A Few MORE thoughts on Worldbuilding with Food, and Art

So, a few weeks ago, I posted some Thoughts on Worldbuilding. And in the natural course of things, another blogger linked to it here.

Now, while it’s always flattering to have people link to your blog, because it means that they found what you had to say worthwhile (or at least, worth screaming about), I fear that my colleague of teh Interwebz misunderstood the technique I was trying to highlight. Because he (or she) had this to say:

“Food is the easiest but only becomes a concern when the characters don’t have a steady reliable supply of it. Or if they are moving between multiple cultures. Art and music are best left for the slower parts of the story and again would only be noticed if the character is operating outside his usual culture.”

And the problem is that this is both right and wrong at the same time. It lacks imagination, and it lacks an understanding of the role of the storyteller.

Now, it’s correct to say that noticing food, art and music are best done in the “slower” parts of the story, but that in itself reveals a limited understanding of pacing. Certainly, you don’t want characters thinking of food, art and music during a gun battle or a chase. But a fast pace, or rising tension, do not have to encompass anything that is literally fast or athletically active. Consider, for example, the dinner-party scene in Frank Herbert’s Dune. The tension rises inexorably as the various factions present do verbal battle for supremacy, and through it all, the food lays out a vibrant background that illuminates the cultures of Arrakis and the Imperium. It has nothing to do with a lack of supply, and little to do with multiple cultures.

But there are always multiple cultures in the act of telling a story. At least, there are two: the real culture of the real reader, and the artificial culture of the work. And even in a contemporary novel of America, food and art and music can be used to signal what things are important to the characters. Is this a man who turns up his nose at scotch improperly oaked? Or a man who enjoys ketchup sandwiches? Does she listen to Rob Zombie, or Pink Floyd?  Or Vivaldi. Does he notice the Warhol print in Wal-mart and spend money on it? Or is he going to snort at that and smugly congratulate himself on his understanding of Pollock?

Now, in F/SF, you have a whole culture to map out. It’s a challenge when your characters are intimately familiar with that culture, and they’re certainly not going to say things like, “Welcome to our home, Bob and Linda! Do sit down and partake of these lovely snarf-burgers, the principal Arcturan delicacy!” But look at what S.M. Stirling does in his excellent book, the Peshawar Lancers. He has to set up an alternate 21st century in which the United States was destroyed, and most of Europe crippled, by a cometary impact. It’s over a century later, and the British Raj is the dominant power. How does he portray this in the opening scenes of the novel?

Well, for one, he has his principal heroine sit down in the lavishly appointed dining room of an airship. She notices all the dishes (because of course we notice what we are eating, whether we are in a different culture or not) and her mind wanders to the huge reproduction of a famous mural that dominates the dining room, portraying the Exodus from England as the government of Great Britain removes itself from the Thames, sailing to Delhi. She then thinks how monstrously inappropriate a scene that includes cannibalism is for a dining room and of the Kipling Cantos that inspired the artist to paint such a thing. And so, in a couple of pages, we are treated to a snapshot of the culture of the 21st-Century Raj combined with a good deal of backstory which the heroine has good reason to be thinking of. It flows with a brilliant ease and never feels artificial, and it all comes from a lady sitting down and dining alone inside her own culture.

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