Letter to Suzanne Britton about Worlds Apart, 19 May 1999

Warning: Spoilers ahead
Dear Suzanne --

In an earlier conversation, I referred to the style of Worlds Apart as "High Fantasy." That's not quite right; I was reaching for a term, and the one I came up with is inadequate because the fact is that WA doesn't perfectly fit genre conventions. In fact, it comes closer to one of those grand, sweeping alternate-world SF stories, right down to the richly detailed biology, geography, and sociology of the invented planets. But it feels like fantasy. Orson Scott Card once wrote that the essential difference between fantasy and science fiction is that "fantasy has trees, science fiction has rivets." Worlds Apart definitely has trees. Moreover, it has telepathy, which certainly leaves it out of the "hard SF" category. It presents itself in a somewhat formal, elevated tone -- no slangy streetwise speakers or clever cyperpunk cant to be found anywhere -- and the concerns of the narrator are definitely emotional concerns. Despite the fact that this is IF, she's not solving some Asimovian logic problem or saving the universe with a sparkling piece of technology. She's not conquering a new frontier or establishing a planetary Empire; she's not fighting insectoid invaders or solving virtual-reality mysteries. Instead, her frontier is inside herself. Her explorations, and her triumphs, feel more like poetry than adventure yarn. The "magical" items in the story have a strong metaphoric quality, and her encounters (especially with Saal) vibrate with mythic resonances. Small wonder that when the lazy librarian inside my brain reached for a shelf to put this on, it was closer to the Fantasy section than it was to SF.

But it is SF, albeit "soft" SF, where psychic powers and dragons can mix with other planets and evolved humans. The amount of world-building that WA displays is breathtaking. I know you've mentioned (and I've read on your web page) that for you, the Higher World is not exactly a product of the imagination. It's been your companion through life and its visions are delivered to you rather than being crafted by you. But whatever its source, the level of detail in Worlds Apart was very impressive to me as a reader. It spoke of a careful, meticulous, thoughtful working-out of all the various aspects of an alternate world, even if that's not exactly where it came from. I spent a few years of my life studying literary theory, and I walked away from it believing that what the author intended for a work, and how exactly that work was created, is less important than the messages that the work itself delivers. What WA delivers is a kind of escape, a journey into a universe where my gills allow me to stay underwater indefinitely, where I can ride on dragonsback to the moon, and where I can reach out with my sixth sense to find out what other people are really feeling. Whether this world is really real to you or just made-up is immaterial to me, because you give me so many details and present the setting with such confidence that it feels real to me too, even though I've never had a vision in my life. The fact that Worlds Apart is IF adds greatly to this sense of immersion. I think you've discovered (or deepened, anyway) a very potent combination: rich detail and interaction. In static fiction, a vivid setting greatly enhances a reader's suspension of disbelief, and in IF the ability to command a character and actually explore this setting reinforces the escapist impulse from another direction. By combining these two to such a high degree, you've created a work that is very immersive indeed.

This combination is all the more precious for being so rare. Both world-building and the implementation of meaningful interaction are incredibly time-consuming pastimes. The fact that Worlds Apart has so much of both makes it a very special story. I really enjoyed testing it, and hope that my own work can live up to its high standard. My aims are somewhat different, but you have definitely set the bar for detail and richness. I will probably take you up on your offer to betatest LASH, but it will be awhile. After testing Worlds Apart I was moved to play LASH in the same (testing) mindset, and in the process I found any number of things that I now want to improve or change. I think that the experience of testing Worlds Apart has not only made me a better tester, but a better author as well. Thanks for giving me that experience. Best of luck with the game, and in your life as well. Keep in touch.

Worlds Apart review letter / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised February 2006
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