I recently finished The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. It's near-future science fiction, and it won some awards. What attracted me to it was the completeness of its universe; Bacigalupi weaves together issues of race, politics, religion, industry, sexuality, substance abuse, and more, to create a whole, believable universe. There seems to be no detail left unvarnished. Air travel? Handled. Disease? Discussed. A genetically engineered breed of elephant? Megadonts.
In contrast is what I call Whedon Syndrome. Joss Whedon has a different approach to the concept of universe-creating. He seems to be more concerned about what happens in his universe rather than how it can happen. He creates his universe by discovery from the narrative.
Whedon's famously short-lived TV show Firefly provides an example. We get a glimpse into the technology the Serenity's crew uses; we even get some jargon from Kaylee; but do we ever really see the inner workings of the 'Verse? Mal uses a Moses Brothers Self-Defense Engine Frontier Model B; but Moses Brothers is nothing more than a name. In the 'Verse, there is no Moses Brothers Armaments. Whedon doesn't need it. For all Whedon cares, Mal's gun could be the only gun Moses Brothers Armaments ever produced.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn't need exposition as such; whatever exposition is necessary arises organically from the narrative. We gradually come to learn more about the Buffyverse as the series progresses, but again, the information comes indirectly, at a slant. And the knowledge we gain is never because Whedon wants to fill us in on his universe. Rather, exposition serves to justify narrative hijinks.
Part of my problem with this backhanded exposition is that I feel shortchanged. I feel that the universe being created does not actually exist the same way ours does. When a creator is allowed to tack on a scientific law here, a bit of history there, racial tension over in that corner--how can I feel comfortable? How can I accept that I have comprehended this universe? Why should I care about these new rules? They might be negated or made moot in a few months because of another, larger, manufactured scientific law.
Whenever I encounter a creator who is satisfied with this organic, haphazard exposition, it raises doubts in my mind about the completeness of the universe in the mind of the creator. Does the creator have a strong mental image of the universe being created? Or is the creator doing his work of creation as he constructs the narrative?
Part of the reason The Lord of the Rings is so compelling is that J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have had a fairly concrete conception of the universe he was creating, before he created it. Middle-Earth was by no means complete in his mind, but his creation of The Hobbit and, more importantly, The Silmarillion, meant that he was writing about a place that already existed, in his mind. Rather than creating as he wrote, he created first, then set characters into that creation.
Universe-creating is a tricky business. It varies across medium and genre--I'm sure part of Whedon's aversion to flat-out exposition is necessitated by the time constraints imposed by television. And there's something to be said for the dynamic nature of indirect exposition: it's intriguing, it draws viewers in. Me, I like seeing the bones of an universe. I like taking the cover off of the watch and seeing gears and springs interacting. I like knowing how things work, not just knowing that they work.
Long live nine lives!