or tearing it apart. The crisis we are in has a great deal to do with wilful ignorance and denial of truth. We’re living in the fantasy of an economic system that says you can have infinite growth with finite resources. We’re living in the fantasy of lies created by a fossil fuel industry that has long known how dangerous it is for life on Earth. We’re living in the fantasy of people who believe that we can have a viable future without making radical changes.
World building is important. Fiction writing is a place to explore that, but even fictional world building has massive implications. We have so much dystopian fiction out there, on the page and on the screen. Our shared imaginative worlds feed us doom and gloom, and do not offer us much we can use for building our own future.
Dreams and ideas are the places we begin to come up with change. What’s true for authors is also true for the rest of life – if you imagine with no basis in reality, it will be full of assumptions. People who are not writing from a place of knowing tend to regurgitate what they’ve seen without questioning it. And so you get yet another faux-white-medieval-Europe fantasy world with elves and dwarves and orcs. You get another dystopian future in which people have to fight each other for resources. If you start to ask about what happened, and what is happening, if you enrich yourself with better information, you are likely to tell different stories. Those stories will have more room for diversity, and for different outcomes.
Perhaps one of the most important stories to know about, is the one about how humans cooperate in face of adversity. There are lots of those stories out there, in our history and in current life. Cooperation isn’t as self announcing or dramatic as conflict, but wherever there is conflict, there are always people working together trying to come up with something better.
I don’t know why people are persuaded that in a dystopian setting, it would all be about weapons and fighting over scraps. It would be about basic skills – being able to grow food, and keep warm and sheltered. I don’t know why people are so often persuaded that they would magically grow combat skills in face of disaster and not that they would wake up one morning with some ideas about potatoes. Why is one more persuasive than the other?
What kind of world are you building? Do you notice when you are doing it? Is this a deliberate process or are you just going along with whatever flow has caught you?