Last time out I touched on the big reason to get people to dive into the world you create: not just so that they can swim around in it, but so they can come back out of the water and bring it back to everyone else they know.
We come back again and again to the idea of the “water-cooler-ism” (as Steve would put it) of popular culture. Right now the biggest incarnation of this I can think of is Prometheus. The film’s generating at least as much buzz for the way people talk about it, interpret it, slice it up, dissect its failures and successes, as much as what there actually is on the screen. The cynical view of this would be that the film was created to do little more than that, that its value as a water-cooler magnet is greater than its value as a story.
It’s a debatable idea, but not one I can completely dismiss. I don’t doubt for a second Sir Ridley & Co. were quite interested in making a film that would be chewed over and be entertaining. I do think it’s disingenuous to assume they had the former goal over the latter. From everything I’ve seen, that’s a healthy by-product of a work’s own native success. It’s not something you can—if you’ll excuse the analogy here—genetically engineer into something. “Today I will create controversy!” is the cry of a tabloid journalist, not the motto of an artist. Let alone a creative world-builder.
You can engineer conflict, which is internal to your creation. You can’t, however, engineer controversy, which is how people react to your creation. Reactions to your work are at least as much a product of your time and place as they are the work itself. The libertarianism of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and the psychosexual horrors of Naked Lunch are passé to a society that can watch “2 Girls 1 Cup” on-demand by tapping a screen.
This isn’t a lead-in to a hand-wringing o tempora, o mores screed, so rest easy on that score. It is, however, a cautionary note that you cannot rely on controversy as a selling point. Hollywood keeps breaking its shins on this particular curb: time and again, movies are released that capitalize on some timely, hard-hitting issue (the wars overseas, mainly), and while the films themselves are often quite good, audience reaction remains lukewarm. Hearts and Minds packed a wallop in 1974, in big part because hard inside information about the Vietnam War remained difficult to come by. Today, it isn’t information that we lack, but imagination, which explains why relying on the shock of events in the real world to engender controversy doesn’t work as well as it used to.
The broad outlines of your world can be a source of controversy, but again that’s not always something you can engineer … or want to. Consider Gor, John Norman’s series of fantasy novels that became infamous for the graphically-depicted system of sexual slavery that eventually became the biggest selling point for the series. I’m not sure if that was the original point of the series, but that seems to have become its ultimate reason for existence, for better or worse.
The world you make, if you are successful in getting it to a sizeable-enough audience, will take on a life of its own. What you will not have control over is how that life is embodied in the audience: as a point of controversy, or as a point of bland acceptance.
I’ll have more on this score in the next installment (as soon as this infernal case of the flu vacates the premises!).