The scent-test

Book Meme 2012

Week 8: Best Story Settings

I read for setting.

I love characters, I love plot, I adore good dialog, but give me a book with a good setting. Books where place is not important to the author often fail to impress me, and books where the setting rubs me the wrong way are shut, never to be opened by me again.

I am not sure if I am in the minority or not. I hear of people being impatient with description, and yet so many books seem to be loved, as I love them, for the rich texture of their settings.

When I first started writing, I was interested more in the world than anything else. My characters were cliches and my plot was barely functional, but I got the texture right. Whatever their flaws, I want to step into my worlds and smell them.

Yep, I judge a book-setting by its smell. If I want to step into a book and take a deep breath, I am pleased. That is not to say that the world has to smell pleasant. Khazad-dûm does not, I think, have an airy smell, yet I desire to step into it.  The setting just has to have a unique and interesting bouquet.

What makes a setting compel or repel me? I honestly have no answer.  It is also as impossible for me to choose my favorite setting as it is to choose my favorite book. Luckily, this week’s question does not ask my favorite, it asks the best. Not that that is a much easier question.

There are many contenders, and I could argue the supremacy of each, but I shall stick to one victor and an honorable mention. I have chosen these two because there is something very special about each of them, something that makes them stand out against the many rich and wonderful worlds that literature has opened to me.

The honorable mention is:

Middle Earth, from the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien

Middle Earth stands out from all other fiction I have encountered. It is deep and textured as no other. Tolkien must, I think, have had severe obsessive issues to write what he did.

There are languages that intertwine and evolve, vibrant mythologies, peoples with history and memory, geography that is firm but not static, with a history all its own, and much more. There is not a point in any of the stories set in Middle Earth where I do not feel that I could step in and smell the air. When I read, it feels as real to me as the ground on which I sit, if not moreso.

The rarity of such a world in fiction goes without saying. I have yet to encounter anything so complete. Many have tried to do what Tolkien did, and if anyone has succeeded, I have yet to read their work.

But there is something even more challenging than writing a world as comprehensive as Middle Earth, and that is why the victor of this contest is:

Wonderland, from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll, (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, if you prefer, poor chap), did something very rare with these two books. He opened a window into the real world of the imagination and dreams of children.  I cannot express how rare this is.

Writers are almost all handicapped by the fact that they are adults. Adulthood involves, among other things, being trapped on one side of the looking-glass.  By this, I do not mean that we lose our imagination, or that we cannot remember what it was like to travel the landscapes of childhood, but as we mature, our minds change. We think differently, and we easily forget, and as such we can see through the looking-glass, but it is next to impossible to re-enter it.

When a writer attempts to paint child-dreams with words, they almost always forget something. Often, they forget the underlying threat. Children may be ignorant of the world, but they are not innocents. Think back on your childhood and pick up the threads of violence, threat, and nightmare and you will know what I mean. To truthfully show what a child imagines is to remember the shadow behind the door.

By the same token, some writers either forget to abandon adult logic, or forget that children have a logic of their own. A child’s imagination is not bound by norms that have not yet been learned, but there is rhyme and reason to the landscape of their thoughts. It makes sense to a child that one half of a mushroom might make you grow, while the other half would make you shrink, and once you accept the properties of mushrooms, the events of the story follow quite reasonably.

The child’s fascination with the world is more often remembered, but even that takes skill to express. Carroll, I think, captures all of this. Wonderland is wonderful, but it is not innocent, or safe, or logical, or nonsensical. It is, in short, a child’s world. In creating Alice’s adventures, Carroll transcended his own adulthood and created a world capable of reminding adults what it is like to be a child. As impressive as Tolkien’s body of work is, I am more impressed by Carroll’s ability to travel in time.

Here are the links to the rest of this series, in order:

1. Motley Crew

2. Cue Music/Shout Out

3. Villainy Most Vile

4. Very Ominous Endings

5. Shapes are Only Dressess… and Dresses are Only Names

6. Chridonalchett

7. Verbage

8. The Scent Test

9. Personal Question

10. Packing Lightly

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About jubilare

Just another tree in the proverbial forest. Look! I have leaves! View all posts by jubilare

28 responses to “The scent-test

  • mjschneider

    When I saw that you gave Middle Earth only an honorable mention, I was tense to know what could possibly trump it. Your explanation for Wonderland was beautiful, and it made perfect sense. It’s interesting to speculate as to whether Dodgson was trying to recapture a child’s point of view, or if his keen sense of absurdity and internally consistent illogic was simply an extension of his own mind. I only learned relatively recently that he was a mathematician by trade, and it seems to me that only a person fully acquainted with the pitfalls of infinitely fallible human reason could construct a world so strewn with sensical nonsense. Then again, he did write the book for children, inspired by a specific child. I’m sure that there were other things that went into it as well, but I do think that Dodgson fully appreciated how much of adult logic and rationality are underpinned by the useful fiction of reason.

    • jubilare

      It’s hard to even compare Middle Earth and Wonderland, so ranking them was hard. When I started this post, I had it the other way around, but as I thought it over I came to the conclusion that Wonderland had to take the crown, not because I love it more but because of its effectiveness in its seeming-simplicity. Whatever else it is, Middle Earth is not simple. Wonderland is built with very few bricks for something so immersive.

      Interesting thoughts. I do wonder what he was thinking as he wrote these stories. I bet he was able to write them because he was around children, and I suspect he was fascinated by child imagination and logic. Adult logic does have a lot to learn about its own fallibility.

  • emilykazakh

    I love Wonderland, but I’ve never read the books! I know, I know, it’s disgraceful. I love the Disney cartoon, I love the Syfy TV film, and I tolerated Tim Burton’s take on it. I even enjoyed ABC’s Once Upon A Time’s episodes with the Mad Hatter and Wonderland. I keep telling myself that I need to read the actual book, and I never have.

    This post makes me really want to rectify that.

    • jubilare

      Well, I can say this: None of those are really like the books!
      But then, I am not sure any film can be like the books and be an effective film. Disney and Syfy got the closest if my memory serves.
      I enjoyed all of them, save Tim Burton’s take (I liked his Cheshire Cat and that was about it), but I like them for what they are, not because they give me the same feelings that the books do. My best advice for reading the books is, let go and enjoy the ride. :)

  • palecorbie

    Strange! Wonderland always seemed horribly, horribly artificial to me, like someone going “you know what’s absurd, little girl? A Mock-Turtle! Neverland, now…you could not pay me to go there. Pantomime and Disney have turned Captain Hook into a figure of fun, but I remember across well over a decade ago, the first time I read about him…there was a pirate who was slow, or lazy, or something, and Hook just lashed out with that load of sharpened steel where his hand used to be and tore the unfortunate layabout in pieces…and that was Somewhere Else, somewhere feral boys and flying children might get to, no mere dream…

    I assume you’ve not read any of the Gormenghast books, then? Anyone who has feels like they’ve been there…I could describe the smell to you as mostly like dust and copper corrosion, the faintest hint of treacle, but that leaves out so many nuances and the fact that Gormenghast Castle smells like Gormenghast Castle and everything else is awkward comparison…I too read for place, and I think it is uncommon, because I’ve had to actually remind authors(!) that there is a third element to a great story, not just plot and characters.

    It’s a pity a lot of China Miéville’s work would be too violent for you (New Crobazon smells like London on alchemy)…you might possibly like Embassytown, which has merely battles at one remove, though ironically that’s probably the novel where sense of place is least strong. Hmm.

    • jubilare

      Interesting, for Wonderland always felt all too real to me. Perhaps it is closer to the workings of my child-mind than to yours. It is also more consistent with the imaginings of a very young child, and I have some uncommonly sharp memories of my early childhood. My terror of the giant shadow-clown who slept in my room remains with me, as do the closet-skeleton (invisible, of course) and dresser-heron that protected me.
      Neverland never felt right, perhaps because when all is said and done, I was a tomboy, not a boy. Some parts of it I understood, but others were at wrong angles, and yes… Hook is a terrifying creature.

      I have not read any Gormenghast, no, though I have heard it spoken of now and again. One of these days. And yes! It is amazing how many writers forget that their characters live somewhere and their plot happens someplace

      Immersive settings can also backfire. If an author immerses me in a world I really don’t like (thank you, Robert Jordan) I stop reading and don’t go back. Maybe violence is the integral to the texture of Miéville’s writing, which is a sad thought, to me.

      • palecorbie

        I was wondering that myself…Neverland always smelled like damp earth and tropical plants to me. He is! And Piglet is green! …people don’t believe me about these things.

        It is sort of writing like I see, so a bit like swimming in treacle at times, but so glorious…ask Brandi. Vandermeer’s Ambergis is a similarly intense and awe-some place.
        I don’t think people who don’t walk on the land and see it and taste the things it grows are really real…

        I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. [also had a severe allergic reaction to Jordan] Possibly, though I think it’s because New Crobazon has many shades of London, to which violence is integral…I’ve read many “gritty” fantasy settings far more pleasant than London at a similar tech level ever was. That said, the books set in the world of Bas-Lag (cactus people! multiple sentients!) have a thicker vein of vivid adventure than philosophy (Perdido Street Station even smells fainty of gamer at some points).

        • jubilare

          That’s what it smells like to me, too, though the flight smells dry.
          Aw, green Piglet… Disney has a bad habit of taking over things and changing them.

          O_o I must admit that swimming in treacle sounds very unpleasant.
          Sometimes, though sometimes there is enough there that I simply feel their authors are failing them.

          It is bad for me only if I am prevented from reading an interesting story, or characters I like, because I cannot stomach their world. For instance, I wanted to see what became of Min, but not enough to keep reading Jordan. It could be bad for me as an author if most people do not like the world I immerse them in, but so long as some people like it, it does not matter if many do not. So I guess what I am saying is that it is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can have bad effects. I made it through about five or six of Jordan’s books before I asked myself the important question of “why are you still reading these?” When I couldn’t answer, I stopped. I ought to have stopped earlier, but my allergy developed so slowly that I didn’t notice the reaction until too late. It was the same with my penicillin allergy.
          Cactus people do sound interesting, though my brain keeps wandering off to Cactaur from the Final Fantasy games.

  • mjschneider

    It occurred to me that one thing linking Wonderland and Middle Earth is that they’re both intellectual projects. Didn’t Tolkein start writing the history and anthropology of Middle Earth purely for its own sake, only later adapting parts of his grand vision into novels at the instigation of C.S. Lewis? Similarly, I think Dodgson was playing around with logical conundrums, weaving them into his story. In a sense, these worlds are extensions of the scholarly and intellectual pursuits of intellectuals, and the narrative forms that they took — while not incidental, per se — are more outgrowths of the intellectual play than constructs developed to serve those particular stories. Perhaps that’s why you were able to consider them in tandem. Just a thought.

    • jubilare

      I think you are right about Tolkien, but if memory serves, less is known of Dodgson’s inspiration. Theories of how and why he wrote the Alice stories are many and varied.
      It is an interesting question, though. I am of the opinion that the best stories grow out of their worlds, rather than the worlds being shaped to the story, but I have little evidence to back that opinion up.

  • Urania

    I’m glad somebody mentioned Middle Earth for this meme question. It surely merits being chosen; the main reason I didn’t pick it was that I figured most of my readers already knew it and I wanted to highlight some lesser known sci-fi/fantasy works. Well, maybe Dune doesn’t count as lesser-known, but anyway. Actually, I do recommend Dune if you’re into sci-fi and want to read another book with a world with the same feeling of depth and history as Middle Earth. Herbert’s creation is really impressive; he even has a mini dictionary/glossary at the back of the book explaining cultures, technology, history, and language. While I figure it’s difficult to beat Tolkien for sheer volume and obsession, Herbert deserves to be on a list of well-realized worlds.

    I read the Wonderland books when I was little, and I remember really enjoying them. I should return to them when I can. BTW, I still have your story chapters and I WILL READ THEM, but right now, I am in the midst of an intense summer class and have no time. Soon, my friend! Thanks so much for your patience!

    • jubilare

      It’s good to go after the less obvious. Having never done a meme such as this, I feel free to go with my absolute top-choices, obscure or not (and very few are obscure unless you count MacDonald). If I do something like this again, I may dig into different mental archives.

      I have never gotten through Dune, partly because of the world (blasphemy, I know). I agree that what I have read of it is very solid, but it is a landscape that I do not like, and I need to get past that to delve into the story. I am determined to finish it eventually, but it is a case of rich world backfiring for a reader. It has been several years since I tried to pick it up, so it may be time to try again.

      Ah, like I said, don’t worry. The worst thing that could happen is I figure something out and re-write what I gave you before you read it, and that’s not such a dire thing. I think David has a very outdated copy of some of the story, but even so, insight and opinion are always helpful. Just do what you need and want to do, and if you find time and inclination, you are welcome to read what I sent you. :)

      • David

        Eesh, you’re right! I never got back to you on those pages! I do apologize about that; I mean, I know I never promised and you said it was only if I had time, but after awhile I did just forget. As it is now, well, you’re welcome to send me an updated version, and I will try to prioritize it since I really do want to read more of your stuff. But, somewhat shamefacedly, I must warn you that I have less time than before. In addition to an increase in scholarly reading, I’m going to try to edit another friend’s manuscript this summer.

        • jubilare

          My dear chap, I truly understand and sympathize. I’ve done the same thing with the work of some of my friends, between time restrictions and forgetfulness. As much as I love getting input on my work, I know how to let go of it too.

          As I am working on hammering out the plot-arc and character-development, all I need are impressions, so I may send you a few chapters which, as always, you may read or not as time and interest allows. I can’t send you much (which is probably best for you, at present :) ) because I am currently having an epic struggle with one of my main antagonists and until we can resolve it, I am stuck!

  • technicolorlilypond

    I am gratified that I’m not the only one who walked away from the Wheel of Time at book 5. I actually liked his world and his female characters quite a bit, I didn’t like Rand, and I didn’t like how he treated his female characters, it’s hard to explain more than that, and I lost patience with the story; I didn’t like it enough to keep reading with no end in sight.

    I read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass two years ago. They are enchanting stories, I agree none of the film adaptations I’ve seen can really capture the magic but I’m not sure it’s even possible to do so. It did feel real to my memories of childhood imaginary friends and tramps in lands of fancy, including the scary lands.

    I think it explains a lot about Middle-Earth that Tolkien built everything in the world, languages, maps, genealogies, before he even thought about building a story and that at his friend’s behest. World building was basically his hobby for over a decade, it’s no wonder that no one else can really copy that because I think the ability to do such a thing must be incredibly rare. In the past with my writing I frequently get lost in world-building, spending all my time on the background and the little details without paying much attention to the action, which is frustrating. I’m not sure if I’m getting any better about this, at best I think I’ve just changed/become aware of the problem.

    • jubilare

      You are certainly not alone. My brother got a little farther, but then quit as well. I have multiple problems with the books, one of which is that, like you, I never liked Rand. I often like main protagonists less than other characters, but I usually care if they live or die. I didn’t even feel that for Rand. I always got the feeling that Jordan didn’t like women much. I liked about half of the female characters, starting out, and then the ones I liked either changed for the worse or left the equation. And when I realized that the world wasn’t one I liked and I was fond of a grand total of two characters among many, I quit. Jordan has plenty of fans, he won’t miss a few.

      It’s hard to do a faithful representation of such a book on screen. I was in a stage production in highschool, and I think that medium does a little better as the audience is expected to use their own imaginations as well.

      I’ve been world-building since before I knew what it was, but I am fully aware that I cannot match Tolkien in this. For a long time that made me sad, but now I’ve come to terms with the fact that he did what he needed to do, and my best path is to do the same and, if I can, give the world my work, not his. The same goes for you. There is something unique you will be able to give us that no one else can. Focus on that. :)

  • David

    Oo, so much to talk about!

    Firstly, I am with Matt Schneider in that my mouth tightened a bit when you listed Middle-earth as honorable mention (and to be sure, I only just read your post now, well after my own on this topic!). But I gave you benefit of the doubt, and I think I can forgive you. +p You know, I’ve never read any of Carroll’s books, so I can’t comment on them directly. I liked the Disney movie and thought Wonderland was fun, but it definitely never spoke to me like other fantasy worlds did. Even as a kid, it didn’t feel much like a kid’s place — Disney’s Neverland was more for me. (And regarding yours and Cec’s discussion about it, yeah, that’s probably ‘cuz I’m a boy who always wanted to fly, live in tree houses with other boys, fight pirates, and innocently romance a sweet but adventurous girl, and because Disney’s pirates were easy targets. I still haven’t read the book yet, but I’m getting to it!) But your argument in favor of Wonderland is intriguing, and I hope it won’t be too long before I can read the book and decide for myself.

    Also, I’m like you in that I tend to read for setting. The characters must be worthwhile, too, but I’ve found that I can forgive a lot of that for an interesting setting. When a story doesn’t immediately begin with setting, or succeed in drawing me into its setting, I get antsy. I’ll keep reading, since I believe in giving books a fair chance and I really hate to not finish them, but the setting is just too darn important.

    I gave up on Robert Jordan after just two books, for a variety of reasons. The setting had a lot of interesting elements, but none of them seemed to fit together very well, and I outright hated some of his cultures. And, to reference my post on Middle-earth, his world lacked Beauty. It lacked Purpose. It was cluttered for the reason of having clutter. His characters were also pretty lame, too. I started out liking Rand okay, but even by Book 2 he was going downhill. Perrin was my favorite, as he seemed the nicest and got the whole wolf-thing going (that was him, right?), but ultimately he couldn’t offset my dislike for most everyone else. As for women, well…it seemed to me that Jordan was always glorifying women in a really disturbing way. He’d exalt them as better than men in every conceivable way, but then make them cruel, promiscuous, illogical creatures. And then the men were weak, stupid, morally-compromised creatures also. So his whole world started to fail for me, and I just didn’t see the point of continuing with a world, characters, and a plot that wouldn’t pay back what I’d invested in it.

    • jubilare

      Perhaps it will help you forgive me if you know that it goes against my grain to put Middle Earth second and my original intent, before I started writing the post, was for Wonderland to be the runner-up. ;) I probably would have had the same reaction as both you and Matt in reading such a post. It is almost impossible to compare the two, as one is a solid and deep world, and the other an honest, fluid dream.
      The differences between Neverland and Wonderland may have something to do with different types of imagination, but after thinking about it, I suspect that it has more to do with age. As we grow and understand our world better, our imaginary worlds become more solid. In Neverland you can fly, but there are reasons for flight. In Wonderland you fly because you fly, and you may stop flying suddenly for no apparent reason. Perhaps Wonderland speaks so strongly to me because I remember what that kind of imagination feels like more strongly than some and I realize that I can more easily recapture Neverland than I can recapture Wonderland. Even the names seem to speak to this. Neverland is almost a solid place, but not quite. It is a place for dreams and imagination to dance in a framework, like the imaginary worlds I played in once I began to appreciate adventures. In Neverland, mermaids are mermaids and pirates are pirates. Wonderland is a reflection of a mind still open to most possibilities.
      Alice knows what she has been taught, but her understanding of the universe is still fluid enough to allow for her tears to become an ocean and a room to vanish around her with no explanation. She recites poetry that she does not know, and a baby turns into a piglet because it makes sense at the time. That Carroll was able to capture this, even in glimpses, amazes me. In my experience, the closest adults come to touching Wonderland is in their dreams, where they accept what is happening at the time regardless of how little it makes sense.
      In the end, I think, both Carroll and Tolkien stand alone in my mind as having written something no one else has been able to write, or perhaps ever will be able to write.

      I am trying to learn to weave my settings into the plot. I used to give large blocks of setting (which I often love to read) and right now I am frustrated by not having what I feel is enough setting. :P I am pushing forward for now, intending to come back and see what can be done about it later. Setting is a must, both for my writing and my reading. Phantastes is thrilling me right now!

      I truly think Jordan didn’t like women, or if he did he didn’t like them for good reasons. He writes like a man who thinks he understands how women work, but who takes stereotyped elements from the external behavior of some women and translates it into the internal workings of all his women. It irritated the fire out of me. He may have considered himself sympathetic to his women characters, but really, Minn, who was at least nice, was also weak. I still like Perrin, but eventually he marries a woman who, like most of the women in the books, I do not like. That was one of the final blows to me.
      Ironically, the most beautiful place, to me, in Jordan’s books, were the Ways… which I am pretty sure he did not intend to be beautiful. Everything else was pretty lifeless. I will stop bashing him now, though. To be fair, Jordan’s writing was very polished, and I can understand why some people enjoy the intricacies of his plot and the character-dynamics. He does avoid a lot of cliches, but almost too consciously, sometimes. I don’t know. I think I am particularly hard on him because I wanted to like his books and then was disappointed.

  • Book-Meme 2012 | jubilare

    […] Week 8: Best Story Settings […]

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