ACH - On World-Building and Utopias

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Here's a miscellany of thought from the essays at the end of the expanded edition which may be of interest.

On World-Building:

"To make something is to invent it, to discover it, to uncover it, like Michelangelo cutting away the marble that hid the statue. Perhaps we think less often of the proposition reversed, thus: To discover something is to make it. As Julius Caesar said, "The existence of Britain was uncertain, until I went there."... as far as Rome... is concerned, Caesar invented (invenire, "to come into, to come upon") Britain. He made it be, for the rest of the world."

"...What artists do is make particularly skillful selection of fragments of cosmos, unusually useful and entertaining bits chosen and arranged to give an illusion of coherence and duration amidst the uncontrollable streaming of events. An artist makes the world her world. An artist makes her world the world. For a little while. For as long as it takes..."

Ursulas words in the essay World Making echo my own feelings about world buidling - that invented worlds are something we build from things we already know, but cleverly assembled to make them look new and different. When I was a child, we had a large box of lego and space lego. I would sit for hours making things from the box. Then I would take the thing I made (usually a space ship or other kind of vehicle) into another room in the house - away from the box - and take that thing apart. Then I'd use the same pieces - all of them - to make something completely different.

World building seems similar. We pull things from the box to make a subset of tools, then use those tools to make worlds. We never use the whole box.

About Middle Earth she says: "At the centre of the vast landscapes and long travels is the Shire, and the Shire is unmistakably a real place, a real center of the world. A real place, but a lost time, and therefore mythologized. It is the rural England of Tolkien's childhood, inhabited by Hobbits. The hobbits, of course, behave more like ordinary Brits than the British do. They are the British, on a child's scale, and as perceived by the yearning, teasing, forgiving, loving eye of a man recalling the golden age and it's population of half-mythic and totally earth Proudfoots - ProudFEET - Hornblowers, Bolgers, and Bagginses. And so, though only a little place on the north edge of all the important countries, it is from the Shire that the heroes set out travelling, and to it that they come home. There and Back Again. It is the centre of the book, the middle of Middle-earth. From it, I think, originally radiates the extraordinary reality of the work: the reality of passion, the exile's passionate love for a world known and loved and lost."

(My imagined UKLG essay on the remembrance and world-building of Trump reads very differently).

On Cultural Appropriation

Several of the essays made me wonder what Le Guin would have thought of cultural appropriation. In the essay Indian Uncles she tells us: "Here we run into the moral problem we storytellers share with you anthropologists: the exploitation of real people. People should not use other people." And yet, I don't feel I understand her any better. She did draw on other people and cultures in her fiction. Did she use them?

On Belief and Roleplaying Games

"Belief is a queer business. The other person's idea is a "belief", but your idea is the truth, the way things really are." She goes on to talk about native hunting, and how the hunters would prepare themselves by performing the rituals that a deer that was about to die would want performed. And she concludes: "So a hunter who came back emptyhanded didn;t say, "I couldn't shoot a deer." He said, "No deer was willing to die for me. This point of view reverses things. It turns the world inside out. All of a sudden, you see the world not from outside, but from inside."

So, as a cultural roleplayer, that's interesting to me. This is a different thought process - like the notion in Tekumel that a 'noble action' is an action that's in accordance with one's idiom, rather than in keeping with a cultural code.

And here I think we come to a major misunderstanding of Le Guin's. I have heard that she would never allow Earthsea to become a world in which to roleplay. If this is true, I think its because she saw roleplay as battle, as D&D, as a vehicle to fight things and take their stuff. She never saw it as a tool by which a player could hop inside a world to look at it from within - and maybe (if we take @BarnerCobblewood 's point in another thread - she was right not to trust us.

On Utopia:

UKLG quotes Robert C. Elliott: “Utopia is the application of man’s reason and his will to the myth [of the Golden Age], man’s effort to work out imaginatively what happens–or might happen–when the primal longings embodied in the myth confront the principle of reality. In this effort man no longer merely dreams of a divine state in some remote time: he assumes the role of creator.”

Then she goes on to explain: "Now, the Golden Age, or Dream Time, is remote only from the rational mind. It is not accessible to euclidean reason; but on the evidence of all myth and mysticism, and the assurance of every participatory religion, it is, to those with the gift or discipline to perceive it, right here, right now. Whereas it is of the very essence of the rational or Jovian utopia that it is not here and not now. It is made by the reaction of will and reason against, away from, the here-and-now, and it is, as More said in naming it, nowhere. It is pure structure without content; pure model; goal. That is its virtue. Utopia is uninhabitable. As soon as we reach it, it ceases to be utopia. As evidence of this sad but ineluctable fact, may I point out that we in this room, here and now, are inhabiting utopia."

There is much more on the nature of Utopia in the essay called A Non-Euclidian View of California as a Cold Place to Be. My take-way is that Utopia is different things to different people, which means it is perforce a compromise. We're living that compromise right now! Welcome to Utopia!

Further into the essay, she talks about Levi Strauss and post-scarcity:

Levi-Strauss is about to make his distinction between the “hot” societies, which have appeared since the Neolithic Revolution, and in which “differentiations between castes and between classes are urged without cease, in order that social change and energy may be extracted from them,” and the “cold” societies, self-limited, whose historical temperature is pretty near zero.

The relevance of this beautiful piece of anthropological thinking to my subject is immediately proven by Levi-Strauss himself, who in the next paragraph thanks Heaven that anthropologists are not expected to predict man’s future, but says that if they were, instead of merely extrapolating from our own “hot” society, they might propose a progressive integration of the best of the “hot” with the best of the “cold.”

If I understand him, this unification would involve carrying the Industrial Revolution, already the principal source of social energy, to its logical extreme: the completed Electronic Revolution. After this, change and progress would be strictly cultural and, as it were, machine-made.

“With culture having integrally taken over the burden of manufacturing progress, society…, placed outside and above history, could once more assume that regular and as it were crystalline structure, which the surviving primitive societies teach us is not antagonistic to the human condition.”

The last phrase, from that austere and somber mind, is poignant.

As I understand it, Levi-Strauss suggests that to combine the hot and the cold is to transfer mechanical operational modes to machines while retaining organic modes for humanity. Mechanical progress; biological rhythm. A kind of super-speed electronic yang train, in whose yin pullmans and dining cars life is serene and the rose on the table does not even tremble. What worries me in this model is the dependence upon cybernetics as the integrating function. Who’s up there in the engineer’s seat? Is it on auto? Who wrote the program old Nobodaddy Reason again? Is it another of those trains with no brakes?

It may simply be the bad habits of my mind that see in this brief utopian glimpse a brilliant update of an old science-fiction theme: the world where robots do the work while the human beings sit back and play. These were always satirical works. The rule was that either an impulsive young man wrecked the machinery and saved humanity from stagnation, or else the machines, behaving with impeccable logic, did away with the squashy and superfluous people. The first and finest of the lot, E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” ends on a characteristic double chord of terror and promise: the machinery collapses, the crystalline society is shattered with it, but outside there are free people–how civilized, we don’t know, but outside and free.

I'm also reminded of Morlocks and Eloi. And of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

And did this question of UKLG's vision of the future come up in another thread? Here's an answer, of sorts. This was written in 1982, not long before Vernor Vinge spoke of the Technological Singularty as a process that was already underway.

One need not smash one’s typewriter and go bomb the laundromat, after all,because one has lost faith in the continuous advance of technology as the way towards utopia. Technology remains, in itself, an endless creative source. I only wish that I could follow Levi-Strauss in seeing it as leading from the civilization that turns men into machines to “the civilization that will turn machines into men.” 31 But I cannot. I do not see how even the almost ethereal technologies promised by electronics and information theory can offer more than the promise of the simplest tool: to make life materially easier, to enrich us. That is a great promise and gain! But if this enrichment of one type of civilization occurs only at the cost of the destruction of all other species and their inorganic matrix of earth, water, and air, and at increasingly urgent risk to the existence of all life on the planet, then it seems fairly clear to me that to count upon technological advance for anything but technological advance is a mistake. I have not been convincingly shown, and seem to be totally incapable of imagining for myself, how any further technological advance of any kind will bring us any closer to being a society predominantly concerned with preserving its existence; a society with a modest standard of living, conservative of natural resources, with a low constant fertility rate and a political life based upon consent; a society that has made a successful adaptation to its environment and has learned to live without destroying itself or the people next door. But that is the society I want to be able to imagine–I must be able to imagine, for one does not get on without hope.

Comments

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    Thanks @Apocryphal , there's an interesting compendium of bits and pieces here. I'm just going to pull out a couple of bits that intrigued me... no point others will have different choices.

    What artists do is make particularly skillful selection of fragments of cosmos, unusually useful and entertaining bits chosen and arranged to give an illusion of coherence and duration amidst the uncontrollable streaming of events

    This kind of supports my point challenging her "a novel is a bag" statement, which you will remember at the time I felt was rhetorical rather than reflecting her actual thoughts. According to this snippet, a novel is very far from a bag that one grabs a few things and chucks them in... it is conscious artistry, selecting and focusing on pattern in the midst of un-pattern. There are, of course, many ways to make a pattern, but a novel (or similar crafted piece of fiction) always has one.

    an old science-fiction theme: the world where robots do the work while the human beings sit back and play. These were always satirical works. The rule was that either an impulsive young man wrecked the machinery and saved humanity from stagnation, or else the machines, behaving with impeccable logic, did away with the squashy and superfluous people

    Fascinating how she omits mention of the most striking counter-example, viz Asimov's robots series (aka the story of Daneel Olivaw) in which the increasingly intelligent robots come to realise their own destructive influence on mankind's autonomy, and a) withdraw, b) in large manner deactivate themselves. The Naked Sun comes closest to her first option (impulsive young man) but draws back from that choice, and over the whole long series crafts a quite different resolution.

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    @Apocryphal said:
    Here's a miscellany of thought from the essays at the end of the expanded edition which may be of interest.

    On Cultural Appropriation

    Several of the essays made me wonder what Le Guin would have thought of cultural appropriation. In the essay Indian Uncles she tells us: "Here we run into the moral problem we storytellers share with you anthropologists: the exploitation of real people. People should not use other people." And yet, I don't feel I understand her any better. She did draw on other people and cultures in her fiction. Did she use them?

    Yes, she did use them. Yes, it's appropriation: there are lots of non-Western concepts in ACH. The question is whether it's harmful to the originating cultures. And I don't think it is. I think she's holding up these stories as a challenge for us Western readers to reconsider the values we assume.

    On Belief and Roleplaying Games

    And here I think we come to a major misunderstanding of Le Guin's. I have heard that she would never allow Earthsea to become a world in which to roleplay. If this is true, I think its because she saw roleplay as battle, as D&D, as a vehicle to fight things and take their stuff. She never saw it as a tool by which a player could hop inside a world to look at it from within - and maybe (if we take @BarnerCobblewood 's point in another thread - she was right not to trust us.

    The flippant answer is that The Tomb of Atuan is entirely about Ged going down into a dungeon, killing some things, and taking their stuff.

    The better answer is that we may not be up to the challenge of telling the stories of Earthsea in our games, instead reverting to those standard tropes of heroic adventure fiction. I can see her point.

    @RichardAbbott said:

    Fascinating how she omits mention of the most striking counter-example, viz Asimov's robots series (aka the story of Daneel Olivaw) in which the increasingly intelligent robots come to realise their own destructive influence on mankind's autonomy, and a) withdraw, b) in large manner deactivate themselves. The Naked Sun comes closest to her first option (impulsive young man) but draws back from that choice, and over the whole long series crafts a quite different resolution.

    Are these stories the same, but ending at different places? Higher beings evolve, first to take care of us, then to transcend and move on to higher things.

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    @RichardAbbott said:

    What artists do is make particularly skillful selection of fragments of cosmos, unusually useful and entertaining bits chosen and arranged to give an illusion of coherence and duration amidst the uncontrollable streaming of events

    This kind of supports my point challenging her "a novel is a bag" statement, which you will remember at the time I felt was rhetorical rather than reflecting her actual thoughts. According to this snippet, a novel is very far from a bag that one grabs a few things and chucks them in... it is conscious artistry, selecting and focusing on pattern in the midst of un-pattern. There are, of course, many ways to make a pattern, but a novel (or similar crafted piece of fiction) always has one.

    This is why I don't think ACH (which certainly has an aspect of being things thrown in a bag) should be considered a novel. That said, it doesn't help us much figure out what it is. My point is the reader it produces isn't the of the same type as that made by a novel.

    And I think this applies equally to games, which produce types of players.

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    edited June 18

    @NeilNjae said:

    @Apocryphal said:
    On Cultural Appropriation

    Several of the essays made me wonder what Le Guin would have thought of cultural appropriation. In the essay Indian Uncles she tells us: "Here we run into the moral problem we storytellers share with you anthropologists: the exploitation of real people. People should not use other people." And yet, I don't feel I understand her any better. She did draw on other people and cultures in her fiction. Did she use them?

    Yes, she did use them. Yes, it's appropriation: there are lots of non-Western concepts in ACH. The question is whether it's harmful to the originating cultures. And I don't think it is. I think she's holding up these stories as a challenge for us Western readers to reconsider the values we assume.

    I agree she did use them, because that is our present and already developed situation. Her moral premise (should not use) is defeated by everyday life - of course people use other people, and should use them, and should be willing to be used. Moral questions are not about how to act within (Condor like) purity, but rather how does one use people in a moral way. As much as I love her writing, I think as she aged she became ever more uncomfortable in the face of the complex impurities which a contemporary morality remains within, and retreated into puritan utopia. I think Stone Telling's story reveals this, in her discomfort with having a servant. LeGuin clearly loved individual persons, and her best stories shine a light on them in a way that makes the reader love them too, but she seems quite cranky when presented with peoples, retreating into clichés.

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    > @BarnerCobblewood said:
    > LeGuin clearly loved individual persons, and her best stories shine a light on them in a way that makes the reader love them too, but she seems quite cranky when presented with peoples, retreating into clichés.

    What an excellent and helpful way to phrase it :)
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    > @NeilNjae said:
    > (Quote)
    > Are these stories the same, but ending at different places? Higher beings evolve, first to take care of us, then to transcend and move on to higher things.

    Which was also pretty much the plot line of _Her_ though focused largely on a few individuals rather than society as a whole
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