[The nice people at Microcon kindly asked me to speak at their event this year. This is my script for the talk I gave, tweaked to fit with where I remember cutting or adding bits off the cuff on the day.]
Hello, thank you all for coming and thanks to everyone involved in organising Microcon for inviting me. Apologies if my delivery is a little stilted, I haven’t done any public speaking in a while and haven’t had chance for a runthrough, so I’m reading from a script.
Anyway, please feel free to interrupt at any time with questions, although there’ll be time for discussion at the end so if you’d like to engage in a heated debate on something it might be better to wait ‘til then lest I completely lose my thread, such as it is.
My name’s Mark Clapham and I’m a writer. While I’ve written plenty of reviews and non-fiction stuff, my most substantial work has been writing books for ongoing series where I am one of many writers involved. Most notably I’ve written Doctor Who books for BBC Books and I’m currently working on Warhammer 40,000 novels for Black Library, the publishing arm of Games Workshop.
These books are part of bigger fictional worlds, shared universes which are gradually created and changed by the contributions of many writers, artists and other creative people.
They’re not necessarily the most literary and respectable part of SF and fantasy, but they’re a significant one, at least partially because they often appeal to younger age groups – there are very few fans of serious SF or fantasy who did not start out reading Star Wars comics or Doctor Who books or some similar mass market version of SF.
Beyond the fact that these series tend to be a genre gateway, as well as trading on the strength of an established brand name, I do think their nature as shared fictional universes gives them a different flavour. Even the most prolific writer has limits on their output, even the most diverse talent can only do so many things.
Whereas a work from many hands, a fictional world built by many creators, can have a complexity and possibility for contradiction that the more focussed SF produced by an author with a mission can’t attain. For many readers, this can be an appeal in itself – that a big shared universe has more backwaters to explore, more obscurities to uncover and, should it remain popular, can continue to grow beyond even the death of its original creators.
Today I’ll be talking about Who, about Warhammer 40K, and diverting into chatting about Judge Dredd and a few other things as it suits me. The title of this talk is –
‘Optimism and Cynicism in pop-SF shared universes’
– because I had to call it something.
I should really have put the word ‘British’ in there as well, but that would have been a ridiculously garbled title.
Anyway, optimism and cynicism.
I picked those two themes because they’re useful in gauging the tone of a shared universe, and tone, although an opaque concept at the best of times, is often the key to the appeal of a shared universe setting. Characters and creators may vary, plots may span different genre tropes, but there’s a tonal quality that distinguishes, say, a Doctor Who story from other stories that may feature time travel or aliens.
Tone is different to authorial voice. What, to me, distinguishes a shared universe from your average licensed property or spin-off is the ability for creators to contribute to that universe, for their own voices to emerge but for individual stories to lock together. No-one writes like Stan Lee any more, but we have a feel for what kind of universe the Marvel comic books he created are set in.
By contrast, it’s hard to imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer sprawling out into a true shared universe, because Joss Whedon’s writing style is imprinted on every facet of that series, and too much variation from that house style feels wrong.
But I digress. I mentioned Marvel, and there are few multi-author narratives like the major superhero comics that have been running continuously in the US since the 1930s, and Doctor Who is one of them. Although there’s a sixteen year gap in the middle of its fifty year broadcast history, that gap in TV production was filled with books, radio plays, and comic strips.
I wrote one and a half novels along with a short story during that period, and managed to get out of the Doctor Who business just before it became profitable again when the TV series restarted in 2005.
But that’s enough about my credentials. Suffice to say that there’s not been a year since the series’ creation in 1963 when new Doctor Who stories haven’t been created and consumed, and for at least two decades a month hasn’t passed without new Who.
Obviously people like reading about the Doctor Who universe, and writers like me and Mr Walters* like to add to it. So what makes this rolling, ever expanding pop-SF shared universe its appeal?
I know that the chances of anyone here not knowing the premise of Doctor Who are slim to non-existent, but it’s worth reiterating the basics just to provide a context for what I’m about to say.
So – the series is about an alien time traveler called the Doctor who travels in a time machine called the TARDIS with a number of friends, usually humans. The Doctor is a Time Lord, and this alien background allows him to regenerate into different actors, allowing for infinite recasts and for radical changes in his personality over time. The Doctor has had eleven different faces and personalities.
Generally Doctor Who stories are adventures, where the Doctor and friends will turn up on a planet or in a period of Earth’s history to find something nefarious going on, often of an alien or monstrous nature. There’ll be action, some scares, and eventually the Doctor will win out.
There are no rock solid rules to the loose science-fantasy universe the Doctor inhabits, beyond it never drifting into an outright fantasy world of magic and ghosts. Pretty much anything can happen, providing it can be covered by some generic technobabble. Science can do anything, every SF cliché is available for use, and various races including the Time Lords themselves are practically god-like in their capabilities.
Doctor Who is a curious example of a shared universe because there’s no ‘essential’ quality that you can point to which cannot be contradicted:
- You’d think the Doctor and TARDIS were the bedrocks of the show, but there are episodes where the Doctor doesn’t appear and whole serials where his time machine, the TARDIS, isn’t used at all.
- The Doctor is generally considered to be a character who fights monsters and villains, but there are stories with no clear antagonist, or few SF elements beyond the mechanism of time travel.
- The Doctor is also largely seen as a character who abhors violence, but there are plenty of counterexamples where he engages in physical combat or even picks up a gun.
- Sometimes the show majors in the time travel aspect, with a strong historical bent, at other periods the series has just bounced between alien planets and versions of a generic space future, barely dipping into history at all.
Now, if Doctor Who really was a do-anything fictional universe with no consistency whatsoever, an empty space that can just suck in any type of story and where everything is up for grabs, it wouldn’t inspire the level of devotion it does, because there would be no recurring elements to inspire such loyalty.
So there must be recurring themes that set the Doctor Who universe apart, even if there are none that are absolutely universal and applicable to every story.
Which brings me, finally, back to my central theme. There is a strong aspect of pessimism to the Doctor Who universe. It is full of threat. We know this because of the basic terminology with which we discuss the series: while other SF universes have alien races, the Doctor Who universe has monsters. Virtually every story has a strong antagonist and a deadly threat, whether that be a monster or a villainous plot. For most of its history it’s been an action adventure show, with constant peril.
Really, while the Doctor and his human companions profess to love the freedom of exploring all of time and space, and there’s certainly an appealing, imaginative quality and diversity to the idea of having a vast universe and the entirety of history to explore, it’s a wonder anyone leaves the house in the Doctor Who universe, because you can’t go anywhere without something terrible trying to kill you in a horrible, albeit gore-free and family friendly, way.
But if the format of Doctor Who requires that the lead characters be threatened with deadly danger the moment they step out of the TARDIS into a new time period or alien world at the start of the story, it equally requires that such threats be neutralised before our heroes depart at story’s end.
This is the fundamental optimism built into the Who universe: that there may be many problems, but they are all soluble with good intentions and intelligence. Unspeakable horrors may run rampant, killing off minor characters, but by story’s end they are banished or destroyed and a pleasant normalcy is restored.
That normalcy, no doubt deeply undramatic as various backwater human colonists get back to their futuristic farming or whatever, is allowed to come into existence because of the way the series shifts focus at the end of every story. Gotham City can never be cured of crime because that would give Batman nothing to do, but planets in Doctor Who can be entirely cleansed of evil influence because there’ll be a whole new world of trouble to explore next time.
In this sense there’s something of the classic western narrative to Doctor Who, just transferred to a far wider, more imaginative dramatic canvas. Just as the cowboy rides into a troubled town, shoots the outlaws then moves on, so the Doctor visits small community after small community, ridding them of aliens and bad guys before flying off to deal with the next problem.
This is a very comforting and reassuring form of storytelling. Compared to a real world full of difficult, complex problems the Doctor Who universe is a very straightforward place where bad things are sorted out quickly by good people being good.
While it has the trappings of science fiction, favouring technology and biology over magic and demons, the mechanics of how things happen are largely irrelevant: the conflicts are moral, rather than technical. The technology and technobabble are dramatic props: while much is made of the Doctor’s intelligence as a scientist, it is his strength of character that allows him to defeat his enemies, not his academic qualifications.
While the series is capable of doing political allegories, and there are plenty of satirical parallels littered throughout Who stories in all media, one of the strengths of Doctor Who is that it’s not tied to a specific agenda, or at least not one that can be clearly defined. Its core values are those of a fairy tale, where tyrants and ogres are bad and those who fight the bad things are good. It’s a supremely uncontroversial agenda.
I mentioned earlier that there’s nothing in Who that you can hold up as an absolute of the series that can’t be roundly contradicted by evidence from elsewhere in the series, and this contradictory nature adds to its appeal, providing a reflection.
The series has a general open-mindedness that makes the occasional mean spirited story seem jarring – for the benefit of long term fans I’ll name and shame the anti-peace movement ‘The Dominators’ and the proto-tea party anti-tax rantings of ‘the Sun Makers’ as examples. This is often taken as being a left wing agenda, and indeed there have been specifically politically motivated stories and conscious liberal strains within the series, such as the deliberate inclusion of gay characters in recent TV series, a steady normalising that will probably do more to change the attitude of the next generation than any number of serious documentaries.
However there’s also an element of fusty conservatism at the series’ heart. The Doctor is old, knowledgeable and virtually always right. He comes from a position of authority and seniority, and there’s something almost colonial about his position as the traveling English gentleman, traveling the universe to sort out all the problems space-foreigners can’t resolve for themselves. It’s a paternalistic worldview, one where only the Big White Man can solve the universe’s big problems.
These contradictions are both inclusive, as they allow viewers and readers of all stripes to see something they can identify within the complex character of the series, and add some crunch to a universe that could otherwise be overly simplistic. While the ‘good vs evil’ conflicts are straightforward enough, Doctor Who has room for complexity, room that allows writer after writer to contribute their own feelings and thoughts to the greater tapestry of the series.
The Doctor Who universe is a place we want to have access to. You just wouldn’t want to live there. But in British popular SF, it’s one of the nicer shared universes.
Of late I’ve been writing for Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe, and that’s a really nasty place to be, although a fun one to write and read about.
In the far future of the year 40,000, humanity is in a mess. Besieged by merciless alien races and demonic forces that threaten to drag the universe into an actual hell, the human race is ruled by the Imperium, a militaristic dystopia that mismanages a total war of us against everything else in existence, a war that humanity is losing. The doomsday clock is perpetually half a minute from midnight.
The desperation of the situation justifies a society that’s entirely militarised, fascistic in the broadest and most insane way, where human life is entirely disposable and free will is a long forgotten luxury. If you’re lucky, you just die. If you’re less lucky, you are driven mad by the forces of Chaos or mutate into something terrible.
While the Doctor Who universe is a dangerous place where good always wins out, the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a lethal place where the good guys are only marginally better than the monsters, and any victory is only a temporary blip in the advance of encroaching, absolute horror.
Now, SF is full of dystopias, and understandably these bleak futures are quite depressing, apocalyptic scenarios where humanity is dying due to war, environmental catastrophe or disease.
The year 40,000 is simultaneously worse than all of those, but a lot more fun. It has a very British quality of black comedy and gleeful horror, one which can be seen in the many bleak futures of Judge Dredd and the other characters in 2000AD, but here pushed as far as it can go.
If the bleakness of the scenario is pushed to an extreme, so is the scale: not only is the universe big, but virtually everything in it is oversized. Populations are measured in billions not millions, buildings are the size of continents, the frontlines of war sweep across entire star systems. Timescales are measured in millennia rather than years. It’s a big canvas, in every sense.
Warhammer 40K (as it’s generally known) has different constraints and freedoms to other shared universes, mainly because of its background: it’s based on a game, a tabletop wargame to be precise. The dystopian nature of the universe is built around creating a narrative context for wargames, and for making those games fun by raising the stakes as high as possible. It makes for an inherently dramatic backdrop for SF adventure stories, one where any extremity can be justified.
Games have rules, and so many aspects of the 40k universe are mechanically locked down, as official fiction needs to respect the integrity of the game system it’s based around.**
The abilities and equipment of the various warring factions in the universe are quite tightly proscribed. Fictional weaponry has to work consistently. While it’s not hard science fiction by any means, it is a kind of science fiction where consistency is paramount.
While these constraints do exist, the 40k universe also has freedoms. For a start, while there are major characters operating in the universe, Generals and Warlords, heroes and villains, it’s a very big universe and most stories will take place on previously unseen worlds with casts of entirely new characters.
Writers are not constrained by writing for a fixed set of characters whose fates cannot be tampered with, and this creates a greater sense of variety and danger to the universe for readers: virtually no-one is safe. Stories can, and due to the nature of the universe often do, end horribly.
While there is a great freedom in the stories that can be told, they do accumulate and build off each other. There’s a geography to the universe, timelines that can be built upon and added to. If a shared universe’s appeal can be measured in its intricate consistency, then the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a good example of that.
Just as Doctor Who has prospered in comics and books while the TV series has been off the air, so the Warhammer 40,000 fiction has an appeal that reaches beyond the fanbase of the game itself. The popularity of the game alone cannot entirely explain the interest in that background as a source of stories – after all, if participation in a game translated into book sales, football novels would be a bestselling genre.
No, there is an appeal to an epic, violent dystopia like Warhammer 40,000 that transcends its basis as a background for gaming and draws in a wider readership, and I think that appeal is rooted in its gleeful bleakness.
Although sensational newspaper headlines may try and convince us otherwise, the western world in the early 21st century is a relatively safe place. Societies are generally orderly, military conflicts are distant and contained, and wars conducted in our name are done so by a professional military. Since the end of the second world war the chances of the average British citizen being called up to fight in armed conflict have steadily decreased.
Yes, crime and tragedy can strike, but these events are relatively rare. Most of us will, hopefully, live fairly contented, untroubled and undramatic lives, with everyday problems.
The bleakness of Warhammer 40K’s pessimistic vision presents a distraction from our everyday concerns, and a cathartic look into a world where there are no minor problems, only massive life threatening ones. Death may be a constant presence, but the beleaguered subjects of the Imperium of Man at least die as part of sweepingly important events. We can be both glad to not live in such a dangerous, dramatic universe, but also slightly envious of the scale and drama of it all.
Doctor Who offers a similarly threatening universe, albeit with more light and shade to appeal to a wider audience, and especially a younger one. While relentless horror may be fun for adolescent boys of all ages, and I include my 35 year old self in that, most people prefer a little hope in there hopelessness, and Doctor Who sugars its sense of danger with a reassuring message that the horrors may come close, but they can be driven back.
There are many other examples of SF shared universes of course, and I’ve just been talking about those I know best. What they do show, I think, is that for one of these shared fictions to grow it needs to provide a tone that suggests new stories and inspires and the open space for creativity, but while having an identifiable character that binds the stories into a whole, and creates something distinctive that draws people in. A universe can be more optimistic, more pessimistic, but that balance of light and shade needs to be clear and fixed.
It’s by knowing what kind of place a shared universe is that allows us to decide whether to keep revisiting it.
* Fellow Microcon guest and fellow BBC Books Doctor Who author Nick Walters.
** I seem to be suggesting here that the novels are entirely led by the game, which was what I believed at the time. Since giving the talk I read this excellent article by Aaron Dembski-Bowden that makes clear that, to use Ben Goldacre’s favourite phrase, it isn’t quite as simple as that.
About ten days after my last post, a little something arrived. A little something that has since evolved into a fully functioning prodigy, solving quadratic equations and reciting the works of Shakespeare in Urdu, from her own translation. This child genius is called Georgina Joan Halliday and now looks like this:
OK, genius may not be quite the right word.I may have exaggerated the extents of her talents.
Anyway, as anyone with children know, life gets busy when they arrive, and something has to give. With more pressing online commitments and other writing to do (see below) it ended up being the blog that ground to a halt.
However, as we approach the end of the wife‘s maternity leave we’re beginning to re-establish some kind of normality, and I’ve got some ongoing and upcoming things worth mentioning, so I’m back. Kind of.
Let’s see if I can manage, oooh, one post a week for the next couple of months. FINGERS CROSSED!
Anyway, what I’ve been up to:
Shiny Shelf, for which I write and edit, continues to grow nicely. A lot of articles in the last year have gone down really well and picked up interest all over the place, and with new things like Eddie’s webstrip Asterix & Obelix we’ll hopefully continue to grow. If you’ve not visited the site in a while, please pop over and take a look. You’ll find new items pop up in the column to the right —->
Over at Game People I’m still writing my weekly Story Gamer column (also on the right —>), which continues to be a really fun gig, albeit with some unintended side effects. Writing a weekly review column means there’s a constant churn of new titles to deal with (I know, I know, it’s a hard knock life) so perfectly good games find themselves neglected after the deadline has been hit. It can be difficult to find time to go back to games that I want to persevere with and finish, because there’s always something new to get on with, especially with titles which are good, fun, but not triple A epic.
For example, I got back to Assassin’s Creed 2 and completed it because it’s an absolutely stunning game, but smaller fry, perfectly good but not spectacular games like War for Cybertron and Splatterhouse sit around neglected, the poor things.
I’m doing one or two longer Story Gamer reviews a month at the moment for titles that warrant the attention, the first being Dead Space 2 and the next one going live this Monday, and those allow me to go into a bit more depth. In between those longer pieces I will continue to have pithier reviews where I kick various bits of half-arsed shovelware in the face, so there’s no need to worry if you prefer me spitting bile.
So those are my ongoing web commitments. In print, following my story in Fear the Alien (as mentioned here) I’ve been doing more Warhammer 40,000 work for Black Library, with one book already written and a second proposal under discussion with the editors. It’s been a really enjoyable process so far: Black Library’s editors have been enthusiastic, friendly and very tolerant of my non-hobbyist 40K rookie mistakes. They also work well ahead of schedule: I started writing my first novel for them in spring 2010, and it’s still not got a publication date! In some ways this is odd compared to the, hmmm, more hectic deadlines I’ve dealt with in the past, but it’s given us plenty of time to polish the book.
If I don’t give a title for that first book, it’s not me being coy but rather the fact that it still doesn’t have one. At Microcon (see further below) I jokily ascribed this to an ongoing argument with BL’s marketing, but that’s entirely unfair: it’s been a long and polite process of me suggesting titles which were too weak, or became irrelevant as the book evolved. After being relatively successful with titles in the past, I’m finding coming up with suitably bold, 40K-appropriate titles, with even Sanctified (the FtA story) having a couple of previous titles before settling on that. Hopefully we’ll agree something soon.
I’ll update the Bibliography with the 40K book, and the new Bernice Summerfield story I wrote last year, in due course.
Finally, I’m starting to get out of the house a bit and attend events, some of which have been kind enough to let me speak. I’ve been attending Exeter university’s Microcon on and off for the last few years, and they kindly invited me to be a guest this year. I’ll put up the full text of my talk as the next post.