The Art and Science of Worldbuilding 

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Post by Steven K 

If you’re intrigued by anything you read below, join us at APL Central on Saturday, May 26th at 3:00pm for a journey into the world of Arrakis, the setting of Frank Herbert’s award-winning science fiction novel, Dune.


2018 has been an interesting year for me. So far, I’ve witnessed a half-orphaned teenager dismantle a planetary trade empire and start a holy war. I helped another teenager free the solar system from a brutal socially-stratified imperial regime. When I finished that, I traversed a glacier on an icy alien planet with an exiled politician who could change his (her? their?) biological sex. And when I got bored, I watched in awe as two star-crossed lovers stole a magic gem from an evil god. Oh, and I’ve spent 20 hours a week working at Aurora Public Library, which is often just as exciting.

I’ve obviously only done one of those things since the start of the year. (Mars is beautiful in February, by the way.)  Still, I have experienced all of those adventures secondhand from the comfort of my own couch. Truly, books are gateways to other worlds. If Worldbuildersyou read, you can live thousands of different lives in a single lifetime. You can live vicariously through other characters’ lives—you know, get a feel for what it’s like to rule a fledgling empire or brush shoulders with your fellow wizards at a school of magic. You can travel on the cheap to exotic locales, to the past and the future, to universes with different natural laws and wildly different living things. Reading grants you all these freedoms and more, all for the cost of a few hours (or days) of your time and a few bucks (or for free, if you use the library!).  

Yes, books are marvelous gateways, but even novice readers will tell you that some of these gateways are better than others.

 

Say what you want about genre, or historicity, or style or form—I won’t argue with you there. Personally, I prefer science fiction and fantasy, but wonders can be found throughout the literary landscape. Regardless of category, the best books are those that feel real and ring true. There are many ways to accomplish these goals, but I’m particularly fond of one strategy: worldbuilding.

All writers worldbuild, whether they’re writing something realistic or fantastic, modern or historical, mysterious or romantic. Simply put, worldbuilding is what writers do to give their settings depth, richness, and complexity. The goal: to make you, the reader, feelWOrldbuilders like you could climb inside those worlds and really live there, instead of feeling like they’re cheap amusement park rides or half-hearted high school productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s an exercise in immersion, an effort to make you momentarily forget about the real world and transport your mind elsewhere.

 

So, how exactly does a writer achieve this effect? I would argue that effective worldbuilding happens on two distinct levels: the small-scale and the large-scale. On the small-scale, worlds are built from careful, detailed descriptions of places, people, things, and actions. Cumulatively, all of these descriptions conjure up images in our mind’s eye, essentially transmuting black and white pages into rich canvases full of light and color and texture. It’s as close to magic as mere mortals can get. Take, for example, the opening passage to the final book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy:

In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with meltwater splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.

WorldbuildersThe woods were full of sound: the stream between the rocks, the wind among the needles of the pine branches, the chitter of insects and the cries of small arboreal mammals, as well as the birdsong; and from time to time a stronger gust of wind would make one of the branches of a cedar or a fir move against another and groan like a cello.


It was a place of brilliant sunlight, never undappled. Shafts of lemon-gold brilliance lanced down to the forest floor between bars and pools of brown-green shade; and the light was never still, never constant, because drifting mist would often float among the treetops, filtering all the sunlight to a pearly sheen and brushing every pine cone with moisture that glistened when the mist lifted. Sometimes the wetness in the clouds condensed into tiny drops half mist and half rain, which floated downward rather than fell, making a soft rustling patter among the millions of needles. (The Amber Spyglass, 2000, p. 1)

The passage continues for several more pages, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. What I do want is to draw attention to its vivid imagery, both visual and aural. It’s absolutely arresting. Every time I read it I feel like I’m in that forested valley, a valley that’s alive and breathing, and it almost aches when I’m snapped back into the reality of the concrete jungle, which somehow seems dead in comparison despite its endless racket. Pullman is a gifted small-scale worldbuilder; you’ll find passages like this throughout his work.

Large-scale worldbuilding is harder to define—so I’ll let another master of the craft explain it for me. In his landmark essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien—creator of our beloved Middle-earth—puts it like this:

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind 

Worldbuilderscan enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. (p. 351)

For Tolkien, large-scale worldbuilding is an act of “sub-creation.” Though he’d never have put it this way (on account of his staunch Roman Catholic beliefs), it’s as if the “story-maker” is the god of its own little universe—and as such, it must ensure that universe is whole and balanced, that everything in it “accords with the laws of that world.” In this regard, writers working with realistic fiction have a pretty good template to work with, so long as they’re keen observers of society and the natural world. But for writers of speculative fiction—especially science fiction and fantasy—this is where the fun begins.

Imagine that you are the sub-creator god of your own secondary world. Think of the power and freedom! You’re not bound by the limitations of our universe, though your world still needs that Tolkienian “inner consistency of reality.” What would you create? What novelties or magics or technologies would you introduce into your world? What environments would you construct, what beings would you populate them with, and by what processes would you have them interact? What do your world’s inhabitants eat, Worldbuilderswhere do they live, what do they value, what do they fear? Where have they been, historically, and what’s just over the horizon? In the end, the accomplished worldbuilder needs to be part scientist, part historian, part engineer, and part anthropologist, just to name a few other roles aside from “writer.” I know it’s a lot—but it’s not easy playing god.

Maybe you’d worldbuild like Tolkien: set your story in an environment similar to continental Europe, with a few notable exceptions (*cough* Mordor); design separate species/races of sentient life with different lifestyles and mortalities—elves, dwarves, humans, hobbits, ents, orcs, etc.; incorporate a mysterious “soft” system of magic available only to certain powerful beings; make the primary source of conflict a perpetual struggle between the forces of good and evil, where the good seeks harmony, freedom, and beauty and the evil seeks control, domination, and destruction; and so on.

Or maybe that’s too old school for your taste and you want to go the way of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising saga: set your world in a future version of our very own solar system, in which humans have colonized the planets and their moons with advanced technology; make your society rigidly hierarchical—where some people are born to rule, some to pilot starships, some to entertain,WB and others to toil endlessly to support everyone else—and reinforce that hierarchy with genetic engineering; sow the seeds of rebellion and interplanetary war by having your ruling class brutally enforce their Romanesque social order, whether by ordering executions for petty offenses or reducing entire moons to ash for perceived acts of treason.

Maybe you just want to make some maps or draw landscapes from a world that’s been plaguing your dreams.

 

Whatever it may be, if anything about worldbuilding interests you, join us for Worldbuilders! Our next meeting will be on Saturday, May 26th at 3:00pm in the small community room at APL Central. You can register hereto guarantee a spot. We’ll be talking about Frank Herbert’s legendary science fiction novel, Dune, but feel free to bring some of your original work to share, too.

I hope to see you there!

References:

Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. New York: Yearling, 2000.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” Tales from the Perilous Realm. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008. 315-400.

Posted by behrhart@auroragov.org On 17 May, 2018 at 12:44 PM  

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