Governments Ask Too Many Questions

Societies hidden from normal mankind, organizations even entire cultures existing beneath the common experience of normal society. These are staples in many genres of fiction from fantasy (most sub-genres) to mystery, action to sci-fi. And whenever they appear, some worldbuilding is involved.

The very fact of the existence of hidden societies in a text is worldbuilding. Yes, we have hidden societies in the real world, some more hidden than others – the collegiate greek organizations to the sort of gentlemens’ clubs that have smoking parlors (and no dancers). But the ones in works of fiction are almost exclusively fictitious societies, the creation of the author. Because of the nature of most such societies, the author has to create a world in which hidden societies of a given type can exist and are indeed assumed to exist.

Four major types of hidden society come to mind immediately:

Government Agencies — Whether Jason Bourne’s Treadstone or The Brotherhood of the Rose, the British Secret Service or IM Teams, whether James Patterson or David Morrell, Ian Fleming or someone else, action novels, shows, and movies are filled with top secret government agencies, many of which not even the heads of state are aware of. These agencies are often tasked with assassination, intelligence gathering, or other high stakes missions during which they must maintain a (relatively) low profile for political or other reasons. And we know from a wide range of sources that this sort of organization is not how real world intelligence agencies work, for a variety of reasons (including technology – Bond, Ethan Hunt).

Criminal Organizations — Secret criminal organizations are common fodder as well. From SMERSH to Moriarty to HYDRA, secret criminals and criminal societies are everywhere. Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle created theirs precisely to have a core villain for their respective heroes, and Fleming’s has the added bonus of existing after the Soviet specter died with the Cold War. Marvel comics created their’s, I think, to balance the teams of heroes. It also makes sense that if superheroes band together, supervillains would do so in response.

Secret Societies — The staple of conspiracy thrillers, secret societies add an element of clandestine fear to a story. Whether David Morrell’s society of Merovingian descendants or assassins hunting the Church’s enemies or David Brown’s sinister Catholic sub-organizations, they give readers the sense of accessing some hidden threat. They also give the protagonists a way to kill with impunity, because they’re saving normal society from the hidden threat.

Hidden Magic — Everyone in the world who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last two decades knows about J.K. Rowling’s hidden societies of wizards and witches. Other examples include Tanya Huff’s hidden witch family (The Enchantment Emporium) and Rick Riordan’s hidden societies of Greek demigods, Roman demigods, and Egyptian magicians. In each case, the concealment comes in part from fear – of being hunted, exploited, or bothered, or something else – in large part. But, being hidden also keeps them apart from modern life (except Huff’s) via technology among other things.

What do hidden societies need for their existence?

First, a world in which their existence is assumed (by the writer and the reader). After that, they need a way to remain concealed. This can be the fog that hides Riordan’s demigods from normal mortals to control of some supertechnology to global influence over governments and corporations. How they remain hidden is especially important in contemporary and sci-fi settings as it becomes more difficult to conceal things due to the prevalence of information technology (e.g. camera and video phones, cctv, the interwebs).

Bonus things a hidden society could use include some means of funding (MiB’s patents on velcro, etc.; Treadstone’s federal CIA funding; HYDRA’s crime sprees), facilities, equipment, and transportation (after all, in a post-2001 world, it has become rather difficult to transport weaponry across national borders in many cases, not impossible though).

Who Builds Worlds?

Well, all fiction writers (and arguably non-fiction writers, but I’m not going there right now) build worlds.  Every genre, even “mainstream” fiction, is involved in worldbuilding to some extent.  Some worldbuilding is more subtle than others, but it is there regardless.  In part, this occurs because even the most realistic fiction has to make some assumptions or modifications to our world, if only to make sense.

“The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”  –attributed to several authors, including Tom Clancy

I’m going to work with a couple genres as examples, mostly because they’re ones I’m more familiar with and because the worldbuilding is more obvious.

Mysteries, and the numerous subgenres, assume a world in which certain crimes, particularly violent ones, are perhaps more common that usual.  In some cases, they also assume a greater degree of teamwork between different agencies than actually exists.  Or they assume a slightly greater level of technology than real world law enforcement agencies have access to (Bones, I’m looking at you; maybe CSI in its myriad versions too).  They may even assume a greater involvement of civilian detectives (Murder She Wrote, Jonathan Kellerman, Arthur Conan Doyle).  And always remember, if Jessica Fletcher comes to visit your town, that’s a good time to take a vacation yourself.

The action/adventure genre assumes an Earth in which dashing spies, former assassins, and ex-special ops members fight continuous, violent, shadow wars for country, duty, and/or personal reasons.  Most are, obviously, not entirely true to life and take certain liberties in worldbuilding, whether that means the creation of secret conspiracy groups, secret advanced technology, or other variations.  (ex. the Bourne series, the Mack Bolan series, Ian Fleming, David Morrell)

Superhero comics posit a world in which various special abilities exist and impact society, this pretty much goes without saying.  Because they generally look at the impact of superheroism, mutant powers, high tech, etc. on society, they are much more complex than they have typically been given credit for (anything in the Marvel and DC lines, really, a bit of Vertigo among others).  The worldbuilding here is, clearly, more overt.

Finally, the fantasy and sci-fi (or SF) genres and all their subgenres (including steampunk) by their very nature involve some of the most overt worldbuilding to the point of creating entire worlds, galaxies, and multiverses more or less from scratch.  I say more or less here since most F/SF worlds are based to some degree on real Earth societies.  I’m not going to bring up examples here, largely because any I present will be repeated several times in future posts as the genres are my personal favorites, and the ones in which I write all of my fiction.