Thursday, October 30, 2014


world building

I continue on, a happy woman, in the Patrick O'Brian series.  In the wine-dark sea of his prose I feel like a small nameless boat trailing along effortlessly just beyond his wake.  I smile and make notes as his characters tell me about classical authors - Martial, Diocletian, Lucullus, Homer, Thucydides, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Pindar.  Recently I brought home an old Modern Library copy of The Latin Poets from my very own book booth, so I could attempt to keep up, but honestly I haven't even opened it yet.  There it sits, atop a pile of other books on the ancients, some I've mentioned here already and some not.   I will attend to them, I know, when snow flies.  Which, according to our local forecast, may be this very weekend.

But I digress.  And instead I want to mention how well Patrick O'Brian convinces us of the reality of his fictional world - as a willingly captivated reader, I enter that world, and believe, and live there.  And in a twenty-book series (actually, twenty books and a fragment of a twenty-first), I will gratefully live there for a long time indeed.  Completely convinced, I might add, thanks to O'Brian's use of contemporary accounts and reference books, his thorough characterization, and his attention to the minutiae of daily life in the early eighteenth century.  It feels so complete and so true. 

Until recently I didn't know that there is a term for this level of detail, this creation of time, place, people, the whole shebang - world building.  It's usually used in connection with science fiction and fantasy, in books and film (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc), and also in gaming, but I think it could equally apply to any work of literature in which another place and time is recreated with this extremely high level of detail.  After all, the past is another world, isn't it?  Some time ago I came across the term on the terrific daily weblog of artist and author James Gurney, himself a world builder (he's written about how he came to paint and write his Dinotopia books in this great series of posts from a few years ago).  A more recent post addresses a question regarding the age range for prospective readers of his illustrated books.  Part of his response is this lovely statement:

"A book should be like a swimming pool, with a shallow end and a deep end."

Well, in re-reading Patrick O'Brian, it's easy to skim along, but I also find that the books go as deep as one could ever wish.  In fact they seem to mean even more to me, this time around.  Anyway, I don't know where I'm going with all this, other than to say how satisfying it is as a reader to encounter writers who have the ability to transport us so convincingly to places and times other than our own, and allow us to feel at home there.  Off the deep end, in books as in life?  Or in another world?  It's a good place to be.         

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