Worldbuilding: A Story Lab(yrinth)

Meanwhile, in Lumaville…

So, I’ve been creating an “immersive transmedia experience within a self-consistent fictional universe” — what they call worldbuilding. Think Tolkien’s Middle Earth or that galaxy far, far away. Or Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, or even the Dublin of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Add to that list the intertextual Midwest of Kurt Vonnegut and the roman fleuve of Jack Kerouac’s partially-realized Duluoz Legend and you get the idea.

In my case, the scope is narrowed to my own particular take on Petaluma, CA, where I grew up and, 20 years later, repatriated. I realize that sounds like the premise of a terrible TV show wherein the protagonist lives in the big city, gets knocked on his ass, and returns to small-town Americana and reconnects with old friends, lost loves, and forgotten dreams — and maybe even himself. That’s not my story.  The fictional “Lumaville” is a sort of psychic space laid over the topography of the places that have long haunted me. It operates as a kind of imagined parallel universe inhabited by a protagonist who is, likewise, a parallel version of its author. But with a far darker worldview.  Conceptually, I consider the endeavor literary performance art and I’ll swear up and down that it’s a true story if asked. Because, depending on your brand of physics, it is — somewhere.

Throughout, our protagonist and his cohorts occupy the liminal space between detective fiction, a certain kind of sci-fi, and the comic cultural signposts recognizable to the generation born under the sign of X. A case could be made that it’s postmodern but, then, what isn’t?

Doesn’t it seem like there should be a word in German for this sort of venture? I’ve coined it for you: geschichteweltmachen — or, roughly, “story world making.” And let’s never use it because it sounds like vomiting.

Creating this fictional alternate universe isn’t an act of fiction so much as reporting the history of another reality. It’s worldbuilding as avant-garde journalism. It’s in this context that I wrote the cornerstone work, Quantum Deadline (The Lumaville Labyrinth, Part One), which lean on the Many-worlds Interpretation to establish the shifting continuities of the “Lumaverse,” 

The prelude to Quantum Deadline, my first novel, The Late Projectionist, finds the same narrator as a young adult attempting to recreate his reality through a failed screenwriting effort. It’s also where many of the leitmotifs and characters of the Lumaverse are established. I’ve been working to better align some elements of this early work to better fit later iterations of the world — resulting in a situation akin to Stephen Hero vs. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is fine with me since the Lumaverse is ultimately a multiverse, right?

The screenplays The 5-in-1 and J00D expand the Lumaverse both literally and cinematically. The 5-in-1 backgrounds the Knights of Skeldaria game (the quantum effects of which are inadvertently unleashed by the young boy Jude) and revisits the Journo’s college frenemy, Cameron Block, as its creator. The screenplay J00D finds Jude as an adult in an Orwellian future wrought by the shenanigans of the characters in the otherwise contemporary context — chief among them Dr. Ashe, who is the villain of the film Pill Head, the spiritual, if sidelong, sequel to Quantum Deadline, which is now playing on Amazon.

Below is a podcast that sums up some of my thinking on worldbuilding the Lumaverse.

“I write autobiographical fictions that draw on my experiences as a small town reporter – but with more drinking, danger and death. They’re semantically-engineered to make you feel better than I do. And, let me tell you, I feel just fucking great.”

— Daedalus Howell

Transmedia storytelling “is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies.”

The entry was first created in 2015, back before the prefix “trans” took on the cultural heft of gender issues and the term “media” became a rapidly deflating political football. Plus, “transmedia” always sounded like one of those meaningless corporate constructions like “multichannel” or “accountability.”

So, how do we refer to the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms? Richard Wagner used the term Gesamtkunstwerk, but the scope of media at the time didn’t reach beyond 15 hours of the Ring Cycle. Besides, gesamtkunstwerk sounds like something to say after a sneeze.

“But, Professor Howell,” you ask, “Besides your obsession with prescription drugs and inability to mature beyond the environs of your youth, why do all this work in different media? Is it just massive ADD?”

Good question. This is how I got started:

Several years ago, I attended an entertainment industry symposium hosted by Henry Jenkins, Provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts, at Annenberg School of Communication, USC.

Among other books, Jenkins is the author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, in which he describes transmedia storytelling simply as “the art of world-making.” You know, like God. Or George Lucas. Or me. 

Another panelist,  Louisa Stein, head of the TV and film critical studies program at San Diego State University, explained that mythologies are created that adhere to “bibles” which describe the law of fictional lands to create an “aesthetic that is specific and archetypal simultaneously.” 

That’s the nut of the notion, right there – the specific but archetypal. Or, as video essayist Kirby Ferguson put it in his piece, Everything Is a Remix: The Force Awakens, “The familiar and the novel both appeal to us, think of them as two halves of a spectrum.” And the sweet spot is in the middle of that spectrum.

And so that’s where I’m aiming with my own private multiverse – a world we didn’t know we knew. Petaluma, with all the psychic burrs it has for me, is a paint-by-numbers American hometown. But I’m using my own palette to paint. It’s like that old trope: we correct in art what we don’t get right in life. And sometimes, art is where we experiment with the wrong. And, yeah, I’m sure there’s a German word for that.