Friday, March 13, 2009

World Creation Redux: Part Two: Cosmogony

This post is a continuation of World Creation Redux: Part One, which was meant to establish that you need a starting point - a hook of some kind, an idea of where you're going and what you're doing - before you start the process of designing a world. This hook can be different things for different people, anything from a question ("what if...?") to a premise, to plate tectonics. Today, however, we'll discuss how everything got to be the way it is.

The Abigail and I actually met in a class called Cosmogony & Ethics. The Abigail's first impression of me was as that obnoxious Freshman who wouldn't shut up, but also asked the best questions and was the only other smart and sane member of her discussion group. So this post is just a bit nostalgic for me.

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Wikipedia defines cosmogony as "any theory concerning the coming into existence or origin of the universe, or about how reality came to be." The term is distinct from cosmology, which is the study of how the universe is shaped or structured. Of course, this partifcular wikipedia article is tagged as lacking references and sources. If you know what you're about when it comes to wikipedia, I urge you to fix it. For now, however, the definition stands: cosmogony is where we all came from (just like eschatology is where we're going and teleology is how we're going to get there).

People have believed all sorts of crazy things about where the world came from. Chinese myths claim that the world hatched from an egg in the form of a giant named Pangu, the Aztec creation story involves a pair of gods tearing a monster in half, and there's this obscure middle eastern tribe whose creation myth begins with a formless god flying over deep water and speaking the world into being. Today we have stories about big bangs and superstrings that make about as much sense to most people.

Now, you might be saying to yourself "don't be ridiculous! I don't need a cosmogony in my story!" And, on some level, you may be right. If your story actually begins with "in the beginning" and your name isn't "God" or "J.R.R. Tolkein" (and even then, only if you're writing The Silmarillion), you're probably making it hard to write something tight and concise. If you're writing a contemporary or science fiction story, you might even insist that your audience already knows where your setting came from.

On the contrary, even if your imaginary setting branches off of this one (that is, the real world), you have the story of how it got to be the way it is. Even Shadowrun has the Awakening and Star Trek has the Eugenics War and first contact with the Vulcans. As distinct from history, which is what happens in your setting, a cosmogony is where it all begins.

The way a setting begins continues to have an impact throughout the rest of the history of the setting, or at least it should. There's a certain striking elegance to Middle Earth, for example which began in transcendent song and become the setting for an epic that was beautiful and sad. On the other end of the spectrum, Shadowrun begins when our world is struck by a plague of supernatural transformations that ruin lives and tear families and nations apart. It's a messy, complicated, and unpleasant end to one age and beginning of the next, and it goes downhill from there.

Now, one important thing to distinguish is how the world really began versus how the world actually began. Another way of putting it is this: there are three points of view on how your world began: yours, your characters', and your readers.

A cosmogony that only exists for you contextualizes the rest of the setting's history. This is the sort of thing you find in setting bibles, the secret truth of the world that no one knows. In addition to sometimes being fun to write in behind the scenes, this kind of cosmogony helps you keep everything in order. Maybe the audience doesn't know that the whole world is the dream of a sleeping 14 year old D&D player, but the fact that you know this helps keep the logic consistent.

A cosmogony that your characters know exists in the world of myth. As in real world mythologies, cosmogony informs culture and ethics, works into religion and superstition, and generally involves a whole lot of stuff we're going to get to later when we tackle culture. In this case, it matters less that the cosmogony be true and more that it be believed. I don't think I have to establish for this crowd, however, how myth is as important as truth, if not more so.

It's important to remember your typical world will have lots of cosmogonies. As noted above, the many cultures of earth have produced all sorts of crazy shit. Inventing the various cosmogonies of your world's cultures could be part of the fun. These disagreements could also play into various cultural and historical conflicts. People have killed each other for much less.

Finally, letting your readers know the cosmogony gives them access to one of the above. Either it opens the door to your readers understanding what you understand about the context of your setting or it contextualizes the beliefs of your characters. It's important to note here, however, that the only way you're likely to let the reader know about the world's cosmogony is through the mouth or mind of a character, since "in the beginning" is usually a poor way to start a story, which means that usually you're going to do both.

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And last, but not least, a few questions!

  • What is the best cosmogony you've ever seen? What was so great about it?
  • What is the best cosmogony you've ever written? What was so great about it?
  • What is the worst cosmogony you've ever seen or written? What was so bad about it?
  • What do you see as the continued influence of a setting's origin, other than what I've outlined here?
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Before I go, I'd like to thank all of you who commented on my last post in this series. It's always great to get comments. In fact, the wealth of feedback on the last post is what urged me to post Part Two so quickly. Remember, the Burning Zeppelin Experience is not a democracy, but you still vote with the "comment" button!


Scattercat said...

I recently read "The Curse of Chalion," by Lois McMaster Bujold, given to me as a gift over the holidays. The dominant culture of that world believes in five gods, a Father, a Mother, a Son, a Daughter, and a Bastard child. Each of them governs about what you'd expect; Death and judgement, childbirth and home, war and hunting, healing and love. The Bastard is the god of "things out of season," including death by murder, as well as being in charge of their version of Hell/purgatory.

The culture they're currently most in conflict with believes the Bastard is just a demon and is in conflict with the Holy Family of Four. They regard a culture which venerates the Bastard as "demon worshippers."

Where it got most interesting to me was some of the theological chitchat between the characters. At one point, someone remarks that the Bastard is like the thumb on the hand; in opposition to the other four fingers, but enabling them to do so much more thereby.

That's it. It just struck me as interesting.

Mark said...

You should also check out the gay-friendly cosmogony behind The Sword and the Dragon. I recommend it with trepidation, however, because I'm afraid that Diane Duane will come and chastise me again for not having finished it yet.

<_< >_>

Isn't the internet great? :-)

Kathryn_aka_Kat said...

I remember the feeling when I first realized that Terry Pratchett's Discworld really -was- resting on the backs of elephants who were standing on the back of an enormous turtle that was swimming through space. And after that, I had to believe everything any character told me about the world because it was going to be true. (Of course, it wasn't always. But it could have been!)

But I also second what Scattercat said about how conflicting cosmogonies add to the reader's interest in the world, if well written. Fee people want a long philosophical or theological discussion of differences in the middle of a story if it doesn't somehow advance the story itself. But to have it as a seasoning, yes. To have it as a key to understanding a character or a plot point, can be great. The world should have differences of belief (or else that becomes its own important atatement). Otherwise you get the equivalent of "this is the ice planet, this is the desert planet" because the author seems too lazy to make a single world interesting.