MIND MELD: What are the Best Examples of SF/F Worldbuilding?
In keeping with our worldbuilding theme to help out the creative young minds of the Shared Worlds creative writing program, we asked this week’s esteemed panelists the following question:
Read their answers below…
My own taste as a writer is for a light hand on the worldbuilding. In epic fantasy – where Tolkien and his mighty efforts of detailed world making still loom large – I feel that world can sometimes be emphasised at the expense of the characters, and it’s the characters that chiefly interest me. I like to keep the setting where I think it belongs, in the background. A detailed and convincing background, hopefully, but a background nonetheless, and one that contains relatively little of the fantastic. So it always seems like some kind of magic to me when a writer manages to have their cake and eat it, giving us tastes of the truly weird and wonderful without it getting in the way of people and story.
The best recent example I can think of is from Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora. The city which is the central setting of the book is built around, inside, and on top of a much more ancient city made from glass. This beautiful and mysterious architecture shows through, and contrasts with, the ugly crust of human buildings on top and the often filthy lifestyles of the villains living in them. It’s a wonderfully simple idea, takes minimal time and effort to explain to the reader, requires no map and no glossary, but immediately gives a unique feel to pretty much every location in the book and allows for some great, vivid, descriptive writing. Sunset shining through the elderglass, sparkling on the water of the canals, I can see it now… The city truly becomes a character in its own right, and one with which the people in the novel all have their own relationship.
A fascinating, beautiful, and alien setting created without interrupting the flow of the story? That’s my idea of great worldbuilding.
Well, here I go giving eccentric answers again: my favourite SF short story has always been “The Mask” by Stanislaw Lem, but it’s not because of the worldbuilding in that case. I’m much more versed in SF novels than short fiction, and there’s been some extraordinary examples of worldbuilding in novel form lately–I’m thinking mostly of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and Brasyl — but nothing has ever had the impact on me for sheer worldbuildy goodness that the Gormenghast trilogy (by Mervyn Peake) did. It’s not SF — heck, it’s not even fantasy by many common definitions (no magic, no supernatural elements at all) but it’s such an outpouring of sheer poetic madness of invention that nothing else comes close…except maybe Gravity’s Rainbow (by Pynchon) which is also seldom called SF, but really is. These are what the literary critic Northrop Frye called “encyclopedic” narratives, along with Finnegans Wake, say, or Delany’s Dhalgren, or Stapledon’s Starmaker. These works transcend genre by their very nature, for to be encyclopedic means to be a snapshot of the entire universe. I’m a sucker for encyclopedic fiction, as you can tell, and for me, Gormenghast is the most wondrous example of it.
My favorite example of world building is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. It’s actually two worlds, Anarres and Urras, and while Urras is an imitation of Terran societies (and meant to be so), Anarres is unique. Le Guin has created a gorgeously detailed society of anarchists, and she has included everything: politics, economics, dissenters, education, environment, aesthetics, medicine, technology, cultural values. Moreover, all these grow naturally out of both the premises of the settlers and the harsh landscape. And then, as if that were not achievement enough, Le Guin shows not a static society but one in plausible social evolution over several decades.
Every time I read this book, I am in awe of her achievement.
I have two answers to this question:
1. For years, I have told my writing students that the best example of world-building in fiction is James Clavell’s “Shogun.” When you read this book, the world-creation is so thorough that you think you can speak Japanese. You can’t – but it feels as if you can.
Clavell has the advantage, however, of working from historical sources. Since there really WAS a Japan of that era, as long as he’s faithful to the sources, it will be a plausible, self-consistent, fully-extrapolated world. Science fiction writers have a much-harder task – achieving all the plausibility and breadth and depth and variety and madness of a real world with only their own imagination as a source.
2. Science fiction is, in many ways, DEFINED by world creation. Anybody who’s any good in this field knows how to create worlds, at least well enough to get by. So what we tend to value are the worlds that surprise us. The master of the surprising yet apt detail is Bruce Sterling; I point to his “Green Days in Brunei” as an exemplar.
More recently, though, I was deliciously surprised by the world creation of James Maxey’s Bitterwood and Dragonforge. What looks and feels like fantasy at the start gradually becomes justified as our own world in a completely believable future. It is a masterpiece of world creation – and of the difficult art of quantum exposition, where new details are introduced that redefine the meaning of all that went before.
Out of many great choices, my favorite example of world building, I’ve concluded, is Larry Niven’s Ringworld.
First, it is the science fiction tradition to take a term or metaphor and make it literal, and in Ringworld Niven himself built an entire world the likes of which had never before been seen. Maybe smaller variations on the idea, but here was an entire world, something so good it got ripped off by Microsoft as the basis for their best-selling HALO games. Perhaps “ripped off” is too strong a term and the game creators were making an homage. Either way, it’s a cool setting, illustrating a lot of fundamental physics and elements of how the world works are integral to the story. Now, there are some more subtle physics at work, too, beyond the simple ones, and it was pointed out that Ringworld isn’t stable. That is, there’s nothing to stop it from drifting off into disaster. That point led to an entire sequel. Finally, I’m a big fan of the so-called Big Dumb Object (or BDO), having written an entire novel around one myself (Spider Star). Niven’s Ringworld is one of the greatest, original BDOs in science fiction, and it’s my favorite.
For years, I would hold up the original Dune as the paragon of worldbuilding. Then, in the early part of this decade, I read John Meaney’s Paradox. That book – the first of his three-part Nulapeiron Sequence that includes Context and Resolution – blew me away. I thought it was some of the most detailed, and best, worldbuilding I’d encountered in years. I was a huge champion of Meaney’s work before Pyr came along, and when I did get hired to be the editorial director of Pyr books, getting US editions of his incredible vision was top of my list. Since then, I’ve been overwhelmed by Kay Kenyon’s epic world-building and by David Louis Edelman’s extraordinarily believable future. It’s interesting to me, personally, that all three of these authors – Meaney, Kenyon and Edelman – have all drawn comparisons to Frank Herbert’s Dune in the press…which suggests that Dune is still the gold-standard of worldbuilding (and also that if you like Frank Herbert, you should be checking out the authors that I mentioned, of course).
In fantasy, leaving aside the obvious example of Tolkien, in whose shadow everyone labors, I think China Miéeville was the first author to show me a world as complex as Middle Earth even as it is distinctly different. I’ve also been very impressed with Greg Keyes’ worldbuilding, particularly his ability in The Briar King to create a religion as complex as medieval Catholicism really was, but totally unique. And if I can be forgiven, I think readers are going to be impressed by Tom Lloyd’s The Stormcaller when it comes out in October.
That being said, Michael Moorcock is probably my all time favorite fantasist. And we know how he feels about maps.
Worldbuilding isn’t a term I have much connection to, although, I do confess, I use it occasionally. My problem with it is that it seems to denote a process akin to brick laying, as if the piling up of adjectives, artifacts, and social touchstones and taboos is going to result in a convincing, vibrant “reality.” For me, personally, fiction writing is an act of discovery and organic growth rather than a conscious construction. All aspects of a great story inherently inform each other, so that the “reality” of a story is tied into the dialogue, the characters, the sentence structure, the writer’s idiosyncratic grammar, etc. These attributes are not limited to the literature of the fantastic. In answering the mind meld question of what is my favorite piece of worldbuilding, I would merely list some of my favorite stories, anything from “The Figure in the Carpet” by Henry James to “Hands Up Who Wants to Die?” by Lucius Shepard. But when I hear the trowel at work and get a whiff of mortar, I’m more than likely to close the book.
I most recently used the term in a response I wrote on Ellen Datlow’s livejournal comments section in discussing Margo Lanagan’s story “The Goosle.” In doing so I was trying to point out the remarkable aspects of the story as a true work of art and also taking a piss at the term “worldbuilding” the way it is, I believe, traditionally understood. Defending Lanagan’s story against a claim that it was some kind of pornography, I wanted to point out how cohesively all of the different aspects of the story blended inextricably together and supported each other. Lanagan’s grim “fairy tale” reality would be less terrifyingly effective, less an authentic nightmare, and I’d care less about what happened to the protagonist, if the dialogue were more “standard,” if the sentence structure wasn’t a little loopy at times, a little tortured at others in just the right measure, if her word choice wasn’t unique. You can’t separate these things out from the incredible imagery. The beauty of that story is that it’s a vision, an organic whole, and not some construct of parts super glued together.
That said, I do have an idea what you’re asking for here and won’t be a big fart and leave it at the above crackpottery. I prefer to think of these examples I list as idiosyncratic visions of fantastic realities rather than instances of worldbuilding.
- Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris is a place I always feel exists full blown in his mind and he is mining it. The deeper he goes, the more is revealed to him. In reading about it, I have the feeling of discovery and not construction.
- China Miéville’s work, especially The Scar, is so vibrant a reading experience, and a wonderful instance of the language being inextricable from the imagery. The world is the word informed by a discovery of the imagination. I never doubt the existence of his “monsters.”
- Leena Krohn’s Tainaron is so strange and so enchanting. The experience of reading it is like being cocooned in a dream. While I was reading it I thought about what it must have been like when the initial idea for this book presented itself to her imagination — maybe like the discovery by European explorers of the Pacific Ocean.
These are just three that come readily to mind. I feel the same way about the fictional realities of all the great books and stories I’ve ever read whether they carry the label of “Fantastic” or “Realistic.”
Hands down I’d have to say the world-building that blew me away the most when I first read it, and continues to do so to this day is what Stepan Chapman does in his novel The Troika. In this surreal SF/fantasy story of dysfunction and redemption, an old Mexican woman, an intelligent jeep, and a brontosaurus crossing an endless desert under two purple suns. How can an author possibly support that premise? And yet in this supreme example of the power of breaking all of the rules, the power of the absurdist cut-up, and the power of writing characters that are real, unruly, and at times horrifying, Chapman gives us astonishing humanity, along with an astonishing ability to make it all work. From a frozen army to squid-headed priests to ambulances mourning the loss of their beloveds, this is the lyricism of the surreal meshed to a hard-headed idea about the reality of our situation in the modern world. There are passages of emotional description in this novel that will stay with me the rest of my life-now that’s worldbuilding! To make all of that coherent and to manage levels of reality in that way. This is both my favorite example of worldbuilding in the story and novel form because it can be read either as a series of linked stories or as a single piece. (Note: I liked this novel so much I published it through my Ministry of Whimsy Press in the late 1990s, at which time it won the Philip K. Dick Award.)
It’s not really a world, but since it floats in space and it’s inhabited, I think James White’s Sector General qualifies as one for this question.
The huge, multi-environmental hospital, which treats all life forms, and is served by almost all life forms, was carefully, caringly, and meticulously created over the course of a dozen books, and feels more real, more believable to me that Mesklin, Arrakis, Trantor, Barsoom, or any other science fiction world. It is thoughtfully-conceived and consistent from top to bottom (for years I thought White -had- to be a doctor), it has precisely what such a structure needs, nothing is ever moved or misplaced from one story to the next, and it is a physical, three-dimensional extension of White’s belief in the essential goodness and decency of all sentient beings.
One of the problems in analyzing authorial world-building is that world-building is essentially an illusion that depends greatly on the participation of the reader. Given the complexity of any working world, describing it or building it in any depth would kill almost any story with expository excess. So what a writer has to do is place pieces and/or actions and references skillfully in places, and tie the occupations and actions of the main characters to those referents in a fashion that creates a façade and an impression of a complete world. Unfortunately, very few writers have ever had the kind of expertise to do that well in a technical sense. More than a few have had the stylistic and story-telling ability to finesse it, especially for readers without expertise in the dynamics of how worlds and societies actually work.
At the same time, readers who are sophisticated in understanding societies generally are a very different class of readers from those who focus almost entirely on the story, and such “societal analysts,” if you will, comprise a smaller segment of the reading audience, even in F&SF. Consequently, you will see reviews of the same book by intelligent readers, where one reader cannot stand it because everything is too “slow,” while the next reader is fascinated and finds the complexities intriguing and a great complement to the storyline. It’s why some authors debunk “world-building,” and others revel in it.
At the risk of alienating some writers and readers, I do think that there is a way to combine technical expertise and illusion to create a world illusion that is real to human [or intelligent species’] requirements and motivations, but that kind of expertise is generally foreign to the “action-oriented” story-teller or the one who finesses technical understanding with brilliant word-smithing, or the one who describes the “science” in great detail, often neglecting the fact that such science could never develop in the culture he is writing about.
For those reasons, I’m not going to be terribly enthusiastic about most world-building that I read, because my non-authorial background is rooted in analyzing the building blocks of societies, especially from environmental, political, economic, historic, and technical points of view. In this regard, few authors deal well with economics, fewer still with environmental or technical/engineering issues, and almost none with any sort of politics except copying feudalism, corrupted democratic systems, or monarchies.
That doesn’t even take into account trade, climate, social history, disease, and a few dozen other items.
In the end, most so-called world building is the verbal equivalent of “Houdini-ism,” where the reader tends to think more is there than is because of the distractions of a few well-placed details and props… and, for most readers, that’s exactly what they want.
At first I thought this would be a question requiring some thought, but then I took a glance at my bookshelf and immediately spied Frederick Pohl’s Heechee books.
I haven’t read them in a year or two, but I can remember the first time I tore through them, and it still feels like one of the most completely imagined future universes I’ve ever encountered. The technology, the personalities and how they interacted with the technology were perfectly woven together. It felt like the characters just took the technology completely for granted, which felt right, since that is exactly how most people really do interact with technology.
Yet he managed to keep his characters essentially human, and the society he envisioned was a very human society. I did not doubt for a second while reading that this was a real, functioning universe.
The crux of it all, of course, in the beginning at least, is the Heechee artifacts themselves. Their mysterious functions, their perfect operation, and the fact that there was no sign at all of the creatures that had created them all added to a sense of a deep, layered universe. One of those series of books that makes me jealous every time I read them.
I would say Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series – beginning with his stories in Astounding in the 1940s, and proceeding through the Foundation trilogy published in the 1950s.
Who wouldn’t want to know the future? Hari Seldon applies equations of human behavior in the past and present to statistically map the future. The First Foundation is positioned in just the right place in the galaxy to take advantage of this knowledge without fully knowing it themselves, and they use this jiu jitsu to beat back the declining but still dangerous Galactic Empire.
But equations that summarize and project mass human behavior are no good against unforeseen mutations, and when the mutant Mule arises and begins to attack the First Foundation, Seldon’s equations are unable to protect them. A holographic scene in which Seldon’s recording appears to explain what the First Foundation needs to do is one of the best in the series – Seldon clearly is talking about a galaxy in which the Mule does not exist.
But Asimov/Seldon have provided an insurance policy: A Second Foundation which, rather than blindly following Seldon’s equations, actively amended them, to take into account unforeseen developments such as the Mule… So, from the very beginning, Seldon’s “psychohistorical” inevitability was not exactly what it seemed to be…
Asimov in the 1980s brought his wonderful robot stories into the Foundation saga – but I think both the robots and the Foundation universes shone far more brightly on their own, and I’d give the Foundation a slight edge.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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