Just after I finished writing my less-than-positive post on world-building in Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama I encountered an example of fantasy that put it to shame in a fraction of the length.
It’s probably not fair to compare most writers, especially most contemporary writers (who haven’t been preselected for us by their staying power) to Borges. But the timing made it inevitable.
In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the first story in the 1941 collection The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges does in multiple layers what the other novel only dreams of doing in one. The first chapter brings us the mystery of Uqbar, a seemingly unreal land that appears in an encyclopedia with it’s own complicated bibliographic situation. But only in a single version of the encyclopedia. Investigations lead to further mysteries; the second chapter takes the story to a much higher level of speculation, metafiction, metaphysics, and complexity.
And throughout, Borges skillfully gives exactly the details that inform, entice, and lend verisimilitude, at least in his surreal world. It’s hard to explain what it is that makes this work, as opposed to what I would judge Valtat’s failings. What can I say, beyond “it is effective”? Indeed, Borges manages to convey the entire cosmology of a world in just a few pages.
I use the word “convey” with purpose, because as I said, it’s about strategic detail. The disquisition into Tlön linguistics is satisfyingly complete, without, of course, teaching you any Tlön. A paragraph on Tlön metaphysics gives the feel of a culture absorbed in cerebral philosophy; the workings of Tlön geometry get us a nice joke that we’ll understand if we’ve been paying attention to the other bits; the existence of hrönir is fascinating, classic science fiction, and brilliantly devised. But nowhere do we find any idea of what Tlön life is like, what the planet is like, what the people are like, what they do, what kind of technology they have. “Their fiction has but a single plot, with every imaginable permutation.” But we don’t know what the single plot is!
All the stories in the collection are brilliant, of course. Others include “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “The Library of Babel.” I shouldn’t be writing about it now; I should have written about A Universal History of Iniquity first. But I shouldn’t be writing about Borges at all—he remains a complete mystery to me.