It’s time for another go at this.
What is world creation? For several months now I’ve been reading Juvaini’s The History of The World-Conqueror. This work is relatively unknown in the West and was written as an account of the doings of the Mongols in an epoch changing cascade of events. The writer (‘Ala-ad-Din ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini) was born in 1226 which is just under 800 years ago. He was born into an important family of the time and knew personally Il-Khan Hülegü, the Mongol conqueror of Baghdad (who was also a grandson of Genghis Khan). I came to this work having begun my eastern journey through Idries Shah’s and Doris Lessing’s writings, 30 years back with a curiosity about the origins of the West.
Hindsight is a great and curious thing; at the time the Pope sought alliances with the Turco-Mongol hordes; Europe was then a convoluted mix of petty kingdoms and realms, long fallen into the dark ages. It was on the fringe of things. The Mongols would regard such entreaties as the pleadings of rude yokels and, to be fair, even Venice (pop circa 120k) stuffed full of Byzantine loot, wasn’t a patch on the ancient and wealthy cities of the Silk Road. The Silk Road routes were choke points for trade; once the cities and their civilian populations were massacred, there was peace; the peace of the charnel house, perhaps interrupted by the soft calls of crows, dogs, vultures and other carrion creatures as they feasted on human flesh.
The dead belonged to the Khwarezmian empire – a meaningless name now. To get an idea of geographical extent of that long ago country, think Greater Persian Empire of which present day Iran would be just a province. It had a population in excess of 30 million.
As as far as we in the West are concerned, the piece-de-resistance of Mongol Empire building was the destruction of Baghdad – this occurred in Juvaini’s life time. However he concludes his narrative a couple of years earlier with the destruction of the Assassins at Alamut. Juvaini considered himself Khwarezmian; he joined the Mongols as an administrator. As conquerors, the Mongols decided who lived and who didn’t, those who lived would quite naturally be only the useful; they picked and chose who: administrators, interpreters, craftsmen, builders, slaves, whores… the rest were either taken as levies (expendable troops) or systematically butchered.
The Mongols destroyed the last of the classical civilisations, in the process, snuffing out the Golden Age of Islam. This cleared the decks for new civilisations to take centre stage. For a while it looked like the despotic Turco-Mongol successor states would dominate. Most of those realms have been swept into the rubbish bin of history due to European expansion.
The History of The World-Conqueror won’t be finished soon and will bear rereading. Just as echoes of Aristotle’s and Plato’s thought permeate the West, I see echoes of the final breaking of that world, in the present day. (Breaking of the World – what a great line by Robert Jordan). The West and everything in it is a by-blow of the world they destroyed… and created.
For me, World Creation begins with the unknown. ‘Write what you know’ we are admonished. A bit of a problem for SF. Who knows aliens? the shape of the future? SF demands you suspend disbelief. Yet given the size of the market this isn’t a big ask.
You cross the border from our social construct of reality, to the author’s world. As you read, you collaborate, filling in missing details. Not every morsel is consumed at first reading so at a later point you examine that crossing anew.
We believe that closing the pages removes us from the power of the author. A comforting fiction. The power comes when you, as reader, join the dots to see the scheme behind the work. Some writers are cunning, they let you do the work and give you the opportunity to come up with different answers. Others methodically nail down every bit of plot, leaving little room for alternate reading. The pattern stays in memory.
Some books I come back to, e.g. Galactic Pot Healer. Philip K. Dick’s dark wit examines philosophical and mystical issues when Joe Fernwright, a (mostly) unemployed pot healer, accepts a commission from an almost godlike alien. In Dick’s universe, even super-powerful aliens have existential problems. On first reading I wanted the conclusion to have more ‘happy-ever-after’ in it.
Dick’s fiction helped steer me away from the formulaic.