Altruism in fantastic form: building worlds on both planes


The Kingkiller Chronicle, currently one of the most popular series in modern fantasy, tells the tale of Kvothe, and his journey as he becomes the most extraordinary wizard ever to set foot in his world. Providing a fresh new take on the classic fantasy tale, it details his life from childhood to infamy, in language that leaves the reader spellbound; in the years to come, it may come to stand among the best fantasy tales ever told. On the fourth of November Patrick Rothfuss, the author of this remarkable tale, visited Oxford University to speak to his fans. The event was organised in support of the Worldbuilders initiative, a fundraiser founded by Rothfuss himself, that seeks to raise money for Heifer International, currently one of the leading charities when it comes to fighting poverty in developing countries. The movement is particularly interesting for its new approach to fundraising, by encouraging charity amongst readers of speculative fiction; I interviewed Rothfuss to find out more.

Interestingly, Worldbuilders didn’t start out as a formal movement: rather, according to Rothfuss, “it came up organically”. In 2008, a year and a half after the debut of his first novel, Rothfuss made the decision to raise support for Heifer International, through what he humorously refers to as a sort of “magician’s game”. Having an already large fan base at the time, he decided to do more than simply donate money to Heifer; he instead publicised to his readers that, over the course of a month, for every dollar they donated, he would donate another. In his own words, he thought “it would be really amazing if I got people to kick in $5000 dollars over the course of the month”.

That goal was reached within three days. From there the money kept flooding in: other authors, seeing what was going on, decided to join the fundraiser, and publicise it to their own fans: by the end of the month, the money raised for Heifer totalled nearly 110,000 dollars. From there, the fundraiser has only grown larger each year; having now expanded into a formal organization and taken on the name of Worldbuilders, the movement is bigger than ever – “This year’s going to be really phenomenal”, Rothfuss says.

While support for the movement has now expanded to include fans of other media, such as video games, the main core of contributors is still made up of readers of fantasy and science fiction. But what is it in this genre, and indeed fiction in general, that Worldbuilders believes to promote charitable giving? When asked, Rothfuss suggested that while “non-fiction answers the question ‘what is?’, fiction is answering the question ‘what if?’”, with tales of fictional events; this hypothetical nature has a large part to play. It allows us to experience something beyond ourselves, and in doing so challenges our assumptions about the world and causes us to think differently; alongside this, experiencing empathetic feelings for fictional characters encourages altruistic feelings, and hence charitable giving.

As for speculative fiction, the genre asks the question of “what if?” far more deeply, and far more exhaustively than any other; fantasy, Rothfuss notes, asks the question “what if there were a whole other world, what if there were magic?”, rather than simply asking ‘what if a certain event were to occur in our world?’. In doing so, this causes us to experience things vastly different to our everyday lives. Through this, fantasy changes the way we think – indeed, it was Coleridge who said that, through faery stories, his mind had become “habituated to the vast”. Speculative fiction allows us to experience “the other”, and this seems to have a profound effect on us, in a way that encourages altruism.

Heifer International, the organisation which Worldbuilders supports, asks very simple “what if?” questions, and that is part of the reason why Rothfuss chose it. Rather than simply giving money or food to people living in poverty, Heifer seeks to equip people with the tools, education and livestock to help them become self-sufficient, and provide them with a sustainable source of income. Heifer’s benefits are immediate and widespread, and unlike most charities, over 75% of the money they receive goes directly to helping people. As such, it is perhaps one of the best charities to support in the fight against poverty.

In a time when the genre of speculative fiction is truly booming, Worldbuilders is an innovative new way of raising funds for charity. Oxford students who wish to support the movement can join the student society, which seeks to raise funds to contribute to the Worldbuilders movement; the society has organised a number of events, including themed formal halls and book signings by other authors – both great ways to get involved. With help from people around the world, Worldbuilders now represents a huge success in charitable giving, and shows how a simple idea can snowball into something truly amazing.

Email [email protected] if you want more information about how to participate.



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