Wednesday, 23 November 2011

On the wrongness of hobbits

It is Hevensday today...

Fantasy and science fiction are characterized, more than by anything else, by taking place in worlds that are significantly different from the world that the writer (and reader) lives in.

The characters who live in such a world need to make choices; that's how personality is shown. That's what personality is: The values, morals, preferences and inclinations, of an individual, as seen in the choices that he or she makes.

The reader must be able to appreciate and evaluate these choices, form an opinion of them, and one criterion for good fantasy or good science fiction is that the choices must be dependent upon at least some of the ways in which the world of the story is different from the world that the writer (and reader) lives in1. In order to make this evaluation of the character, the reader must therefore know how the world works, how the new or strange or otherwise different things in the world works. The reader has to know the rules.

How can the reader come to know the rules?

There are three four ways that I know of, for a writer of prose fiction to convey this vitally important information about the world to the reader.

Four methods, not equal
One is to explain it directly to the reader, in the narrative. This is jarring, and it is also violating when combined with what today is the preferred2 kind of point of view, the internal POV (whether 1st or 3rd person). It is also extremely insulting to those readers who already know the second method of information transfer, creating - justifiedly - the sense that the reader is being talked down to. And it messes up pacing, causing the story to stop while the important stuff is explained directly in the narrative.

The second method is to utilize the sophisticated method which has evolved over the decades, chiefly among science fiction authors, but which also works eminently well for fantasy authors (and authors of historical fiction): The genre protocol. Other than to say that this is the way to do it, I won't touch much upon this subject in this post, if at all, but I'll return to it again and again and again in later entries.

The third method, which is so horribly intellectually offensive that I nearly forgot to include it in this post, is to have the characters tell each other things that they already know. I think of this as AsYouKnowBobbery. It is so wrong and intellectually offensive that it makes the fourth solution look almost tolerable in comparison. Fortunately the intrinsic and extreme ridiculousness of this third method is obvious to everyone who has even a quarter of a functioning brain, whereas the wrongness of the fourth solution is only obvious to those who know of the second method, in exactly the same way that the act of using a stone as a hammer looks wrong only to those who are aware of the existence of materials vastly superior for hammering tasks.

The fourth method is to have the protagonist be a hobbit.

Concerning hobbits
A hobbit is a character who does not know the delta-w. In effect the world that he comes from, the things he takes for granted, are very, very much like the world (and the things) with which the reader is familiar (and takes for granted).

Thus conveniently this furry-footed little abomination needs to have everything new and strange and unfamiliar explained to him, in dialog, by other characters who are in the know. It's like AsYouKnowBobbery, except that Bob doesn't already know. It is thus legitimate for Joe to tell Bob stuff. Legitimate from an in-world logic, but cheap and without any intellectual legitimacy nowadays, when there exists a functioning solution that is infinitely superior in every way.

Back when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the genre protocol didn't exist - although Heinlein was probably hard at work inventing it while LotR was being finished. Thus Tolkien is excused for using hobbits, and one can also argue that an author in the 1960s or the 70s, especially an author of fantasy, has some limited degree of excuse, although it is important to note that Le Guin did not have hobbits in A Wizard of Earthsea.

But to use a hobbit in more recent times? In the 1980s? Or today?

Sorry, no, my respect is earned, and people who cannot perform difficult intellectual work have a bit of a problem in that regard. If you want to write fantasy or science fiction, write it properly.

Do not use cheap solutions like hobbits. A better method exists, for conveying information to the inside of the reader's head.

(Of course as I've alluded to above, much of what offends me about this is that hobbits are not visibly cheap, the same way AsYouKnowBobbery is. Everyone who matters can immediately see the stupidity of AsYouKnowBobbery, and the rest just need to have it briefly explained, whereas understanding the intrinsic wrongness of hobbits is decidedly non-trivial.)

Peter Knutsen (177 180 cm tall) typed these letters

1. Otherwise the strangeness of the world is just a background. It doesn't matter that the story takes place on a space station, or in a bronze age village. It's just scenery; empty, impact-less "narrative visuals". The protagonist gets to observe something (that was once perhaps) sense-of-wonder-inducing, such as a binary sunset, but neither he nor anyone he interacts with are different in terms of how they think, nor are the options available to them different.

2. And for good reason. Storytelling from an internal and subjective point of view is an extremely powerful tool.


  1. Hi Peter,

    I really like this blogpost and I find, that you are quite right about the best way to build your world is by using the genre protocol - although as a fantasy writer my experience is, that when you need it most, it seems to be written with invisible ink and you have to probe your way in the darkness ;)

    I do miss one thing in your blog post: what about the reader? If a reader is unfamiliar with a genre (in this case obviously fantasy) what do you think is the best way to learn the genre protocol? Should the reader just sit down and begin to read learning along the way? Or is it better to research a little beforehand? Since litterature is very much about the reading EXPERIENCE the first option seems the most viable, but if the learning curve is too steep, it may be a problem? Well, to wrap it up: say I would like to introduce my 65 year old mom to fantasy and get her to like the genre. How would you suggest getting her to know the genre protocol and understand it?

    Nice blog by the way!

  2. Hi Sven

    That's a very good question!

    Do keep in mind, though, that the protocol is not about building the world, but about conveying information, about the world, to the reader (although Walton does describe the process of reading an SF story as building the world of the story in one's head).

    As an aside, for fantasy worldbuilding, I can recommend Patricia Wrede's "Worldbuilding Questions", which are available several places on the web such as these:
    < >
    < >
    (I cannot vouch for either of these versions in terms of them not having HTML or internal link problems, but even if they are faulty, they ought to give you an idea of what Wrede's work is about.)

    To a lesser extent the RPG product "GURPS Fantasy" by Willaim Stoddard is also worthwhile (be sure you get the new version by Stoddard; the original book of that title has a different focus and is not, as I understand it, a world building aid at all). Or if you wish to make a science fiction world, any version of GURPS Space from 2nd edition onwards is very good, especially for a space travel-focused project (presumably the 1st edition is similar in focus to the newer ones, but I have not read it so I cannot speak of it).

    James Gunn's article on the protocol deals only with science fiction, striclty speaking, but it has long been clear to me that there is a very similar protocol for reading fantasy, excepting that fantasy which takes place in a very well known world, by which I mean D&D fiction, or "extruded fantasy" (mocked by Diana Wynne Jones in "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland"), or faerie-tale land (the folk tales collected by Grimm, and by Asbjoernsen and Moe, and the "kunstmärchen" ("kunsteventyr" in Danish) by Andersen and others) - for such works you don't NEED any protocol.

    The fantasy procotol, when needed, is pretty much about using the same methods as the science fiction protocol, and historical fiction (excepting that which is infested with hobbits, or which utilizes AsYouKnowBobbery) also requires a very similar protocol, although as with familiar fantasy worlds it can to some extent "lean on" the reader already having some knowledge of the past setting.

    Originally I assumed that people who could not understand fantasy and science fiction, in the "protocol" sense of the word (not in the sense of understanding any silly literary symbolism), were intellectually deficient. That's always the first step in my figuring-out-why-people-are-broken "sifting process": "Is this person not smart enough?" (if that question seems not to be pertinent, then I move on to other questions). In this case it seemed more like mental inflexibility, rather than insufficient intelligence, but nevertheless I assumed it was a brain problem.

    Because of that, Gunn's article, which I read about a decade ago, was rather a revelation for me, since it explained to me why some smart people could not understand the fictional texts that I like so much.

    Ever since then, I wondered about how the protocol was actually acquired. How DO people learn to read this weird and underexplained shit?

    How did I learn it?

    I emailed Gunn some years later and asked him, giving as an example of protocol mismatch (although deliberate mismatch in this case, done for humorous effect) the "STAR WARS Technical Commentaries", which try to analyse the Star Wars trilogy as if they were hard science fiction works, and thus meant to be thought about; meant to be asked those kinds of questions of.
    < >

    Gunn had no answer for me, though. He could not explain to me how the protocol was acquired.

  3. Some years later, I came across the best answer I've seen so far (actually the only answer, but it's quite good anysay, although the prospects for your old mother are poor), in an entry in Jo Walton's blog at the Tor publishing house: < >

    In this blog entry, which is well worth reading (I refer to that entry of hers in particular, and possibly a few others as well, in some of my other blog entries), Jo Walton points out that when you're 12 (sometimes defined as "the golden age of science fiction" - not any specific decade, such as the first decade of Campbell's editorship, but when you yourself were 12), you're used to a lot of things going over your head, so you just keep reading, hoping you'll figure it out eventually.

    I don't think Walton elaborates on this aspect in particular, but when most people are very young, they don't have much factual knowledge of the world, and so they - at least fairly smart young people - quickly figure out to learn by inference, by implication. Not just when reading fantasy or science fiction, but in all contexts of life. When listening to adults conversing with each other. When watching television news, or movies.

    Nobody ever told me what a Swiss bank account was; when I was a child I figured it out myself, by inference, due to watching a lot of thriller movies.

    I saw how some characters talked secretively or excitedly about such accounts. I saw how some characters reacted with interest and suspicion, when they found out that other characters had such accounts. Gradually I began to understand what it was and what it was about. I built a mental model of what a Swiss bank account was, what it could do, what it was good for.

    While the inability to "get" SF is not usually due to mental inflexibility, it is an obvious and inarguable fact that 12 year olds are on average much more mentally flexible than we adults, and that 65 year olds are on average much less mentally flexible than younger adults like me and you.

    Orson Scott Card describes the "protocol" usage process very well in his nonfiction "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy", in chapter 4, using as an example the opening paragraphs of Octavia Butler's fantasy novel "Wild Seed", analyzing deeply, deriving much world meaning (meaning that coalesces gradually, as the text move on) from a very few sentences, exactly as a protocol-savvy reader would.

    If you can get your 65-year old mother to read those 10-or-so pages, that might work (and get her to read Butler's novel afterwards (or get her to start reading Butler's novel first, then when she gets stuck give her the "key" in the form of Card's 4th chapter).

    Or if you can read them yourself and then explain the process to her, using a good example text that she can read, i.e. a text in Danish, while you guide her through the process. Offhand I cannot think of any such texts that are really good for the purpose. Most of what I read when I was too young to read English, and in the following few years when I was still willing to read Danish, utilized one or several hobbits, or contained much AsYouKnowBobbery.

  4. One not-good-but-better-than-most place to begin could be the works by Gillian Bradshaw, especially her early works such as her "Down the Long Wind"-trilogy and her "Beacon of Alexandria, both available in Danish. "Beacon" might appeal more to your mother since it has a female protagonist, but it's a straight historical so what protocol there is is, strictly speaking, for historical fiction. There IS protocl, though. Bradshaw rarely overexplains, and your mother might derive some benefit from it, especially if you also read the novel and discuss it with her.

    Clavell's "Shogun" novel might also work, and the Danish translation is divided into four volumes in case your mother has problems with heavy books. It is a historical like Bradshaw's, although Blackthorne is sometimes treated like a hobbit, especially by Mariko who explain a lot to him.

    For fantasy, try the first "Wizard of Earthsea" novel. It's hobbit-free, and available in a very capable (by movie subtitler and Tintin re-translator Niels Søndergaard) translation.

    The following other works mentioned by me are available in the Danish library system, all in English only:
    "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland" by Wynne Jones
    "GURPS Fantasy" by Stoddard
    "GURPS Space 4th Edition" (I have not checked for earlier versions)
    "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy" by Card
    "Wild Seed" by Butler

    (The Star Wars movie trilogy may also be available on VHS or DVD. The first trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn, which is fantastically good, is in the Danish library system (I just looked), both in English and in translation (but it could well be a cheap rush-job like the first Harry Potter translations). I don't think it is a good place to acquire the protocol, though, but it may do a little good in the unlikely event that our mother is a Star Wars fan; she'll be very disappointed by the usually low quality of all the non-Zahn Star Wars novels, sadly.)

  5. Hi again,

    It suddenly occured to me, that I didn't get around to thank you for your thoughtfull answers. But consider that remedied now :) "Beacon" sounds interesting, I think. I will probably look into that one at some point (wish I had more time btw) ...

  6. By the way I added your site to my blogroll - hope you get a few visitors on that account :)