A way with worlds: 37 - God, Darwin, History
by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum
Page 1 of 2
During the latest American
election, I bitterly noted that too much politics was based on
three excuses; blame God, blame Darwin, blame history. I think it
was a nicely lucid moment of utter bile.
It struck me later that I'd
also hit on something in writing - that people often used excuses
for elements of their worlds. In fact, as I looked at it, the
same three excuses popped up in writing and worldbuilding as
well. There were moments when we as writers and worldsmiths would
lapse, and we'd resort to excuses.
Now when you have an insight
like that (and you're sober), it's one worth exploring. So, in
this column, I look at those three excuses and how they may pop
up in your writing and your worlds.
God (and in general the supernatural/theological) can
too easily become a plot device in stories, and too easily used
to justify actions, or wrap things up nice and tidy and all too
simply. You've probably seen the so-called "Hail Mary"
story endings, and can appreciate at times the term is all too
Of course, at the same time,
writing about the spiritual elements of your world may be vital,
even absolutely key to what you're doing. Certainly in any world
you design they can't be ignored.
In my experience
"supernatural abuse" tends to occur in stories where
the supernatural/spiritual elements are NOT thought out and
planned out carefully. In a world where the supernatural elements
are thought out by the worldbuilder, the author is unlikely to
violate his or her continuity. When such elements are not, it's
all to easy to invoke them to suddenly fix things, turn around
the plot, or use some simple pop-culture concepts.
Deus Ex Machina - the God
out of the Machine - was a description of the method of using
mechanical contrivance in plays to materialize a god (and
possibly wrap up inconvenient elements). The somewhat derogatory
use of the term obviously came about because some playwrights
overdid it - don't follow in their footsteps.
It seems to me that in real life if people aren't
explaining things by God, they're doing it by Darwin. However you
cut it though, an excuse is an excuse.
A common element I see used
in a variety of stories and worlds is to explain things by
"it's evolution" - usually used to excuse odd alien
races or used to excuse particularly brutal occurrences
("survival of the fittest, that's why no one commented on
the centuries-long genocide of the Margan Cluster, right?").
It's a nice way to get around dealing with the actual
complexities of biology or sociology.
Of course, dealing with the
actual complexities of things is what writings all about - if you
ignore complexities, you'll loose readers who fall into your plot
holes. Simply saying "The Klagotarian race is violent
because they needed to be to survive" says very little about
things, and reduces a race to a stereotype. Deciding
"survival of the fittest" boils down to a gladiatorial
match really has nothing to do with Darwin (and the various
co-theories, later theories, and concurrent theories of
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.