Friday, July 27, 2018

Design Space in Fiction

Growing up, one of my favourite card games was Magic: the Gathering. Wizards of the Coast lead designer Mark Rosewater has a fantastically written column, Making Magic, that goes into the details of what it takes to create Magic cards. With their endless permutations and their medieval-ish fantasy themes, Magic cards have a lot in common with fiction books.

One of my favourite concepts Rosewater explores in Making Magic is something called "design space".

In short, design space is what hasn't been done within a specific medium but that is a logical offshoot from what is currently available. It's the innovation that fills in the gaps. For example, if the first two Magic cards ever printed had been a red creature with 1 power and a red creature with 3 power, "red creature with 2 power" becomes an obvious card design.

How does this relate to fiction?
  • Substantial portions of fiction, especially genre fiction, are effectively fictional adaptations of non-fictional subjects. Historical fiction adapts history. Most science fiction adapts physics, chemistry or engineering. Didactic instructional tales frequently adapt religion or philosophy.
    • Which other subjects can be adapted? I've been doing this with diplomatic history. political science, industrial relations and economics in my upcoming novel, Burning Clouds. By digging deeper into these less-mined fields, I'm using design space.
  • Related concepts can be substituted for each other. For example, houses can be made of wood instead of bricks. Positive: houses can be built faster. Negative: wildfires are suddenly terrifying. In fiction, this usually occurs more as "what if dragons breathed ice instead of fire?" or "what if people had flying cars instead of... non-flying cars?"
    • I explore this concept in depth when discussing the replacement of fantasy-style magic with mysticism. To ape my above example, Positive: characters have greater reliance on technology, precluding Harry Potter-style wizard luddite-ism. Negative: battle scenes become less Tigana and more "let's scope out our enemies from a mile away and then lob artillery shells at them". I'm thankful I write such good diplomatic conference scenes.
  • Fiction often borrows from other media. The possibilities here are endless. Borrowing from modernist literary theory? Why not also borrow from modernist architecture?
    • I've done this in coining the term "literary hyperrealism". By combining Henry James-style realism, which I've been reading for years, with influences from hyperrealist painting, I've been working on a style (or is it a genre?) in which the action follows the characters so closely the reader can feel every breath, twitch or drop of sweat. See this post and this Quora answer for more.
Once you start thinking of established genres as hollow rather than solid, or as frames rather than as buildings, you can start filling in the gaps. Rather than describe someone else's world, you can squeeze into that spot within a genre, or between genres, to create your own.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Overload Nostalgia

There's a phenomenon* in the arts, culture, fashion, and everything else that's capable of being current or trendy. It can happen to anyone, although it happens most often to people who seek depth rather than breadth in their interests. The phenomenon is: any effort aimed at being as thorough as possible will eventually end up dooming someone to living in the past.

I call it Overload Nostalgia.

Not an overload of nostalgia, but rather, overload that causes nostalgia.

Here's an example: I've listened to 46 albums that were released in 2018. I'm on pace to listen to approximately 79 albums released in 2018 by the end of the year. That's a lot of albums for someone who doesn't work in the music industry. However, it's a tiny fraction of the albums that have been released in 2018 so far, let alone the ones yet to come.

If I attempt to listen to every single album released in 2018, I'll be listening to 2018 releases well into the 2020s. If I add on every 2016 album and every 2017 album, I'll be well into the 2030s, despite the supply remaining fixed. By the time I reach some albums that are new to me, the artists will be nostalgia acts. There's simply no way to process this much information without everything getting horribly backlogged, and - here's the key - my hypothetical 2016-2018-obsessed self missing out on all the great albums of 2019, 2020 and onward.

This applies with other media, such as paintings, books or video games. It's especially bad with watching or reading the news. One day's current events, told from every outlet's perspective, and then including various places' local news items, could take a near eternity to read.

While this is all very fun, what's the practical application?

Overload nostalgia:
  • Helps explain why we need canons, in everything from books to music to movies, even when we disagree with them or temporarily abandon them. Any oldies radio station sifting through every single '60s song, for example, would take years before returning to an old favourite.
  • Cuts slack for the seemingly excessive trendiness of popular media. Surface-level analyses are important because depth can result in the entire outlet becoming bogged down in a single event or topic.
I post this as I listen to a classic heavy metal album from 1990 that I had never heard all the way through before. Next, I'll put on something else.

*A trope, if you will.