Fictional truth and secondary worlds
The (more or less verbatim, but certainly not 100% accurate) text of my video on Fictional Truth and Secondary Worlds can be found below.
1. In this episode, I want to talk about fictional truth and secondary worlds in traditional as well as interactive fiction. But I’ll start by talking again about the game I discussed in the first episode of this series, the game 9:05 by Adam Cadre. Just like last time, I will spoil the story – so if you would prefer to play it unspoiled, you should pause this video now and return later.
2. Let’s ask this question: what is the story of 9:05? Since it’s an interactive piece in which you can reach multiple endings, there’s no simple answer to that. How it ends depends on what you do. If you’re a first time player, you are very likely to end up seeing the following text, which summarises what you, as the protagonist, have been doing:
a burglar broke into an East Las Mesas home, killed the owner and stashed his body under the bed, put his possessions in the trunk of his car – and then fell asleep, woke up the next morning, went to his victim’s office and tried to do the victim’s job!
3. No doubt 9:05 is one of very few works of fiction that end with a summary of the action; and one of even fewer where this summary is surprising to the reader. Its whole conceit is that you, as a first time player, will assume that you wake up in your own apartment and need to get to work. Turns out the facts are bit different!
4. Of course once they’ve realised this, most players will restart the game and replay for a different story. You’ll still be a burglar who broke into an East Las Mesas home, killed the owner, and so forth… but instead of going to the victim’s office, the “winning” ending involves driving off into the sunset with your ill-gotten loot.
5. But here’s something that happened to Filip Hracek when he recently played 9:05. Filip played through the apartment in the usual way, not finding out about the dead man beneath the bed or the loot in the trunk, or anything else that suggested a crime; then he got into the car; but he didn’t stop at the Loungent Technologies office, instead driving on and seeing the “winning” ending appear on the screen, which goes like this:
You merge onto the freeway, crank up the radio, and vanish without a trace.
*** You have left Las Mesas ***
6. So here’s the way the Filip described the story he experienced: “For me, the game was about a guy being fed up with their job, and leaving their town without a trace.”
7. What I’m interested in in this video is the following question: did Filip read a story about a guy who was fed up with his job, or did he read – without realising it – a story about a homicidal burglar? Here’s another way to put that. Was there, in the story that Filip Hracek played, a dead man under the bed? Even though no word about that ever appeared on the screen? How should we even answer such a question? This is where we need to start thinking about fictional truth.
8. So what is fictional truth? Take, for example, the claim that Hercule Poirot, the famous detective from the novels of Agatha Christie, was born in Belgium. Strictly speaking, that claim is not true. Hercule Poirot never existed, so he was never born, and so he can’t have been born in Belgium. But there is a sense in which we do want to say that it’s true that Poirot was born in Belgium, and false that he was born in France, much to the surprise of many of the people he meets. This is the sense of ‘true’ that we want to capture when we talk about fictional truth. In the stories, or in the world of the stories, it is true that Poirot was born in Belgium.
9. Philosophers have been debating for ages what fictional truth really amounts to. It’s not the case that something is fictionally true just in case it is explicitly stated in the text. For instance, if you have an unreliable narrator, something can be stated in the text and yet fail to be fictionally true. On the other hand, something may never be said in the text, and yet be fictionally true. Suppose that Poirot is at a party, talking to people. It may never be said that Poirot is wearing clothes – and yet it is clearly fictionally true that he’s not there in his birthday suit.
10. Now what I want to zoom in on is the idea that fictional truth is truth in or about a fictional world. It is quite tempting to think of fictional texts as describing an alternate world for us. And so fictional truth works just like real truth, except that where real truth is about the real world, fictional truth is about a fictional or secondary world. When we say that it’s true that Frodo went to Mordor, what we mean is that in the secondary world created by Tolkien, Frodo went to Mordor.
11. But tempting as it is, there are at least two things that create serious trouble for the idea that a text could describe a fictional world, and that fictional truth works just like real truth except that its about a different world. The first source of trouble is that the real world is always determinate, or maximally specific. As you can see, I have some hairs on my head. I don’t know how many hairs I have, but there is a fact about that – we could, theoretically, count them and arrive at a precise number.
12. But fictional worlds are not maximally specific. It is fictionally true in The Lord of the Rings that Frodo has hairs on his feet; but for no precise number is it fictionally true that Frodo has precisely that many hairs. In the same way, a person in the real world must be male, or female, or non-binary. But the protagonist of 9:05 is, as far as I can tell, neither male, nor female, nor non-binary. Which is not to say that the protagonist falls in some mysterious further category; rather, there is just no fictional truth about the gender of the protagonist. But this of course means that a fictional world is a very strange kind of world, and fictional entities are very strange entities.
13. The second and perhaps even more radical problem comes from the fact that the real world has to be consistent. Perhaps I will be eaten by a crocodile in the next part of this video. Perhaps I will not. But it cannot be the case that I will be both eaten and not eaten by a crocodile. An inconsistent state of affairs would be literally inconceivable. However, there is absolutely no reason that a text of fiction must be consistent.
14. Inconsistencies may creep in by accident; for instance when an author tells us in chapter 1 that Harry was born in 1934 and in chapter 17 that he was born in 1936. But authors can also use inconsistencies on purpose. Here’s a simple example: “On a beautiful spring day, Harry met Sally. They danced, kissed, and fell asleep together under the rose bushes. The next day Harry woke up alone. Sally, he found out when he asked around, had been dead for ten years.” Clearly, this is not consistent. If Sally is dead, she can’t be spending her time dancing and kissing.
14A. To be sure, readers have been trained to try and make such narratives consistent. Perhaps Sally was a ghost? Perhaps it was all a dream? But the text need not help us do this; in fact it may actively resist it. For example, Nabokov’s novel Invitation to a Beheading constantly undercuts our attempts to make the narrative consistent, until at the end the entire fiction unravels. This is completely intentional; as I read it, the book is about the fakeness of our socially constructed world. Clearly, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about the fictional world of such a novel. There’s not enough consistency for there to be a world.
15. The lesson I would like to draw from these examples is that the idea of a fictional world that is revealed by a work of fiction is, at best, an idealisation, and at worst, a total misrepresentation of what goes on when we read the text. But now we have entered fraught ideological territory. For there are certainly those who believe that the point of fiction is precisely to set before us a fictional world, consistent and as completely conceived as possible.
15.A I didn’t pick the example of Frodo at random; much of the not inconsiderable genius of J. R. R. Tolkien was expended towards precisely this goal of creating a coherent fictional world. In fact, it was Tolkien who coined the terms ‘secondary world’ and ‘sub-creation’ to describe what he made. And generations of readers have indeed experienced Middle Earth as a place of which it makes sense to ask what there is at geographical locations never visited in the story; or to ask what happened in bygone eras that the text does not explicitly talk about. In other words, generations of readers have chosen or have felt compelled to treat the books as if they were windows onto another world.
16. The legacy of Tolkien is enormous. Indeed, I have no doubt that he is the twentieth century’s single most influential author of fiction. So much of our contemporary popular culture is based on the vision of Tolkien. Every time you see fans – fans of Star Wars, fans of The Witcher, fans of Harry Potter – every time you see them discuss questions of canonicity, questions of which events are ‘really’ part of their preferred fictional world, they are moving squarely within this ideology of Tolkien. Every time fans are angry because a new book or film or game contradicts the supposed canon, what they are doing is, they wish to restrict creative freedom in the name of this ideology of the secondary world.
17. There is, of course, a contrasting ideology, and I’d like to introduce it using the words of fantasy and science fiction author M. John Harrison. Harrison wrote the following about the Tolkienian way of writing, in a post I’ll link to below the video. He says:
Representational techniques are used to validate the invention, with the idea of providing a secondary creation for the reader to “inhabit”; but also, in a sense, as an excuse or alibi for the act of making things up, as if to legitimise an otherwise questionable activity. This kind of worldbuilding actually undercuts the best and most exciting aspects of fantastic fiction, subordinating the uncontrolled, the intuitive & the authentically imaginative to the explicable; and replacing psychological, poetic & emotional logic with the rationality of the fake.
18. Harrison goes on to argue that this idea of the secondary world diminishes the creative and playful aspects of reading. Rather than the reader being invited to play with the text, perhaps getting strange and unexpected results, the text is presented as revealing a pre-existing truth thought up by the author; and the author, instead of a human communicating with other humans, is presented as a kind of omnipotent and omniscient creator-God of his fictional world. Here is Harrison again:
Reading was always “active”; the text itself always demanded the reader’s interaction if the fiction was to be brought forth. There was always a game being played, between writers and readers, who knew they were gaming a system, & who were delighted to engage each other on those terms. Worldbuilding is the province of people who, like Tolkien, actually resist the idea it’s a game, and have installed their “secondary creation” concept as an aggressive defense of that position.
19. The way that Harrison frames the issue, then, is as a conflict between two ways of experiencing fiction. On the one hand, there’s the idea that a text is primarily a way for the author and the reader to engage in a creative, game-like process, the results of which could be highly unexpected, not just for the reader, but also for the author. On the other hand, there’s the idea that an author creates a truth that the text reveals to the reader, a truth that is to some extent sacrosanct and to be treated with respect. For Harrison this is also a political issue; it’s a progressive versus a conservative ideal of reading.
20. Now perhaps you think that he is taking things too far, that Tolkien would just roll his eyes when he heard this and would say – nah, I just wanted to tell a nice story. If so, you are wrong. I have for you a fragment of Tolkien’s poem Mythopoeia, in which he dismisses the idea of progress and explicitly thinks of himself as a little god wielding a little golden sceptre in his poetic sub-creation. I quote:
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends -
I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker's art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
21. I don’t want to insist here that Harrison is right, that there is something wrong with the Tolkienian position. Although I must admit that debates about what is or is not canon – did Han shoot first? is Dumbledore gay? – are almost incomprehensible to me; so yes, I do deep down think that Harrison is totally right about the nature of fiction. But for now I want us to at least be aware that when we engage with a fictional text as if it is describing a coherent secondary world, then this is a choice; this is only one way of engaging with the text, and a way that will be unable to do justice to certain texts. You cannot fruitfully read Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading if you’re trying to see it as a window onto a secondary world. And you wouldn’t get very far in Harrison’s Viriconium series, in which consistency is often and very deliberately broken.
22. Let’s go back to 9:05. What changes when we move from traditional to interactive fiction? On the one hand, we usually have multiple ways in which the story can unfold, which changes the idea of fictional truth. It is not true in 9:05 that the burglar is caught, or that the burglar escapes; what is true is that either could happen. But of course in any particular playthrough only one of these possibilities can be realised; and then we can talk about fictional truth. So for interactive fiction that concept seems to apply more to a playthrough than to the work itself. This means that interaction with the reader is already built into our conception of truth in IF.
23. But there is another aspect of interactive fiction, and especially of parser interactive fiction, that does the opposite, that strengthens the idea of the game presenting a secondary world. This is the fact that parser games almost always have a world model: they actually do present you with a world that you inhabit, that you can move around in, that you can manipulate. It is a central conceit of most parser games that you must experiment with the world in order to understand it and then successfully act in it. And this of course perfectly fits the idea that the fiction reveals a fictional world.
24. Be that as it may, the author of a parser game does have all freedom the author of traditional fiction has. She can use just as much ambiguity and inconsistency as a Nabokov or a Harrison. Nothing forces her to present a consistent world. When we play interactive fiction, we know that it’s game of exchange between the author and the reader; how far we want to take this dimension of play, and in what directions, is our collective choice as a community.
25. So, let’s return to our original question. Did Filip Hracek play – without noticing – a story about a criminal who got away with his crime? Or did he play a story about a guy who was fed up with his work and drove away into the sunset? If you love the idea of secondary worlds, if you’re in the Tolkien camp, you’ll lean towards the first answer. You’ll claim that there was a corpse beneath the bed, even if Filip never noticed it. You’ll claim that the fictional world was Adam Cadre’s to make, and ours to explore; and that a failure to explore certain parts of it cannot change Cadre’s creation.
26. But if you’re more of a Harrisonian thinker, you would hold the opposite opinion; that there was no corpse, or better: that it is not true that there was a corpse, since no corpse appeared in the exchange between Cadre and Hracek, and fictional truth is something that happens in the exchange between author and reader. And you’ll no doubt delight, like I do, in this unexpected possibility that 9:05 is sometimes not about a burglar; that there are fictional truths in this program that even Adam Cadre may never have thought of. That interactivity in fiction can create a richness of possibilities that may surprise even the author. Surely, that is one of the things that makes IF so fascinating.