This is a corollary to my novel writing post this week–specifically, in regards to how the novel can perhaps adjust to historical and cultural circumstances. In a field and a mode of writing (whether speculative or fabulist) that prides itself on world-building, how does one respond to the appalling lack of basic geographical knowledge among American citizens?
After more than three years of combat and nearly 2,400 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 still cannot find Iraq on a map, a study released Tuesday showed.
The study, which surveyed 510 young Americans from December 17 to January 20, showed that 88 percent of those questioned could not find Afghanistan on a map of Asia despite widespread coverage of the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the political rebirth of the country.
In the Middle East, 63 percent could not find Iraq or Saudi Arabia on a map, and 75 percent could not point out Iran or Israel. Forty-four percent couldn’t find any one of those four countries.
[this one is my favorite]
Fewer than three in 10 think it important to know the locations of countries in the news and just 14 percent believe speaking another language is a necessary skill.
(This study was done for 18-24 year-olds, but they’re the ones who are going to be the reading constituency in upcoming years, more and more–it’s only going to get worse.)
A cheery set of statistics, is it not? And this in a time when America is, well, more publicly expressing its global power all over the world–in the Middle East, of course, but also Central Asia and the Horn of Africa.
Does this ignorance have any bearing on the way we write worlds? Should it? I think that it does; or at least, presents differing strategies. None of which should be a default or normative.
The most common is to create a surplus of geographical information, to supersaturate a text with significant detail and places, as a kind of counterweight to the prevailing ignorance of the ascendant cultural mores and emphases. The textures of an imaginary place, in other words (or imaginary events superimposed on real places), can provide an excitement about spaces where a narrative unfolds.
The other is trickier–it involves riding the crazy train that is our American society until it drops and buckling one’s narrative to the ignorance. This lack of basic knowledge, in other words, is the story, and can’t be ignored or written-off (“oh, well, those people aren’t going to be my readers anyway”), and its structural underpinnings need to be the story. I don’t mean as a kind of Jonathan Kozol fanfic, but A narrative strategy along these lines might involve deliberately obfuscating geography. This would be the mimesis–sort of a mimesis about everyone’s lack of realism. Letting the ignorance bleed into the narrative, as a way to hold it up to the light. The lack of geographical knowledge, in turn, is a lens into a host of other issues: the stresses of a service-based economy, the inchoate qualities of our entertainment circuses, and the nature of those who do know their geography.
(I’m sure most 18 to 24-year-old evangelicals know exactly where Israel is.)
Either way, all of these issues aren’t necessarily going to be tackled literally in SF/F–but can be the foundations for whatever crazy-ass antics (and metaphoric conceits) happen to be going on in a narrative anyway. It comes down to the characters, and how the characters perceive themselves and the world around them, however inconsistently.
Maybe the characters–even the protagonists–don’t care about the nuances of the world around them.
It certainly wouldn’t be a stretch. But however world-building is approached, it has to be recognized…as an approach and not written in stone. Sometimes significant parsing of a world through writing, an accumulation of details that all hang together, is just a distraction from what’s really happening underneath the novel’s skin. Sometimes the world shouldn’t be built, and as the characters wander through the shambles of their own perceptions, they can take you, possibly, where you don’t want to go–but where the novel needs to go.