Here is an essay. It explains a couple of things. Those things are “why I care about worldbuilding (for me)” and “why worldbuilding is worth caring about (for you).” So here are a whole bunch of weird things about my life.
I have a kind of weird history with religion. When I was born, my parents decided I would be Episcopalian, which is the most middle america white people religion it is possible to be, so that part is not so weird. However: neither of my parents were Episcopalian. My mother was born in raised in California, tried on a lot of religions growing up, and my father was a lapsed Catholic. They got married in the Catholic church because whatever, but the Pope has to annul your previous marriage if you’ve been divorced and want a Catholic wedding. My dad didn’t want to wait, so he lied about my mom to the priest.
So when I was born parents baptized me in the religion they figured would give them the least hassle down the road. Maybe just that is all that you need to know about why I’m interesting in worldbuilding, but here are 12 other things.
My high school technically was not run by a cult, but it was still pretty weird. The interesting part about religious schools, though, is you learn a lot about religion, a lot more than you would actually practicing it. Religious history is a lot like reading fan theories on a Star Wars forum, except slightly more existential.
I find religious debate a lot more interesting than Wikipedia discussion, though, and that is because what’s at stake is not just a technicality, but some fundamental truth of how the universe is supposed to work. What seems like a lot of boring weird technicalities about like what percentage of god jesus is seems like a really weird thing for a lot of old dudes to have argued over, especially since whoever wins starts acting like it was always that way and no one ever debated about it. But it kind of does matter. How much faith do you have in the ability of humans to save themselves? Do you think that the material universe is so gross and evil that you can’t imagine something divine being even slightly mortal? These are worlds with different rules. They’re different universes. It’s like: oh. I guess I get why people killed each other over stuff like this.
“ I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it… I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner.”—That is St. Augustine. He is talking about why he doesn’t believe in Manichaeism anymore, not that it isn’t easy to find an excuse to justify your actions like that in whatever you believe, but I like that he is giving a reason why, even if the rules of theology are made up and fake, they still matter for how he lives his life.
I like how Augustine’s basically arriving at a question of How Guilty Should I Feel All The Time, like it’s a statistic you can adjust. No guilt is a problem, so let’s turn that dial up a little.
Fantasy worldbuilding often focuses on creating a pantheon of deities or something but almost never talks about how the religion impacts and defines culture and society. A lot of cool stories about immortal assholes are fun, and that is why I like Greek mythology, but it is the most interesting thing to think about how people might live with a different set of rules describing the universe.
In my household we kept on a relatively low guilt diet, and that worked out pretty well for me.
My parents warned me about taking theology literally, so I didn’t. A lot of folx I grew up with fell out with religion over like grotesque queerphobia, misogyny or science denial, but I grew up with Don’t Take It Literally and My Mom Was a Second Wave Feminist, so that was not really my problem.
There’s a part in The Final Fantasy Legend where you enter a door into a world of people suffering in starry flames, surrounded by demons, who claim their suffering here will lead them into paradise. They will sit there the whole game. There’s no plot point involved, no connection to any other world. It’s just a little minute of a story you can walk through on your way up the tower and nothing about it matters and you can miss it if you want. It’s just a little living story about people trapped in their own self-created suffering, yearning for a release that’s never going to come.
At the time that was the best thing I had ever seen about how weird and creepy the whole idea of hell was, this awful revenge fantasy, or punishment for people who didn’t know better or were born in terrible circumstances, or some other bullshit. Bad worldbuilding.
God was a kinda weird last boss for me at age eight. When I realized that’s what it was, I turned the machine off and wandered through my grandmother’s house, which was very quiet; the sun somehow seemed brighter and the inside seemed darker, the bathrooms and bedrooms for the guests were hazy and dark, and my eyes just couldn’t quite see through them.
I went back and killed him.
A lot of fantasy and science fiction is bad but the people who write it are at least the only sorts of writers that seem to spend all their time imagining what the world might look like under a different set of rules. People who literally invent new religions tend to be very disappointing. Cults are supremely uninterested in the details of their belief systems. They’re engineered for market niche appeal mostly, kinda like social games. Nobody’s like, let’s start a friendly, personal cult. Nobody wants to start a cult like Bokononism or something and get everyone in on a utopian-aspirational joke. That is beautiful. Sometimes fiction is cooler than real life.
“You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” —Tim O’Brien saying a Cool Thing.
There’s a different kind of truth at stake. My parents have kinda been Well Whatever when it comes to what I believe in, as long as I am thinking about it. There’s a function provided by things that aren’t real but are still truer than the truth.
“Did you miss God?”
“Yes, terribly. And I still do. And what I miss most is the sense of being connected to the whole of the universe.”
This part from His Dark Materials. That part of The Final Fantasy Legend. The part of Franny and Zooey where Franny is trying to find a way to pray with every waking moment. The part in Dune in the Orange Catholic Bible where it says “thou shalt not disfigure the soul.” The thing Tim O’Brien says about truth. This part, that part, the other part, a little bit of the other thing. Every little bit that feels truer than true, and throw out all the rest.
My mother likes the Catholic Church because she finds meaning in the rituals.
When I was in middle school I used to have some compulsive behavior. That’s gone, don’t worry about it, but I used to do these things:
1. Whenever I saw an address while passing by in a car, usually on the way to school or the bookstore, I would add up all of the numbers in the sequence until I arrived at a single digit. 47689 would become 4+7+6+8+9 would become 11+14+9 would become 34 and then 3+4 and then 7. One of the tricks of math is that no matter how or what order you add them up, the final answer is always the same. Nines and zeros were the luckiest results, but I just did it whenever I saw a number like that and I couldn’t stop.
2. This one is super weird, but from the corners of every table or chair imagine a pair of perpendicular lines, traveling across the ground, and it was a little like ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back.’
3. In this one J.D. Salinger book a twentysomething undergraduate is in having an existential breakdown and she is thinking she can solve it by finding a way to pray constantly, with every breath and action, forever.I can’t remember if I read this before or after but I did recite a prayer to myself almost every minute for about a year. Franny and Zooey is my favorite Salinger book and I have ever since thought that Franny is a really cute name. I’m not going to write down what the words to the prayer were because it still feels extremely wrong and unsettling and violating to write them out. It’s very troubling to see them out of my head like that. I’m not just embarrassed about it, or worried by writing it out that I sound really, truly, legitimately crazy, but of thinking about about something that ruled my life for a long time no matter how much I needed it then.
Rules are real even when they’re fake. It can be real if you write it deeply enough in your brain. I don’t mentally intone weird prayers, but I do recite my new name so that it will become more real. I’m living my life right now under rules I never thought I could dare to believe in two years ago. So that’s pretty cool. I am making my body and indentity real because folx showed me the way. It’s impossible to imagine being trans or whatever under the rules you learn as a kid in your not-technically-a-cult high school or laconic midwestern village. The physical laws of the universe aren’t different elsewhere, but the rules of the culture and the place are so different in Olympia it feels like another planet.
And, maybe not even that. You know, I came back to my hometown after I had met a lot of amazing queer folx and when I got there I talked to different people and made different friends and related to the world differently. Like those rules had already changed, and my hometown became a very different world.
I could have come to Olympia and it would have been just like that laconic midwestern village, if you all hadn’t shown me the way, imagined with me a world ruled differently. Real no matter how much the fiction. Truer than true.