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Carla Speed McNeil on the pursuit of building a better world

In Carla Speed McNeil’s story for Better Worlds, “Move the World,” a woman named Margery pulls a lever and jumps to new worlds, each one different from the last. It’s an interesting and literal take on the theme of Better Worlds as she hunts to find a place that will please everyone.

McNeil is best known for her work as a cartoonist and comics writer, penning the long-running series Finder, which began as a webcomic and is now published by Dark Horse Comics. Over the years, she’s been nominated for the prestigious Eisner Award, which she won in 2009.

The Verge spoke with McNeil about how she came up with the story and her take on how to build better worlds.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What inspired the world(s) that you present in this story and the story’s structure?

The question of creating a better world is a dangerous one, especially in America, which has been a burn zone for Western idealism for a good while now. It’s a job and a half even trying to list the sundry attempts at building the shining city on the hill, the perfect world, and the architects are rife with assumptions and blind spots and self-justifications. I don’t trust utopias. No matter how good they seem, there will be a cost, and it usually seems to come in the form of degrading some part of the population and the resources of the world they live in.

Dehumanization is part of that, and down and down we go. Upheaval is inevitable. The “best” systems are the ones that have provisions to accept change and are willing to accept a lot of moving targets. By presenting a myriad of wildly different societies, it was meant to show that each of these scenarios must have seemed like a great idea to somebody, and some members of each society are very satisfied with it.

What proportion? That’s the question. My only answer is to keep moving. As long as there’s room to move, people who don’t have what they need have a chance.

Margery jumps from world to world via a lever. What is she looking for with each pull?

Margery is destroying the world she came from and bringing a new one into existence in medias res with each pull of the lever. The lever creates a new world, complete with its own trends and history, not just from the point that it is pulled, but as if the world has always been that way. Margery doesn’t always fully remember that the world has changed, and she with it. It depends a lot on how happy she is in the new social system. She sees the injustice present in each world and reacts to it.

In the early part of the story, she can’t say, “Well, this is pretty good. Leave it there.” If even one person is suffering, she wants to save them. Several of the worlds actually are pretty good, but not one of them fails to have its bottom line.

A longer version of “Move the World,” or one presented as a comic, might show a thing I wasn’t able to capture in prose: Margery isn’t the only person present over and over again. Everybody’s there over and over again. In each iteration, different characters would be up, unless they’re down. This is why I named her Margery, for the old see-saw rhyme. Margery turns and tosses between the idea of a “good enough” world and the hope of a “perfect world.” She wants that jackpot.

How do you envision Margery going from world to world? Virtual reality? Jumping between dimensions? Magic?

The lever, what it does, and Margery’s relationship to it are pure Twilight Zone. The lever itself is Archimedean and every resonant, similar idea I could layer into it. The world is a big thing to move, and the lever had to stand for a lot of things. So it’s rooted in very fundamental and ancient science, but its magic is in wordplay and related concepts and dream-images. It’s hard to say where I draw the line between fantasy and science fiction because I don’t — mostly.

There’s practical, functional science, and there are things that can only happen in dreams, and magic really occupies a line in between them. An idea that’s exciting has its magic. A story about that excitement contains that magic. That’s why there are mirages in one of the scenarios — a Fata Morgana, specifically, or a “castle in the air,” which is actually the image of the distant shoreline seen under specific conditions. We tend to think of mirages as being tricks of the eye or brain, like optical illusions, but they’re not. They’re created by atmospheric lensing, but they are, in themselves, real things. If they weren’t, people couldn’t take photographs of them. That’s the kind of thing I love.

In one way, I see this story almost as though you’re browsing the web. Each website or community is a world in and of itself.

Know what a “roombox” is? It’s a one-room (or even one-wall) dollhouse or miniature set, like a diorama. People make some crazy-detailed ones, and they can be a lot of fun — developing a set or setting as if it were a character. If there’s one thing I have realized about my work in the last few years, it’s that I can whip up a new “world” as fast as I’d scramble an egg. Ovus Mundi!

Some worlds are far too small to encompass a whole story and are really only fit for vignettes. Others keep getting bigger the further into them I go. Dreary utopias like Brave New World or This Perfect Day or even The Hunger Games (the people in the Capitol have it pretty cushy, after all) tend toward an over-regulation that stagnates quickly. Worlds with very little social structure are rare, probably because looking at a structure and seeing how much flex it has in it, how much room for freedom, compassion, and change there is, that’s what determines how big that world is.

They all look pretty simple from the Alice in Wonderland perspective, where she’s peering through the tiny door in the baseboards into a garden. If you can get into them at all, sometimes they feel fake and confining, and sometimes they turn out to be part of something so big you’ll never get to the end of it. These vignettes are like roomboxes to me.

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